My Roommates Have Been Listening to My Therapy Sessions. Is That OK?
My therapist is no longer seeing patients in person, so I’ve been attending therapy sessions at home in my room. Recently, one of my roommates …
My therapist is no longer seeing patients in person, so I’ve been attending therapy sessions at home in my room. Recently, one of my roommates told me that she had been listening to my sessions for weeks and heard me mention her name and the name of our other roommate. Now both roommates have told me I will not be allowed to have my sessions in the apartment anymore. They asked me to do them in a coffee shop or the public library (which is still closed in my city because of Covid). I could get a white-noise machine, but at this point I’m scared that they may hear a part of my session and gang up on me again.
Is this an invasion of privacy? Was it wrong for them to not disclose to me weeks earlier that they had been listening in? My sessions always begin with my therapist asking if I had any thoughts of self-harm or suicidal urges in the past week. How could a person not tell me she heard my private thoughts and then held them against me? Name Withheld
People can wrong us in ways that arise from our vulnerability to them. When they benefit from it, we generally have a handle on the situation: We call it “exploitation.” When our relationship to them is like that of a child to a parent, or a patient to a doctor, and they allow harm to come to us, we’ve got another handle: We can say that they have breached a “duty of care.” Your case involved neither offense. This may be one reason your roommates could tell themselves that they weren’t wronging you. But they very much were.
Those with whom you share your home are especially well placed to do all kinds of bad things to you. Some are violations of your person or property: They can replace your medications, mess with your food, steal money from your wallet. Some are violations of privacy: They can rifle through your closets and drawers. Decent roommates refrain from such things because they are respectful of your shared vulnerabilities. And listening in on private conversations, especially a therapy session governed by expectations of confidentiality, is definitely among the things they will try to avoid.
Overhearing you, to be sure, isn’t like rummaging through your desk; it happens passively. This is probably another reason your roommates supposed they could evade blame. That they have held your private thoughts against you, as you report, is dismaying in part because it shows a refusal to acknowledge the simple moral truth: You should have been told at once that your sessions were audible elsewhere in the apartment. You could then have decided what measures you wanted to take.
At this point, no accommodation with your roommates that relies on mutual trust will be possible. As for that white-noise machine, invite over someone you can trust to see if it protects your privacy. And if you’re able to, find other roommates, ones who grasp the ethical demands of sharing a home.
I run a small, private health care practice and, out of concern for the safety of our patients and staff alike, I plan to mandate Covid vaccination once full F.D.A. approval comes. One staff member has told me that she plans to get a medical exemption from her doctor for what I know is not an evidence-based reason — her concerns with future fertility. What are the ethics of medical practitioners giving bogus medical exemptions? Is this something that warrants a formal complaint? Name Withheld
“There is currently no evidence that any vaccines, including Covid-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems in women or men,” the C.D.C. tells us, seeking to address certain baseless rumors. We have zero reason to think that the Covid vaccines make it harder to become pregnant, that they induce miscarriages, attack the placenta — anything like that. On the other hand, as the C.D.C. reports, people who are pregnant are more likely to become seriously ill from Covid-19.
To go by the best available advice, then, you are increasing your risk of serious illness by avoiding vaccination and increasing it even more if you are also planning to become pregnant. A doctor who encouraged a patient to skip vaccination out of concerns about fertility or who, in the name of such unfounded claims, assisted her in evading an employer’s mandate would be violating the first-do-no-harm principle.
There are valid medical reasons for some people to avoid vaccination — but these are extremely rare. Having a compromised immune system is not such a reason; having a serious allergy to vaccine components is. We trust doctors to certify when there are valid reasons to avoid vaccination. A doctor who certified that a patient has a valid medical reason to avoid vaccination because it posed risks to her fertility would be betraying that trust.
These aren’t the only ethical violations to consider. If a doctor knew better but acceded to the patient’s request, the note would be a lie. If the doctor didn’t know better? That would be culpable professional ignorance — itself a violation of professional ethics. Notice that this is different from many other bogus medical notes in that it exposes both the patient and other people to medical harm. Certifying that someone’s pet is an emotional-support animal mainly risks annoying other people, like fellow passengers on an airline that still allows E.S.A.s. Lying about someone’s back condition to help the person qualify for Social Security disability benefits cheats law-abiding citizens. These are bad consequences, but they’re not the kinds of bad consequences that doctors have a special duty to help us avoid.
Either way, I count at least three serious violations. So, yes, you should report a doctor who did this to the state medical board and any other relevant authorities. Of course, the fact that this staff member has announced her plans doesn’t mean her physician will comply. There have long been doctors who supplied patients with bogus medical exemptions from routine state-required vaccinations, and even amid the pandemic there will doubtless be doctors who disgrace their profession in this manner. But we can hope such malpractitioners will prove few in number. For the sake of your clinic and of this particular staff member, let’s hope her physician recognizes that, in medicine, the customer is often wrong.
I’m a project manager at a small consulting company. The head of my department and I have weekly meetings with less experienced staff members to go over goals and progress reports. At one recent meeting, the department head stated that she has double-billed on numerous projects (e.g., conducting field oversight and writing a report during the same time period). She conveyed to the junior staff that this was perfectly OK and encouraged them to do the same.
I should have said something at that time, but I was caught off guard by someone not only admitting that she engaged in an illegal activity but also encouraging others to do so. How do I handle this situation going forward? Our company works under contract for several different local governments, and I am required to sign off on the invoices before submittal. Now I am concerned that I could be implicated. Do I seek legal counsel or consult with the corporate attorney? What if this manager denies everything? She is well respected within our company because her division is extremely profitable. Name Withheld
In a legitimate commercial enterprise, the object isn’t simply to make money; it’s to make money while obeying the law, treating employees decently and so on. Yes, it would have been better had you objected at once. But now you ought to uphold your obligations as a manager (and citizen), while protecting yourself and the company from the consequences of her wrongdoing. Consult with the corporate attorney — and, perhaps first, with an attorney of your own. This year’s Global Business Ethics Survey Report found that almost 80 percent of U.S. employees who reported misconduct said they experienced retaliation. That’s troubling. We can thrill to stories of moral heroism, but in a properly run institution, you shouldn’t have to be a hero to do what’s right.
Kwame Anthony Appiahteaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)