Monday Morning Ethicist: Email Expunging

Chuck Klosterman is The Ethicist for the NYT. I am the Monday Morning Ethicist.

Yesterday’s second question for Chuck:

I sent my wife an angry e-mail. An hour or two after sending it, I was working at our shared computer and saw my e-mail, unread, in her in-box. Feeling regretful, I deleted it. Was this unethical?

Chuck said: “This is a situation in which our current relationship with a specific technology obfuscates the essence of the problem: who owns information, and when does that ownership start?” He then went on for exactly (!) 500 more words all to say that, no, it ain’t ethical.

I say: Well, duh. But what the fuck, Chuck? Once again, you focus on one little tree without noticing that there are a whole bunch of other trees around, and they all make up one of those what-dya-call-ems—you know, a big wooded area, like.

Yes, you are invading your wife’s privacy by going through her inbox. Yes, this is an ethical breach. But you can more than offset this ethical wrong by helping your poor wife clean up her inbox act.

Those sale notification emails from the fancy department stores? Get rid of ‘em. The old lady doesn’t need them, but the poor dear hasn’t taken the time and trouble to unsubscribe. That’s where you, the ethically challenged but basically well intentioned spousal partner come in. Do the unsubscribing for her and spare her those temptations for profligate spending.

And while you’re in her inbox, why not do some digging to find out what’s REALLY going on with your wife? How’s she REALLY doing? As her husband, you wouldn’t really know, because A) You tend not to pay the greatest attention to her, and B) At least in part due to your inattentiveness, she’s grown distant and doesn’t tell you everything.

Ah, but her old boyfriend from college! HIM she tells everything. HIM she tells of her growing boredom and dissatisfaction with married life. HIM she tells of missing the spontaneity and danger of their sex life together. And more than anything, this futile longing for what used to be is driving her crazy.

So it’s incumbent on you, the caring (if somewhat ethically shitty) partner to relieve her of this temptation. No, you can’t expunge those emails from Barry, or Lawrence, or whoever. THOSE she would miss, for sure. What you must do is telephone the old boyfriend (no messy email evidence!) and explain to him that your wife has a deteriorating mental condition, and that you can’t handle the strain anymore, and would he please, please, PLEASE step in and offer to be her primary caregiver? Please! You’re begging him!

That’ll stop that correspondence cold. And eventually your wife will be better for it. (Remember, I said “eventually.”)

I know what you’re thinking: your wife isn’t THAT clueless and sooner or later she will notice these ethically messed up but well intentioned inbox shenanigans. And that’s precisely why this is the best thing that could happen to her. Because maybe this will finally get her to log out of her GMail account when she leaves the computer, like you’ve been telling her to do for years now.

Hope this helps!