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 I Speak Up for a Pet Pig?”
I am in a profession where I often go to people’s houses to work with their children. I have one client whom I like very much and who has requested my services a number of times, but whenever I leave that client’s house, I find myself troubled. This family has a teacup pig, which lives with them in a medium-size apartment. I consider myself an animal lover, and it so happens that I have looked into the fad of teacup pigs. I know that they are really piglets of a larger variety, the potbellied pig, which are unintentionally underfed by owners who have been led by dishonest sellers to believe that the pigs need to eat less than they really do. Right now the pig is small, perhaps 10 to 15 pounds, but I know it will keep growing and that the lowest healthy weight for a full-grown ‘‘teacup pig’’ is about 60 pounds; a potbellied pig can easily grow to more than 100 pounds. I asked the family how big the pig would get, thinking perhaps they knew the facts and had some plan. They told me that they expect it to remain the size it is now. The worst part? They often remark that the pig is acting hungry; I imagine they feed him the too-small amount they were directed to by the seller. I believe that this family loves their pig very much and that I am witnessing an unintentional act of animal cruelty, but I am in a quandary: Should I tell them that they are unwittingly mistreating their beloved pet? I worry that I would be overstepping my professional bounds. People can be very touchy when it comes to their pets, and I want to maintain cordial relations with them for the sake of my continued employment. Do I have an ethical obligation to tell them the truth about teacup pigs? Name Withheld
My response: Again, asking other adults what you should or shouldn’t do, or about abstract obligations, confuses the main issue. I don’t know why I’m still surprised about adults asking other adults not for advice but for what they should do. Children asking their parents or teachers, I understand. Not adults.
The main issue seems to me not what you think you should do but how to do it effectively. You want to help the pig while keeping your professional relationship. If you planned to tell them ineffectively, obviously you would agree you shouldn’t tell them. You only should if you could do it effectively.
In other words, once again, the question isn’t a matter of ethics. It’s a matter of problem-solving—in particular, about social and communication skills.
Now that the intense and judgmental emotions are out of the way, I’ll leave it to you to solve the problem. The more you solve on your own, the more you’ll be able to solve similar problems again.
The New York Times response: If you’re right, this pig is suffering from hunger and malnourishment, and its owners don’t know. Because animals can’t speak, it’s especially important that we speak for them. These owners, in your view, don’t mean to harm their pet. So in theory, they ought to be grateful to you for bringing the facts to their attention. In reality, as you fear, they might be chagrined and reluctant to see you again. Much comes down to diplomacy. You can say that coming to know their pet led you to explore what you had heard about the breed . . . and then tell them what you’ve found out. When it comes to the treatment of animals, Jeremy Bentham captured the essentials more than two centuries ago: ‘‘The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’’
For a research project on a famous ancestor of mine whose father is unknown, I’ve genetically tested (with their full permission) a number of male descendants. (I’m female, so my own DNA won’t give me the information about the male line.) One of these relatives is an elderly man who is very proud of this ancestor. But the results showed that the man he thinks is his biological father is not. I haven’t shared this news with him because I think it might hurt him terribly, but I don’t know him well enough to know that for sure. He also has children who might want to know their actual genetic line. I truly don’t know the right thing to do. Name Withheld
My response: Is this the most important thing for you to concern yourself with?
I only partially mean to be flippant, in that telling people who haven’t asked information they don’t want to know doesn’t seem that important.
From a non-flippant perspective, if you concern yourself with other things that you find more important, you’ll never have to get around to meddling in this family’s business. You don’t have to tell everyone every time you tie your shoes, nor can you. You don’t have to do everything before you do anything, nor can you, so if you spend the rest of your life doing more important things than telling people who haven’t asked information they don’t want to know, you don’t have to worry about it.
As a side effect, you’ll improve your life, since you’ll always be doing things you care about more.
The New York Times response: This issue is going to come up more and more often. Genetic testing makes it increasingly clear that fatherhood involves more faith than motherhood. Studies have come up with figures ranging from 2 percent to 30 percent for rates of nonpaternity, though the most likely figure for the contemporary United States is at the very low end of that range.
The combination of expanded genetic testing with a growing interest in genealogy means that people will have to decide whether they care about their biological ancestry or their social ancestry. The hardest cases will involve men learning that their children aren’t biologically theirs, and children learning the same about their fathers.
If there were a standard form that you and your relative filled out together, you could rely on that previous agreement as you proceed. But there isn’t. So you’ll have to do your best to take into account a variety of considerations.
To start with, the revelation could be painful to your relative. Not only would he have to think differently about his connection to his family’s famous forebear; he might feel the shame of illegitimacy. Although that stigma has (thankfully) mostly disappeared, he comes from a generation for which it was a more serious matter.
Some might invoke the privacy rights of the mother or the husband. But I wouldn’t give either much weight: Presumably your relative’s parents are long dead. What about the medical case for disclosure? Unless there’s something in the data that suggests biological risks that he and his children wouldn’t have anticipated (and that they could usefully act on), I doubt that knowing about his mother’s infidelity will be of much use. Still, as you say, his children may want to know what you found.
Finally, you have to ask yourself what truths about your parents’ or grandparents’ relationships are important enough that you would want to know them even if they were painful. Would you resent it if someone had such information about you and withheld it? If you think you would, this can be your compass here, however difficult the resulting conversation. A general moral, though: Talk before you test.
I live in a suburb of Minneapolis and have shared a driveway with our neighbors for 10 years. Some days, I come home from work for lunch, and my neighbor’s son (who is in high school) is also home. He is sometimes with a girl and sometimes with friends. I frequently smell illegal drugs being smoked. Should I let his parents know what I’ve observed? Or should I keep my nose out of their business? Name Withheld
My response: I recommend you consider your values, apply them to this situation, and do what you consider right.
I don’t recommend you ask others to figure out what’s right for you, even if they write for the New York Times. People deciding for you is the mental equivalent of asking someone to lift weights for you, or to jog for you. You’ll stunt your growth and development.
You can handle this.
The New York Times response: You mention the length but not the depth of your relationship with your neighbors, so I’ll assume you’re not close. But as with our DNA tester, it will help to ask yourself what you would want the other party to do if your situations were reversed. You needn’t agree with the laws against marijuana (that’s what we’re talking about, right?) to think that a young person who smokes in the driveway is laying himself open to trouble. In Minnesota, possession of more than one and a half ounces is theoretically punishable by up to five years in prison. And there are other reasons to worry about a high-school kid getting blitzed in the middle of the day. Consider how you would feel — how you would be entitled to feel — if your neighbor failed to pass on similar observations about your own children. I’d be guided by that.
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