About a week ago, an undergraduate I shall call Otto asked me the following question via Facebook: “Is it a bad or good idea to tell a girl you like her thru text?”
My response was immediate: “In my opinion, if you have to "tell" her, it means she is uninterested. Don't tell her. Ask her out. If she says yes, show her that you like her during the date. If she says no, then you know she isn't interested, and whether you like her or not is irrelevant. As for asking her out via text, that is generational. I wouldn't do it. But I'm an old guy.”
I wanted to share this because I think it exemplifies several things about the philosophical method.
First, always look at the assumptions of the question. Otto asked me a yes or no question, but I didn’t like the set-up. For me, the very act of telling someone that you like them was at issue, not the method of delivery. There are exceptions, of course. A cozy fire in a ski lodge, some warm brandy, and a bearskin rug may be a suitable place to reveal a secret attraction to a longtime friend, but in that instance, something can be done about it. (Results may vary.) But in most cases, all the person is doing is gathering information to see if dating is an option: asking someone permission to ask them on a date is the same as asking. Just get on with it.
Next, emotions are not reasons. We like to think that other people have moral obligations because we feel passionately about something. This is most common in religion. Many people feel that because they felt moved to convert, others should to. But conversion is only justified based on truth and on whether the religion is worth converting to. (In contrast, passionate environmentalists claim that you should care about the environment because it actually is being threatened, not because they feel strongly about it being threatened.)
Sure, emotions can help call attention to things we don’t notice—if we see someone in pain or fear, we should attend to them to see what’s happening—but this makes emotion a heuristic (a teaching tool.) In my advice, I point out to Otto that his feelings are irrelevant if the woman in question doesn't feel the same thing. If he insists that she should like him because he likes her, that doesn’t follow. It only makes him a stalker.
The third thing is that context is important. There are moral rights and wrongs, and there are culturally relative practices, but they are not the same. It may be objectively wrong to murder babies anywhere, but it is not objectively wrong to use a handkerchief even though some cultures regard it as repulsive. As for Otto’s question, I’m not qualified to determine whether asking someone on a date via text is proper because I am not immersed in the twenty-something texting culture. I like texting because it is efficient, but I don’t think it’s particularly fun. And, while I often arrange social events via text, this too is based on convenience. If something is important, I think it should be done via voice. But that’s just me and my age group. Here is a more explicit example:
A few years ago a friend came to me because a mutual friend asked her out for coffee via private message on Facebook. They had been posting publicly until then. She’s married, he’s twice her age, and she called me upset because he was hitting on her. In talking her down, I suggested that of course, it was possible that he did have romantic intentions, but knowing him, I did not think it was likely. Instead, I suggested, he asked her privately precisely because he didn’t want anyone to think that he was hitting on her. He didn’t want to embarrass her or put her in an awkward position in front of an audience. For her generation, public is safe, private is secretive. For my friend's generation (and mine), public inspires judgment and private respects boundaries.
In the end, I cannot know that my advice in either case was correct (feel free to let me know). But theory is most definitely relevant to practice, and as the new school year starts, this is not a bad thing to be reminded of.