By Rick Pope
Q: A couple of months ago our neighbors of many years separated and the wife moved out of the house. Recently the husband began receiving a frequent visitor. She apparently wants to keep her visits discreet, because she never parks in my neighbor’s open driveway, or in front of his house. Instead, she parks around the corner and down the street—right in front of my house. This has become a regular occurrence. For some reason I find it annoying. Should I say something?
Your question is a good example of the significance of motive in ethics—both yours and others. It is also an example of how a question of morality might blur into a question of ethics, and when ethics changes into etiquette.
You do not say if your sense of personal morality is offended by your neighbor’s behavior. If it were, you would have both a moral and an ethical issue to either confront or ignore. This could be particularly true if, for example, you had adolescents at home who were making typical teen-aged comments about the situation. (Teenagers are often good for something, and I am having fun right now imagining their comments.) The moral issue arises from your standards on matters of deeply felt personal conduct and how you choose to uphold them in yourself and before your family. The ethical issue arises because the neighbor’s conduct has become in your face, and is affecting you quite apart from your general views. It is what gives you the right to bring the subject up with your neighbor without justifying an accusation of prudery.
On the other hand, you just may not care more than off-handedly about what is going on. Or there may be much you know about your neighbors’ previous situation that causes you to take no offense at his new happiness. In that situation, with morality out of your picture, do you have any legitimate ethical concern about the parking problem?
A driver has an ethical responsibility to park away from a fire hydrant, or to avoid blocking another driver’s line of sight, but not to park away from your house. One could cause harm, the other mere annoyance. Ethics is a system of rules of right and wrong that people apply to reduce harm in their relationships with all others. You are not, however, totally without recourse. Etiquette’s system of rules are similar to ethics, but with a different purpose: to help people get along with their significant others.
The demands of etiquette may be broader than the demands of ethics, perhaps because our significant others can be pretty demanding. The phrase “professional courtesy” comes to mind. So does a picture of a beautiful table setting. I am confused because some of the forks are at the top of the plate, and rueful because I know I am going to disappoint Aunt Marilyn again.
While not unethical when the moral overtones are removed, your neighbor’s friend’s conduct is still a breach of neighborhood etiquette. Your annoyance is understandable. She is routinely parking her car on the street in front of your house when she has other choices available. At a basic level, what gives her the right to invade your space and inflict her used-car-lot view on you?
She and your neighbor might well retort that she is parking on a public street that you don’t own. Depending on how you raise the matter, I would guarantee it. If so, I believe they would be only half right. Your feeling that the curb in front of your house is somehow “your” space has an actual basis in law, as well as human nature and common sense. I would wager that your deed shows you own to the middle of the street, with the government having a roadway easement over that part of your property. This technicality, while interesting, is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is this: We all know what is going on. You are not hiding anything. Please park accordingly.
Rick Pope is a Portland trial lawyer with Kirklin Thompson & Pope LLP, at www.ktp-law.com. He regularly represents plaintiffs as well as defendants, although not generally in the same case.