Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Is It Wrong to Divulge a Secret to Protect Someone’s Honor?

November 2, 2014 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment, Tips

Continuing my series on responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on them, here is a take on an earlier post,”Is It Wrong to Divulge a Secret to Protect Someone’s Honor?”

I’m an expat living in a country where H.I.V./AIDS is a severe taboo. My friend, also an expat, was diagnosed with H.I.V. while living here. She received almost no support or therapy of any form. Her attitude and behavior changed as she became ill, and she alienated and frustrated mutual friends. While I knew the truth, I was entrusted with her secret and stayed silent when I heard people bad-mouth her. Now that she has returned home, I feel compelled to defend her honor — I believe she was judged too harshly given unfathomable pressure and circumstances. But I also feel obligated to hold on to her secret. Is it acceptable to divulge a secret to protect someone’s honor? NAME WITHHELD, CAIRO

My answer: Acceptable to whom? There is no absolute measure of “acceptable.” If I were you I’d ask what the consequences of revealing the secret. The consequences to one person seem more important than anyone else’s—your friend. She is the main person whose acceptance matters. Why don’t you ask her instead of a third-party newspaper? You have access to the internet. You can use the occasion to build your relationship with this friend.

I wonder why you’re trying to go around her back, anyway? Are you thinking about not asking her and then divulging the secret anyway on the opinion of a columnist? I would ask yourself why you don’t talk to her about considering an action that affects her potentially more than you. Or did you already talk to her? If so, she could only have asked you to keep the secret even after she left for you to ask a third party, in which case you seem like you’re trying to pull rank so you can feel good breaking your word.

You didn’t ask, but I would look into this compulsion to “defend her honor.” Many people call that behavior meddling and you self-righteous. She made her choices as an adult to keep silent. The friends are alienated and frustrated because she chose to alienate and frustrate them. Undesired circumstance pushed her to it, but you can’t change that. You sound like you think you know better than she does how to live her life. That doesn’t put you in a great position to talk about honor.

Feelings of compulsion imply a lack of skill handling your emotions. That’s your problem, not hers, but you don’t realize that, so you want to make yourself feel better at her expense. Improving your understanding of yourself and your motivations would probably decrease that feeling of compulsion. You might also benefit from understanding her better. You described the pressure as unfathomable, meaning you don’t fathom her, but you’re acting like you do better than she does. You may want to open yourself to the possibility that she believes in her choices and knows her life better than you. Maybe she wants to return one day. Who knows what else is motivating her? Not you.

The next most affected person is yourself. Letting out someone else’s secret without asking will tell the world not to trust you. You think everyone will understand your choice? Maybe some or most will, but not all, and your credibility will drop among the rest. Telling them, “But the New York Times said it was okay” won’t likely save your credibility and will likely hurt it.

Finally, you may want to reconsider blindly obliging yourself. Your passive “I was entrusted” doesn’t describe what you agreed to. Next time I recommend you not agree to secrecy not knowing what the secret will be. Your friend probably would have told you anyway, and now you’d have the freedom to meddle without breaking a promise. The last time someone asked me to swear to secrecy before telling me something, I told them I couldn’t do that not knowing what she’d say, for all I knew she murdered someone and no way would I keep that secret. She told me it wasn’t bad or illegal so I said then you don’t need me to swear, I’ll do what I think is best. She struggled for a long time but eventually told me. I’ve never divulged the secret.

The New York Times Answer: What makes this question difficult is the lack of clarity over what your friend meant when she swore you to secrecy. Did she expect you literally to tell no one about this, for the remainder of your life? Would she classify even this anonymous letter as a breach of that commitment? Or did she simply mean she didn’t want your circle of acquaintances to know of this, at least while she was still in the country? Are you absolutely certain you’re the only person who knows this, or might other members of your group of friends be in the same awkward position? I’m going to work from the assumption that your friend intended to place the most obdurate conditions on you — she told you about her illness with the understanding that you were never to speak of this to anyone, under any circumstances, in the present or in the future. And if that is what you agreed to, the secret should not be divulged, even if your motive is to defend her from criticism.

Whenever you tell someone a secret on the condition of absolute secrecy, you place that person in a precarious ethical corner. The individual will now be forced to lie by omission every time the subject is discussed by any other person. This, of course, is an important part of friendship: We must be able to tell private things to people who are close to us, whom we reasonably expect to privilege personal loyalty over social transparency. But forcing someone to hide information inherently limits any expectation of his or her public support. By requiring you to keep this secret, your friend knowingly sacrificed the prospect of your being able to explain her actions to anyone else. You can still defend her in vague terms, but you can’t explicitly justify the (quite justifiable) change in her personality. This is something she surrendered when requesting this promise from you. You’re being a good friend by keeping her secret and by not criticizing her to other people. But beyond that, your hands are tied — and she was the one who tied them.


This past spring my daughter broke her leg after falling from a piece of playground equipment at her public elementary school. There was no known negligence involved. Most of her medical bills have been covered by our private medical insurance, except the co-payments for our emergency-room and doctor visits. Does the school district or the district’s insurance have a responsibility to reimburse us for our out-of-pocket medical bills, or do we chalk this up as a cost of having a child with a playground injury? NAME WITHHELD, CHICAGO

My answer: Different people will have different opinions on who is responsible, but the only responsibility that matters is legal and we all know the law is open to interpretation. A lawyer will know the law better than a columnist, although a lawyer who knows the relevant law would benefit from taking the case or just promoting litigiousness so would have a conflict.

If you’re thinking, “Yes, but who is right or wrong besides the law?,” you’re mistaking opinion with absolute right or wrong. You wouldn’t ask if there was some absolute measure. You know there isn’t, which is why you’re asking instead of just measuring against the would-be absolute. You can ask yourself what you think is right or wrong. You might find yourself growing as a person and learning more about your values. You don’t get that growth and learning from asking other people to decide right and wrong for you.

The New York Times Answer: If you pose this question to enough lawyers, I’m certain some of them will insist you deserve financial compensation. But from an ethical standpoint, what you’ve described actually sounds like the world working exactly the way it should. Your kid got hurt playing, as kids sometimes do. It could have happened anywhere, on any random playground. No one in a position of authority was at fault. Your insurance policy covered the care minus the co-pay, which is how insurance policies operate. You had to pay some money out of your own pocket, but it’s unreasonable to assume that having a child will not occasionally lead to unwanted expenses. It seems as if all parties did what they were supposed to do here.


I recently visited some friends and took my dog along. As soon as I entered their yard, my dog set off after their cat. The cat ran away in fright and didn’t return for several hours. The cat was due at the veterinarian’s office that afternoon. My friends canceled the appointment, but they were charged a “no show” fee. My friends claim I should pay it. Should I? JAMES, CALIF.

My answer: Why don’t you talk it out with them. They claim you should pay. Do you agree? If so, pay. If not, you know you can talk to them, right?

Hmm… after answering so smugly, I’m reminded that I once didn’t understand how negotiation can create and build relationships, helping people understand each other. Mainstream society often portrays negotiation as hard-edged, shady, and in the domain of used-car salespeople and hostage situations. There’s much more to it. The book Getting to Yes is the classic in the field for a reason. I found it changed my view on give-and-take parts of relationships and gave me skills to improve relationships I wouldn’t have dreamed of otherwise. I expect you’ll learn a lot from it, though you have to practice for the material to sink in.

The New York Times Answer: Technically, your dog is responsible. But you are responsible for the dog, and the dog has no money and cannot comprehend the meaning of its actions. Moreover, the dog is a dog, and chasing cats is something dogs often do. This is part of the burden of owning them. Pay the bill.

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