In the post, my cousin mentioned that she would love to get coffee with any of her Facebook friends. Should I remain loyal to my cousin (who obviously had some level of unspoken expectations when she accepted my friend request) and not tell anyone and perhaps offer to meet for coffee? Or do I have an obligation to alert my uncle of my cousin’s predicament? I don’t have much of a relationship with my cousin, but I do with my uncle and would like to maintain my relationship with him and his family. What is my ethical obligation in this situation? Name Withheld
You’ve identified the moral considerations that are in tension, and commendably, you want to do the compassionate thing — help heal a rift and enable your cousin to get the help and support she needs. Here’s the sticking point: Your cousin is an adult. Unless you think she’s so disturbed that she’s not competent to manage her own life, you have reason to respect her decision not to share this information with the rest of her family. The fact that your uncle would be grateful to be told doesn’t make it OK to tell him.
What counts in favor of telling your uncle? The fact that you have a good relationship with him and that he might expect you to let him know that his daughter is in serious trouble. Your uncle is unlikely to want his daughter dealing with serious mental-health problems on her own, and he can certainly provide relief for his daughter’s financial stresses. The violation of privacy involved in your telling your uncle is mitigated by the fact that your cousin has shared her situation with all her Facebook friends, presumably a fairly wide group. It’s possible to wonder whether she’s too proud to ask for help herself but is hoping that someone will pass this information on.
The messiness of what confronts you is all too typical of ethically fraught decisions, in which the right choice may be a little wrong, too. In J.C. Chandor’s 2014 film, “A Most Violent Year,” the hero says, “I have always taken the path that is most right” — and there’s something marvelously precise about the awkwardness of the formulation. “Most right” suggests least wrong, a judgment that’s irreducibly comparative. You can’t easily decide between these opposing sets of considerations without knowing more. But nothing stops you from contacting your cousin and, yes, having that coffee, albeit perhaps via Zoom. You can get a sense of what shape she’s in. You can tell her that you’d like to let her father know about her struggles — and urge her to accept her father’s help. Finally, if she’s having suicidal thoughts (and so, in the relevant sense, isn’t competently managing her life), you can legitimately decide to tell her family even if she forbids it.
It has been said that a growing number of adult children have been “divorcing” their parents; they decide that their parents are toxic and that everything will be better with these people out of their lives. I haven’t seen any hard numbers, but one survey found that estrangements between adult children and their parents are much more likely to be initiated by the children. We’re all familiar, of course, with appalling stories of people who boot out their gay offspring. Often, though, the story is a little complicated: Sometimes parents, blinkered by their background, simply need time to adjust. Breaking contact with loved ones is easy to do, but such shunning may itself be an act of psychological cruelty. We’d be better off, in most cases, if we all cut one another a little more slack.