The Ethicist, the Farkel Family, and the Perils of “Maybe”

This photo is completely relevant to this post, but if you are under 50, you probably haven't a clue why. Pity. See below for an explanation.*

One of the reasons I started the Ethics Scoreboard, and continued with Ethics Alarms, was my frustration with the ethics profession’s reluctance to render useful opinions on complex ethical problems…unless, of course, the ethicist was being paid for them. Instead, ethicists are prone to issue obtuse and jargon-filled discussions allowing for every possible eventuality and interpretation, usually concluding with vague, equivocal pablum that allows the ethicist to avoid criticism and accountability. The result of this craven preference for “maybe” as the answer to every dilemma is that ethics are rarely included in public discourse or media coverage, as it solidifies its reputation for being technical, ambiguous, and pointless.

A perfect example of the reticence to make a clear choice occurs in this week’s installment of “The Ethicist,” the New York Times Magazine’s ethics column. An understandably anonymous inquirer writes that he unknowingly fathered a child with a married woman in his neighborhood, who raised the child as the offspring of her and her husband.  The mother asked the biological dad to have no contact with the girl, and he has complied. Now he asks, “Does she have a right to know her true parentage upon reaching adulthood? Sooner? Over the objection of the mother? Only when the husband dies? Who can make these decisions and when?” Continue reading