Previously, I tried to explain the importance of asking questions so that we have the right information upon which to base our ethical choices. But as I’m sure we all know, human beings are not necessarily good at making the right choices even when they have all the information they need to make the most ethical choice or to avoid making an extremely unethical choice.
The case of Mary Kay Letourneau is a good example of this. She was employed as a teacher, and as she was tutoring her student who was about 20 years younger and certainly not of the age of consent, they developed a romantic relationship leading to sexual encounters and then later to multiple children.
When her husband first discovered what she was doing, he turned the evidence over to the police. She was subsequently found guilty of rape, sentenced to a very short jail term, and ordered to stay away from the student, Vili Fualaau. She was found having sex with him again shortly after her release from jail and was then jailed again for several more years. After serving her jail term and having two children by him, she was able to marry him because he was now old enough.
Letourneau knew that he was legally unable to consent. She knew that she was married with several children already. She had all the information necessary to conclude that she had an ethical duty to refrain from having a romantic relationship with Fualaau and that she had an ethical duty to remain faithful to her husband based on their wedding vows. Even if we assume that her husband was already breaking the wedding vows and it was a terrible marriage, then she still acted very wrongly in engaging in a sexual relationship with an underaged boy.
I’m not sure what sort of education Letourneau had, but I do know that when I was an English Education major in college, we were required to take a course in education law, and the ethical and legal duties of a teacher were made quite clear. Particularly for us men, the advice was given that we ought to set appropriate boundaries such that we were never alone in an enclosed space with a student. The door was always to be open, and multiple people should be present unless confidentiality demanded otherwise.
This is the policy it is wise to follow in many circumstances. Even with my co-workers, I make sure that if there is any issue of sexual attraction, I keep a healthy distance from them so that we don’t develop an inappropriate relationship that would likely cause problems in the work environment. It takes a bit of willpower and discipline, but it saves me from making huge unethical decisions.
We human beings are pretty irrational most of the time, and so what we really need to do to make sure we don’t make damning mistakes even when we know the right thing to do is to set healthy boundaries. If we set boundaries that keep us from going near to the event that is likely to lead to our downfall, then we can often save ourselves from many falls, much like the rancher who puts a fence up to keep folks from wandering too close to a ravine.
As usual, the fall in this case was a very long and hard one. Not only did Letourneau spend lots of time in correctional facilities, but her children had a father who wasn’t ready to care for them at all, the their father himself suffered from mental illness as a result of the strain it placed on him. To his credit, he has endured and seems to have learned his lesson, now suggesting that his daughters ought to avoid huge age gaps in their relationships.