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Impossible Ethics

Posted 3/3/2016

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  Do you remember the concept of white lies? Complete honesty was a central value in my family, always, but there was an exception for white lies. That meant, for example, telling someone that, yes, you liked her new haircut when you really thought it was dreadful. The higher value was not hurting someone's feelings. In general, I still think this is a good policy, but it can be carried to harmful extremes.

  Thanks to Barbara for sending on this excellent essay from The New York Times. Although the first example is about not telling a child that she was adopted, read on to the second page for a story that is relevant to us. It is not uncommon in my practice to listen to a woman describe the reasons she is not telling her elderly parent, usually a mother, about her cancer diagnosis. Mother lives far away, is not well, might not even understand, carries the old beliefs about cancer=death, etc. In each of these cases, I have tried to help the woman explore her feelings and reasons and have then supported her decision. 

  There is a big difference between these situations and the one described in the essay. All of these women had early cancers and hoped they would survive to old age. They hoped there would never be a need to tell an aging parent that she was going to lose a child. The story here is different. Do read it and please comment:

Should a Sibling Be Told She’s Adopted?


My sister is the greatest blessing in my life. My parents and I were at the hospital when her birth mother went into labor, so she has been with us for her entire life. My parents never told her that she was adopted, and they asked me not to say anything. They planned on telling her when she was old enough to understand, but they kept putting it off. They know that I believe they have done her a serious disservice.
I think she suspects she’s different. She asks me sometimes why she’s so much shorter than the rest of us, for example. I do my best to deflect her questions, but it hurts every time. My sister and I are very close, and we see each other often. Keeping this lie feels like a giant burden, but, at this point, I don’t know that it would do her any good to know the truth. She was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has been working hard to keep her life balanced. Finding out now that she’s adopted could throw her into a depression. I fear, however, that with the mail-in DNA tests available these days, or should a medical emergency arise, she’ll find out the truth and she won’t forgive me.
I want my sister to feel as deeply loved as she is, and I am at a loss for what to do. Name Withheld
How do we end up in these binds? Easily. And, in a way, rationally. ‘‘Sorites’’ — from the Greek for ‘‘heap’’ — is the name of a philosophical paradox. A grain of sand isn’t a heap, and adding one more grain can’t make it a heap, and as you add grains of sand, you reason that another grain can’t turn your pile into a heap. Yet at some point, a heap is what you have. In the temporal realm, there’s an analogous problem. Very often, it won’t do any harm to wait one more day to do something. So you put the deed off until, at some point, you’ve waited too long.

Read more and read on to page 2:


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