“The Ethicist” On When Revealing Someone Else’s Secret Is An Ethical Obligation

The latest installment of the Times Magazine advice column “The Ethicist” includes Prof. Appiah’s responses to two inquiries involving people, as they used to say, “sticking their noses into other people’s business” and revealing secret that could have a devastating emotional and practical impact on the party being enlightened. This issue comes up in the column frequently, and it has been discussed in Ethics Alarms as well, often under the categories “the duty to warn,” “the duty to fix the problem,” and most of all, “The Golden Rule.” Oddly, the latter provides the easiest and clearest route to both of the answers Appiah provides in the column, and yet he doesn’t mention it or allude to it anywhere.

I find that strange.

The first inquiry involves a man who discovered that his older brother was adopted but still doesn’t know it. His elderly parents, “not long for this world,” still adamantly refuse to tell him. “Do I have any obligation to tell my brother what I have learned about his life so he can learn more?,” asks “Name Withheld.”

The Ethicist then devotes about 400 words to giving an obvious and unavoidable answer that could have been expressed in three: “Of course you do!” Why? Well, wouldn’t you want to know the truth of your origins? It’s the Golden Rule, baby! Come on! This isn’t hard.

Instead, Appiah, who is a competent ethicist and a real one unlike his four predecessors, pads and mucks up his answer with rationalizations and irrelevancies, like:

  • “Your parents surely made this decision out of love for your brother.”  So what? Their motives are irrelevant.

  • “They must have thought he would be better off if he believed that he was their biological child.”  Again: their thoughts are irrelevant to the brother’s needs and human rights. 

  • “Yet there’s a very strong reason for telling him now. Only now will he have the opportunity to gain insight into your parents’ decision and to let them know how he feels about it. Not telling him until your parents are gone will deprive him of that opportunity, at the cost of saving them some discomfort. You cannot resolve your issues with the dead.” Every second that the brother withholds the secret makes him an accessory to a deception and a breach of trust.

  • “Yes, your parents’ preferences count against telling him…” No, they really don’t. It’s the brother’s life and the brother’s history. Parents often do this to spare an adopted child anxiety, but the only reason they keep the secret after the child is grown is to avoid resentment and anger.

  • “If they still won’t tell him after they’ve had time to think about it, and they have no genuinely persuasive reason to justify their reticence, you should let them know you’ll be letting him know.” Wait, what?? “After they’ve had time to think about it”!? The parents have had their son’s whole life to think about it!

  • “In our era of online genetic ancestries, there’s a good chance the truth will come out anyway.” So if there was no chance the secret would come out, that would mitigate the brother’s obligation?

“The Ethicist” doesn’t advance the cause of ethical literacy and decision-making by muddying the issues like this.

In the second telling secrets question, the writer asked if her daughter did the right thing to inform their housekeeper that what she thought was a serious online romantic relationship with an American soldier overseas was really a popular scam, and that she had been sending money to a fake beau who was bilking her. How ethically clueless does someone have to be to have to ask a question like this? The inquirer:

I wondered if I should warn her now and break her heart, or let it go and later see her brokenhearted and deep in debt. I discussed this quandary with my daughter, who said, “You have to tell her, and if you can’t, I will.” So my daughter did…Was my daughter right in telling this woman the bitter truth?

Gee, I dunno…would YOU want to be told if someone you thought was the love of your life was just interested in defrauding you out of your money? Tough one! In an amusing note, the writer made it clear what her real concern was, by adding, Will she hate me and leave my employment?

Good housekeepers are hard to find!


7 thoughts on ““The Ethicist” On When Revealing Someone Else’s Secret Is An Ethical Obligation

  1. I don’t know. I am facing much the same dilemma myself. I haven’t adopted granddaughter who was recently told me to take a hike. She is also manipulating and defrauding the welfare system by not reporting her marriage four years ago. Obviously, I am aware of and could report it to the controlling agency However this feels very much like vengeance to me. I understand I have a duty to report it. But by the same token I would like to patch up this relationship. I am in a quandary. Any advice would be appreciated

    • I would report her marriage. So many people need welfare but don’t get it, and far more abuse the system. It’s not being petty; it’s being honest & ethical. You may feel more comfortable giving an anonymous tip. Good luck.

  2. I’m just surprised that Pelosi has only one housekeeper. If she truly thinks she would have difficulty securing a replacement locally, at worst she could fly a new one in from Florida,
    and make her work off the cost of the ticket. Who knows, DeSantis might even send her one for free.

  3. It seems obvious to me that it’s the duty of every parent to raise their child so that they can handle the truth. For parents to be afraid their adult child will find out about being adopted is a pathetic self-indictment. If adoption is such a shameful thing to do, why would anyone do it? If they haven’t established a loving family bond that transcends genetics, then they’ve already somewhat failed.

    Then again, my username is partially based on me being constantly surprised at how poorly humans handle learning “the truth,” or at least realizing their assumptions aren’t all correct, so maybe I’m expecting too much of them.

  4. Re: Issue 1- the adopted child- I am on the fence on this one. Mainly, because I don’t understand the desire to find biological parents who gave you up while disregarding the loving adopted parents who brought you up. Equally so, I dont understand the legal system that gives preferencee to biology over sociology. I have a niece who had a childd rom a one-night vacation stand. The child was beautifully raised by her alone with the aid of my brother and his wife (her mother and father). The sire of the child provided nothing. Yet, whenever he heard, through the grapevine that my niece was thinking of moving he would approach the Court to prevent it. The Court always deferred to him.
    Re: Issue 2- I agree totally,

    • Wow. Unless this deadbeat is willing to initiate a custody battle for a child he’s never paid support for and may not even have met, I fail to see how the court has any right to prevent your niece from moving wherever she wants and taking her child with her. Dare I ask why he even cares that they stay in the area?

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