Sunday, July 07, 2019
Was reader wrong to disclose an aunt's secret?
A reader we're calling Josh had never been particularly close to his parents relatives. As a kid, Josh's family had moved around quite a bit and while he knew his various cousins, it had been at least a decade since he had seen any of them.
Josh was surprised when he received an email from his cousin's daughter asking if he would have time to meet with her (let's call her Mavis) when she was visiting town to look at prospective colleges to attend in the fall. Josh had met her only once when she was 10 or 11 years old. Mavis hoped Josh might be able to meet and to talk about the city a bit when she visited.
As it turned out, Josh's office was not far from one of the prospective college's downtown campus. They agreed to meet at the admissions office after her tour and then go to grab lunch.
The only concern Josh had was whether he would be able to answer any questions Mavis might have about the extended family. Josh didn't know much, but he did know that his aunt, his cousin's mother, had once asked Josh not to mention to her son that she and Josh's father had been brought up in the Jewish faith, as had Josh. Josh was a kid when his aunt had mentioned this and while he found it odd, it didn't present that much of a challenge since he rarely saw his cousin.
Mavis and Josh met as arranged and headed over to a local lunch place where Josh was taking her to eat. Most of the conversation focused on the city and on her college search, but as the meal went on, Mavis said about Josh's aunt: "Grandma has mentioned that that part of our family is French, but she is vague about any other details. Are we French?"
"No," Josh responded. "We're not French."
"Do you know what we are?" Mavis asked.
"Your grandmother's and my father's parents came to the United States from Russia after they were asked to leave," he responded.
Mavis seemed to ponder Josh's response before asking, "You mean we're Jewish?"
"Well, I am and my father was and at one time your grandmother was," he responded. "But my understanding is that you were raised in your mother's faith."
"Whoa," Mavis responded. Then added, "How cool."
Nothing further was said about the issue, Josh writes. But he wonders if he was wrong to be honest with Mavis about an issue which years ago his grandmother had asked him not to mention to Mavis's father.
I'm not sure what Josh's aunt's motives were for not wanting her son to know about her faith growing up. But Josh had no obligation to be dishonest about his own faith when asked. As a kid, Josh honored his aunt's wishes and never brought it up. But he did the right thing by answering Mavis's question honestly.
As an adult, Mavis can do whatever she deems appropriate with Josh's honest answer. That she responded the way she did suggests she will be just fine knowing the truth about her ancestors even if she continues to practice a different faith from them.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.