My older brother was adopted by my parents on the day of his birth. It was arranged with the assistance of another family member. Unfortunately, my parents decided that they would never tell him the truth, and as far as he knows, he is their firstborn. His birth certificate states nothing about the adoption. Everyone in the know has kept the secret, except a relative who disclosed my brother’s history to me when I was an adult. When I revealed to my parents that I knew about the adoption, they adamantly refused to disclose the truth to my brother. My parents are elderly and not long for this world. Do I have any obligation to tell my brother what I have learned about his life so he can learn more? Name Withheld
Your parents surely made this decision out of love for your brother; they must have thought he would be better off if he believed that he was their biological child. But you love him, too, and adults are entitled, generally speaking, to know important truths about their history. Those truths include facts about our ancestry, which can, among other things, supply the family medical history that our physicians will want to know — especially later in our lives. In theory, of course, that’s information you could obtain and keep for him until after your parents are gone. Yet there’s a very strong reason for telling him now. Only now will he have the opportunity to gain insight into your parents’ decision and to let them know how he feels about it. Not telling him until your parents are gone will deprive him of that opportunity, at the cost of saving them some discomfort. You cannot resolve your issues with the dead.
Yes, your parents’ preferences count against telling him; they don’t want to discuss it with him and, once he knows, may refuse to do so. But unless there are other concerns here that you haven’t enumerated — it’s not clear, for example, how fragile your parents are — you should lay out for them the reasons that they owe him this resolution. If they still won’t tell him after they’ve had time to think about it, and they have no genuinely persuasive reason to justify their reticence, you should let them know you’ll be letting him know. In our era of online genetic ancestries, there’s a good chance the truth will come out anyway.
My husband and I have been volunteering with groups that rescue in-need feral cats from the streets of Brooklyn. (They are considered in-need for a variety of reasons: the people feeding them are no longer able to do so, they have health issues, etc.) We bring them to our 160-acre farm in upstate New York and provide them with food, water and heated huts in winter, plus year-round access to a large barn — in other words, all the benefits of a protected life. The downside for the ferals is that our farm is surrounded by wildlife. Some of it is harmless to them, but some — coyotes, bears, fishers — are very much a danger.
These cats are wild and cannot be adopted as house pets. If they are not relocated to a place like ours, they may face two options: an animal shelter that has a no-kill policy or one that does not. In the first scenario, they will live the rest of their lives in a large kennel. In the second scenario, they will be euthanized by the shelter after a certain amount of time.
Our question arises now because we recently lost three of our adopted ferals to a fisher — a vicious predator in the weasel family — after they were with us for two and a half years. We are devastated and wondering: Should we continue to relocate these ferals knowing that their lives of freedom on our farm could be very short? We think yes if the alternative is them being euthanized, but what about letting them live out their lives in a no-kill kennel? I should note that the kennels used by the shelter we volunteer with are very large and well equipped with toys, beds, climbing posts, food, water and treats. Name Withheld
As the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham observed in the late 18th century, the avoidance of suffering is paramount in our treatment of animals. It’s different with people: Maybe your daughter’s wedding is next month, and you want your oncologist to know you’ll go through hell to be there. Animals don’t have those sorts of projects and plans; what matters most about their death is whatever suffering it involves. This isn’t everyone’s view. One point of broad consensus, though, is that feral cats — there are tens of millions of them in the United States alone — should be trapped, sterilized and vaccinated (as I trust the cats in your care have been), with the aim of reducing the size of feral cat colonies. But then what? Many animal-welfare groups advocate returning the creatures to their habitats. PETA, dissenting from the consensus, suggests that it’s often more humane to euthanize feral cats than to release them outdoors to fend for themselves.
The hard choice, as you see it, is between two other prospects. One is a pleasant life roaming free on your farm, with food, water and shelter but also with the risk of a violent death from predators. The other is an indoor life in a large comfortable space without that risk. Because even community cats can, in the right circumstances, adjust to living happily indoors, it seems to me that the attractions of life in the wild may not be sufficient to outweigh the risk of suffering and loss associated with predation. Still, this conclusion depends on suppositions we’re making about cat psychology, which could be mistaken. What settles the issue in favor of the indoor shelter, in my view, is an animal-welfare consideration you didn’t mention: Cats are themselves predators, causing the death and suffering of many other creatures.
For several years I have employed a woman to do household chores. I’m quite fond of her. At her last visit, she mentioned that she will be moving away with her “friend” in the military when he finishes his deployment in Afghanistan. I asked how they met.
I learned that they met only online, and that he was sending her a box of jewelry and gold bars! She had already paid more than $1,000 to get the package, which she hadn’t yet received. She has to raise an additional sum of money and showed me photographs from her “friend” of suitcases full of money, gold bars and jewelry that will solve all her financial problems.
I immediately thought: scam. But I said nothing. When I searched online, I found the exact scenario described in detail. Case proved.
I wondered if I should warn her now and break her heart, or let it go and later see her brokenhearted and deep in debt. I discussed this quandary with my daughter, who said, “You have to tell her, and if you can’t, I will.” So my daughter did, by text message with a link to an article describing how many women have lost thousands to similar scams. She texted a “thank you” and made no further response. My daughter replied with a heart emoji.
How best to handle such a situation? Was my daughter right in telling this woman the bitter truth? Will she hate me and leave my employment? Name Withheld
It isn’t terribly surprising that she hasn’t said more by way of response. Facing the possibility that her hopes were pinned to an illusion — that she was the victim of a romance scam — was bound to be painful. It can be painful, too, to recognize that people you know believe you’ve been hoodwinked. Sympathy in these circumstances can easily feel like condescension.
All you can hope is that this woman, on reflection, comes to see that your daughter was looking out for her interests — and that you can’t be faulted for sharing your concerns with your daughter. But here was someone headed for financial as well as emotional devastation. Suppose both you and your daughter kept quiet, and this woman later learned that you chose not to alert her. How would you justify your decision? Either course involves heartbreak; one holds out the chance of sparing her financial ruin. I’m with your daughter. Caring about people sometimes means making both yourself and them uncomfortable.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)