Ethics Alarms To “The Ethicist”: It’s Called “The Golden Rule”—Why Is That So Hard?

I hadn’t checked in for a while on Kwame Anthony Appiah, the N.Y.U philosophy teacher and author who finally brought ethical consistency to the New York Times magazine’s advice column, “The Ethicist.” I was surprised to find him struggling to answer two family related queries that I would have assumed he could and should have answered  easily with three words: “The Golden Rule.”

The first inquirer asked in part,

Recently a mutual acquaintance who knows my friend’s husband well told me that he has been cheating on my friend on and off for years with someone who once worked with him.I know that if I reveal this information, my friend will take their child and leave her husband. Do I sit on this information and pretend the affair isn’t happening, or do I tell her?

Isn’t that an easy call? Of course she should tell her friend. The Golden Rule applies: would she want to be told if the positions were reversed? Sure she would; anyone would. Not telling her would be a betrayal of the worst kind.

Yet Appiah uses 608 words to reach that conclusion. 608! This makes a slam dunk of an ethics decision appear to be a difficult one. Oh, it’s difficult in the sense that the inquirer has to take sides in a crisis affecting a couple she and her husband are close to, and thus the repercussions as well as the process will be unpleasant, but that’s life. One of the Ethics Alarms rules is that if you can fix a problem, fix it. The Ethicist’s rabbinical musings about the decision just supplies a dangerous volume of rationalizations to temp the questioner into keeping the husband’s secret, and abetting the harm.

The second question also involved keeping a secret for someone else. The inquirer’s 17-year-old niece is pregnant, as she prepares to start college in September. The girl’s parents, the aunt says, are not likely to support an abortion (which the writer euphemistically refers to as “family planning,” which, I confess, turned me against her immediately) for religious reasons. The niece has approached the aunt to help her with getting counseling and a doctor’s appointment.The inquirer writes, “I am honored that she trusts me enough, and I want to help. Should I provide assistance without her parents’ knowledge or involvement? ”

This question put me in mind of a scene in  Steve Martin’s “The Man With Two Brains”:

Of course no.

Again, this is Golden Rule 101. Would the inquirer want her child to keep her out of the decision-making process if the positions were reversed? Would the inquirer want her sister to secretly assist the  inquirer’s daughter without telling her?

Appiah disappointingly begins by noting that “In most states, your niece is legally entitled to keep her parents out of the loop as soon as she’s 18.” Well, that’s law vs ethics, and I expect an ethicist to know the difference.  The daughter can cut her parents out of the loop, but that doesn’t mean she should, and the law is intended to guide doctors, not family members. Does the daughter live in the patents home? Is she still financially supported by them? She is still a minor in fact, and she owes her parents the right to have a part in her life decisions until she is emancipated, which she is not.

Then The Ethicist really goes off the rails:

But you’re thinking about what you owe her and her parents. Her parents’ views about sex and reproduction, as you make clear, are formed by particular religious commitments that you and she may not share. And in shaping her life, it’s her commitments that matter most. That your niece wants your help and wants to keep it confidential is reason enough to agree to do both those things: She could, after all, go by herself, and it’s probably better if she goes with a family member. Were her parents to learn what had happened, they would most likely be displeased. Yet there’s a superseding concern here that isn’t affected by their religious beliefs: If your niece is thinking about sex, she’s better off knowing her options.

Now hold on:

  • Whether the aunt shares the girl’s parents religious beliefs is completely irrelevant. This isn’t her family unit, nor her daughter. Being in the New York Times orbit, Appiah is taking the typical progressive position that religious faith is just an annoying, irrational bias that deserves no respect or deference. Whether or not the girl shares her parent’s faith is a distraction: she’s pregnant and in a crisis. She’s not exactly in the perfect state of mind to dispassionately assess the moral and ethical implications of her conduct. She needs adult advice, support and supervision, and it is the parents, not the aunt, who should have the opportunity to offer all three.
  • Her commitments do matter most, and she has an existing commitment to her family. The aunt has a commitment to that family too: the commitment not to betray their trust.
  • “She could, after all, go by herself, and it’s probably better if she goes with a family member”? This isn’t The Ethicist, this is The Rationlizer! He’s defaulting to Rationalizations ##1A. Ethics Surrender, or “We can’t stop it”,  #15 The Futility Illusion:  “If I don’t do it, somebody else will,” and # 22, The Comparative Virtue Excuse, or“There are worse things.”
  • You bet her parents would be “displeased” that the aunt would go behind their backs to assist their daughter in keeping a major situation with significant life consequences from them. They have every right to be furious, and why? Because such conduct is a betrayal of trust, and a intentional interference with their legitimate authority and concern as parents.

I view this as an example of  pro-abortion bias, making The Ethicist stupid as well as incompetent and irresponsible. The Golden Rule—which, it is interesting to note, he did not reference in either of these cases—would have kept him on course.

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21 thoughts on “Ethics Alarms To “The Ethicist”: It’s Called “The Golden Rule”—Why Is That So Hard?

  1. Well, here’s the part that got me: “That your niece wants your help and wants to keep it confidential is reason enough to agree to do both those things …”
    No. That is not reason enough.
    Imagine if any teen had made that kind of claim with regard to any serious matter: “I want it and therefore you must grant it.” Who would accept that logic?

  2. Devil’s advocate question on situation 2:
    Would the answer change if the girl wanted to keep the baby and the parents were pressuring her to have an abortion? Would it hinge on whether one believes abortion to be immoral in all circumstances?

    • Unless the aunt believes she has to intervene to prevent a crime or genuine harm to a third party, she has no business getting involved in any way. But if the aunt thinks she has to intervene to prevent a murderer, or to keep the parents from selling her to white slavers or the baby to cannibals, yes—then she has an obligation to intervene. Great question!

  3. The niece sought out the aunt not to give her counseling and assistance but instead to validate the girl’s choice.

    The niece is being dishonest. The niece is seeking an accomplice in an act she knows her parents would not approve. The aunt will provide cover and allow the niece a convenient person to shift blame when the parents ultimately find out. I can hear it now. ” She’s just a child – why would you encourage her to do this- you should know better. ” The aunt sees the girls request as a badge of honor when in fact she is being used. I bet the aunt has no children.

  4. “Now hold on,,,”
    Indeed! Who in their right mind would think it was wise (never mind ethical) to interject themselves between a parent and child in such a situation? I have observed a few such actions among people I know, and it has never worked out well for any of them. I wonder if the aunt in the extant case has any children of her own. I have often seen non-parents assume they know what’s best for others’ children, with no experience in child rearing to draw upon. This type of meddling often leads to family rifts that heal slowly, if at all. There comes a time when one should just mind one’s own business.

  5. The aunt is playing with fire, and is a fool to boot. She risks her lifelong relationship with a sibling with nothing – nothing! – to gain. There is NO upside for her in this scenario.

    The child knows she made terrible choices, and now has a price to pay. She is looking for a way to wiggle out of the consequences, hoping to never share this secret with her folks. If it comes out, having the aunt take the blame is a coward’s choice, yet understandable in the circumstances. The world tells her that murdering the inconvenient baby is an acceptable, no, the preferable choice. She needs loving guidance, not the blood guilt abortion leaves in its wake.

    What is done is done. What matters is what the child does from here, and the aunt is meddling where she does not belong.

  6. I see a pattern here. When faced with a decision that is easily made with Biblical ethics, it becomes very convoluted if you do not accept Biblical ethics. You ask if the aunt would want her daughters abortion to be hidden from her. What if the answer is ‘YES!”? Lots of people have written and supported laws in many states in this country aimed to hide underage abortions from parents. You can’t be blamed if you think these same people think it is OK and moral to do so. Most of the Medical Professional lobbies seem to be against parental involvement in underage abortions, so the ‘experts’ find it medically ethical. If the aunt is ‘pro-choice’, she probably does think it is OK for underage girls to get abortions and hide it from their parents. The only reason she has any qualms with it is that she knows she is betraying the niece’s parents and is probably worried about the problems this will cause when it comes out (if the niece ‘shouts her abortion’ in college, for example). If it were a teen she met at a job and didn’t know the parents, she probably would have no qualms helping her obtain an abortion.

  7. Now that the aunt has been given this confidential information, she is put in a position to tell the niece to return to the family and not assist her further. But, unlike the cheating husband example, is the Aunt not required to maintain the confidence and not tell her sibling? There was no confidence in the cheating husband example.

    On the assumption that the niece asked for the duty before telling the aunt (and this is not unreasonable) there is an explicit obligation of confidence between aunt and niece but only an implied duty of trust between the broader family. Should the broader duty trump the explicit promise?

  8. On the first topic, I would actually suggest that the right course of action is to approach the cheating husband first and try to persuade him to confess his actions. Of course it is very likely he’d reject the prospect — if this has been going on for a long time, he might be fully comfortable with affairs continuing as they are. But the interjection of the friend into the marriage dynamics will end badly, especially if there is any reason the information could be construed as suspect.

    Approaching the husband first, I would think, also fits the golden rule theme: if I were doing something bad and didn’t think anyone knew about it, I’d want someone to approach me to tell me that my actions were known and I need to come clean. Moreover, I’d want someone to approach me with accusations of wrongdoing so I might have the chance to clear up any misunderstandings. For example, what if this information comes from a Potiphar’s wife, who is trying to slander me because I wouldn’t cheat with her?

    I would say go to the wife only when the husband has been confronted, refuses to confess to his wife, and the evidence against him is rock solid.

    • Seems to me like the cheatin’ husband is gonna be mad at the woman who reveals his dirty deeds one way or another. If I was a woman, I’d go directly to her friend and give her the bad news. That way, she’ll have some time to think things out about whether to leave with her child or not. The friend is not responsible for whether the marriage breaks up.

      • I’m actually not worried about whether the friend is responsible for the marriage breaking up. The responsibility lies with the cheating husband. My concern is actually more about whether there is more going (or less) than the friend knows about, and whether or not the friendship survives. I’ve seen friendships end because the cheated-on spouse turns on the friend and blames everything on the friend. It is irrational, I know, to blame the messenger who is trying to act in the spouse’s best interest, but it happens. The best case scenario is for the husband to come clean.

    • Ryan,

      There have been a few biblical references in this thread, and yours follows a Biblical pattern very well. Confront the offender first and get him/her to deal with the issue before expanding it. That keeps the issue as contained as possible. It gives the husband a chance to confess, which gives them the best chance to save and repair their marriage, should that be their choice. That’s the New Testament standard…and that has an actual Old Testament confirmation. When King David slept with another man’s wife and she ended up pregnant, it was the prophet Nathan who confronted the King – just the two of them – about his indiscretions.

      So I think I agree – a confrontation does need to happen, but it should start with the man. And he should be told that if he doesn’t tell his wife, the wife will be told.

  9. I’m having a really tough time with the first situation. We don’t know all the facts, only what the letter writer said. I really don’t like the idea of interfering or intervening in someone else’s personal relationships. You know that once the cat’s out of the bag this thing will explode, and the one lighting the fuse is going to get blamed. There are times it’s better to MYOB, and maybe this is one of them. However, if the wife has suspicions and asks you what you know, then you have to tell the truth, after first warning her that she might not like what she is about to hear. Also , if the husband knows you know and asks you to keep quiet, tell him you won’t volunteer anything, but you won’t lie for him. Let the divorce courts sort out this mess if at all possible.

    In the second case, the aunt has an easy out, she can simply tell her niece that she wishes her well, but her issues are hers alone, and she refuses to get involved. Of course the guy’s pro-abortion, the liberal view is abortion should be on demand, without apology, and between no one except the girl/woman and her doctor. It nicely complements the views that birth control should be available to anyone who wants it, free or cheap, easily obtainable, and nobody’s business but the obtainer, and that sex is something everyone past puberty should be able to do, as long as no one gets hurt and it’s consensual. There’s really no excuse for her niece being pregnant at 17 with college on the horizon. Leaving out the horrifying possibility that the niece was raped, this happens a limited number of ways, and none of them are good: she let some guy talk her into having sex who’s now vanished, she seduced some guy hoping to sink her hook into him, or she and the boyfriend just got careless. Let her and her parents untangle this mess, and I hope they tell her she won’t being going to college after all, but instead staying home, taking care of her bastard kid, and they’ll be kicking her out the day she turns 18. (I really dislike kids who try to dodge the consequences of stuff they shouldn’t be doing in the first place).

    • Not sure I agree with kicking her out at 18. That’s basically condemning the baby to grow up in poverty. If I were the young mother’s parents I’d strongly urge giving the baby up for adoption.

  10. Let’s apply the Original Peculiar Institution filter to that second one. Should be fun.

    “Dear The Ethicist,
    My 17-year old niece is heading off to college and has saved up some money to buy a Negro servant to make her life easier. But she needs an adult co-signer with her at to the slave auction. I know her parents, due to their reactionary religious beliefs, would disapprove and would try to control what she does with her own money. So she has asked me to go with her to buy the slave and keep him in my basement until she heads off to college. I am honored that she trusts me enough, and I want to help. Should I provide assistance without her parents’ knowledge or involvement?”
    -Nervous in New Orleans

    “Dear Nervous,
    In Louisiana, your niece is legally entitled to buy any slave she wants as soon as she’s 18, with or without her parents being in the loop. But you’re thinking about what you owe her and her parents. Her parents’ views about involuntary assistant possession, as you make clear, are formed by particular religious commitments that you and she may not share. And in shaping her life, it’s her commitments that matter most. That your niece wants your help and wants to keep it confidential is reason enough to agree to do both those things: She could, after all, go by herself, and it’s probably better if she goes with a family member. Were her parents to learn what had happened, they would most likely be displeased. Yet there’s a superseding concern here that isn’t affected by their religious beliefs: If your niece is thinking about living a fulfilled, independent life, she’s better off knowing her options.”

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