Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Do I Have to Keep a Secret About a Family Member’s Health?

June 14, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

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, “Do I Have to Keep a Secret About a Family Member’s Health?


My uncle’s daughter texted this message to me a few days ago: “You didn’t hear this from me, and pretend this conversation didn’t take place. My dad went to the hospital this morning in an ambulance with a heart attack. My mom told me not to tell anyone, saying this is Dad’s news to tell, but I thought you would want to know. Whatever you do, please don’t tell your mom.” My uncle and I are very close, so I understand why his daughter would think I would want to know. Telling me this news when she was asked not to is her own ethical problem to resolve. However, knowing this information puts me in a very awkward position. Should I tell my 82-year-old mother about her 70-year-old brother’s health crisis? She would surely want to know this tidbit of info. Or do I honor my uncle’s family’s wishes not to tell my mother? How do we react when we’re officially told the news of the heart attack? If we pretend not to know anything happened, we’re lying, and that in itself is unethical. Or do we reply that we were told? NAME WITHHELD

My Response: Why does the New York Times choose such juvenile questions?

Heart attacks are adult concerns, but deciding the answers isn’t some challenging issue, nor does it take any insight the letter writer can’t answer themselves. More specifically, the letter writer can answer better than anyone else. Only they know the details of the relationships between everyone involved.

There are no absolute, abstract principles everyone would agree to here, nor is there some book in the sky with the answers. If there were we all could look them up and wouldn’t have to ask opinions of people who know less than the person asking. Obviously the cousin who broke the news before asking for you to keep anything secret thinks you shouldn’t tell. You don’t entirely agree. You suspect your mother would want to know.

In the end, different people have different opinions. What isn’t juvenile, at least in my opinion, is to consider who would be affected and how, take responsibility for your actions and their results on others, and to act as you consider best. Then handle any problems that come up as they come up.

It may help that while you described yourself in a “very awkward position,” it doesn’t sound that awkward to me. Instead of acting like you have no safe option, you could just as well say you could do anything and no one could attack you since you can always say you were acting in someone’s interests beyond your own.

I don’t know why you’d write the letter to the Times. I guess to deflect blame so if someone gets mad at you you can say you were just following the Times’s suggestion. I think you’ll help yourself more taking responsibility for your actions. If people agree with you, fine. If not, you can learn from the experience.

The New York Times Response:

Amy Bloom: A couple of things in the letter really struck me. One was referring to your cousin as your “uncle’s daughter,” and the other was the phrase “this tidbit of info.” If you really regard it as only a tidbit, you might want to just keep your mouth shut and not say anything more about it. If you think that your mother is going to be very upset with you for not telling her, you have to weigh that. Your cousin told you for a reason: She wanted you to know. She might have even wanted you to spill the beans to the rest of the family, while feeling that she, having been directly ordered not to, could not. My very first step would be to contact your cousin and ask why the secrecy is necessary and when it is going to be lifted.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: If someone tells you something while revealing that they were told not to tell you, they’re not in a very good position to complain if you then make the same judgment that the information is owed to somebody. This person has a responsibility to his mother that I would give a lot of weight. Part of the reason is that I don’t share the aunt’s judgment that the medical condition is, as she said, the uncle’s to tell. It seems to me that at least in a family in which people are texting in this sort of way and keeping track of one another’s behavior, this is a social group that has a shared life. And one resource the uncle has access to is the possibility of this loving family gathering around him. They’re not entitled to know which artery of the heart is affected or what the name of the doctor is or whether the uncle likes his nurses, but they are allowed to know that he’s in the hospital. He is sick, and it’s appropriate for the family to gather. I just think the aunt’s judgment is mistaken.

Bloom: If the letter writer is close to his mother, I might say to the cousin: “I’ve got to tell you, I can’t keep this from my mother. I’m sorry.” And I would give the cousin a day to work it out with her own parents.

Kenji Yoshino: There is a big difference between getting someone’s assent to hold something in confidence and then divulging a secret and simply telling them a secret and then telling them to keep their mouth shut. I would say go to the cousin, by all means. But even if she says, “I gave that information to you in confidence,” at that point you go to the uncle as your second port of call. You may be able to persuade him to tell your mother. If he doesn’t agree, you can go ahead and tell your mother yourself. I really don’t feel as though you are bound by a confidence that was unilaterally imposed on you. If I say to Anthony, “Keep this a secret — a meteor is about to crash into this building,” I don’t think Anthony is required to keep that secret.

Appiah: If people have decent relations with one another, then going back to the person who made the demand on you and having a conversation about why you can’t do what was requested is probably the right place to start. After all, if your cousin has a good reason your mother shouldn’t be told, you would like to know it. In the absence of that, your relationship to your mother imposes special obligations.

Bloom: I like the idea that the first port of call is the cousin and the second port of call is the uncle, and then you are basically free to do what you feel is best for your own familial relationships. My experience is that when someone tells you something in this kind of family network, they are not unaware of your relationships to other people in the family. There was a big nudge from that text.

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