Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Mind Your Own Business

It’s astonishing what some people consider to be ethical duties. Take the woman who writes to New York Times Ethicist columnist Kwame Anthony Appiah.

She has a problem. Or, she thinks she has a problem. You see, a stranger at her gym seems to be dangerously underweight. As in, anorexic. Her ethical principles tell her that she must intervene, because her skeletal non-friend, non-acquaintance does not know that she has a problem. And because no one has told her that she has a problem.

Appiah is quite right to call the letter writer out on failing to respect another woman's privacy. He does not quite put it this way, but his message is clear: mind your own business.

For the record here is the letter, which I share as a sign that some of our fellow citizens are ethically challenged… on a basic principle of ethical behavior. They fail to respect the privacy of other people.

At the gym, I often see a woman who appears to be severely underweight; I can’t help thinking that she may have an eating disorder. I’m not a medical professional, I don’t know her, I don’t work at the gym and I don’t have any information that isn’t plainly visible. I don’t want to intrude on her privacy (for all I know, this woman may have some other underlying medical condition and already be receiving medical care for it), but at the same time, it’s difficult for me to see someone looking so painfully thin. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen this woman at the gym for a year or more, which suggests that her weight is relatively stable, albeit very low.

What is the most ethical course of action? And how would it be most helpful to engage with this woman if ethics demand that I can’t simply be a bystander?

Ethics does not require you to get involved in something that is none of your business. Absurdly, this woman does not know anything about ethics, but she likes to use the word anyway.

Appiah replies:

You know almost nothing about this woman and have no relationship with her. Unless she’s completely friendless, there’s almost certainly someone who is better placed than you to judge whether she’s ill and, if so, to help her deal with it. Maybe that has already happened.

You don’t have very good reason, in short, to involve yourself here. And bear in mind that one feature of eating disorders is a preoccupation with how you look to others; being addressed by a stranger in a gym who is worried by your appearance is likely to exacerbate that problem. Shame is part of the psychic burden of many eating disorders (she may be struggling to recover from it), but so is a profound body dysmorphia. Hearing that she’s too thin may have the opposite effect than what you intend, by making her feel pleased that her behavior has succeeded in making her look the way she wants to look. As I cautioned in my previous answer, we should intervene only when we’re likely to make things better.

In truth, women (and some men) who suffer from a form of anorexia like the way they look. They have no idea of how badly they look and will ignore anyone who suggests otherwise. At times, they do receive random compliments from strangers. They use this information to sustain their dieting… which they think is making them look good. 

We do not know why they do not have any sense of their appearance, but some have suggested that malnutrition affects brain chemistry and distorts their perceptions of their bodies. 

If the letter writer is seriously discommoded by the appearance of someone at the gym, this tells me that she herself is too detached and too isolated from people. She seems to think that she is a great healer and that her words will save this woman from the ill consequences of anorexia. Because she seems to believe that self-awareness will do the trick. In that she is sorely mistaken. 

Also, the letter writer does recognize that at times people become anorexic for reasons that have nothing to do with an eating disorder. Some medical conditions cause a loss of appetite. Since she does not know the woman, it's still none of her business.

And yet, to complicate things even more, ask yourself this. Would it be possible for the letter writer to strike up a conversation to the other woman, to reach out to her, to offer a hand of friendship… without saying a word about her weight? Could she discuss the weather or the weights or the treadmill or some completely banal subject?

We can imagine that a woman who is suffering from anorexia has withdrawn from the world, defining her relationships in terms of appearance. In that case, the letter writer might be reacting to the other’s woman’s apparent isolation.

It could be that the letter writer feels that she wants to offer a hand of friendship, but that she simply does not know how to do so without raising the issue of the other woman’s skeletal appearance.


trigger warning said...

Everybody wants to get into the intervention act. What if Skinny Minnie is a rich runway model living on two gallons of artisanal water and one cage-free boiled egg every day?

Ares Olympus said...

What's strange here isn't that this woman isn't minding her own business, but that she doesn't seem to have any of her own friends at the gym. The ordinary reality is none of us "mind our own business", and in a slightly different setting where people actually knew each other, this woman would be gossiping her concern to every other woman she could find to ask their opinions.

Photos can help clarify self-image distortions. So like if these women befriend each other and they take a photo together and the skeletal woman's first look at the picture is to say "OH, I look so fat!", we would have some real evidence of a distorted self-image. And then the bold intervention might be to say "No, you look skeletal." and see how that goes.