Monday Morning Ethicist: Thy Neighbor's Wife's Mail

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

Yesterday’s first question for Chuck:

I received an envelope that was addressed to my home but did not include a name. I recognized the last name on the return-address label. I opened the envelope and realized it was intended for my neighbor, a woman I have known, along with her husband, for many years. The letter chronicled the dates and locations of an affair the sender claimed his wife was having with my neighbor’s husband. I regret reading the letter. Upon looking more closely at the envelope, I was able to discern my neighbor’s name (the wife) and the words “private and confidential,” but these were obscured by the postmark. It seems the sender intentionally sent the letter to my home to keep the husband from intercepting it, counting on me to deliver it to the wife. Now that the envelope is open, the neighbors will know that I have read the allegations. What is my obligation: To deliver the letter or to inform the sender that this plan didn’t go as intended? NAME WITHHELD

Chuck said (in so many words): All of your options suck, but the most ethical and least sucky thing to do is give the letter to the wife, explain that you accidentally opened it and read it, apologize and stress that you don’t know if any of what the letter says is true, and wash your hands of the whole tawdry affair.

I say: Uh huh, right. “Upon looking more closely, I was able to discern my neighbor’s name, but the postmark blocked it out.” Um, suuuuuuuuuure. We’re all familiar with those postmarks the size of North Dakota, the ones that obscure the addressee’s name, aren’t we kids?

Ahem. Aren’t we kids? Kids?

OK, aside from the fact that—Liar! Liar! Pants on fire!—you knew exactly what you were doing when you opened that letter, what jumps out at me here is FREE EXTRAMARITAL SEX! This wife, your neighbor, she’s got a gimme coming. She’s got a booty score to settle, only she doesn’t know it yet. But you, you big handsome, rugged, conscientious, concerned neighbor-man, you DO know about it. And you’re going to break it to her, oh so gently.

This is easy: give her the letter, tell her you’ve always had the hots for her, point out she’s owed some guilt-free nooky, and offer yourself up for stud services.

I’ve seen this same scenario work in porn movies dozens of times. In fact, you may want to bring along a video camera.