Carolyn Hax And The Unanswerable Ethics Dilemma


My favorite advice columnist, innate ethicist Carolyn Hax, courageously and wisely addressed an ethics problem that is the equivalent of squaring the circle or finding the end of pi. The question posed by a commenter:

My mother says she will not tell me who my father is and will take the secret to the grave with her. Is there ever any good reason for not telling someone who their father is?

This is not merely a difficult question but also a portal question leading us to a myriad of specific ethics dilemmas. Hax offers a few, some of which aren’t very good:

  • If she doesn’t know for sure herself.

Well, of course: also if she can’t communicate due to her mouth being sewn shut, her arms amputated, she never learned Morse Code and it lousy at charades.]

  • If he committed crimes so heinous that she fears they would change the way you see yourself.
  • If he was and is still married to her sister, cousin, best friend.

Or if the mother is the father…?

  • If revealing his name would reveal something embarrassing about her or her past choices or the circumstances of your birth.

Nope. Embarrassment about the truth is not a valid reason for withholding it from someone who has a legitimate and justified reason to know it.

  • If she promised him she would take the secret of his identity to her grave.

Too bad: that’s never a good reason. A commitment to the dead does not, can not and must not have priority over obligations to the living. That’s an unethical promise; the daughter cannot be ethically made to suffer for it.

If he’s a sperm donor and she thinks there’s something wrong with admitting that.

  • The mother thinking it’s a good reason isn’t the same as it being a good reason. Come on, Carolyn.

My favorite is if the father is Satan, and the mother wants her daughter to have as normal and happy a life as possible until the inevitable day when Dad calls on her to assume her destiny as the DARK EMPRESS OF THE DAMNED!

The reason this can be an impossible dilemma is that the mother is hostage to the worst scenario problem. There is no way to know how the daughter will react to some revelations, and if learning the truth indeed changes her life for the worse—

“My father was Hitler, from his frozen sperm? Than I am obligated to carry on his unfinished work!”

“My father had a lethal gene that means I will become a werewolf on my 21st birthday? Then I’m going to kill myself!”

“My father is WHO? Oh, God, why did you tell me? I hate you! I never want to see or speak to you again!”

Whether the reason for withholding such a core personal fact from a child is “good” can only be definitively determined after the fact, through hindsight bias, measured by the random vicissitudes of moral luck. This is a situation where the ethical system of absolutism is the most applicable. Utilitarianism is useless, because the ends are so indeterminate, making it impossible to balance them against the means. Reciprocity is misleading: in this case, what the mother would want her mother to do under similar circumstances is irrelevant to what the daughter wants. Absolutism would hold that the child, like every child, has the right to know who her parents are, and that is the only basis on which the mother can make the decision whether to disclose his identity.

Hax bypasses this issue, and instead advises the daughter to adopt a Golden Rule-related attitude towards her mother in order to protect that relationship:

” [I]t sounds as if it might ease your (thoroughly justified) anguish to try on the idea that your mother has her reasons — and that even if they aren’t good enough in your eyes, they’re good enough in hers or she wouldn’t do this to you. Even if you ultimately don’t accept that, then at least you’ll be able to say so directly to your mother as the calm result of careful thought, with the goal of making peace with it somehow — vs. lash out at her in hopes of forcing the answer out of her.This doesn’t guarantee you the truth you’ve been aching for — not even close — but it is the path to understanding each other, which is how you and your mom can avoid losing each other as you both try to find what you need.”

Not bad, CH. Not bad at all.

9 thoughts on “Carolyn Hax And The Unanswerable Ethics Dilemma

  1. I don’t know…. I’m leaning towards disclosure on this one. I can’t think of a really good reason not to tell your child who their father is. It hits me as needlessly callous and cruel. “I don’t actually know” is at least honest, “Your father is Darth Vader” doesn’t change who you are, “He’s dating my sister” seems like a good thing to know, “I’m embarrassed” is a horrible excuse.

    Maybe I’m too close to this, I have a friend who is going through something similar, and he talks to me about it every now and again…. There’s a battle there… a visceral want to know where you came from, someone you know who has the answer but refuses to give it to, and the futility in that even if you knew, it probably wouldn’t change your life much. I used to think that he just had to get over it, that there are a lot of people that don’t have someone to call on fathers day… But over time, I’ve noticed how it effects him, and I’ve slowly shifted to the position that I can’t think of a good reason not to tell him.

    But maybe that’s my failure. IS there actually a good reason not to tell your child about the other parent?

    • I can think of no good reason not to tell her.
      Of course, if she does not know, she does not know, but you have to tell her THAT.
      And, as far as “lashing out,” I think the child is perfectly within her rights to terminate any relationship with the mother. That is not lashing out. That is deciding whether that relationship is truly worthwhile on those terms.


    • Or your father was an alien like “Syl” in “Species,” and you suddenly grow scales, a tail, and start killing people. I’d want to know if that was going to happen to me, personally.

      • Fortunately, the probability of either instance occurring is fairly low! But plenty of lesser disasters in the making spring to mind. A person needs to be aware as soon as he’s old enough to cope with it and start making some hard choices.

  2. What if the child’s father is the child’s grandfather? What if the mother, seeking some type of normalcy in the life of the child, (inexplicably) allowed a relationship with the grandfather such that the child recognizes and idolizes her father as her grandfather? The mother may be convinced that the child (and the world) is better off not knowing. If so, from her point of view, it would be unethical for her to reveal the truth. Personally, I believe truth trumps our utilitarian predictions in nearly all cases, such that the mother’s calculation would be incorrect. She’s essentially making a bad situation worse. An equally horrific situation would be created if the child’s father is her brother, and they grew up as siblings. (I also question the existence of a right to know who one’s parents are, but that’s another issue.)

    • I was sloppy about “right.” Certainly it’s not a legal right, but I believe every child should be able to know his or her parentage if he or she wants to know. It’s right.

  3. I think this is more of a control issue. I know some people in this situation and I think it is an issue of control. As long as the mother keeps silent, the child is hers and hers alone. If the mother tells the child who their father is, there is a possibility they would have to share the child.

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