This clipping is from The Ethicist, a column that appears in the Sunday NYT Magazine. It’s a couple of weeks old but I haven’t had a moment to get to it. Better late than never, I hope.
The idea behind this column is that folks send ethical/moral dilemmas and ask the columnist for advice. I’ve never been sure what sort of authority the columnist has (and the preceding ethicist often gave answers I thought were wrong). Anyway, here’s the question for the column at issue:
I didn’t find out for years, but I fathered a child with a woman in my neighborhood who was, and still is, married to another man. The girl does not know about any of this. Neither does the husband. At the mother’s request, I have had nothing to do with the girl, though I offered to tutor her. Does she have a right to know her true parentage upon reaching adulthood? Sooner? Over the objection of the mother? Only when the husband dies? Who can make these decisions and when?
It’s worth reading the response offered by Ariel Kaminer, the current ethicist. Actually, if you read it, I’m not sure what I have left to add, because in this instance I pretty much agree with her down the line.
As an abstract matter, I’m a huge advocate of honesty. Adrienne Rich’s essay “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” is a touchstone of my life. And yet it seems to me that this is yet another instance where the passage of time, and the events that occur while time is passing, create all sorts of complications.
It’s easy to say that honesty all around would have been the best course. But in this instance people weren’t honest all around. In particular, it sounds like the mother of the child in question has lied or otherwise kept important information from coming to life.
Let’s agree that’s bad. Let’s agree the whole affair while married thing isn’t so good either. But time has passed and now there’s a young girl (age unclear) who lives in a family that is built on a foundation of dishonesty. It’s all well and good to say that it’s likely that this is recipe for disaster–at some point the truth will likely be known–but none of that tells us what ought to be done and who ought to do it.
I agree with Kaminer that the man who posed the question here isn’t well situated to figure out how to proceed. I worry most about the child and I hope that her parents (and I do consider the husband and wife raising her to be her parents, as does the law) are trying to find a way forward that would involve telling the truth. (Of course, it isn’t at all clear that her father knows that there is truth to be told.)
There’s a broader issue here, too, beyond what to do in this specific case. At one point Kaminer writes:
Abstract appeals to truth don’t amount to much in this case, since there is more than one truth at play: the genetic truth, in which you and the girl are as close as any parent and child; and the emotional truth, in which her mother’s husband is her father, and you’re just some guy staring at her from across the street.
Perhaps it really is time for a dual family system, one that can recognize (and give specified legal weight to) two different sorts of relationships–the social/psychological and the genetic.