The Ethicist: My Son’s Tutor Slipped Me Entrance-Exam Questions. Should I Report Him?

January 27, 2019 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 “My Son’s Tutor Slipped Me Entrance-Exam Questions. Should I Report Him?”.

Last fall, my son was in the midst of New York City’s application process for public high schools, which has sparked much recent discussion regarding unequal opportunities for students based on race and socioeconomic status.

With some ambivalence, I took him to a well-regarded (and expensive) tutor to help him prepare for the Specialized High School Admission Test. After his session, the tutor asked if my son was also taking the entrance test for a different coveted public high school in the city. When I said yes, he gave me a handwritten paper, explaining that it was a copy of most of the test questions, which he got from “spies” he sent to take the exam. He asked me not to tell others about it. I was shocked and horrified and left with the test. I did not look at it or allow my son to, as I would consider it cheating. Upon arriving home, I put it in an envelope to send to the school’s admissions office, because I believe that it should know its test is available in this way.

Can I send the test anonymously without naming the tutor? Or should I sign the letter and provide his name, if asked? Name Withheld

My response: “What should I do?” … Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

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.

I recommend a different perspective than asking what others think you should do. 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.

The New York Times response: Oh dear. The competition for places at selective high schools in New York is now so cutthroat that a tutor expects a parent to be pleased at being offered the chance to cheat. Extra tutoring is a way to acquire knowledge and skill in test-taking. It makes children look better by helping them actually get better at something, even if what they’re getting better at is, in large part, a pointless artifact. People in the test-prep industry often talk about “cracking” or “gaming” the exam. (The legal theorist Leo Katz offers a wonderfully intricate discussion of test-prep ethics in his book, “Ill-Gotten Gains.”) Providing advantages to your own children in morally permissible ways is one task of parenthood. It’s regrettable that students who don’t have tutors are disadvantaged, but it’s at least not dishonest to prosper by study. And the problems of unfairness in educational opportunities aren’t best solved on the backs of your own children.

Yet this tutor has moved beyond gaming the test; he’s breaking the rules of the game. So it makes sense to alert people at the high school in question — and, indeed, the New York City Department of Education — to the leak: They can at least consider changing the questions between sittings. At the same time, I’m not sure what the point would be of telling the high school the tutor’s name. School officials are unlikely to be able to identify the children he may have helped to cheat in this way, though some may indeed have an advantage in the admissions process. And the officials are unlikely to ask all the students who have taken the existing exam to take it again. Because the tutor in question was essentially selling his services in assisting in cheating, however, he has no basis for complaint if you do pass on his name. Nor do you owe it to him to let him know what you decide to do.

More than 40 years ago, I was adopted in a “closed” adoption. About 15 years ago, I made contact with my birth mother, with whom I now have a good relationship. My birth father declined to meet me (my birth parents are not together). The stated reason: He didn’t want his (younger) daughter to know he had fathered another child. I accepted his decision. In the intervening years, I have avoided genetic tests, which I would otherwise like to take, so as not to “out” my birth father to his relatives.

I now have a child of my own. It often occurs to me that it may not be ethical for my birth father to conceal my existence from my half sister and deprive us and subsequent generations of any relationship — and it also may not be ethical for me to contact her against his wishes. I have no way of knowing what she would want; it seems sad for her to never know about me, but it is also possible that she would prefer not to. And once my birth father dies, I think it would be unkind to approach her, when he can no longer speak for himself.

Would it be right, or wrong, or neither, for me to reach out to her? Is it unethical for me to take a genetic test, because the companies that offer them might inform birth relatives of our connection? 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. 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.

The New York Times response: People are now inclined to favor more open adoption processes, in part because norms about extramarital sex and illegitimacy have changed so much in the course of your lifetime. But we should still try to respect past agreements — even ones we might wonder at today. You made the correct decision when you accepted your birth father’s choice not to get to know you.

And there are reasons for not contacting your half sister while the father you share is alive. It would let her know that he hadn’t been forthcoming with her, which might seriously disrupt a relationship you know nothing about. You can think that your father should have told his daughter and her mother about your existence — and think, too, that it isn’t up to you to decide this for him.

Note that these reasons for discretion may be counterbalanced by other considerations and, in any case, wouldn’t survive his death. He would have lived his life on the terms he requested. He made no covenant with eternity. The daughter might well be angry about his having kept this secret, but she might also take consolation in the discovery of a new half sibling. (If she didn’t, she would only have to tell you she didn’t want a relationship.) Whatever reputational harm might befall your late father at this point doesn’t fall under the term “unkindness.”

But you also envisage a situation in which your half sister discovers your relationship via genetic and genealogical databases. And here’s where things get complicated. You say that in order to preserve your father’s secret, you’ve avoided genetic tests that you otherwise would have wanted to take; you wonder about reconsidering that policy. The fact is that you were always within your rights to take those genetic tests and let the chips fall where they may.

How is this consistent with the value of respecting your father’s decision? There’s a principle, usually dated to Thomas Aquinas, known as “double effect.” The idea is that accepting a consequence that is the byproduct of an action is different from pursuing an action intended to bring about that consequence. It’s why the Catholic Church permits medical procedures that are intended to save the life of a pregnant woman even if it ends the viability of the fetus (by removing a cancerous uterus, say). Your right to use one of the services you mention isn’t defeated by the fact that doing so might, as a byproduct, expose your paternity to others.

When your father chose a closed adoption, he did not intend to prevent you from availing yourself of genetic and genealogical services he couldn’t then have imagined, and he would not have had the right to do so even if he could. (Sometimes the children of a closed adoption never learn that they were adopted, and so they have no reason to think twice about being genotyped. It’s a contingent fact that you do know.) By not availing yourself of tests that you wanted for other reasons, you went beyond compliance: Rather than passively respecting his agreement, you were, in effect, joining your father’s efforts at concealment.

It’s worth observing that not everyone will be on one of these databases, so there’s no guarantee that your half sister will find you this way. But suppose she could. Going on one of these websites now would have one advantage: It might allow her, if she was on the site, to decide for herself whether she was interested in unknown close genetic relatives. The decision to contact you would be left to her. Of course, her first probable response would be to talk to your birth father about the existence of someone who looked like a half sibling, but that’s not on you. Your birth father’s hopes for maintaining his secret must be recalibrated to match a changed reality. In an era of mass-market genomics, it’s hard to hide the twisting branches of our family trees.

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