The Ethicist: Should the New Girlfriend of an Awful Ex-Husband Be Warned?

April 8, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Should the New Girlfriend of an Awful Ex-Husband Be Warned?”.

My sister-in-law was married to a man who looked good on paper and who was very charming. She found out after they were married that he lied to her about his employment history and history of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as about his finances. He had a breakdown soon after their child was born and received a diagnosis for a serious mental illness. When he was unmedicated, he was violent toward her. Even on medication, he has shown no remorse about the destruction he caused. He admitted that he spent the year before meeting her rehearsing his “story” so he could meet someone like her. He can still seem charming and, to an outsider, like a functioning adult.

He is now dating someone else. We don’t know if he has shared his background with his new girlfriend, although based on our experience, we assume not. The good news is that the girlfriend seems to show an interest in my sister-in-law’s child; we think she is most likely more responsible with the child than the child’s father, and therefore we hope that she sticks around. At the same time, we also feel that someone ought to warn her about her mate’s violent behavior and his history of lying.

Would it be ethical for my sister-in-law to share her experience with his girlfriend so she can make an informed decision about whether to remain in a relationship with him? Is it ethical to withhold this information in the hope that she will be in a position to care for the child? Name Withheld

My response: You ask what’s ethical. Since everyone has different values, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes. There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

I would categorize this situation as a problem-solving, not an ethics, issue. Abstract questions of philosophy won’t resolve this issue as effectively as adopting a problem-solving approach. As with most of life, each potential action has results and you want to find an outcome most acceptable to the most number of people. What helps solve problems? In this case, probably talking to people with experience, developing social and emotional skills to communicate with the people affected, empathy for how potential results will affect different people. I would start with those things before writing a newspaper ethics columnist.

The New York Times response:

The situation you’re describing is disturbing, and your brother-in-law may put some readers in mind of William Styron’s very charming, very deceptive, very troubled character Nathan Landau, from “Sophie’s Choice.” But one thing puzzles me. If your former brother-in-law isn’t likely to look after your sister-in-law’s child properly if left on his own, shouldn’t your sister be exploring the possibility of keeping the child away from his or her father, whether or not he has a nice girlfriend? If, on the other hand, her ex doesn’t pose a risk to the child and is merely not so great with him or her, I don’t see why you’d consider allowing him to con another woman into an unhappy relationship for the child’s sake. (Is it possible that you’ve left out a significant detail or two in your letter?)

Because you and your sister-in-law don’t necessarily know whether the man’s psychiatric problems have now been successfully managed, you should be careful about making assumptions about his current state of mind. Your sister-in-law, as the ex, is probably not going to be regarded as a highly reliable source of information in any case. Still, if she and the girlfriend are communicating, she should feel free to pass on what she knows. She would be telling her ex-husband’s new partner only what he should have told her anyway.


I am employed by a large nonprofit organization. A year ago, my division supervisor asked if I would be willing to receive additional training, with expenses covered by one of the organization’s special-purpose funds (SPF). I agreed to participate, and I was reimbursed from the SPF. Last month, it was discovered that the SPF could not cover all its anticipated expenses. My department head informed me that the major benefactor of the SPF was unhappy that funds were used to support my tuition and then asked me to donate some of my banked vacation time to the SPF to cover the projected deficit. (In my organization, we are allowed to bank vacation time, which we can donate to SPFs or cash out, if we leave our job with sufficient notice.) I feel I am being asked because my tuition reimbursement is this year’s largest ticket item, and I have the most banked vacation time. I do not want the benefactor to stop supporting the fund, nor do I want others to be denied access to training programs, but I feel I should not be responsible for SPF mismanagement. Is it ethical for the department head to make this request? Is it ethical for me to say no? Name Withheld

My response: Same answer as above.

I find it sad that people prefer to ask for judgment more than help. I tend to look at our educational system for promoting compliance and analysis over examining our values and developing the social and emotional skills to act on them.

The New York Times response:

Someone made a mistake here, and it wasn’t you. Now you’re being asked to cover the cost. What could possibly justify this? The use of funds by your organization is governed by whatever legal rules cover them and by whatever policies have been set by management and the board. A properly managed nonprofit will have a clear understanding with donors about what kinds of things the funds they give will be used for. Had this tenet been followed, the benefactor’s beef would be with the policies that the board has set for the special-purposes fund. If the benefactor’s continued support really is at stake, the organization can try to defend the staff-development policy to him, or it can cover the costs from elsewhere. Either way, your boss shouldn’t have tried to renegotiate the deal you were offered and claw back resources from you; and so, ethically speaking, you may decline. If you do decide to comply, you have the consolation of knowing that you’re now better equipped to do a job you obviously care a great deal about.


I have a health condition that requires that I take an intramuscular antibiotic two to five times a year. I always go to my doctor for this injection. Depending on my insurance and whether the doctor keeps this medication on hand, I either buy it at the pharmacy and bring it to the doctor’s office or go to the doctor, who supplies the medication. I pay a co-pay for the medication and/or the nurse or doctor visit, without generally looking at the full bill. The other day, I got a bill for a negligible balance, which I paid, but it drew my attention to the details. I researched the CPT codes and realized that insurance was being double charged for the medication, because I bought it at the pharmacy, but the code they used covered both the injection and the medication. I’m sure my doctor wrote an accurate note about what she did (intramuscular administration of this particular medication), and the billing office coded it as administration and medication. I don’t think this is fraud if it was inadvertent, although it may reflect a systemic problem in which doctors provide services and the billing offices they use, and with which they have little connection, look to maximize income.

Am I ethically obligated to bring this to someone’s attention? It does not affect me financially, but I assume it contributes to the high cost of medicine in our country. I’m inclined to let my doctor know what happened so that she may decide how to proceed, because it’s her relationship with the corporate medical organization, of which her practice is a part, that is at stake. Name Withheld

My response: Same answer again.

Since I commented on our educational system last time, I’ll comment on our media this time. This column consistently coddles people asking for what to do instead of helping them develop the skills to do it themselves. Credentials such as being a professor, an author, or a columnist don’t give people special access to universal ethics. Beyond people being able to work these issues out on their own, doing so develops resilience, initiative, responsibility, and other relevant social and emotional skills.

Giving people answers is like putting a cast on someone who could use physical therapy. Just as unused muscles atrophy, so do unused skills.

I’ll also note the insidious, nefarious skills of this column’s headline writers. They consistently pack the headline with the intellectual and mental equivalent of junk food—“should I . . .” “Is it okay to . . .” “Is it right/wrong to . . .” I don’t know what to call it. It’s not click-bait. It’s addictive mental junk food.

The New York Times response:

Tell your doctor. This is someone you trust, I’m sure, and can expect to do the right thing. Assuming you’ve correctly understood the situation, she can alert her billing office and refund any wrongly collected money, while making it clear that the problem arose from inadvertency, not fraud. Contacting your insurance risks causing trouble for your doctor, by raising the suggestion of something less savory.

If the overcharging happens again, though, and it’s clear that the doctor’s office hasn’t put things right, you should notify the insurance company directly. Even if the error costs you nothing, this money is being paid on your behalf for something you know you didn’t receive.

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