Gothamist absolutely loves the Ethicist. Randy Cohen's weekly column in the Sunday New York Times magazine is the first thing we read when the paper is delivered Saturday morning and many an argument ensues as a result of Cohen's topic du jour. Case in point is this weekend's first question. E.L. of New York asks:
Sometimes when my roomate is on the phone and does not want me to know what she is saying, she speaks in a kind of code...She thinks I do not understand when she talks about me, but I do. Is it my ethical obligation to clue her in?
In his response, Cohen writes that the roommate assumes that being at home affords her a certain level of privacy, and advises E.L. to cease any sort of eavesdropping, even if it is not intentional.
But wait a minute. Doesn't it depend on the situation? Is E.L. sitting on the couch watching TV while his roommate paces the living room in coded conversation on the phone? Or is E.L. moving a glass up and down a wall in order to hear what's happening on the other side? Not only does the question writer not say, but it seems as if Cohen made no effort to find out. In ethics, context is everything, yet Cohen appears to have little information on which to base a very definitive answer.
If someone thinks that conversations held in a communal area of a shared apartment are private so long as they are held in some sort of personal Pig Latin, she is mistaken and, as Cohen briefly mentions, foolish. A person who understands such a language without resorting to Windtalker-like efforts to decipher it might want to consider cluing in his secretive flatmate. Say what you want about me, E.L. could say to her, but if you are concerned about my hearing it you should either learn a more obscure language - click-tongue, perhaps - or take the cordless phone into your bedroom.
Not paying attention to a conversation that is happening in front of you in a language you understand is as impossible as reading this sentence and only seeing the letters, not the words. Sorry, Randy, but without more information on the living situation shared by E.L. and his roommate, your answer falls short.