Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 19, 2020

In this column I will attempt to answer ethical questions that you, the readers, email me. You can direct your questions to ethics@jhunewsletter.com. I am in no way an expert on ethics, but I enjoy thinking and talking about it, and I’ll do my best to answer your questions in a reasonable and straightforward manner.

I have a fridge that I share with a couple roommates. I generally keep a couple six packs of beer in there. Every once in a while I’ll find a few bottles missing, with a few dollar bills stuffed into the slots where the bottles were. The money in the slots more than covers the cost of the beer, but I find it annoying nonetheless. However, I haven’t brought it up with my roommates because I’m not sure that I’m right to find it annoying. Can I tell them that it’s wrong, or is it okay for them to do it since it’s covering the cost plus a little?

The fact that you are complaining about it makes their actions unethical. I suspect if they were replacing each bottle with a $100 bill then this question would not be here, and you would be happily filling the fridge with drinks for them. However, since you are feeling annoyed, they are clearly not putting in enough money.

Purchasing things without the knowledge of the seller is not always unethical. Imagine, for example, that you accidentally took off someone’s car mirror while driving past. If you left $1000 dollars in an envelope with a note explaining what had happened, then you would have done nothing ethically wrong. However, the amount of money you leave must be enough to cover the item’s cost with certainty. Your roommates are purchasing your beer without your knowledge and not leaving enough to cover your services of getting the beer, thus your complaint. You should talk to them and work out a system wherein they stop taking your beer, or you start demanding higher delivery fees.

As we all know, there have been two student deaths on and around campus this year. After both of these the University has sent fairly cryptic emails essentially just reassuring the community that these are not indicative of a threat to the student body (e.g. no contagious diseases) and the general location. As members of the community, don’t we deserve to know more about these tragedies? If a student committed suicide, couldn’t that be used as a segue into a general discussion of mental health in Hopkins as a whole, instead of simply covered with vague language? And isn’t Hopkins fueling the rumor mill by leaving out so much information?

As members of the Hopkins community, it hits everyone hard when we lose a member of that community. And everyone naturally wants more information about that loss, thinking that it would help us better understand and deal with the tragedy. Yet, we are not owed any explanation. The number one priority after a death is those closest to the person. Family and close friends are the ones who can make the decision about how much information to release and when to release it.

Prioritizing the family holds across all organizations concerning people’s deaths. When a soldier falls in battle, the military will not release their name until the family is notified. Obituaries (at least of non-celebrities) are published by the families, and contain however much information the family desires to release. So while it might be nice to have more information about the death, it is the University’s obligation to only release as much information as the family wishes.

As far as an obligation to quell rumors, that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the students here at Hopkins. Just because there is no cause of death released does not mean it is open season for speculation. If you hear an unfounded rumor or even one that you believe is founded in truth, it is your ethical obligation not to spread it. The family of the deceased decided not to release that information for a reason, and if someone who knows the cause for whatever reason decides to violate that desire for secrecy, that is an unethical act, and the information should not be further spread. If the information is wrong, then you are spreading false information and potentially harming someone’s legacy and reputation with unfounded information.

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