Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should You Tell a Man’s Fiancée That He Faked His Degrees?

October 23, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Should You Tell a Man’s Fiancée That He Faked His Degrees?


A few years ago, I realized that a close friend was misrepresenting himself professionally as having multiple graduate degrees that he did not actually earn. When I confronted him in a compassionate way, he denied it, but could offer no evidence to the contrary. We have fallen out of touch, but he is now engaged to a woman I know. We have several mutual friends. I want nothing to do with this guy and have done my best to forget about his deception, but if I were his fiancée, I would certainly want to know. Thoughts? Name Withheld

My response: I’m glad you didn’t ask what’s right, ethical, or any other label.

As for my thoughts, I generally think of what I would do and why. The main issues I see are what ways you could act or not, and the results to the people involved. If I were her, I’d want to know, so by the Golden Rule, I’d be inclined to tell her. If you didn’t say you wanted nothing to do with him, I would avoid surprising him by telling him first of your intent to tell her, giving him the option to tell her himself. Actually, telling her first will likely lead to him learning you intervened and bring him back into your life.

So I’d stick with that plan: I’d tell him I was going to tell her, giving him the option to tell her first.

I’ve he’s a vengeful man, I might not do anything. She’s an adult and responsible for her actions.

Those are my main thoughts. Also that if I were you, I wouldn’t lose sleep over the issue.

The New York Times response:

Your worry that this woman could be marrying a con artist is a legitimate one. You have no obligation to keep this information to yourself, since you didn’t get it from the man in question or commit to keeping it a secret. But — given that love is blind, or at least visually impaired — don’t assume she’ll be grateful for the information. She may go ahead anyway, and then you won’t be seeing much of either of them.

Suppose you didn’t tell her, though, and she ended up having to deal with the consequences of his deceptions or, worse, became the victim of them. You’d correctly feel you had let her down. If she learned you had kept her in the dark, she’d have a right to feel that way, too.

A friend of my daughter’s confided to her mother, about 18 months ago, that she thought my daughter had a serious drug problem. She asked her mother to keep this in confidence, as her mother and I are friends.

Recently, this mother told me of her daughter’s suspicions. When I asked her why she had withheld from me such important information, which might even prevent my daughter’s death, she told me she was being loyal to her daughter — but now that her daughter and mine had grown apart, she no longer felt bound by that obligation and wanted to get this off her chest.

I am very upset by this for several reasons: that my daughter could be in jeopardy and so much time has passed; that I cannot trust this friend to be honest with me about such a serious issue; and that her concern was for herself and releasing her sense of guilt. Name Withheld

My response: Thanks for sharing!

You didn’t ask any questions so I don’t have much to say except I hope things work out for you.

The New York Times response:

It’s possible to make sense of your friend’s decisions. Her daughter told her something in confidence, and there was a good reason to respect that request. We should ordinarily respect confidences, but beyond that, family relationships are built around the sort of trust that breaking those confidences obviously undermines. By insisting on confidentiality, her daughter was protecting her own relationship with your daughter, who would, no doubt, have been angry if she discovered that she had been betrayed to you. So her mother could see the request had a serious basis.

Of course, there are considerations that weigh against keeping a confidence, and one of them is the possibility that breaking it might save a life. Even then, however, the right place to start would have been for your friend to ask her daughter’s permission. In lieu of seeking this permission, your friend decided that her daughter no longer had a reason to want to keep the information from you. That, I take it, is why she said that the end of the friendship between your daughters meant she no longer felt obliged to keep the confidence. Still, when you need someone’s consent, you should ask for it, not decide that they have no reason to deny it to you.

How serious would the danger have to be to outweigh obligations of confidentiality? That’s a difficult judgment. Your friend probably didn’t have grounds for deciding how much danger your daughter was in. That she did tell you once she felt she could — and that she felt considerable relief in doing so — suggests that in her own view, the danger was serious. If that’s so, she should have sought permission to tell you once she feared your daughter’s health was in serious danger. But her knowledge that you would have wanted to know what she knew was not by itself a reason to break her word to her daughter. Friendship doesn’t excuse us from our obligations to others, especially our families.

A friend of mine is an instructor at a local university. A few years ago he told me about a sexual relationship he was having with a student of his. I warned him of the myriad dangers of this, of which he was already aware, of course, but the relationship continued for a few months. Recently, this friend’s wife (he is newly married) discovered he was having an affair with a different student. His wife found out through an anonymous tip and confronted him with the evidence she uncovered; he confessed and went to “sex addiction” counseling.

I suspect that this isn’t just the second student he has had an affair with. But two is still enough. I have considered anonymously reporting this to the dean and asking the administration to consider looking into the matter. I am disgusted to think any young college student would be caught up with a manipulating college instructor like this.

The person who tipped off the wife said that he was a predator. I’ve known him for many years and have witnessed his predatory behavior toward conquests. I believe the student would tell the dean about what happened if prompted. Am I ethically obligated to say something? Name Withheld

My response: Questions about ethical obligations are questions about opinions. What do you think for yourself? You have to live with your choices and actions.

I suspect you’re asking the New York Times so you can defer to its authority: “I didn’t want to tell, but the New York Times said I was ethically obliged!” I recommend searching within yourself and answering for yourself. No one else has to live with your choices and actions. You do.

You can figure this out for yourself. You’ll be glad you did, especially when you face comparable challenges in the future and don’t feel you have to write newspaper columnists again.

The New York Times response:

If you were a staff member at the university where all this went on, you might have a legal duty to report what you know to the Title IX coordinator on the campus, depending on your position there and whether the university receives federal funding. If you are not on the university’s staff, however, you will have to be guided by moral rather than legal concerns. One concern has to do with your putative friendship with this man. You have seen him do similar things over the years and have remained his friend, at least by self-description. If you learned all this from him as a friend, I don’t think you can betray him to the authorities unless you believe he poses an imminent threat to another student. But if your relationship, such as it is, is to continue, you need to let him know, if you haven’t already, that you think he is seriously in the wrong.

A second concern has to do with your relations to the other parties involved. Have you learned all the details you relate from people other than your friend, the wife or the student herself? Your letter leaves it unclear. If you learned some of this from your friend’s wife, she has a claim to being consulted. And, given the promises he has made, she’s likely to want to leave the whole thing behind.

Then there’s the instructor’s recent “conquest.” If you’re in touch with her — you also leave this point unclear — your main goal should be to let her know that she can inform the Title IX office at the university, almost always in confidence, and that doing so might protect future victims. (Actually, she should feel free to talk to anyone in the administration she trusts and ask them to pass the information on.) If she refuses, it won’t do much good to contact the authorities yourself, because they won’t force her to talk about what she doesn’t want to talk about. You will also have betrayed her confidence and added to her distress.

My husband’s mother has advanced dementia. He says that her political views were completely consistent, passionate and well understood by her family throughout her life and that he knows exactly how she would vote in this election. He says it’s ethical to vote on her behalf. I say it isn’t. Who is right? Name Withheld

My response: I suggest you ask about the legality instead of the ethics, and not newspaper columnists but lawyers who practice relevant law. If you find consensus among a couple such lawyers, do you need to look further?

The New York Times response:

You are. A vote is an expression of a citizen’s political will. It is not an expression of views they once had. If she can’t communicate her vote herself, with whatever assistance is legally permitted, nothing else will do.

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