I have this friend…

I have this friend. They are obsessed with the British author, Charles Dickens, and have used a Dickens character as their web identity for quite awhile – handles, domain names, email usernames, etc.

Well, I just heard from this friend that they recently received an email addressed to a person with a foreign sounding name, with an attached excel spreadsheet, supposedly containing information the recipient needed for a conference at which they were speaking.

They were about to delete it as potential viral spam. Not about to open the spreadsheet. When they realized there weren’t any spelling errors in the email. So they did a google search on the intended recipient’s name and realized this was a real person, who was obviously also a fan of Dickens, as their email address was online in multiple places, and they used the exact same username as this friend of mine. Different email provider, but my friend uses a common email provider that a secretary could easily accidentally tack on to a username.

So now this friend of mine had an ethical issue to pursue. The first task was easy. They sent an email to the secretary and told this secretary they had emailed the wrong person, and even provided the secretary with the correct email address, and the website they had found the email address on. The secretary couldn’t possibly have asked for anything more. My friend could have forwarded the email to the intended recipient, but decided that would just embarrass the organization that had misdirected the email, and it was an easy mistake to make.

But the ethical issue: to open the spreadsheet or delete unread. The intended recipient seemed to be a cool guy from all the information gleaned from various websites. Politically active on the ‘correct’ side of issues from my friend’s perspective. This friend of mine has only one complaint. They wish the contents were more interesting than they turned out to be. They want to be privy to information they aren’t supposed to be privy to. I told my friend they shouldn’t have opened the excel spreadsheet. That it was wrong. They asked me what I would have done. I guess I don’t know the answer to that question.

0 thoughts on “I have this friend…

  1. DL Emerick

    I have done the unethical and opened documents addressed to others, to which documents [I confess, alas] that I had access but knowingly lacked authorization.

    My reasons have been varied, for such violations of privacy.

    First, I may be unethical and I accept that as a possible fact about me.

    Second, I do not define “ordinary” ethics as particularly relevant. Let me say that otherwise. Ethics is a disparate and diverse body of opinions, not a well structured theory. Indeed, it is my view of ethics that it could not become a theory. It is also my view of the moral, or even, more generally, of what we call the quality of human wisdom.

    What is human wisdom? The question is wrong as soon as you formulate it.

    Let us ask, instead, by splitting the forum — what is human and are humans wise?

    To the human issue there is this common thread — that we are all members, in some sense, of the same species. Biologically, we are mates, not necessarily with one another in the actual sense, but always in the potential sense — wherein I am not quite a male, nor yet am I quite a female, though physically and culturally, I am claim to be more male-identified than otherwise.

    However, given my indifference, if not outright vehement hostility to many activities and practices traditionally associated with males, perhaps I overstate my acculturational identification with the males of this world. For example, NASCAR — how boring to watch cars going round-and-round, squandering gas and time, in a vain effort to be first, to be ahead of the others. Even the recent animated film Cars (a Car-Toon), though cute, was rather a pointless glorification of the “race” which is, so I claim, a misleading and false representation of the human race.

    The human is not involved in a race — and the language that speaks of races is thus suspect, if not morally wrong.

    I learned this in the story of Cain and Abel, perhaps. To be human is to confront a situation and to ask what is an appropriate standard. For example, making satisfactory sacrifice to God is often an appropriate standard. Cain and Abel could both achieve this standard — each independently of the other. Moreover, either could learn from the other, as well as from his own efforts to satisfy this standard.

    But, Cain erred in his moral judgment. He thought the matter was something of a competition, a race — a way of distinguishing yourself in the favor of God. Why he felt this way may be give us several avenues of speculation — such as the wrongful idea of monopolozing God’s favor, by eliminating the competition, permanently. Hence, we find the greatest human moral injunction of the Scriptures: you shall never kill a fellow human, merely because of how he chooses to worship God, which will always be differently than you do, no matter what cult claims your membership. More generally, you shall never kill a person, no matter how different he may be from you.

    These seem to be valid, universal morals — applicable to all humans, at all times, in all places.

    We are well required, by our consciences, to consider such morals, as things pertaining to humans. And, thus, even also of things pertaining to God. Though I have no answer to the question of “What is God” that I could give you, nor even that I would want to give you — for it is quite inhuman to make any God for others to worship. And, whether (even how) I worship my God should be a secret that I will never tell you — so private is the question.

    So, how does wisdom treat these matters of human claims of privacy — even though “wisdom is never possible, as a theory.”

    Well, using the thread of “thou shalt not kill”, we might find the ppatern in the moral fabric to read something like this, as well: “thou shalt not cause harm”. Any issue of harm, of course, is complicated by the precise question of “what an injury is” — of what is congnizable, as such that it is harm?

    And, here, we run into disputes, as well. For example, if I could you across the chest and pull out your heart, is that a harm to you? Well, if I did it, almost surely so — for I am not a heart surgeon, nor have you asked me to perform any heart surgery upon you, and even if you did, given my knowing self-incompetence, I should refuse.

    The substance of no act, therefore, by inference, defines “what is harm”. We can not, despite what English law declares to be a crime, define what is harm. For instance, the great theorist Perkins says, in what must surely is a most misleading minimalism: “a crime is any act defined by law, and also made punishable…”.

    Jurisconsults for millenia find this said as the doctrine “nullum poena sine lege.” That is, there shall never be lawful authority to inflict pain upon any human except when due process of law has been followed most fulling and most unctiously. Bush and his gang of terrorists violate the most sacred “nullum poena” doctrine of law when they torture and terrorize helpless persons in their custody — Bush and his gang are, indeed, all war criminals, deserving of no respect as lawful authorities, because they act so unlawfully.

    Now, there appears here, as well, the problem of negation — even of obligation — for morality ever seems to want move from its negative origins, of various prohibition upon wrong-doing, to some more affirmative stances. For example, if I am forbidden to harm others, it would seem that I might be morally impelled not to let others come to harm, especially as a consequence of my own inactions. Should permit myself to stand idly by, when you kill some others, for instance?

    Perhaps. Perhaps not. Circumstances matter too much to pretend that any universal answer would unequivocally work here. The Rabbis sketch the case of a Rabbi who was travelling with certain others. During the night, a certain rogue attacked another of the travellers. The Rabbi woke during the assault. He did nothing. The Tannaim and The Amoraim say this: perhaps the Rabbi in question saw that the assault was too far along, that no act of his could save the life of the assault victim, who appeared already to be fatally wounded. Perhaps — for if the matter were otherwise, they would lay upon that Rabbi an obligational duty — to act against the assault, so as to prevent the murder.

    I think I agree with their general assessment. One ought — out of love for all life — to be willing to act against wrongful violence, to prevent murders and even lesser harms, to other humans.

    But, generally, too, one is always and only weighing this affirmative duty against all other affirmative duties falling as one’s lot in life.

    For example, to be for others is not free of the “competing” duty, to be for one’s self as well. Hillel assures us that this is always the prime question, of wisdom. The interest of Wisdom is thus found to constitute itself as a quality in all our judgments, in all that we judge, as to what we do and do not do.

    Hence, these are some of the moral senses, to the question first posed, above, of privacy, of duty, of humanity and of wisdom, of harms and intentions, of good and evil. The experience may be instructive. I can not judge others so easily as I can judge myself — for I hardly know enough to judge even me, let alone a stranger.

    This I can say — when one judges that one has done wrong, then is the time to sacrifice — for almost always, perhaps even ever always, the sense of wrong comes from that gnawing of conscienceness — that sense of having gotten what one neither deserved nor merited, and hence did not need, either.

  2. Databob

    1) DL – did you just have nothing better to do for 15 minutes than type a 3 page report? Mind you, I had nothing better to do than read it; and even though you’re a proficient writer, you could easily have stuck closer to the topic at hand.

    Which is:

    2) Open it. It’s probably the most boring stuff ever. Almost nothing interesting is ever in an Excel spreadsheet. It’s usually useful information only to those in that particular industry. Besides, E-mail is inherently insecure. If you want to make sure nobody else reads something – print it out and call FedEx.
    Personally, I’d have opened it, read it, and deleted it without a second thought. That’s just the kinda guy I am. The kind who’d remind the rest of the population that the internet, E-mail, hell – even what I’m typing here, can and will be read by everybody, their boss, secretary, and co-workers, then promptly virus infected, deleted and formatted over just to prove a point. People are just too dependent on technology – and I work in technology just to prove that fact. Not for the paycheck or anything, mind you. I just do the 40+ hours/week just to prove my point.

  3. John


    DL can’t help it. His comments are usually fascinating and filled with great thoughts, but he can’t do concise. If you don’t believe me, read this former post of mine, note what it requests, and then read his response. I’ve learned to accept him for who he is, as I’ve learned to accept you for who you are. Someone who works 40+ hours a week just to prove a point. A solid point, with a strong foundation in truth, but a point nonetheless, and as you well know, a point is a dimensionless geometric object having no properties except location, and that is why you are working 40+ hours a week!

  4. DL Emerick

    Top Ten Reasons for a Topic?

    1. Yes, I have time on my hand — I wear a wrist-watch like most people do.

    2. Any topic at hand exceeds my grasp, even my big bird hands.

    3. No one hands it to me, even on a silver platter.

    4. Handiwork is a puppet show: as in “hand I work”.

    5. Shake a hand, not a fist.

    6. A hand to lend may glad hand you.

    7. All hands report on deck, but some also report on other topics.

    8. A hand is a collection of fingers to palm off on others.

    9. Many hands make Lights work, but Idle hands play Devils.

    10. Handsome is as handsome does.