TABLE TALK SERIES
It’s None of My Business!
by Rick Pimentel
Surely, most people have heard of the news regarding Tiger Woods and his various infidelities. The automobile accident outside of his Orlando home and the public confessions from his mistresses have made headlines. Moreover, these occurrences have philosophical relevance, particularly the moral choices made by Tiger when he committed adultery and misled his wife and children. Whether on TV or in newspapers or on the radio, many of us heard the various opinions regarding Tiger’s acts and the resultant effects on his family, his fans, his golf game, his image, and his mistresses. In the midst of all this, a conversation regarding Tiger on the Scott Van Pelt Show on ESPN Radio echoed a view that is held by many in society. It has been part of table talk in many homes and other circles.
Charles Barkley, former NBA star and friend of Tiger Woods, appeared on ESPN Radio in April and was asked whether Michael Jordan and himself were aware of Tiger’s extramarital affairs. Barkley responded in the following manner to Scott Van Pelt Show co-host Ryan Casillas:
“Tiger’s a grown man and I thought the whole thing was funny that we knew this stuff was going on and I will say this, even if I knew it was going on it’s none of my business. I had no idea it was going on. Not speaking for Michael. But I want to make it perfectly clear if I had known, it’s still none of my business. What you do – what Scott do – what Michael do, what my brother do in their personal life that ain’t none of my business and America wants you to feel like what you do in your personal business is their business. It’s not their personal business.”
Barkley’s views are echoed by many today. Many of us have said that what John Doe does is his business, not mine. We can refer to this view with a commonly known phrase: mind your own business. However, is this view correct? If Barkley is wrong and someone else’s personal business should be revealed, are there limits to what others should know about someone else’s personal life? If the philosopher Tom Morris is correct when he states that philosophy is “advice for everyday life,” then this view about our personal lives has philosophical implications. Personal business or some call it, “my personal life,” refers to information regarding our lives that is known exclusively by ourselves and is deemed to be out of bounds from the knowledge of others without our permission. Sometimes that information is accessible by our immediate family and close friends. Surely what we disclose to others about our personal life is up to us.
Curiously, Barkley’s statement demonstrates three components of this ethical view. It is important to note that the purpose here is not to single out Barkley but to evaluate the idea that the personal lives of others is no one else’s business. Furthermore, Barkley’s statements are echoed by many people. First, he presupposes that age is a factor. If someone is an adult (“Tiger’s a grown man”) then what someone does is none of your business. Second, knowledge of someone else’s personal doings does not mean that it is still our business as shown by “even if I knew it was going on it’s none of my business”. Third, it is unhealthy and disrespectful to meddle in the lives of others. Regarding the first point, age is certainly a factor. Parents would say that what their kids do is fully their business and kids do not possess a personal life that is out of reach from their parents because of their age.
But becoming aware of someone else’s private actions can produce a dilemma. If you knew that Tiger was committing adultery, do you confront Tiger? Or do you tell his wife? Or do nothing? On the surface, it surely seems correct that people should not be meddling in the lives of others but is this rule applicable to all situations? In other words, are there exceptions to this rule? If yes, what criteria should be used to determine these exceptions? As the branch of philosophy that deals with the description and systematization of right and wrong behavior, ethics can shed light on this “mind your own business” concept.
Mortimer Adler correctly stated that philosophy is everybody’s business and that everyone has some traces of philosophical insight for the purpose of living an enriched life. These two ideas advanced by great thinkers are well illustrated in this exercise to analyze the issue in focus. Rather than just nod and say, “You know what, I agree with Barkley. It is nobody’s business what Tiger does in his personal life.” maybe stepping back and reflecting on this ethical idea will cause us to re-examine this view. You may not abandon it all together but you may modify your view. The best way is to apply three common ethical approaches (or theories) to this “mind your own business” philosophy and see how you think about it as a result of this philosophical exercise. These approaches are three different ways to arrive at moral standards that determine how one ought to evaluate what is right and wrong.
The first theory is virtue theory. Made famous by Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, virtue theory is an ethical theory that emphasizes moral character and its accompanying virtues as the most important aspect of ethics. The second approach is deontology. Deontology is a technical term for duties and emphasizes what people are responsible for irrespective of the results of the act. In other words, an act is moral because of the act itself and not because of the results produced by the act. The third approach is consequentialism (also called teleological ethics). Consequentialism emphasizes the results of the ethical act rather than the principles behind the act. It is easy to see the differences between these three approaches. The great thing about philosophy is that when you recognize theories such as these and you apply them to your thinking, it makes philosophical reflection more enjoyable and enlightening.
For instance, if you approach the concept of mind your own business with virtue theory, you want to examine how this concept affects your moral character without worrying about the duties and results of the acts. You may ask, “If I follow that principle, what kind of person does it make me?” If you approach it deontologically, some may invoke principles or duties such as “do unto your neighbor as you would do unto yourself.” This invocation can be used to show that if I want someone to meddle in my personal life to keep me from being harmed, then I should do it for them also. Therefore, “mind your own business” may be immoral. Lastly, if you approach it with a consequentialist view, then you will look at the results of your actions when you “mind your own business” and see what is produced. Hopefully, applying these approaches will shed more light on this highly accepted view of personal business and private lives. By doing this, table talk can also be a time of vigorous philosophical activity for those who choose to engage.