December 24, 2004

"I don't want to get into that..."

Any useful ethics should be partly about how to stay out of messes, no-win situations, circumstances in which, with the best will in the world, all you can do is dig the hole deeper. (The holidays rub our noses in such situations.) These situations are like what happens to rafters when then get stuck in whirlpool; all their usual survival strategies just make things worse. There's also something to be said ethically about how to behave in messes and how to get out of them, but the most useful advice is about how not to get into them. (I suspect that any ethics that hasn't acknowledged that messes set its major task hasn't arrived on the playing field.)

In the column printed today in the Strib , Carolyn Hax, the best practical ethicist I know about, responds to a guy who wants to know how to get his girlfriend back. Her answer: "Don't get into that." "Let go. You don't want her back unless she's sure, and you won't know she's sure unless she comes to you of her own free will. I'm sorry." With imagination, one can foresee all the misery this course avoids. The more he works, the more reason he has to think that her coming back is purely the result of his work, and the more reason she has to think that. Perhaps "working to get her back" could be successful sometime, but it sure looks like a whirlpool, like a patch of quicksand.

One of the reasons I like Carolyn Hax's work so much is that she is keenly aware of the hazards of her profession. People write asking how to do something: how to get dates, how to win back the lost girlfriend, how save the creaky relationship. It is like going to a witch for a potion or an amulet, to write to Carolyn for a fix. And Carolyn, bless her, has read her witch stories very carefully. She knows that people are often standing at the edge of a mess, asking how to get into it. She frequently has the good sense to tell people: "Don't get into that."

Posted by shea0017 at December 24, 2004 12:36 PM