Q:When my flight to Guangzhou, China, landed, health officials in full protective gear boarded and used noncontact sensors to take the temperature of each passenger. Before landing, a questionnaire was distributed, asking if I had a fever or cough, if I noticed anyone near me with flu symptoms and, if so, to provide their seats or row numbers. Was I obliged to inform on other passengers? They got the same questionnaire.
A: It's all in how you phrase the question. If asked whether you should "inform" on other people, the instinctive answer is no. But when asked if you have a duty to give honest answers to health officials working to deter a pandemic, the answer is yes, you do.
Those officials were not trying to stifle anyone's free expression or political thought. They did not ask you to point out members of Falun Gong. They were performing a legitimate function, worthy of cooperation. It would not be inconceivable for passengers eager to enter China to lie to health officials, and so the latter acted prudently by seeking information from multiple sources. You might phrase the question yet another way: Should you cover up a potential disease carrier and abet the spread of flu?
UPDATE: The passenger responded only generally, that there were people seated near him who coughed frequently, but did not give their seat numbers as requested on the form.
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Don't honk, if you love concert performances
Q: I sing in a chorus at Lincoln Center. One evening while the baritone performed a particularly difficult solo, an audience member in the first-tier box, only 5 feet from the stage, started blowing his nose loudly and continued to do so for the duration of the solo; even his companions were gesturing for him to pipe down. Making disruptive noises at a concert is certainly rude, but if you are sitting close enough to distract the performers, does it rise to unethical?
A: Alas, there is no way to precisely calibrate when rude changes state to unethical, like water to ice. But it's true that to annoy those few audience members near you is bad and to hinder the performers is worse, potentially undermining the concert for everyone and thereby doing greater harm.
What's important is when this fellow's affliction hit. We do not condemn people for things over which they have no control, like a sudden attack of hay fever. (Although, if this fellow realized his nose-blowing would persist, he should have left the hall.) But if the honker knew or should have known before arriving at the concert that he was apt to be a nasal nuisance, he had a duty to gulp down powerful decongestants or simply stay home.
This column originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine.