The Ethicist: Do I Tell My Father That My Brother Might Not Be His Son?

December 2, 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 “Do I Tell My Father That My Brother Might Not Be His Son?”.

I am the executor of my father’s will. He is 82 years old and frail, and lately I have been troubled by a question. My brother may not be his child, and my mother and siblings all know this (including the brother in question), but my father does not. My parents are divorced and not on good terms. My mother is fairly sure that my brother is not my father’s child, but a DNA test would have to be done to be certain. If my brother is not my father’s child, does my dad deserve to know this before he dies? Name Withheld

My response: You ask what he “deserves.” Since everyone has different values, “deserves” is 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 he deserves. 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.

You didn’t as about the legality of the will, which would be a professional question for a lawyer.

The New York Times response:

There is something disrespectful to your father in the family conspiracy to keep him in the dark about your brother’s suspected paternity. Unfortunately, that affront can’t now be undone, especially if you’ve known for some time. You may think that the pain the revelation might give your father would be a strong-enough reason to let him go to his grave in ignorance. I’m inclined to doubt it — in important matters, we usually do best by defaulting to the truth — though you’ll naturally take into consideration your sense of just how frail, physically and otherwise, your father really is.

Do you mention your role as your father’s executor because you suspect he might change his will if he knew that your brother was, in fact, your half brother? If that’s the situation, your brother might be reluctant to agree to a DNA test. Either way, he may not want to risk unsettling his relationship with the only father he has known. Still, having lived all these years with a paternal relation to your brother, your father surely has feelings for him that would survive the discovery: It’s not, after all, your brother’s fault that your mother was unfaithful. But people’s feelings about these things are hard to predict. A DNA test, should your brother consent to one, would provide only one kind of certainty. There may be other discoveries in store. For one thing, you should be prepared to learn that your father isn’t as unaware as you imagine.

I am a medical student who has mitigated my student-loan debt by attending school on a scholarship and by living with my parents, who are kind enough to take me in without rent. I’m really thankful for their generosity; it’s helped me avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt that other medical students must incur. I still have to borrow money for various odds and ends, but it’s insignificant compared to what I’m saving living at home, about $25,000 per year.

Meanwhile, my sister is pursuing a Ph.D. in a city hundreds of miles away. Like that of most Ph.D. students, her tuition is comped by the school in exchange for administrative assistance, but she lives on a very meager stipend barely above the federal poverty line. She does not go out to eat or otherwise indulge; in fact, she has several health issues and finds herself choosing which provider she can do without each month. She does well academically but is miserable outside of school. She applied for a federal student loan but was recently turned away.

Her struggle is not unusual for graduate students in this country; however, I find myself possibly able to help her. My parents, who provided everything we needed growing up and are well off, are unwilling to help her right now. I would like to share a fraction of the money I’m saving with her. I’m thinking of sending her about $4,000 per year for her remaining four years of school.

My difficulty is that any money I “have” doesn’t belong to me: It would come from student loans. Funding a relative’s living expenses is not an approved use of the loan money, even if other students use these loans for unnecessary expenses, like summer vacations. I am happy to accept the additional loan burden to help my sister. Doing so technically violates the terms of my loan, but I feel obligated to help her. What do you think? My ethical obligation here conflicts with my moral obligation, in my view. Name Withheld

My response: You seem concerned with 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.

Signing a contract tells people you’ll do something and that they can count on you. To credit you money—from the root meaning trust—means they trust you. If you break your word and get away with it, no problem. If you don’t, you’ll have to deal with the consequences. Your credit report, if affected, may tell the world to trust you less, which may make life difficult, especially buying a home or car. If you’re comfortable with the possible results of your actions, you’ll feel comfortable doing them.

In short: Don’t the crime if you can’t do the time.

The New York Times response:

You describe the conflict as between ethical and moral obligations. For better or worse, there’s no one standard distinction that’s marked by these two words. “Ethics” has a Greek etymology; Aristotle used the Greek word to cover the study of the question what it is to live well. “Moral” comes from a Latin term that seems to have been introduced to translate the Greek one. In modern philosophical usage, “morality” is sometimes used to refer to considerations having to do with how people should treat one another, “ethics” to cover not just such moral considerations but also others that have to do with human flourishing, with living a good life. In this usage (which I’ve often found helpful), morality is a part of ethics. What you seem to have in mind is a contrast between what you owe to the rules — the ones governing the loan — and what you owe to your sister. Whatever you decide to do for your sister, however, will not be a matter of obligation: It will be the act of a generous and supportive sibling.

In general, you ought to keep your promises, and a loan agreement involves a promise to keep its terms. It obligates you. If the terms are in some way immoral — exploitative, say — there might be a moral case for ignoring them. But the sort of restriction you mention seems perfectly reasonable: Your letter implies that, in making the loan to you, your lender intended that the money be used to pay expenses you incur while in medical school. If you can afford to send $4,000 a year to your sibling, you don’t need the money for that.

Even acknowledging that promise-keeping and honesty are virtues, you could object that kindness and generosity are virtues, too. Here you have the choice of fulfilling the second set of virtues at a — small? — detriment to the first. Socrates and Aristotle each articulated a doctrine known as “the unity of the virtues,” which seemed to suggest that tensions of this sort among genuine virtues were not possible. Whatever the right interpretation of their teachings, cases like this suggest that such tensions are, in fact, quite real.

There might be an indirect way of achieving the effect you want here that is in keeping with the rules. (I’m putting aside possible tax consequences, which is a matter to discuss with a lawyer or an accountant.) Your parents are not currently charging you for your housing. You could ask them to consider accepting $4,000 a year in rent for you — an allowable expenditure, it would seem, under the terms of your institutional loan — and passing it on to your sister. This arrangement might, in some sense, be violating the spirit of the loan, but your moral obligation is to comply with the letter.

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