The Ethicist: Can I Cut Off a Relative With Hateful Views?

January 20, 2019 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 “Can I Cut Off a Relative With Hateful Views?”.

My sister divorced her husband years ago. Until recently, we remained on friendly terms with my former brother-in-law, socializing at family events he hosted and exchanging holiday gifts. Lately he has become so radical in his political and world views that I am no longer comfortable maintaining a relationship. He has a blog and is an occasional radio host, so his are very public opinions that are filled with hate and even calls to violent action. I find this horrifying, and I am firmly in the category of people he is calling for violence against, along with most of my family. This is more than simply differing ideologies. (I do not believe he is a physical danger. I believe he needs help, the way Alex Jones needs help.)

My question is this: Do I tell him that his behavior offends me and I wish to cut off contact, or do I simply decline invitations and cease sending gifts? Is one behavior more ethical than the other? 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.

I recommend a different perspective than asking what others think you should do. There are many choices you can make where you don’t know all the possible outcomes, who will like the results, who might get hurt, and so on. I think of it like looking down a ski slope that splits, the paths diverge so you can’t either past the first part, and you have to choose. Or choosing which wave to surf.

When you can never know all the information you wish you could but still have to choose or risk standing in the cold while others pass you by, in life or on the slopes, the best I can think to do is to know that whichever you choose, you’ll enjoy it or live it the best you can, and that you’ll take responsibility for making it work. Also not to judge your choice based on information or experience that came after you chose but couldn’t have known at the time.

The New York Times response: One reflection of our country’s toxic partisanship is that families may now find dinner-table conversations about politics impossible. Yet if people can’t talk about the things that divide us with their families — where there’s a background assumption that you should try to stick together even when you disagree — you’ve got to wonder where they can. So I’d be inclined to have a go at talking to this fellow about his noxious opinions, letting him know what you think. If most of his political discussions are in the echo chamber of social media and on a right-wing radio station, you and your family may be the only fellow citizens of his who have a chance to make him consider other points of view. Supposing that he doesn’t respond reasonably — the likeliest outcome, no doubt — you can tell him that you’re breaking off with him, and he’ll know your reasons. But at least you’ll have treated him respectfully, both as someone you had a family connection with and as a fellow American citizen.

Seeing him as “needing help,” though, suggests that you think he’s mentally ill. Of course, it’s possible that he is. But his views may have just been heightened by the extreme rhetoric that circulates in social media nowadays. If that’s the case, it’s not him individually but our civic culture that’s in need of help. Casting a social phenomenon as an individual pathology is a perilous temptation. (You can see it in the movement now afoot to medicalize racism as a mental disorder.) In crazy times, you can have crazy views without being insane.

Like family members, fellow citizens in a democracy have to be committed to trying to work things out, because we are supposed to be running the republic together. Abandon that precept, and you undermine the moral basis of our common American citizenship. Your ex-in-law, in his hate-mongering, has done so. Your first response should be to try to uphold it.


Since graduating from college in 2013, I have been paying off my student loans. My payment plan has been level, and I pay the same amount every month. This past month, there was $10,000 credited to my account. I examined my checking account to confirm that I hadn’t accidentally overdrafted it; I hadn’t. Do I have any obligation to inform the loan collector of this mistake? For obvious reasons, I’m hesitant to get in touch with them, but I’m also worried that this could eventually come back to me, plus interest. Should I inquire and hope the loan collector doesn’t undo this surprising mistake? Name Withheld

My response: “What should I do?” … Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

Anyway, the money is not yours and you know it. The golden rule of do unto others seems to apply.

The New York Times response: Yes, do inquire. You could discover that the credit was intentional and you’re entitled to it guilt-free. Worst case, you owe exactly what you thought you owed. But it’s wrong to take advantage of what you believe to be an error. Despite that slightly worrying observation that you’re hesitant to get in touch with the loan collector “for obvious reasons,” you’re writing because you’re troubled by the situation you find yourself in. You’re basically an honest person. Best to stay that way.


I live in a two-story apartment building in Toronto. The building is old, and the ceilings are quite thin. I have always heard the footsteps of my upstairs neighbors, a family of three with a husband, a wife and one son. Recently, over the course of a week, I heard loud intercourse through my ceiling. The woman’s moans were hard to ignore. It got to the point where I decided to text the wife at 12:30 a.m. when the moans were disturbing my sleep: “Please be aware we have thin ceilings. Thank you.” The following morning I got a response saying that she was out of town, apologizing for the noise and indicating that she would pass on the message to her husband. The wife was out of town, yet I heard sex, crazy loud sex. It hit me: Her husband was sleeping with another woman. Should I tell the wife what I heard and expose the cheater, or do I let him get away with his immoral actions? Do I withhold this life-changing, potentially marriage-ending secret, even though it seems wrong not to inform her of his wrongdoings? Name Withheld

My response: “What should I do?” … Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

If you’re going to do something that involves others, involving them in the process generally helps. I would talk to the husband and find out his story first. There are possible explanations you can’t imagine. Talking to him doesn’t restrict you from talking to her.

The New York Times response: You don’t say anything about your relationship with your upstairs neighbors. If she were your close friend and he wasn’t, you would clearly have greater responsibilities to her than to him. Friendship should lead you to tell her, even though the discovery might disturb her greatly; otherwise you’d be betraying a relationship of trust by keeping her in the dark. If they’re both your friends, you might feel torn. But if they’re merely acquaintances, as appears to be the case, you might prefer to stay out of it. You’d have no special obligations to either of them, after all.

For all you know, they have an open marriage, and the wife, in alerting her husband to the noise complaint, was aware of the activity if not its amplitude. Even if it is the sort of marriage-threatening misbehavior you take it to be, you’re not required to be an informant. Conversely, you’d be perfectly within your rights to share what you think you heard. Just bear in mind that doing so might create a ruckus of another sort.


I am in my mid-70s and have been happily married to my second husband for 40 years. When I was in college, I met a young man who was smart and funny. We each had difficult childhoods and were lonely. Our loneliness drew us together, and ultimately we fell in love and married. I was too immature and confused and should not have married, but for all intents and purposes, we were happy. He was a good person and treated me well.

We were married for a little over two years when I decided that I did not want to be married anymore. I really blindsided him, literally walking into our apartment one day and saying that I wanted to leave him. He was surprised and hurt but did not pressure me to stay. I told him it might not be permanent, and we stayed friends for a while, and it was during this period that, I realize in retrospect, I treated him especially badly.

For a long time I have felt that I would like to apologize. He didn’t deserve the pain that I caused him. The breakup was not due to anything he did or didn’t do. It was all me. Because he has a public presence, I know how to reach him, but I am concerned that an apology after all these years would not be appropriate. It might cause him more pain, and I certainly don’t want that.

Is an apology always the ethical choice? Given that I have no contact with anyone from that period in my life, I have no way of knowing how he might feel about hearing from me. 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.

You sound like you feel guilty/anxious/angry/other emotion you don’t like. You sound like you want to apologize to help yourself, not him, since you don’t know how it will affect him. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

The New York Times response: Apologies are centrally about repairing relationships. You may think it’s very unlikely that this man will want to re-establish the relationship, and if that’s so, the only serious effect of the apology will be to cause him whatever distress might come from revisiting a painful episode or whatever relief might come from your “it’s not you, it’s me” assurances. Neither the fact that, in some sense, you owe him an apology nor the fact that apologizing might make you feel better settles the matter of what you should do. In short, the answer to your question is: No, apology isn’t always the ethical choice. When an apology from the remote past would simply unearth anguished memories, the right choice may be reticence.

Read my weekly newsletter

Lsbs book

Subscribe for a weekly update of musings on leadership, the environment, and burpees.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Sign up for my weekly newsletter