At Arm's Length - Or Six Feet Together

Joan Elise Dubinsky, Fellow, Rutland Institute of Ethics
Clemson University, November 2020

“One who knows does not say it; one who says does not know it. Block the openings, Shut the doors, Soften the glare, Follow along old wheel tracks; Blunt the point, Untangle the knots. This is known as dark identity. Thus you cannot get close to it, nor can you keep it at arms length; you cannot bestow benefit on it, nor can you do it harm; you cannot ennoble it, nor can you debase it. Hence it is the most valued.”
-Lao Tzu

We live in difficult times, yet so did our parents, and our grandparents, and our great grandparents. So, rather than counting our troubles and our losses, let’s have a bit of fun with ethics. “What?” you ask. “Isn’t ethics supposed to be serious?” Well no, not really. Ethics is one of many paths to understanding the world and the times that we live in. And if a light touch and a few analogies can bring some personal understanding, let’s try it.

But first, a simple experiment. Stand up, shake off the cobwebs, and let your eyes focus on the world you live in—away from the screen you are staring at. Find a tape measure or a yard stick—either will do. Now, with your left hand hold the end of the tape measure at the tip of your nose. Extend your right arm out—as if you are reaching to touch a wall or a tree or a door. As you reach out your right arm, extend the tape measure to the very tip of your longest finger. How many inches lie between your nose and the tip of that finger? I would guess that number is approximately one half of your height in inches, somewhere between 32 and 38 inches.

Here’s the second part of our experiment. Imagine that we are not in times of a pandemic. (And don’t we all indulge in that fantasy every day!) A good friend is with you. Standing apart, with just your fingertips barely touching and your shoulders aligned, you are magically at two arm’s length apart. If my math is accurate, you are around six feet apart.

Now, for the third and last part of our experiment. With your fingertips barely touching, can you push your friend over, alter her balance, or change her orientation in the room where you both are standing? Highly unlikely. Yet, at arms-length you can hear your friend’s voice, see her facial expressions, communicate without raising your voice, empathize with her emotions, and understand the deeper meaning of her words.

Why does “at arm’s length” matter? In the law, it’s all about independence of thought and objectivity of position. A contract negotiated at arm’s length is one where the parties to the deal negotiate freely and without some special relationship between them, such as being related to each other, or one party having control over the other’s interests.

Without undue influence, pressure, control, or collusion, both parties are free to negotiate a contract in their own best interests. Without any kind of preexisting relationship, each party has a reasonable chance to present his or her interests and to reach agreement in ways that offer mutual benefit. We generally say that these kinds of relationships are also ethically supported, because they have the hallmarks of being fair and just, reasonable and equitable.

“At arms-length” quickly tells us something essential about ethics. Ethics requires us to exercise moral choice, by selecting among values that are possibly contradictory, identifying better and best options, considering consequences, and then exercising moral courage to act upon your decision.

Ethics requires that we explain our decisions. At the same time, ethics expects that we explore with others how they have made their moral choices. We know that we will not all agree all the time. So, how do we hold conversations about ethical choices that matter deeply to each of us?

It’s simple. At arm’s length. When we talk about ethics at arm’s length, neither of us can push the other into accepting our position or decision. We can present, talk, debate, explore, explain, encourage, or convince – but we cannot compel the other’s agreement.

Enough exposition? How about a few examples. Think of some of the more compelling ethical dilemmas and issues facing us today, during the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic. How do we test the vaccines that are in development, so that volunteers are truly well informed and able to consent before they participate? What do we owe those who volunteer to participate in vaccine trials, knowing that some could be exposed to a deadly virus for which we have no cure? How do we ensure that our vaccines are safe and effective, available and affordable? How should we distribute our vaccines, considering fairness for everyone, justice to impacted communities, compassion to those who are most vulnerable to the virus—and in thankful recognition of the untold sacrifices of our front-line and essential workers?

My goodness are we facing challenges! Yet, the simple example of “at arms-length” helps create the foundation for deep conversations about ethics. When I think about any of these big, audacious, hairy and risky questions, I see the circumstances that will help us reach resolution. We need to hear and listen to each other, without prejudgment. We must learn to articulate carefully and clearly our ideas and concerns. We should reflect when to offer our contribution to the discussion—and we need to do this before we start to speak and only after others finish speaking. Our contributions must be independently reached and objectively reasoned. We need the self-control to refrain from presenting any position or argument as received wisdom or universal truth.

Ethical discussions are like a team game. We need the contributions of diverse perspectives to ensure that our resolution reflects the combined wisdom and talents of many. Yet, ethical discussions are unlike team sports, where the goal is to win. At arm’s length, we cannot tip the balance and push anyone over to our side of the argument. We can invite each other to participate—but we have no ability to force acceptance or declare “victory” in our arguments.

During all the controversy about social distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing, let’s think about the ethical value of “at arm’s length.” After all, it’s only six feet that separates us. It’s only six feet which defines our social interactions for the next many months. Rather than think of those six feet as a prison, let’s think about staying at arms-length as a visible reminder of how we can best talk about ethics.

Six feet apart helps control the spread of the novel coronavirus. Six feet together lets us use ethics to improve the health of our global community.