The Ethicist: Should I Tell My Siblings About Mom’s Affair?

July 15, 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 I Tell My Siblings About Mom’s Affair?”.

My mother died 18 years ago. Before she died, she told me about an affair of many years’ duration with a family friend. Learning about this made me re-evaluate my parents’ relationship and the decisions they made. My father is also dead, and I have been struggling with whether this information is something my siblings have the right to know, or whether it is not my place to share what she told me. Name Withheld

My response: We’ve all experienced trying to help someone only to find what we meant to help got the other person angry, frustrated, or the like. We’ve also all experienced someone trying to help us who only made things worse.

I usually respond to letters with no questions by saying something like, “Thank you for sharing your story,” and not giving advice or commenting much more. Not commenting may sound like an easy way out of more thoughtful and helpful writing, but I’ve learned many times in coaching, teaching, and friendships that helping people who haven’t asked for it is a recipe for disaster.

My starting point for why is that what different people consider “helping” depends on their values, views, goals, and other factors that you, giving unasked advice, don’t know. For example, offering potential solutions to someone who just wants to be heard often leads to exasperation, frustration, and feeling devalued. But just listening to someone who wants advice can lead to impatience, frustration, and other emotions neither party wants.

However obvious you consider your interpretation of what the letter-writer wants, dozens of other interpretations exist, any of which the writer may have meant, or not. Acting on unchecked assumptions risks imposing your values on others, which usually provokes responses you wish you hadn’t from others.

I’ve found the best policy to keep neutral until the person clarifies what they want so I know what “help” means to them in that situation.

The New York Times response:

“We dance round in a ring and suppose,” the Robert Frost poem has it. “But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” In the end, our parents are likely to remain somewhat inscrutable to us. We’re not likely to have asked them all the questions we would need answered to make sense of everything important about them. And if we had, they wouldn’t have told us everything we needed to know.

Still, understanding your family and making sense, in particular, of your parents’ lives, is something that many people care about; and even if they don’t, it is going to be up to them what they make of important facts about their parents. What your mother indicated about what you should do with this information is relevant, but her post-mortem interest in the matter fades as time passes. So tell your siblings what you know — but be mindful of how much you still don’t.


I am fortunate to be a tenured professor at a state university and have enjoyed many years of teaching the students enrolled there, many of whom are first-generation college students, as I was. Attending college had an enormous impact on my life, and I know that’s true for many of my students, who have done well in careers they never imagined for themselves. I was proud to be part of an institution having a positive impact on the lives of many students.

However, in the past 10 years, things have changed. Like many schools in search of money, my university has substantially increased enrollment for more tuition dollars. In order to do that, it has been admitting more and more students who are not academically prepared for college. In addition, many of these students want a diploma because they have been told that they will make more money if they have one, but they are not motivated to learn the material. They often work full time and have time-consuming family obligations but are still taking a full load of four to five courses per semester. Many of them fail their classes, but they can repeat a failed course so that the F does not count in their G.P.A.s. So they are paying for some courses two or three times, enriching the university. Many of them drop out, though often well after they should have, with substantial debt and no degree.

My colleagues wind up flunking a distressingly large proportion of their students. Others, to avoid that, simply give everybody passing grades for just showing up to class, or they teach what they no longer regard as legitimately “college level” courses, thereby shortchanging the students who wanted, expected to get and would benefit from a college-level education. The administration’s answer to the problem is for the faculty to give weak students more help. That is not possible given the high number of unprepared students. And most students either are not motivated enough or lack the time to come to faculty office hours. What is an ethical strategy for a faculty member in this situation? I used to love teaching. I now simply don’t know what I should be trying to do. Name Withheld

My response: You asked a broad question: what one person can do in a system whose goals he or she disagrees with. My main answer is to look at what I did with my podcast, which is a similar situation—I disagree with the goals of our mainstream system in how it regards and treats the environment. I find a way to act that I believe will help more than anything else I can do. I’ve only just started.

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.

What should you do? For such a broad question I can only give a broad answer. I recommend:

  1. Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
  2. Figuring what skills you have and can create
  3. Creating as many options as you can
  4. Considering what outcomes each option will result in
  5. Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
  6. Implement the option you like most
  7. Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise

The New York Times response:

Basic questions about the purpose of higher education are at stake here. Going to college improves your life prospects in two ways. One is by giving you a liberal education that allows you to appreciate what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.” This is worthwhile whether or not it helps you (as it well may) earn a living. A second way that college helps you is by providing training and credentials for a life of work. At some colleges, one of these benefits may be emphasized over the other, but it’s a virtue of our system of higher education that it assumes these two rewards to be interconnected. Someone who is aware only that a diploma can be helpful in the job market is going to miss a large part of the point of a college education.

It isn’t snobbish to think that a life in which you are in touch with the best thinking in the humanities and sciences is better than a life without those experiences. Indeed, what’s snobbish is to reserve these goods for the few. Liberalis in Latin means “suitable for a free person”: The liberal arts once implied a contrast between the free and the unfree — slaves, serfs, the dependent “lower orders.” Today an education suited for a free person is an education that helps each of us exercise the responsibility of making a worthwhile life.

This ideal of a liberal education is profoundly democratic, aiming at enlarging the possibilities and the contributions of the largest possible number of people. It’s good news that there are more first-generation college students than there used to be. Such an education enables and encourages people to be capable citizens, better able to evaluate the arguments that circulate in public life and better positioned to take the obligations of citizenship seriously.

But all these benefits depend on students’ being prepared for the courses they take and their being engaged with them in a serious way. The value of education comes not from their mere physical presence in the classroom or the lab or the library but from their doing course work as well as they can. If students aren’t prepared, if they don’t have the right motivations, if they don’t have the necessary time or resources for study, or if professors don’t have the time to give them the attention they need, the value of a college education is diminished.

Where do you come in? Our obligations to make the world better are limited by a simple principle: What we owe is only our fair share of the burden of securing for others what they are owed. What has gone wrong at your university won’t be set right by anything that can reasonably be expected of you. But there are a couple of things that are within your professional responsibility. One is to do the best that you can for your own students. Another is to urge your colleagues — through departmental and faculty-senate discussions and through all the other channels which your university reflects on its policies — to discuss the problems you have identified and come up with ways of improving the situation. Who knows? Maybe having those conversations — with students as well as colleagues — will revive your love of teaching.

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2 responses on “The Ethicist: Should I Tell My Siblings About Mom’s Affair?

  1. Brilliant and well thought-out take on complex issues. I really appreciate these perspectives

    • Thank you. If you read a lot of my Ethicist posts, you’ll notice that I’ve discovered that a modest number of responses apply to a surprising number of questions. Approaching ethics from a practical standpoint seems to handle more issues more effectively than labels and abstract, academic analysis, at least for me.

      I didn’t expect to find that result. It came from answering many questions, not to gain readers but to help the writers resolve their situations and improve their lives.

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