The Duty to Mitigate Harm

Quiz time!

A friend of yours sends you an e-mail that makes him sound like a fool and would probably destroy his reputation and damage his career if it were widely read. The appropriate thing for you to do isÂ…

1) Delete the message.

2) Tell your friend that he needs to be more careful in cyberspace.

3) Forward the e-mail to everybody you know.

Too easy? All right, how about this: someone you never met inadvertently sends you a message that is obviously intended for a friend, and it is of the same character as the memo in the previous example. Do you forward it then?

For many correspondents on the internet, the answer is apparently “yes.” Over the last few years many improvident messages intended for a limited number of trusted friends have become international sensations, such as the note from the law firm summer associate who boasted of two hour sushi lunches and days spent “bullshitting” with colleagues. The latest was the missive from a recent Dutch law school grad, who sent a memo saying that he had “finally finished this stupid education,” and was “now looking for someone crazy enough to dump a suitcase full of money in my lap every month” to the wrong address. The mistaken recipient sent the embarrassing note off on a world-wide journey, and now the author has to do a lot of explaining to prospective employers.

Somehow a mistaken ethic has developed that holds that if an individual has been guilty of an indiscretion, a mistake or bad judgement, it is perfectly acceptable to maximize the damage from that error for one’s own amusement or sense of righteous retribution. Yet the Golden Rule obviously applies here: if you made a mistake and accidentally sent an improvident memo to a stranger, you would want that person to be merciful and delete it, rather than expose your insensitivities to the world. And that’s not an unreasonable expectation, is it? Because a person is not a friend or acquaintance shouldn’t make him or her fair game to humiliate.

In addition to violating the ethical principle of reciprocity, the act of circulating mis-sent embarrassing communications goes against another ethical obligation, the duty to mitigate harm caused by others. And it doesn’t just go against the principle, it reverses it. If you saw a small fire burning in a house you were visiting, your duty would be to put it out or alert someone who could. It would be violating the obligation to mitigate harm if you ignored the fire. But this is the equivalent of throwing kindling on it.

The career of Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker was thrown into a permanent tail-spin a few years ago when a Sports Illustrated reporter put Rocker’ inflammatory comments about Asian-Americans and other minority groups into a published player profile. The comments were not made during an interview, but while Rocker was driving his truck; had the reporter kept the offensive slurs out of the article, only the reporter would have been offended by them. By publishing the remarks in Sports Illustrated, however, the reporter made certain that Rocker’s opinions about gays, Asians and other ethnic groups offended millions of readers, set advocacy groups into frenzied action, provoked hundreds of columns and editorials condemning Rocker, launched a flood of hate mail against him, and, as it turned out, made it virtually impossible for the pitcher to continue to play baseball. Sure: Rocker was a crude, insensitive bigot, but coming from a professional athlete, these flaws of his need not have caused any large scale damage. But the reporter made certain that if there were any individuals who could be hurt or offended by Rocker’s remarks, they were exposed to them. You can call that reporting if you wish. I call it gratuitous troublemaking.

Thus when it was revealed that the San Francisco Forty-Niners had viewed a training video that verged on pornography as well as indulging in pernicious stereotyping of women and gays, one publication put the entire video on its website to make certain that it offended as many people as possible. What was already a public relations nightmare for the football team became infinitely worse.

This is not an ethical response. Behind every horrendous misjudgement, gaffe or offensive act is another human being who is going to suffer the consequences of his or her mistake. Those of us who have the opportunity to minimize the harm should take it, under the most basic ethical logic of all.

Next time, the stupid mistake might be our own.


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