Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Can I Lie to My Father About Being Gay So He Will Pay for My College Education?”
I am a young gay man in college. My father generously pays for my tuition and rent. The problem is that he does not know I am gay. He has made it very clear that if I were, he would not only withdraw all financial support but also cast himself entirely out of my life. His suspicion arose in high school when he found love letters between me and another male student. I swore they were meaningless and have since been defending my heterosexuality. Questions about my sexuality are inevitable whenever I come home. My father has demanded I produce archives of all emails and text messages for him to review, although I have successfully refused these requests on the grounds that he has no claim to my adult communications. Is it ethical for me to continue accepting financial support for my education and my career that will come from it? Could I continue to lie to accept the support and one day disclose my sexuality and pay him back to absolve myself of any ethical wrongdoing? NAME WITHHELD
My response: You’re asking if it’s ethical, but I suggest that what matters is the consequences of your behavior on others. What is calling something ethical or not but a label? Or someone else’s opinion? If someone says it’s ethical but you consider it unethical, will you start doing it? Or vice versa?
Aren’t you more concerned about how your father will respond than how three columnists for the New York Times label your behavior? I suspect you’re writing so they’ll say the behavior you want is ethical so you can seize some high ground on your father with a higher authority. Do you expect you can pull rank on him and he’ll fall in line? I suspect that strategy would create resentment more than compliance.
Your second question—could you lie—is blatantly obvious to anyone. Of course you can say what you want. Again, the question is the consequences. And not just whether someone will call you ethical or not but how your father reacts. Say everyone in the world says you behaved ethically except your father and he disowned you. Would it matter that everyone backed you up?
I recommend focusing on your behavior and its consequences, not labels from third parties who don’t even know you.
Once you get past the labels and opinions you asked about, I would suggest you think about your options and creating new ones for mutual gain. You have many more options than the two you mention—telling him now or telling him later. It’s what many call a false dichotomy. Create more options. I wrote about this topic in “Business school’s first major lesson: how to resolve ethical dilemmas.”
The New York Times response:
Amy Bloom: It’s terrible that it should be so hard to get a college education in this country without accumulating massive debt. But what’s happening here is an issue not just of finances but of a real wish on the part of the father to control and bully his son. The fact that the father demands that the son produce archives of all emails and text messages for him to review? That’s just abuse. That’s not about money, and it may not even necessarily be about his being gay. If there were no questions, you could say nothing about your private life and your sexuality.
Lots of people keep these things from their parents, and you can do that in a completely honorable way. The letter writer can, in his position of dependency, lie to his father and know that although he is not taking the bravest or most admirable stance, his lying is understandable. You can certainly forgive yourself for the lying in this circumstance and maybe be mindful of the fact that this will not last and that you won’t have to keep lying.
Kwame Anthony Appiah: It is important, given the general way in which college education is funded in our society, not to think of the parental support here as a kind of free gift that the parent is entitled to withdraw on any basis. Basically, a responsible parent who has the resources has an obligation to provide his fair share after financial aid and contributions from the kid based on his work and so on.
I don’t think that the parent has a right to threaten to withdraw support for any reason except a failure to be serious about college. If you know that if you tell him the truth, he’ll treat you in a way he ought not to treat you, then that’s a circumstance in which a lie — while it continues to be a bad thing — is permissible, given that the consequence of telling the truth will be that somebody else will behave quite impermissibly toward you.
Not only is this young man entitled to conceal the truth from his father, but he doesn’t owe him a repayment later when he can afford it. Threatening not to do your duty if your son turns out to be gay — which is, after all, something over which he has absolutely no control — is awful in many ways. The fact that he would fail to discharge his obligation to pay his fair share if the son told the truth is a reason not to tell him the truth.
Kenji Yoshino: Yes, I agree with both of you. The father is behaving unethically, given that his support is accompanied by the demand that the letter writer change something that is not susceptible to change. So the question is how to conduct yourself ethically when a person with power over you is not doing so.
I do have a concrete answer here. I would encourage the letter writer to contact the Point Foundation. The foundation was created in 2001 to offer educational scholarships to L.G.B.T.Q. students, who are doing well in school, precisely to deal with this kind of situation. In a sense, the organization has ethically anticipated the letter writer’s dilemma.
Bloom: Calling attention to the Point Foundation is probably one of the most useful things we’ve ever been able to do. There’s nothing healthy or self-affirming in having to constantly lie to a bullying, homophobic father, so the possibility of having the son’s college education funded by the Point Foundation might be a much better solution.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees