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

November 5, 2017 by Joshua
in Ethicist

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, here is my take on today’s post, “Can I Turn In a Bad Fraternity at My Son’s College?

My son is on his college football team. Most of the football team is in a fraternity known for its boorishness; it prides itself on disparaging other frats and behaving badly. My son wisely chose not to join it, opting instead for a fraternity that appears to be serious about teaching ethical behavior to its members.

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. He also quit the fraternity and joined my son’s fraternity.

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. He is worried about the reactions of his former brothers.

I understand his concern, but I think the chancellor needs to know, so that he has a chance to correct the situation.

I am debating sending an anonymous letter or arranging to meet with the chancellor in person. This is a prestigious university. I am sure administrators would not want this happening on their watch. In addition, this behavior gives football and frats a bad name, not to mention depriving the football team of a great athlete and depriving that athlete of the game. What should I do? Name Withheld

My response: Again with a question I can only characterize as juvenile: “What should I do?” I can understand a child too young to figure out for him or herself asking a parent. This writer is a parent.

Based on what you wrote, if you believe that “the chancellor needs to know,” then if no one else will tell, then you need to. But then why did you ask if your answer is so clear?

I suspect you aren’t so sure. Ultimately, only you know your values and what you think is right or wrong for yourself. There’s no absolute right answer. If everyone who knows what you do isn’t telling the chancellor, their behavior says they disagree.

I also suspect you’re asking to absolve yourself of responsibility if you create an outcome you don’t like: “But the New York Times said I should do it!” Taking more personal responsibility will raise the stakes for you, which may sound like something you don’t want, but I think will help you develop beyond asking “What should I do?”.

What should you do? 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:

You face one of the dilemmas that trouble many of those who write to me. You have some information that would allow someone to do something good, but it came to you from someone who has asked that it not be passed on. You know that the affected student doesn’t want anyone to know what happened to him. Although you didn’t promise confidentiality, you learned about it from someone who is, presumably, bound by it, and he told you as your son, which is also a relationship within which privacy is an important value. There are considerations in favor of keeping quiet.

But they’re surely outweighed by the fact that the behavior in question was extremely foolish and dangerous and could well continue unless the fraternity is reined in. You ought to tell your son what you decide to do first, however, and you ought to allow him to make the case against your decision. Suppose he doesn’t want the victim to know that he told you; this will figure into whether he can also seek permission from his teammate. If, after all these conversations, you judge that it’s still important to tell the chancellor, try to do so in a way that offers as much protection as possible for the victim. He has already suffered a great deal.


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. He has been staying with my parents since then. His depression is severe, requiring multiple treatments.

He traveled to Southeast Asia and met a much younger man, with whom he fell in love. He returned to Asia repeatedly in the past year, and each time, 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. My father believes that his depression must be “situational” (is there such a thing?), because he is outgoing and life-loving while abroad but sleeps 23 hours a day here in the United States. He is bound to save up to return to Asia, this time without the hope of the shady boyfriend appearing. 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? Name Withheld

My response: Two options is all you can come up with—do nothing or stop him?

People without experience see things as binary. Experience reveals nuance and subtlety. I’d work on developing my social and emotional skills to learn to see and create more options.

I’m also thinking about reusing my list of things to do instead of asking abstract questions like what’s moral and loving that 7 billion people will answer in 7 billion ways. Here’s that list again since it applies here. I figure I’ll refine it in time. It still applies as-is:

  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:

I have no psychiatric training, and even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to offer a diagnosis on the basis of the information you’ve provided. Your relative’s reckless decisions, as well as his current condition, I’ll grant, suggest that he’s struggling with mental-health issues. Within these constraints, however, there is a common-sense way of describing his situation. The end of a loving long-term relationship is sad. So is being betrayed by someone you thought was in love with you. So is losing your money, your house and your career. I’d have thought it would be a sign of a mental disorder not to be unhappy in these circumstances. The fact that he was life-loving when he was in Southeast Asia with his boyfriend fits with this natural way of describing things. There, he had — or thought he had — things to be happy about.

His experience in Southeast Asia has a natural common-sense description too. A younger person exploited the sexual interest of an older, richer American. If your relative returns to Southeast Asia, someone may well try to exploit him in these ways again. This time, however, he’ll be less attractive as a mark, because he no longer has the money he used to have. Many Europeans and North Americans travel to Southeast Asia as sex tourists, and, against that background, the chances that he’ll find a loving partner aren’t good. Whatever you think about the morality of the sex industry, it sets up a situation in which the exploitation of one party by another is a likely outcome. Looking for sex is one thing; looking for love is another.

Part of the trouble, surely, is the fact that the loss of both his love life and his work life (the first precipitating the second) has left him with nothing that engages him. Despair can have consequences that deepen despair. His life here feels empty. Looking for a new lover overseas — where the little money he has will go a great deal further than it does in the United States — offers him hope that he’ll find a meaningful relationship. (He may also be one of those people who are happier in sunnier climates.) Although, as I say, the chances of success would seem slim, I can see why, in his circumstances, he sees it as the only worthwhile option.

But your question is what you and your parents should do. I’d say that you should talk to your relative about all this and try to help him think through his choices. You’re already involved in his life — he lives with your parents — and his melancholy presence in their lives and his acceptance of their very substantial assistance means that he can’t reasonably refuse this intervention. It’s possible that he hides out at home in part to avoid such discussions. That isn’t helping him, and nobody would recommend sleeping all day as a solution to depression. Helping friends or family members see their own situation more clearly is one of the gifts of love.

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