The Ethicist: What Do I Owe My Sociopathic Sibling?

July 7, 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 “What Do I Owe My Sociopathic Sibling?”.

My sibling, who is my only living relative, is currently incarcerated. The crimes committed were quite serious, involving major breaches of trust but not violence.

After having been imprisoned for about a decade, my sibling may be released soon.

Because of a substantial difference in our ages, we did not grow up together. As adults, we lived in different cities. Once our parents were gone, we were not part of each other’s lives. At the time of the arrest I hadn’t seen my sibling in years and learned of what happened from television news accounts.

If released, my sibling will be destitute, divorced, childless and most likely without friends. By contrast, I have had a successful career and fulfilling personal relationships. While hugely embarrassing, my sibling’s conduct did not affect my own reputation. I am now retired with savings that are sufficient for my needs, but my retirement planning never anticipated support for an unexpected dependent. Any estate remaining upon my death has been pledged to scholarship funds at my undergraduate and graduate school alma maters.

I have no positive feelings toward my sibling and I have no interest in beginning a relationship now. Experts whom I have consulted have described my sibling as sociopathic. Am I ethically obligated to provide for my sibling upon release? Should the answer depend upon whether assistance is requested? Name Withheld

My response: 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.

You ask what’s ethical. Since everyone has different values, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on. Labeling something doesn’t change your situation. You probably want to resolve it more than label it. I suggest that more than a New York Times columnist labeling something for you, you’d benefit from developing the social and emotional skills to resolve the situation and improve your emotional well-being. You’ll lose the excuse to say, “But the New York Times told me to” but gain the ability to resolve these inevitable parts of life without needing others’ help. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. Experience is the best way to learn these things, I’ve found, as have millions of others. I recommend accepting the missteps you’ll make, looking at them as learning experiences, and using them to learn and grow.

The New York Times response:

There are two rather different views about the source of our obligations to our siblings. One is that they derive from the relationships we have with them. The other is that they derive from the mere fact of kinship. (Here, there is a further divide between those who think that it is the biological relationship that matters and those who think that adoptive kin have the same standing as biological kin.) In the standard case of a biological sibling, these views coincide: You have a relationship, typically one of some intimacy, and you have a kin connection, which inscribes you within a family.

In your case, as you describe it, your relationship with your sibling would provide a very thin foundation for obligations. On the first view, then, there’d be little basis for your sibling’s calling on you for help. But a sibling is a sibling, relationship or no. So, on the second view, your sibling would have a basis for asking for assistance. Which view is more credible?

The relationship view doesn’t fit with some of our intuitions about these things. For one thing, we typically think that close relatives can call on us even if we have terrible relationships with them, so it looks as if the quality of the relationship doesn’t matter. That’s odd. But the other view, where the brute fact of kinship is what matters, has some odd features, too. It appears to saddle us with special obligations to people with whom we have no more social connection than we have with most strangers.

Still, you don’t really need to pick your theory here. I’m guessing you wrote to me because you think that your sibling has a prima facie claim on you. I take it that if your sibling had lived an exemplary life, still far away and with little social connection to you, and now needed help because, through no fault of his or her own, your sibling had lost a means of support, you would feel inclined to do something. So, I infer, what matters most in your thinking here is, first, that your sibling is someone whose past behavior you deplore and, second, that you suspect your sibling of being a sociopath who cannot be trusted.

An argument could be made, in the abstract, that sociopathy is a disability for which someone should be pitied, that sociopathic behavior is a symptom that should be explained rather than a vice someone can be held responsible for. But that’s not how our thinking about moral responsibility works. We resent the bad conduct of sociopathic people and blame them for it. That’s your attitude toward your sibling. At the same time, you recognize that your sibling is a human being, with needs.

In a society with a serious commitment to reintegrating released offenders, as in much of Western Europe, you could leave it to government institutions to see that your sibling got a chance to spend the rest of his or her life with basic needs met. Your sibling’s prospects are probably worse here in the United States. Still, there are organizations that aim to help ex-prisoners with life on the outside, and your sibling has as good a shot as most at being able to take advantage of them.

Everyone has reason to hope that those who have, as we say, paid their debt to society will be reintegrated. The fact that this person is your sibling gives you a special, personal reason to hope he or she will be able to work his or her way back into society. But you are not obliged to put your own resources into that effort, and you could reasonably leave your sibling to fend for him- or herself. You haven’t had and don’t want a relationship. After all these years, maintaining this remove is your right.

But what if your sibling asked for help? That you recognize there is some prima facie claim on you means you would owe it to him or her to meet and discuss the situation. It would then be your sibling’s job to persuade you that more is deserved. And if it were your educated belief that your sibling remained unreformed, you’d have reason to make it plain that, family ties aside, your sibling has lost the right to your assistance.

I am a professional who has experienced severe job dissatisfaction over the last few years, trying out a few positions only to find myself disappointed. This year, I finally found a job that is a good fit. However, I have recently become suspicious that the boss is billing for services not provided. Can I ethically stay at this job? The suspicion alone has put a damper on my enthusiasm, and I am keeping an eye open for other opportunities, but should I speed up my departure? If I find proof of fraud, does that mean I absolutely cannot stay? Name Withheld

My response: I recommend not looking at the situation as having only two options—staying or going. 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:

Pulling out of your job because your boss is corrupt does little more than keep your own reputation free of taint by association. The real problem isn’t that you may be indirectly associated with wrongdoing; the real problem is that wrongdoing may be going on. If you ever have sufficient evidence to establish this, you could send it to the relevant authorities and try to prompt an investigation, or you could alert the victims. When all you have are suspicions, though, abandoning a job you like in a world where those are hard to come by imposes costs on you without improving the overall situation. The best reason for your decision to keep your eyes open for other opportunities is that you might be happier elsewhere.

Recently, I was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, P.S.C., a rare liver disease related to an existing condition.

After being dumped by my girlfriend because of this new diagnosis, how can I move forward in the dating world as someone in their 20s or 30s? On the one hand, I see what happened in my recent relationship as a sign that maybe I am not worthy of a family or love. On the other hand, the medical issues I show no symptoms, and I live a normal life, thus giving me the appearance that I am “normal.” Is it ethical to date, in our modern dating-app-based society, with such serious conditions? How can I honestly start a relationship if someone might see me as normal but I know my insides are not? Name Withheld

My response: 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.

Besides the problem you describe, you say you see yourself as unworthy and not normal, likely creating emotions you don’t like. You can manage how you see yourself and 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:

Are you sure that’s why your girlfriend dumped you? If so, this clearly wasn’t a committed relationship in the first place. As the Shakespeare sonnet tells us, “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.”

Primary sclerosing cholangitis, on the other hand, is an inconstant thing. The disease, which causes the bile ducts to scar up, follows a highly variable and unpredictable course. Some people who have P.C.S. will die with it, not of it; it tends to progress slowly and can be “clinically silent” for years. For many patients, it means a shorter life span, although a liver transplant is often curative (and we can’t rule out a future medical breakthrough that allows for effective treatment).

But you’re not reducible to your condition. Should you disclose your diagnosis to a potential mate? Yes, though not necessarily on the first date. But having a serious medical condition doesn’t make you unfit or unqualified for a rich and fulfilling life. P.S.C. has many painful consequences; celibacy doesn’t have to be one of them.

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