You can’t stop a thought in its tracks. Your reasoning will run its course with or without your permission, though you might still feel guilt for drawing certain conclusions. Whether we like it or not, living among others means thinking about their lives. Every once in a while, we find that we’re not completely indifferent to the way they live them.
Imagine this dilemma: your best friend just got engaged and has chosen an unusually quick turn-around for the wedding. Her decision is especially disturbing because her relationship has been on the rocks, conspicuously, for some time now. You think she’ll probably be divorced by the year’s end. This thought gnaws at you in spite of your best efforts to be supportive. You feel as though your pessimism casts a shadow on her prospects, dooming a future that could have been through a kind of perverse manifestation. She knows her partner better than you do, you tell yourself, but your inner voice strains as you remember her blubbering on the phone the last time they split.
In this case, your friend seems to have a kind of authority, one that demands your deference in matters such as her marriage. You have concerns, but you struggle to admit them to yourself because you want to be supportive and, paradoxically, it’s none of your business. So, you silence your doubts in order to ignore this uncomfortable dissonance. You could have been neutral if only you’d had no opinion on the matter — that is, if your mind hadn’t gone there. Of course, in the case of your soon-to-be-married best friend, you do have an opinion because it’s hard not to give some thought to the prospects of someone so close to you. It’s impossible to actually withhold judgment — which is to prevent a thought from manifesting when you have enough facts suggesting it. But even when your thinking has culminated in an opinion, you might convince yourself that you shouldn’t, and therefore somehow don’t, have a stance.
The term “unsolicited advice” has a firmly negative connotation; it carries an implicit rebuke. It suggests a boundary that is crossed. Often, sharing too many opinions, even when they’re affirming, is frowned upon. But advice is only relevant when there are stakes attached to its application. So assuming that your guilt for reasoning a certain way is gratuitous, when is it actually worth voicing yourself? How frequent do your friend’s phone calls have to be before an intervention is in order?
Considering the high stakes in your friend’s situation means considering the underlying ethics, among other things. Such considerations are contingent on the values which would be vindicated or violated by one decision or another. It’s hard to say what these are exactly in this case, or any other, but I’d venture that your friend’s pain, which only promises to embed itself more deeply in her life as her marriage wears on, is something worth preventing. Her happiness is valuable, and so is your friendship, which would also suffer as a consequence of her marriage. If she is so clearly unhappy, she might be mistreated by her partner, which poses another moral imperative. These ethical dimensions don’t seem to necessarily emerge from the tangible impact had on you as a potential advisor leading up to or as a result of her actions. Any such impact, when it comes to your friendship, for example, seems relevant but secondary. The action does not lose moral significance because you are not the actor. The ethics involved, along with your power to affect your friend’s course of action, are what compel you to share your advice.
In this case, the cliché that where you have power, you have responsibility, seems to ring true. And anyway, people’s lives don’t exist in a vacuum; invariably they collide and interact, sharing bubbles and spaces. The social sciences — all sciences really — agree that the effects of any decision cannot be contained to one person. So chances are that their decision will affect you one way or another; the fact that you feel moved to voice yourself makes this even likelier. Plus, though unsolicited advice can be a nuisance to individuals on the other end, it doesn’t force their hand. Therefore, concerns about “autonomy” should not prevent an actor from being challenged if they are in the wrong.
A question remains: What if you’ve misinterpreted the situation you are aiming to better? But giving this question special relevance when deciding whether or not to give advice — especially when the stakes don’t involve you — seems unjustified. After all, every time you think or verbalize a thought you stand the risk of being wrong, and yet it is reason which is supposed to guide personal ethics. It’s humbling to remember that you are forced to have faith in your own reasoning. We are helpless against taking our beliefs for granted, even if we realize our fallibility. Making decisions and deductions requires suspending any doubt in our reasoning capacities. This observation is literally ancient, dating back to Aristotle:
“If we declare that solely the assertion opposed to ours is false or else that solely ours is not false, we are nevertheless forced to admit an infinite number of true or false judgments. For the one who expresses a true assertion proclaims simultaneously that it is true, and so on ad infinitum.”
This means that many truths for which we grant the possibility of doubt act with the potency of objective fact in our lives. If our reasoning is always tagged with the trivial qualifier of being potentially mistaken, it seems that the only difference is in the casting — she is the one acting, not us. But, as aforementioned, this singular difference of the actor’s identity does not have any moral bearing in itself. Of course, we might be ignorant of details known only to the actor herself, but perspective may or may not compensate for this shortcoming, being outsiders ourselves. It’s not as if we have all the facts in our own lives, nor does she, her.
Obviously, there are many other factors to consider that might make giving advice ill-advised; some people are beyond help, others are deaf to reason. But if you think that giving advice will produce the best outcome, the ever-present possibility of miscalculation shouldn’t come in the way of you speaking up.
Abstinence from comment seems to be in our own self-interest. We want to save ourselves from the trouble of conflict. It’s much easier to give in to the current of lethargy that runs in us all, deeper in some than in others, and do nothing. If you don’t feel the urge to give unsolicited advice then maybe you don’t care enough to give it. Maybe you remain passive out of apathy, and maybe that’s okay. But this reluctance is a sorry excuse for not making an effort when it comes to people and things we say we care about.
It’s interesting to contrast this none-of-my-business attitude regarding the taboo of unsolicited advice with other current ethical trends. This environment of silence seems to reflect a general air of paranoia about autonomy. The idea that the consequences of your actions can be contained to your own life is a delusion to which we are particularly susceptible in our individualistic culture. Our lives do not exist on separate planes; they bleed together. According to this narrow view of autonomy, sharing concern about someone or something other than yourself can serve as a mark of entitlement and a transgression. In exchange for respecting this boundary, you are entitled to silence from people in your life who might otherwise have something to say. You are granted freedom from the burdensome knowledge that your life choices might incite disapproval, thereby creating a sad, mutually disinterested reciprocity.
Yet, at once, silence is increasingly condemned in the public domain. People share unsolicited opinions online all the time. Such contributions are even seen as a modern civic duty within the realm of politics. There has been no shortage of discourse about the prevalence of virtue signaling and its function as an exercise of narcissism. These conflicting attitudes — the hypocrisy regarding public versus interpersonal silence — seem to underscore the performative function of social media activism and the like. You stand to lose more when you fail to voice yourself to the people in your life, though, where you forfeit greater influence than you would have by sharing your thoughts on the internet. On a personal level, reception to your contributions is far more immediate.
It seems pretty natural to question our inherent capacity for empathy given the etiquette of advice-giving and how easily we bow to its demand for aversion. But if it can be said that we care at all, and if we think we’re right, we should take greater liberty dispensing unsolicited advice. Where advice can do more good than harm, to the best of your knowledge, indulge — even if she is not grateful. I’d like to think that receptiveness to and liberty to give unsolicited advice, often a signifier of strong personal bonds, may encourage their growth as well.