Monday, February 16, 2009

An Ethical Conundrum

Here it is. I purposely remove the story from any context, for obvious reasons of privacy. Let's make it... yours:

A number of years ago, your closest friend came to you and told you that his girl friend's son was responsible for a dreadful crime. At the time--perhaps out of a sense of loyalty to your friend, perhaps out of that age-old prejudice against telling tales out of school, you chose to do nothing, say nothing. But the knowledge has haunted you ever since, and a recent event brought you face-to-face with the responsibility of that knowledge.

In the intervening years, your friend's girlfriend has become his wife and your friendship with both has deepened. The last thing you would want is to harm them in any way. But the son has proved a no-good layabout, always in trouble, potentially violent, a racist and a petty criminal who has been in and out of jail. To reveal the secret now would not only have ripple effects that would consume your friend and others close to him, but possibly expose you yourself to violent retribution.

So what do you do about it? There are a number of options open to you. You could choose to remain silent, and swallow the guilt and pain--with adverse effects on your own health and happiness, your peace of mind. You could go to the police and tell them the secret as it was told to you, even though you have no evidence and the story came to you third-hand. You could report what you know, or think you know--this is all hearsay, after all--anonymously. You could approach your friend and tell him about the pain his secret has caused you, and ask him to take the responsibility for himself...

What would you do?

This ethical quandary came up recently in a real-life situation, in a gathering of thoughtful and responsible friends. There were persuasive responses representing the entire range of options I outlined above, and more; and there was, of course, no resolution. My own response was to give the secret back to the source. I would go to my friend and tell him: "This is not my responsibility. It never was. It was not an act of friendship to give it to me. Unable to accept the burden of responsibility yourself, you passed it on to me, and I have carried it with me ever since. I now recognize that it is yours, not mine, and hand it back to you in the trust that you will do what is right."

Is this fair? Is it right? Is it enough? Is it simply, as some suggested, an abdication of responsibility on my part? Where lies courage? Where cowardice and self-protection?

At the end of a full hour of sometimes passionate exchange, I found myself agreeing with the one who expressed the thought that the teller of this tale already actually knew himself the answer to his conundrum, but wanted to be given reasons not to listen to it. He had in fact done to us, on a lesser scale, exactly what his friend had done to him. It's now a fourth generation story--but still no less worthy of ethical debate.

I wonder what you think?


mandt said...

"even though you have no evidence and the story came to you third-hand." That is the essence of the answer. Write the narrative down on paper, including forgiveness for receiving the story; go to a sacred place and burn the paper; and let it go entirely. If after that it still lingers then meditate on the greater significance of suffering in the attachment. It was a horrible gift it seems to me and one worthy of your keen mind, compassionate heart and solid practice. ----Your own particular jataka tale. peace M

Cardozo said...

This goes to the heart of the meaning of the term "complicity."

Personally, my standard for taking action to rectify an injustice is whether or not I am complicit.

In this specific situation, as mandt suggests, third-hand information does not complicity make. Thus, there are many other things that I am undoubtedly complicit in (read: consumer habits and my own interpersonal affairs) that are more worthy of my time and attention.

Anonymous said...

What has been heard cannot be unheard. So I'm not sure how you "hand back" a secret. I guess the issue for me is what damage could follow from the secret should you continue to keep it and what damage could occur if you do not tell. If it is over and done with, and no further damage is being done directly, I'd let it go. I would tell only if the telling of it would prevent further crimes (or if the telling could somehow prvide healing to the one originally hurt).

ErnestO said...

Don't wobble.

Take off all conceptual clothing, and then what is left?


PeterAtLarge said...

A sound approach, MandT. It as something in common with my own sense that it can be "handed back." See below, in my response to Citizen.

Yes, Cardozo. But sometimes the limits of "complicity" are quite hard to define.

Citizen--I was thinking of that "handing back" as a kind of purification ritual rather than a literal return, which clearly, as you point out, is no longer possible. But I've found that ritual can be an effective way of clarifying some otherwise intractible issue.

ErnestO, yes! It's eventually only the PRESENT that matters, after all!

robin andrea said...

I think an anonymous tip to the police is the answer. Some crimes have a statute of limitations, if it's that kind of crime it really doesn't matter. If it's not that kind of crime then it really does matter. I write as someone who was once the victim of a violent crime. If I thought someone knew the name of the perpetrator and did not reveal it out of some sense of loyalty to a friendship, I would feel pretty bad about the state of humanity.