The Ethicist: Ally, Role Model, Indifferent or Dementor?

I recently attended an ethics conference which addressed the question of how healthcare organizations and other social institutions should respond to cultural, religious, and sexual diversity in their patients, students and staff. One of the speakers was particularly interesting for me, because her talk was focused on ways in which the university where I teach is working towards increasing the number of “safe spaces” for students and employees who identify themselves as falling under the umbrella acronym of LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer].

Mother mallard and ducklings. (Photo by Scrumshus, own work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Role model? (Photo by Scrumshus, own work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.)

In the course of this presentation, the speaker observed that, depending on whether or not we fell into one of these categories, we could choose to be  “allies,” supporting colleagues or students who do, or “role models,” demonstrating in words and actions what it means to challenge all forms of discrimination.

One of the ways we can think about ethical theory is to see it as offering a description of the world as it ought to be, not as it actually is. Ethics contains within it an aspirational element. Ethicists and ethical theorists don’t take the world as it currently exists for granted, as though this is all that is possible; rather, they tell us that a better world — kinder, friendlier, more just, more egalitarian – is possible, if only more of us were willing to imagine it and to act in ways that would bring it into existence.

If more of us, for example, habitually told the truth, demonstrated care and concern for our neighbors, voted politicians who failed to keep their promises to help refugees or combat climate change out of office, that imagined, better world would come closer to becoming a reality. Moreover, when we do make progress and achieve some of our goals, we can imagine a still better world, and work to bring that one into existence as well: we can create a world, for example, in which slavery is illegal, and then imagine one in which poverty is eradicated.


Over the past few columns, I have been considering how we might make more people (including, perhaps, ourselves) want to behave more ethically: how we can bring our emotions in line with our thinking, how we might get others to behave more virtuously, how they might help us do the same. In this column, I want to get readers to think consciously and explicitly about the role each of us can play in bringing a better world into existence – and how any of us might impede that process.

In this, the concepts of “allies” and “role models,” are very helpful and can be applied far more broadly than to discussions about sexual diversity in the workplace. In response to any of the ethical issues facing us today (climate change, inequality, poverty, racism, sexism, etc), each of us can make the choice to be one or the other: we can become actively involved in resolving the issue or we can, at the very least, support the work of others. If we are not comfortable, for example, spearheading a committee that works to bring a refugee family to Canada, we can at least make a donation of time or money to support that work; if we are unwilling (or unable) to radically alter our own lives in response to climate change, we can at least try to drive less, and buy more food from local farmers.

But I’d add two additional categories of persons to the speaker’s list: the indifferent, who don’t care enough about any ethical issue to be either allies or role models, and those I will call (borrowing a term from J.K. Rowling) “dementors.”

This last category is the most ethically troubling.  As lovers of the Harry Potter books know, dementors drain the happiness out of those they encounter, making their lives feel meaningless and their activities futile. At their very worst, dementors suck the souls out of those they wish to punish, leaving them neither fully living nor completely dead.


While real life dementors are (thankfully) unable to suck out our souls, they find ways to wreak havoc. Think of internet trolls destroying productive, online discourse; CEOs of charities taking massive salaries while depriving those the charities were set up to help of much-needed resources; purveyors of hate speech, or pharmaceutical executives who knowingly sell dangerous drugs.

Dementor (Image via Harry Potter Wiki

Dementor (Image via Harry Potter Wiki. Click to enlarge.)

Haven’t we all encountered dementors in our own lives? Bosses who make our work lives miserable; frenemies, who make us doubt our worth as persons; strangers who are rude to us at the mall. Dementors not only do not help make the world better, they actually (and actively) make it worse – and just like the dementors in the Harry Potter books, by sucking the joy and happiness out of those they come in contact with, they also make it a darker place.

As has become something of a custom in these columns, I want to offer readers an ethical challenge: this month, I want you to think about an ethical issue that you are familiar with. It might be an ethical problem you have encountered in your workplace or even in your own family, or it might be a larger issue, such as poverty, racism, or sexism. Once you have done this, imagine what the world might be like if the issue you have identified were resolved and ceased to exist, and how that resolution might be achieved. Once you have performed this second step in your own head, ask yourself a further question about your chosen issue: “Do I want to be an ally or a role model or someone who is indifferent or a dementor?”

I suspect that none of you would consciously choose to be a dementor, and hope that most of you, having gone to the trouble of identifying an issue, would not choose to be indifferent to it. This, of course, leaves only the categories of ally and role model —  either of which is a pretty good thing to be. If more of us choose to take on these positive roles, we can, together, bring into existence that better world that, for now, we can now only imagine.


Featured image: Friendship by Rufino, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. She is working on a book that explores the ethical dimensions of detective fiction.






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