The Ethicist: 10 January 2018

Should I Accept a Cash Reward for Doing the Right Thing?

Question:

My 12-year-old son and I found a cellphone in the back seat of a taxi. I called someone on the owner’s contact list … and I gave him the phone. He … wanted to give us $40 to express his thanks. My son started to take it. I said: “Thank you, but no thank you. We didn’t do this for a reward.” … He doesn’t see why we didn’t take money for a good deed. Even some of my friends said I should have taken the “reward.” What do you think?

Correct answer:

First, you did the right thing by returning missing property to its owner. The owner then did the right thing by offering a reward for it. Then you did the right thing again by turning down the reward.

If the owner wanted to be perfectly gracious, he could have insisted that you accept the reward that he offered. And if you wanted to be perfectly gracious (or if you wanted to demonstrate it to your son), you could have accepted the reward – only to donate it to charity.

But those extra steps aren’t strictly necessary; the important things are that missing property was returned to its owner and that the owner expressed his gratitude for it.

Nor is there any reason for someone who returns a cell phone to its owner not to get rewarded for it. Don’t mistake the motive for a kind deed with its outcome.

Question:

An acquaintance of mine was recently diagnosed with an incurable cancer. He has health insurance but decided to spend his small retirement savings in a nontraditional medical clinic in Mexico. He was prescribed vitamins and other homeopathic treatments for a sizable sum. As he is now unable to pay his living expenses, he has started raising money online. I am a health care provider and realize the importance of combining traditional and nontraditional medicine. I disagree, however, with his departure from science-based treatment and advice. What duty do I have to help him financially?

Correct answer:

You have no duty to help him financially. His insurance has a duty to help him financially – with relevant and valid medical bills. Since, however, any money you donate to him is likely to be used for homeopathy, or fungibly to offset the costs of homeopathy, you should avoid giving him any money.

If this were a friend rather than merely an acquaintance, I would recommend other forms of help like cooking meals or cleaning his house, but as this is a person that you may not know well at all, visiting in the hospital should be plenty.

Question:

While in the process of purchasing a home, I discovered that concrete for its foundation was supplied by a company whose product has crumbled in tens of thousands of homes in my state. Most homeowners have been ruined, as there is no relief from insurance or FEMA and little to no relief from the state. I did not buy the house, but I worry for the next buyer. What should I do with this information?

Correct answer:

Don’t do anything to interfere with the owner’s attempts to sell his house. If you want, you could definitely notify the owner, however, to give him the chance to have the problem fixed.

The Ethicist: 3 January 2018

What if My Mother’s Extramarital Cravings Are Linked to Dementia?

Question:

My mother is in her mid-50s, which is the time at which people can develop frontotemporal degeneration (FTD), a form of dementia she is at risk for. Symptoms of FTD include a lack of inhibition or social tact and unusual verbal, physical or sexual behavior. My father and I have at times worried that she may be exhibiting the beginnings of other symptoms. A few years ago, she consulted with a doctor, but no diagnosis was made. I think it is pertinent to note that there is currently no cure for FTD…. I recently found out that my mother has been seeking sexual relations through various online platforms, and I am fairly certain that her efforts have come to fruition. I think it is fair to say that these relations have come to be because of a “lack of inhibition”; in addition, I believe that these sexual relations have included things that, for her, would have previously been considered “unusual sexual behavior.” … If, however, this is a sign that she is developing FTD, I feel that it is pertinent for my family to know of the situation. If I bring this up with my family and it turns out not to be related to the development of FTD, it could cause irreparable harm to her relationship with my father and my brothers. If I choose to discuss this with only her and she is later diagnosed with FTD, I worry that the disease might have been diagnosed sooner if this behavior had come to light … My mother is the one who manages both of my parents’ finances. When my grandmother was diagnosed with FTD, my mother and aunt took control of her finances. My mother also noted that perhaps the FTD explained a few strange financial decisions that my grandmother had taken in the years before her diagnosis. If, in fact, my mother is developing FTD, it could pose a risk to my parents’ finances and thus both of their lives after my father’s retirement.

Correct answer:

Suppose there was no question at all of dementia, and you discovered that your mother was conducting multiple extramarital affairs – in perfect physical and mental health. Why wouldn’t you tell your father in that case? She could contract a venereal disease and transmit it to him – your own father! You would be right to tell him and wrong to conceal it from him.

All the more so given the likelihood that your mother is developing dementia, and that you know that this can lead not only to destructive sexual behavior but also to destructive financial behavior.

You must tell your father. Whether you do this immediately, or whether you do it after discussing the matter with your mother and her doctor, is your own decision, but you can not treat it as your decision to allow your mother’s possible mental illness to destroy your family members’ lives.

Question:

My sister is in her 80s and lives alone in a rented apartment in a Canadian city where she moved nearly 60 years ago. Her formerly strong network of friends and acquaintances is dissolving as they age, sicken and die or lose the energy and patience to deal with her.
In my opinion, she has a hoarding disorder and the beginnings of dementia, and she has had problems maintaining her apartment to the landlord’s satisfaction. She also has trouble dealing with documents, paying bills and scammers. She never became a Canadian citizen, and her Canadian and American identification have both expired so she can no longer travel.
I am in my 70s and live hundreds of miles away in the United States. I have a husband, an adult child and grandchildren, for whom I provide a lot of child care. My sister is behind my other family in my priorities, and frankly she drives my husband and me crazy. I am not willing to relocate to Canada or have her live with my husband and me.
She has refused to give me power of attorney so that I can deal with financial institutions when she has been scammed or has neglected to pay bills. For some time, she refused to admit that she has any “memory problems” or to consult her doctor. She does not want anyone messing around in her business.
I see her a few days each year, during which I try to touch base with the last of her friends, do some cleaning and decluttering, have some fun with her and yes, nag her to make some changes. If she continues to refuse help, may I be excused from feeling guilty?

Correct answer:

This is a lot of lead-up to a question about whether you ought to continue feeling guilty or not.

If “feeling guilty” is keeping you up at night and preventing you from living your own life, despite doing your reasonable best to help your sister, then yes, you may be excused from feeling guilty. But if “feeling guilty” is what is driving you to try to help your sister in the first place, and what you really want is permission to stop helping her, then you should not stop entirely – but you may adapt what help you offer to what you think she is likely to accept.

The Ethicist: 20 December 2017

We Sponsor Refugees. What to Do About Their Patriarchal Ways?

Question:

I am a member of a group that has sponsored a family of refugees from rural Syria… group members signed up all four children — two boys and two girls — for soccer programs…. the parents always made some excuse about why their daughters couldn’t go…. in their family, girls aren’t allowed to participate in programs outside of the home, a decidedly nonegalitarian attitude if there ever was one. Here’s the dilemma: There are those who don’t want to enroll any of the children in future recreational programs because of the family’s highly conservative attitudes toward females. Others feel that this would make the group guilty of imposing its value system on a refugee family and, by extension, just end up hurting the young sons. Who’s right?

Correct answer:

Charity can be a wonderful thing, but beware that sometimes an attempt to do good can have the perverse effect of creating negative externalities on the wider community, and that other people may end up paying – perhaps in money, or perhaps in the form of weaker communities – for your good feelings. This is wrong.

Refugee resettlement is often good, but it can not be treated unequivocally as an unqualified good. When you make the private decision sponsor middle eastern refugees for settlement in the United States, you are taking responsibility for how they will behave. If they behave well and make net-positive contributions to American society, it’s a credit to you. If they behave poorly and degrade American society, you must be held accountable.

Your personal project has introduced behavior that you find disagreeable, and unsurprisingly this has caused a wedge to be driven into the refugee sponsorship group. You and the group as a whole must make amends to the community, and you must commit to cease sponsoring further refugees without guarantees that they will not disrupt the community’s values.

Question:

I am a lifelong runner, and after graduating from college this spring, I am in my first few months in a new city…. On my intercollegiate team, running with no shirt or, for women, a sports bra and short shorts was the norm in hot weather … Since I arrived in my new community, however, I have gotten the sense that this is not a look that people regularly encounter, and I worry that I am making them uncomfortable…. I am not breaking any local indecent-exposure laws, but community norms also have value…. Should I feel an ethical obligation to change my running clothing to something more modest in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of the people I encounter, or is it acceptable to continue to wear what is most comfortable to me based on the weather?

Correct answer:

You’re a grown man. As a rule, when you go into public, wear clothing. If you need me to list the reasonable exceptions to this rule, then you are in fact not a grown man.

Question:

I am in my mid-50s and self-employed, and had a heart attack last year. Fortunately, the heart-attack treatment was covered under Obamacare. I continue to pay for Obamacare, but given that it’s a new year, I am concerned that my follow-up treatment won’t be covered until my $6,500 deductible is reached. I currently don’t have the finances to cover the follow-up treatment: Is it unethical to get it and hope to find a way to pay for it later?

Correct answer:

It is unethical to purchase something without a way to pay for it, because doing so is theft, and it doesn’t become less “thefty” if you’re asking about stealing from a hospital or a doctor. If my reading of the question is correct, the cost of the followup treatment is less than the $6,500 deductible. If that is the case, it should not be too difficult to negotiate the bill down and/or to find a charity that will be willing to pay for some of it.

By the way, for someone who seems awfully enthusiastic about “Obamacare,” it seems odd that you don’t seem to have a problem with a $6,500 deductible.

Question:

I grew up in a typical small town in the South that enshrined the Civil War with a statue of a Confederate soldier beside the courthouse. A childhood friend, who became a professional artist of some note, painted a picture of the courthouse, which my mother bought for me as a gift because of my connection to the artist. The picture has been hanging in my home since the 1970s…. The Confederate statue is not a prominent focal point in the impressionistic painting. I had never paid much attention to it until the current uproar over the actual statues caused me — a raging white liberal on issues of civil rights — to do soul-searching about whether I wish to give such a symbol any space in my home. I am torn, of course, between keeping a gift from my beloved deceased mother that few will ever see besides me and my family and taking it down….

Correct answer:

You are filled with terrible and irrational self-loathing that causes you to put the day’s political fashions over a detail in a painting that you enjoy, that was a gift from your mother, that was created by your friend, that has been hanging in your home for four decades, that is barely even noticeable, that will hardly ever be seen, and that is not even offensive.

This is actual insanity, and if I didn’t already know that people like you existed, I would be sure that you were a troll.

Sell the painting on ebay and donate the proceeds to charity. Then spend the rest of your life in shame.

The Ethicist: 13 December 2017

Can I Talk to My Dad About His Affair?

Question:

My mother recently let slip that my father had an affair several years ago…. The news was a devastating shock. Immediately after her disclosure, my mother told me that I could never tell my father that I knew…. they decided to keep it a secret … my interactions with my father have felt stilted…. My gut tells me that I should have a conversation with him about what happened in order to move on, but I also believe I have an ethical obligation to respect my mother’s wishes…. Should I hope that forgiveness comes with time, or risk broaching this difficult topic with my father?

Correct answer:

Your mother was not supposed to tell anybody this information, but she violated her ethical obligation to your father by telling you. In doing so, she also put you in a very difficult situation – you know information that you’re not supposed to know – and extracted a promise from you not to share it with anybody. Now you’re not supposed to tell anybody this information, so… you think it would be a good idea to tell your father? How does that make sense?

If you promise not to tell a secret, keep your damn promise. If you don’t intend to keep your promises, then stop promising things.

Question:

My sister-in-law, her ex and her children have bankrupted my in-laws by taking advantage of their generosity over the years. My in-laws have little for retirement and recently had to sell their house. My sister-in-law and her family are now in a better financial situation, spending on vacations and cars. How can I encourage them to repay my in-laws in some way? … Each time they bring up the latest vacation or new car, I feel sick.

Correct answer:

How can I encourage them to repay my in-laws in some way? You can do it like this: “I encourage you to repay [my in-laws] in some way.”

But you’re probably anticipating that saying something like that would feel awkward, and that’s because it does and should feel awkward to interfere into other families’ money issues.

It would be a good idea to stay out of this, but if you do choose to get involved:

  • Bring it up once, and never bring it up again.
  • Don’t dance around the issue. Be clear about what you’re suggesting.
  • If they tell you that you’re wrong to have said anything, apologize immediately.

The Ethicist: 6 December 2017

Should Buyers Be Told About the Killer Next Door?

Question:

I live in a one-family house adjacent to the house of a family whose son was a serial killer 25 years ago. He was 20 at the time and killed two people. He was recently released and now lives there. My son will inherit our house after us and plans to live elsewhere closer to work.
He wonders if he is morally obliged to inform prospective buyers about the neighbor’s history.

Correct answer:

Morally obliged? No. But ethics is more complex than morality due to the situational nature of ethical systems.

Buyers and sellers in any transaction have ethical obligations to one another, and this increases with the size and scope of the transaction. The purchase or sale of a home is usually the biggest, or one of the few biggest, financial transactions in someone’s life. As the seller of a home who’s going to deal with the buyer of a home, your son must disclose negative information about the home to its buyer.

This does not mean that your son is obliged to convince prospective buyers not to buy his home. That would be crazy. He doesn’t need to make yard signs about the-serial-killer-next-door or bring up the-serial-killer-next-door right away in any conversation. He just needs to show the same basic decency that he would show if a ten lane highway was going to be built next door, or if a heroin rehab facility or sewage processing plant was next door.

Question:

I am Facebook friends with a well-known practitioner in my field. I’ve never met him… I saw a bunch of posts in my Facebook feed featuring pictures and such from a somewhat flamboyant blond woman with the same last name as this fellow…. I assumed she was his spouse, and I’d somehow accepted her friend request. There were a lot of posts that I was not interested in … I quickly unfriended her…. she had just come out as trans. She was formerly he … I feel terrible. I would never unfriend someone for coming out as transgender….

Correct answer:

There is no obligation to initiate or to maintain a “friendship” with anyone on any social media platform.

You became someone’s facebook friend expecting professional information related to your field. Then that sort of information got replaced by “a lot of posts that [you were] not interested in (fashion, glamour)” and, as a result, you “quickly unfriended” that person.

There is no obligation to initiate or to maintain a “friendship” with anyone on any social media platform.

Nothing wrong was done at all: a person can post professional business information one day on social media and then fashion and glamour garbage the next if that’s what he or she desires, and you can be that person’s “friend” one day and then “unfriend” him or her the next day if that’s what you desire.

There is no obligation to initiate or to maintain a “friendship” with anyone on any social media platform.

Question:

My husband and I have our medical insurance through a Medicare Advantage insurance plan…. our plan offers gift cards when a member participates in certain “best practices” such as having an annual flu shot, an annual physical or a mammogram. When I recently called to request a $50 gift card … my husband became extremely angry and told me to cancel my request. He insisted that by requesting these gift cards I was participating in the high cost of medical insurance. I told him he was being ridiculous and refused to do so….

Correct answer:

Your ethical obligation to your insurance company is to follow correct procedures and to avoid insurance fraud. Taking advantage of the gift card program for “best practices” is the correct procedure, so you are right to obtain the benefit from it.

Insurance companies benefit by spending less money on preventable costs, and it is totally normal for them to pass some of those savings along to their customers. Sometimes this is done through lower premiums, and sometimes it’s through things like gift cards. Lower premiums are preferable, but gift cards are acceptable too. Your husband is probably senile.

Question:

I am a physician practicing in a state where marijuana is legal, both medicinally and recreationally. I will occasionally receive a bottle of wine from a patient as a token of gratitude. Recently, I was offered some marijuana by a patient for this reason. I did not accept, but would it have been wrong if I had?

Correct answer:

Morally, there is no difference between alcohol and cannabis. If there were a moral difference, cannabis would be less morally problematic than alcohol, because it is less harmful to one’s health.

Ethically, I do wonder about doctors accepting gifts from patients, but if the relevant professional bodies don’t have a problem with doctors accepting gifts of alcohol, I can not see any reason for them not to accept gifts of cannabis.

The Ethicist: 29 November 2017

Should I Keep Working for a Raging Bigot?

Question:

I am a graduate student…. I have a job as an assistant…. It is just the two of us, and he pays me very well, allows me to work the hours I want, gives me a good deal of responsibility and is willing to give me in-depth training. He is, however, racist, homophobic, transphobic, bigoted and sexist. I am very liberal and find his ideas on many subjects to be repugnant. Though I have asked that he not talk about politics when we are together, he still does so from time to time. I often just let him speak and barely engage … I feel guilty …

Correct answer:

You describe your views as “very liberal,” which is to say that they are what’s fashionable today. If you are a graduate student now, you are probably in your early to mid 20s, which means you were probably born in the 1990s, which means you probably don’t remember a time when what’s now considered “racist, homophobic, transphobic, bigoted and sexist,” was fashionable. Fashions change, but your boss’s opinions haven’t changed with the fashions, and this has caused cognitive dissonance for you.

Because you are probably young, you probably have not yet had the opportunity to observe how quickly and how (apparently) senselessly fashions evolve, or can be made to evolve; consequently, you probably have never experienced your boss’s cognitive dissonance at being described as a “raging bigot” for having beliefs that were well within the norm when he was your age.

Quitting your cushy job because you can’t bear the physical proximity of someone whose beliefs are wrong and obnoxious is certainly one way to deal with your situation, but before taking this approach, you should carefully consider two other questions:

  • First, of all the beliefs that you do not share, which are you willing to tolerate and which do you find intolerable? Are you willing to interrogate all of your close friends and family members to determine whether they hold any beliefs on your black list, and proceed to block them out of your life? How supportive and loving would, say, your elderly grandparents need to be in order for them to be exempted from the horrible consequences of your graduate school Inquisition?
  • Second, how will you feel in the future when fashions inevitably change, turning your own beliefs into what graduate students consider to be raging bigotry? How frequently are you willing to change what you believe – every decade, every election cycle, every season? Is there anything that you believe so firmly that you will never change your mind about it? If business opportunities are denied to you in the future because nobody will agree to work in the presence of a raging bigot like you, to whom will you turn for financial support?

Here is an important lesson: when you arrive at work, you are arriving to work. Don’t engage in political discussions with your boss. Don’t encourage him to discuss politics with you under any circumstances. Don’t let yourself be drawn into anything controversial.

Here’s another important lesson: it’s helpful to forget the terms “racist,” “homophobic,” “transphobic,” “bigoted” and “sexist.” They aren’t very descriptive, obscure more than they reveal, and are subject to definitions that shift so rapidly that they can hardly be committed to print. As someone preparing for a career working with rare books and manuscripts, you should nurture an appreciation of the timeless and the sublime, rather than the transitory and the fashionable.

Question:

My boyfriend is a great person … He could be the one…. he made me promise not to talk to my ex-boyfriend and said that if I did, it would be the end of us as a couple…. When my current boyfriend made me promise not to talk to my ex, I accepted, and my ex did, too, and wished me luck…. I reconnected with him, without remembering my promise to my boyfriend….. It has now started to bother me that I’ve been lying to my boyfriend… I believe he will eventually soften up, but he has not. What is the right thing to do?

Correct answer:

There’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that your boyfriend is not “the one,” and the good news is that your boyfriend is not “the one.”

As someone who doesn’t do the jealousy thing, I don’t quite entirely understand when other people do it, but it seems like it’s being done to you now. Your choice, then, is not whether your boyfriend is going to be jealous or not, but whether you’re going to comply and enable his jealousy thing or not.

I recommend the following test to determine where your boyfriend’s limits really are: invite your ex-boyfriend, along with anyone he may be dating, to share a meal with you and your boyfriend. If your boyfriend will not allow you to eat and speak with your ex-boyfriend even in that sort of setting, then his opposition really is absolute, and I recommend that you break up with him immediately, without waiting to find out how many other people he wants to cut out of your life.

The Ethicist: 20 November 2017

Can I Let My Friend Pay Off My Mortgages?

Question:

My closest American friend here in Japan, of more than 30 years, is worried about me and wants to pay off my mortgages. He says he doesn’t want to be paid back; he just wants to make sure I am out of debt before he dies. He is not dying, but he is 98. He has been mentioning this more and more, and says he wants to write a check the next time we meet. I never talk about this with him unless he brings up the subject. The amount he would give me would come to about 3 percent of his assets. It would have no impact on his financial needs. And frankly, it would be helpful for me…. I have a gnawing feeling that I would be taking advantage of him…. he is not suffering from dementia…. he depends on my help more and more… Should I decline and feel noble? Or should I be practical and take the offer….

Correct answer:

Talk to the old man’s children, who otherwise would stand to inherit his estate when he dies. If you’re afraid to speak with his children about it now, while he’s still alive, then that is probably a sign that you know something is wrong. Explain the situation to them and weigh their response. If they reject the idea that their father could give you money of his own volition and threaten you in some way, you don’t necessarily have to comply with their demands, but if they act unreasonably, that may be an indication of why their father isn’t entirely keen on leaving everything to them.

Question:

I recently spoke on the phone with an old friend from college. During the call she mentioned that her son is taking a drug for A.D.H.D. and that it really helps him focus. I know there is controversy surrounding this class of drugs, but I didn’t feel comfortable bringing that up. I assume she has looked into the pros and cons, and I know her mother is a psychiatrist. But should I mention my concerns nevertheless? Or should my concerns about seeming a busybody outweigh concerns about her son’s future health?

Correct answer:

This is a great opportunity to mind your own business.

Question:

I teach at a prestigious private art school. Every year, we take in 600 or so young people with little understanding of how the arts work as an industry. We charge a very high tuition, offer almost no scholarships and load them up with a lot of debt. Even though we claim to offer “career planning,” the illusions of our students are not addressed. Our graduates, even those with a degree in design, rarely find a job in their field. Those who do rarely last long before realizing that they are in a hopeless situation. Most have given up on art … By preying on their naïveté and ignorance, I feel that we are essentially robbing our students…. Is it wrong to take the “caveat emptor” approach and let these naïve young people continue to pay me through their student loans?

Correct answer:

Don’t lie to your students. In general, don’t lie to anybody, but especially don’t lie to your students. If they ask you a question that isn’t directly related to the curriculum and that you strongly prefer not to answer honestly, don’t answer it.

The Ethicist: 15 November 2017

My Wife Is Done With Sex. Can I Turn Elsewhere?

Question:

I … have been happily married for decades. I have always been a very sexual person and consider myself healthy and normal… my wife’s health worsened, and she declared herself no longer interested in sex of any kind. I continue to cherish her, but find the lack of sexual intimacy exceedingly difficult. I asked her permission to seek a friendly but not competitive sexual relationship elsewhere…. on a dating site… My profile received a great deal of rejection…. I was a “dirty old man”; and I was — even with permission — “cheating” …

Correct answer:

This is almost certainly why the word discretion exists in the English language.

Question:

An extended family member posted very private information about me on a social media platform under the guise of honoring me. I do not value this person, whose past actions reveal the character flaws that would lead someone to do such a thing. I do, however, value the person’s family.
I am a very private person who only uses social media to observe what is happening in the lives of close friends and family. I never post anything about my private life. The shock of this invasion caused me to close my account immediately, but many people did see the post and commented on it…. this has caused me great anguish and embarrassment…. I want to make clear that this person crossed a line.

Correct answer:

You’d like to eat the cake of social media stalking, and then proceed to have the cake of humility and privacy, but that’s not the way it works. Choose one: engage in social media (at a level that suits you) or do not. Both options are correct, but whichever you choose, bear in mind that people do talk about one another, and there’s probably nothing you can do to prevent that. If you keep social media accounts active, it will encourage your family members to talk about you.

Question:

A friend forwarded me an email she received about a college classmate of ours who recently died. It turns out that this classmate ended her life because of some psychological issues relating to an unusual condition that materialized in the last two years.
The woman who wrote the email that was circulating was my classmate’s sister; she shared some conversation screenshots with time stamps that demonstrated her sister’s growing mental distress. She made it clear that she was sharing this material because she wanted to raise awareness of this condition.
I had never heard of the condition, so it was illuminating, but I feel unsettled and guilty for knowing these details, as my classmate took so much care to keep them secret while she was alive…. is it O.K. that it is circulating after her death?

Correct answer:

When someone kills himself or herself, there’s often so much uncertainty and confusion among that person’s peers and extended group of family members and friends, which is why so often we hear things like, “If only he or she had reached out to ask for help…” If a family member chooses to provide answers as a way of helping others who could find themselves in similar situations, that’s a good thing and should not be criticized.

The Ethicist: 1 November 2017

Can I Turn In a Bad Fraternity at My Son’s College?

Question:

My son is on his college football team…. One of my son’s teammates joined the “football frat.” During the hazing process, the young man was severely injured and had to quit the football team…. My question is whether I should alert the chancellor of the university to the situation. The teammate explicitly requested that no one be told about what happened to him…. I think the chancellor needs to know…. I am debating sending an anonymous letter or arranging to meet with the chancellor in person.

Correct answer:

There is a reason why “anonymous coward” has a certain meaning on the internet, and 99% of the time that someone is considering sending an anonymous letter, the answer is no. The only exception is when someone genuinely does not know what’s happening and must be alerted to it.

Your son’s friend is an adult and knows about the hazing that cost him the chance to play football; your son is an adult and knows about the hazing that cost his friend the chance to play football. The football team and fraternity are both comprised entirely of adults who know about the hazing that cost your son’s friend the chance to play football. Most critically, the university administration almost certainly already knows what’s going on.

Avoid the urge to be a drama queen. This is not your business, so stay out of it.

Question:

A relative of mine, after the breakdown of his long-term relationship with his boyfriend, fell into a deep depression, losing his job in the process…. His depression is severe…. He traveled to Southeast Asia and met a much younger man, with whom he fell in love…. money he had saved up disappeared. He invested heavily in the new boyfriend’s business and lost it all. During the last visit, the new boyfriend claimed he had to go visit his family and never returned. My relative says that if he can’t find a way to stay in Southeast Asia, he will kill himself…. Is the moral and loving thing to do to let him continue the search for love, which ruins him, or should we try to intervene?

Correct answer:

Suicide is permanent, so when someone is suicidal, or potentially suicidal, the right thing to do is always to intervene. Everything else is irrelevant: it doesn’t matter if or how you are related to the person, what caused his depression, that he’s on a “search for love” or that somebody else says it’s “situational.” So you must intervene, but you also must draw a line beyond which you will not cross.

Where should that line be drawn – what is acceptable and what isn’t? It’s difficult to say, but after speaking to your relative and referring him to psychiatric support, you might consider alerting the State Department, and border authorities in the unnamed Asian country, that an American citizen has been threatening suicide over or during trips there. Don’t kidnap your relative, though. Ultimately, depressed people need to want to get better in order to get better.

The Ethicist: 25 October 2017

Should I Reveal That My Dad Pretended to Be a Vietnam Vet?

Question:

… [M]y father sometimes talked of his military service during the Vietnam War…. he offered enough details about his service … that [everyone] … believed he was a veteran. My mother and I, however, were never sure he was telling the truth about the nature of his service…. he instructed my stepmother not to include his veteran status in his obituary…. After he died, she wanted to know more about his military service … and received back his DD Form 214 (Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty) showing that he had been honorably discharged in 1968 for being medically unsuitable for duty before he even finished basic training…. she did not want to share what she had found with me, my siblings or our friends and family, lest we think less of the man whom we had all respected…. My stepmother, mother and I are the only ones in the family who know the truth. I attempted to tell my sister once, but she flatly refused to believe me…. Do I tell the rest of my family and our friends what he did, or is it all water under the bridge now that he has passed away and is unable to explain or defend himself?

Correct answer:

If someone tells a serious lie, that person usually has a positive obligation to contact anyone who heard that lie and explain the truth, and can mean initiating contact with people who might not otherwise have been in contact. Your father, however, is now dead, and that obligation died with him. You have no positive obligation to clean up the mess that he made.

You should make a reasonable effort to tell the truth to all of your direct family members, as well as close friends who would have heard the lie, as soon as opportunities present themselves. The first reason for this is to prevent a situation in which you could trick yourself into telling additional and further lies that you had no intention to tell. Whatever your father’s rationale, it’s clearly not yours; you have nothing to gain by pretending that your father was a veteran. The second reason is to give your other siblings the opportunity to stop spreading a lie that they believe to be the truth. The third reason is to prevent a future situation in which you could inadvertently benefit from someone believing that your father was a veteran.

Question:

While going through my mother’s papers prior to moving her into a nursing home (she has Alzheimer’s disease, so I cannot ask her about this), I found an eight-page love letter that she saved for 66 years. At first glance, I thought that it was from my late father…. I was shocked to discover that it was dated four years before my parents met and was from someone I had never heard of…. I read the letter in its entirety. I have no idea who the gentleman is, and there is no one I can ask. My question is simple: When faced with such a personal letter from the past, is it wrong to read it? It doesn’t change the present, and it seemed wrong just to throw it away.

Correct answer:

The letter was addressed from somebody else to your mother, and not to you – so if you were wrong to read it, then it would have been wrong regardless of who wrote it, your father or another man. So why did you include all of that extraneous information? Could it be that you feel as if you infringed on your mother’s privacy by reading a letter that some other man wrote to her in a way that would not have bothered her or you if you’d read something that your father wrote? In other words – what exactly is the ethical question here?

If your mother were healthy, you would not have read the letter at all. If she were dead, you would have no problem reading the letter, and presumably you would justify it by telling yourself that if she wanted to keep it private, she would have destroyed it. Your mother’s dementia, unfortunately, is so severe that she can not have a conversation with you. She’s still a person who deserves to be treated kindly and with whatever dignity is possible, but reading the letter did not harm her in any way. After all, you would have read it if your father had written it.