Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should a Man Have Told His Mother-in-Law That She Was Dying?

February 7, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment, Relationships

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, “Should a Man Have Told His Mother-in-Law That She Was Dying?


My mother-in-law died recently of cancer. She was 88 and had a full and good life. She did not have full-blown dementia, but she had a hard time retaining information — much of what she heard she forgot almost immediately. She had four daughters who did not tell her about her terminal situation; they merely said she was sick, though she asked what was wrong with her. She had never been religious, but I know even atheists sometimes turn to God near death. What were her children’s ethical responsibilities here — and, since they decided not tell their mother the truth, should I have? Name Withheld

My response: What were their “ethical responsibilities”???

What are your goals in asking? From the perspective of not judging others and considering the consequences of your actions, it sure sounds like you’ve judged them and now want to act on it, hence asking to justify your “ethical responsibilities”.

Obviously the four of them felt their “ethical obligations” didn’t include telling their mother. You sound like you disagree. The New York Times can offer another opinion, but we all know there is no answer seven billion people will agree with. Do you hope to outrank them by appealing to an authority? Writing for a newspaper doesn’t make anyone more right.

Maybe when I said seven billion wouldn’t agree you thought that not everyone’s opinion is relevant to you. Why, then, would yours be to them? Just because you think so? What if they disagree?

Maybe you’re looking for alternative perspectives to broaden your horizons, but I doubt that from your question, which presupposes people have ethical obligations and that there is a right answer.

Maybe you’d like to consider that actively taking a role in not one but four mother-daughter relationships, plus all the sister-sister relationships just might look to them like meddling and embroil you in conversations you don’t like, especially with you talking about abstract philosophical concepts like “ethical obligations” of theirs. And yours, as if you’re preparing to say, “It’s not my choice to meddle. I just have to meet my ethical obligations.”

Maybe, just maybe, you might consider that they concluded what they felt best based on considerations you haven’t yet understood. Maybe, just maybe, if you ask them, you might develop more compassion and empathy yourself for these people whose compassion and empathy you seem to question.

You’re free to do what you want, but I suggest questioning yourself, your motives, and your behavior before questioning theirs.

The New York Times response:

I’m sorry it’s too late to do anything about this now, but as long as your mother-in-law was still capable of understanding what she was being told, she had a right to know what was happening. She asked what was wrong with her: She deserved a full and honest answer. (Ideally, you would have had a doctor around to help with the details.) If it turned out that she forgot it even after a few tellings, you could have decided that she was no longer really capable of absorbing and processing the truth. Then there would have been no point in continuing to tell her. But there might have been things she would have wanted to do if she had known she was going to die soon. Denying her this knowledge might have deprived her of the chance to manage the end of her own life as she saw fit.

Generally speaking, of course, the boundary between being able to make sense of the truth and no longer being capable of absorbing reality isn’t a sharp one. There is scope for reasonable disagreement here. But you don’t say that your wife and her sisters believed your mother-in-law had crossed that boundary. I assume, then, that they chose not to tell her even though she hadn’t. On that topic, as I say, I believe they were mistaken. I think you should have tried to convince them that they were wrong. And if you failed, then as someone who knew and cared for her, you would have been entitled to judge, in your mother-in-law’s interest, that you should overrule her daughters. So yes, I think it would have been good to tell her, though I don’t think you should blame yourself too much for letting them have their way.

There’s a sense, of course, in which every 88-year-old who is receiving medical treatment knows she might die sometime soon. It’s possible that your mother-in-law realized what was happening and wanted to discuss it with someone sympathetic. It’s also possible that she didn’t want to know all the details. That was her right, too. But she should have been allowed to exercise it.

The fact that this information would have given her a chance at a deathbed conversion does not, I must confess, rank high on my list of reasons for letting her know. While there are people who think that God will grant eternal life to deathbed converts otherwise destined to be damned, the usual calculation here strikes me as morally unattractive. The Catholic Church, for example, teaches that confession, contrition and commitment to a new life are required as well as conversion. Fear of imminent damnation puts the sincerity of all of these in doubt.

When my father died two and a half years ago, my brother and I cleaned out his small apartment. My brother (the executor of the estate) gave me an afternoon to take what I wanted from the apartment. Our family photo albums were among the items he claimed, with a promise to have them professionally duplicated for both my sister and me. He has yet to begin this.

Neither my brother nor sister have chosen to maintain an adult relationship with me in any way, which complicates this matter. I recently emailed my brother a request for the duplicates, with an offer to take the project off his hands if he is too busy. His reply implied that if it was ‘‘too expensive’’ (we all inherited very generous amounts of the estate), he wasn’t willing to go ahead and complete the project.

My question is this: If neither my brother nor my sister want to pay for the pictures’ duplication, would I be entitled to the photo albums? Also, do you have any suggestions as to how I would proceed? My mother put a lot of care and love into these albums, and I treasure them. Jen B., Maine

My response: Entitled???

What outcome do you expect from asking third parties??

Do you think if the New York Times responds yes that you can email the response and your brother will say, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were entitled to these. Now that you’ve pointed this out in this public forum and the newspaper pointed out you were entitled to them, I’ll make it my top priority to get them to you.”?

Instead of telling people what they should do in roundabout ways, why don’t you consider that other people have their own motivations, beliefs, and values and aren’t waiting around to be told what to do.

If you want to motivate someone, I recommend learning more skills in influence and persuasion and trying to understand others. You’ll know you’ve learned enough when your feelings of entitlement turn to feelings of compassion, empathy, curiosity, and such.

Maybe even generosity.

The New York Times response:

Another family disagreement. If siblings aren’t speaking to one another, it can be very hard to heal the rupture. So I’m afraid I can’t tell you how to proceed. But I can try to address the ethical issues you raise.

Questions about who owns what are usually legal questions, not ethical ones. Let’s assume, though, that the albums weren’t explicitly deeded to one of you, and so your brother, the executor, had the right to distribute them in some reasonable way. Even if he’s entitled to keep them, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be better to give them to someone who cares about them more.

There are further ethical issues here. One is that, by your account, your brother made a promise. (And if he didn’t say the words ‘‘I promise,’’ that makes little difference. He agreed to undertake something on your behalf, whatever words he used.) He ought to keep his word, even if it’s inconvenient. Sometimes we can be excused from keeping a promise when a background assumption — in this case, that the cost would be reasonable — turns out to be seriously wrong. But supposing that duplication really involves a burdensome expense, your brother’s only excuse for not making the copies would vanish if you offered to pay.

Whether or not you get on with your brother, he ought to give weight to the fact that you treasure these pictures and that your parents would presumably have wanted you to have access to them. Otherwise he’s failing his official and his familial responsibilities alike. To ignore your interests when he’s uniquely placed to serve them suggests malice or callousness. Either way, it’s not a pretty picture.

I am very close friends with my cousin. Our fathers grew up in an unstable household, which led both of them into trouble as young adults. Decades later, both successfully raised their children in happy, stable homes.

During our upbringing, our fathers avoided talking about the not-so-good-parts of their lives, and occasionally my cousin and I discovered events they were hiding. When we were 12, we accidentally discovered that my cousin had an older half sister who was grown and had three children of her own. It turns out that the sister was not raised entirely by her parents, but also by various family members and friends. My cousin was upset, to say the least, to learn about a secret sister (and three nephews).

About a year ago, my father and I were having a conversation about the family. One thing led to another, and he told me more about my uncle’s young-adult life. I’m fuzzy on the details, but he was suddenly not heard from for several years, only to be seen by my father on the nightly news being arrested in a neighboring city on suspicion of drug dealing on a grand scale. I’m guessing this has some bearing on why he did not raise his first child. I’m also guessing that he has tried and is still trying to keep all this information from the cousin with whom I am close in hopes of leaving his old life behind. We are now adults, and my cousin would without a doubt want to know about this. She would be upset to find out I was keeping it from her. I feel she should know, but I don’t think it is my responsibility to tell. Do I say something, or should I encourage my uncle to do it? Name Withheld

My response: There is no absolute “should” or “responsibility” written in some book in the sky. You have your opinion. Others disagree.

I suggest you consider the consequences of your actions on the people involved. You can talk to the ones who know things and solve this problem collaboratively. If you disagree on strategies, I recommend resolving the differences by communicating with them, not newspaper columnists, and that you consider their interest, feelings, etc, not third parties’. If you don’t have the social skills to resolve things, you can develop them.

If this communication and personal development leaves you unsatisfied, you can still do what you want. You might again then consider the consequences of your actions more than third parties’ opinions of what you “should” do. If you do what you want, how will others feel? Do you think, if they feel bad, that excusing yourself because someone agreed it was your responsibility will make them feel better? What if they disagree?

The New York Times response:

You’re guessing that your uncle would rather you didn’t tell your cousin what you’ve learned about his young life. Why not ask him? If he’s got a good reason not to tell your cousin, let him make the case. So far as I can see, you’re free to share all this with her, and you have good reason to think she’d want to be in the know. But the truth might come better from your uncle. For one thing, it would allow him to discuss with her why he has kept it from her. So talk to him before you decide what to do. You’ve kept your cousin in the dark for a year. A little longer won’t make it worse.

Read my weekly newsletter

On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Sign up for my weekly newsletter