Another Visit To “The Ethicist”: Appiah Overthinks The Dilemma Of The Treacherous Ex-Wife

is the first and only competent ethicist to handle the long-time New York Times Magazine column, so I feel badly that most of the time when I reference his opinions, it is to criticize one of them. He over-all record is excellent, despite the impression one might get from Ethics Alarms. For example, read his superb, if a bit overblown, response to a white woman who was “deeply offended” that a contractor hired by her husband flew a small confederate flag on his truck. She wanted to report him as a racist to his boss, and asked Appiah if this was the right thing to do.

That nuanced advice is more typical of “The Ethicist’s” work than this recent chapter, in which a man wrote that he had split from his wife after she had refused any physical intimacy, saying that it was no longer “part of her life.” She suggested a trial separation, which led to a formal divorce, and the couple signed a non-disparagement agreement as part of the process. Recently she admitted to him that she had repeatedly cheated on him during their marriage, and that she suggested the trial separation so she could resolve her affair at the time with a married man.

The inquirer says that he has never blamed his wife in discussions with his sons for the end of the marriage, but that he has learned from them that she “places the sole blame on me for every problem ever experienced by our family, including the drug addiction of our older son. When I recently contacted her about visiting him in jail, she said he didn’t want to see me. I contacted him and found that this was not true.”

He asks “The Ethicist” if he can ethically violate the non-disparagement agreement in his own defense, and tell the sons what a lying, cheating, betraying mother they have. To my amazement, Appiah said he could, and even suggested that he should, arguing in the process of a looooong discourse,

I’ve said before, it’s generally a good thing to know the truth about the important circumstances of your life — and the cause of your parents’ divorce is such a circumstance…. If, as you suggest, your ex-wife seeks to undermine your relationship with your children, it’s not unreasonable for you to want to give them as honest an account of what happened as you can….Protecting your relationship with your adult children and providing them with a more accurate account of the circumstances of their lives are both grounds for telling them what really happened….[Regarding the non-disparagement agreement], your ex-wife is evidently in violation of the agreement herself, she would probably not rush to seek a court remedy. Still, you should ask a lawyer about the legal consequences of breaking the agreement. The ethical situation looks quite straightforward. Given that she violated that agreement herself, she has lost her moral claim to hold you to it. Moreover, the information she has given you was not available to you when you agreed to the non­disparagement clause, because she wasn’t honest with you at the time of your separation. You might not have agreed to it had you known, and you can reasonably insist that it was materially relevant to what you were committing to….[T]hough divorcing adults use non­disparagement agreements to protect their reputations, a principal moral concern in a case like yours is to protect the children, especially minor children. That’s why, with or without a legal agreement, a policy of non­disparagement typically makes sense…we naturally want to minimize their exposure to the toxic effluent of divorce — the usual acrimony of failed matrimony. Your “boys,” however, are well into their adulthood. You would be justified, then, in telling them, as dispassionately as you can, what really happened. Remember, though, that the object here is not to punish your ex-wife but to safeguard your children’s relationship with you and allow them a better understanding of a troubled family history.

5 thoughts on “Another Visit To “The Ethicist”: Appiah Overthinks The Dilemma Of The Treacherous Ex-Wife

  1. Is telling the truth “disparagement” ? I agree generally with your suggested approach as stated in the last paragraph, but I would probably cite specific falsehoods told by the ex-wife. Much depends, of course, on the age of the children, but in this case they are described as “well into adulthood,” and should certainly old enough to understand (if not fully appreciate) the father’s position. I am not at all suggesting that the father portray the mother as worthless, etc., etc., but I feel he has a right if not a duty to vigorously defend his reputation without telling untruths, as his ex-wife is alleged to have done.

  2. Once she broke the agreement, it’s fully on him whether or not his description of his wife’s behavior is a violate of the “no disparagement” agreement. Merely defending himself against her slander could technically come across as “disparagement” if in means he has to call her a liar. Now, if he goes out of his way to add to the negative description of her conduct or initiates such description independent of a defense of himself, he veers into breaking the spirit of the agreement himself. But that’s on him, I don’t think an outside listener could determine a difference on their own.

  3. Apologies for the lateness.

    Dad here has a larger duty than to the (silly) contractual promise. He is a father and can’t (and didn’t contract out of his duty to act in the best interests of his children.

    Can he parent properly without the trust of his children and in the absence of an honest relationship? Does he not have a duty, appropriate to the age and stage of his children, to warn them at least about their mother? Of course I am presuming that aspects of her behaviour she should toward him manifest themselves in other ways but in other relationships such as with her children. They lying itself is problematic. I see more of an ethics dilemma here and intent being important. He should not be firing salvos to make himself feel better.

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