My Wife and I Lied About Our Son’s Death. Can I Come Clean if She Won’t? (Published 2022) (2023)



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The Ethicist

The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on revealing a family secret, complaining about a tour guide and more.

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My Wife and I Lied About Our Son’s Death. Can I Come Clean if She Won’t? (Published 2022) (1)

A few years ago, my son died from an accidental overdose when he took a fentanyl-laced pill. When we got the autopsy report, his mother (we are divorced) wanted to keep the cause of his death a secret. I was reluctant, but in the throes of grief did not make a stand for the truth. We lied and said his death was due to a bad heart.

Recently, I read an article about the plague of fentanyl overdoses, and it broke my heart (again); I decided we must tell the truth. My son’s sister agrees. But his mother and stepfather prefer to maintain the lie.

I believe we are morally obligated to speak out, even if belatedly, because it may save another family from tragedy. I am ashamed it has taken this long. Can I ethically go public with the real cause of my son’s death when his mother and stepfather are against it? Name Withheld

Lying was wrong here, I agree, and it’s good to own up to our moral misjudgments. The issue is how you should think about your earlier agreement with your ex-wife. When you joined with her to propagate a lie, it was at least implicitly understood that you’d stick to the story. You’ll be breaking that commitment. You’ll also be revealing not just that you lied but that she did. This may not do much damage to her reputation — people will understand why she wanted to cover up the truth when she was grieving — but it will be unpleasant for her.

Still, the commitment was to do something plainly wrong. Not revealing how your son died could be defended as protecting your family’s privacy. Actively lying about his death goes beyond the defensible. Given that the deception was wrong — and that setting the record straight will harm your wife only insofar as it reveals her to have done this wrong — she is not entitled to hold you to your earlier commitment.

It would be better, all the same, if you could get her to agree — to release you from that commitment. Because you’re no longer a couple, it may be harder to work together toward telling the truth. At the very least, however, you and your daughter can explain to your ex-wife what you plan to do and why.

Your explanation shouldn’t hang on the possibility of protecting other families, though. Unless you’re planning to take part in a documentary or publish an article, the chances of anyone changing paths as a result of your change of story are surely slim. It’s clear that lying never sat well with you. Explain what you want to do as a matter of coming clean for its own sake. Not every act need be defended ethically by appealing to its consequences for others.

My wife and I recently took a trip to Morocco. We went with a well-known travel company that we’ve used previously. We had a guide and driver for one week. Unfortunately, the guide was surprisingly uninformed about issues of interest to us: history, economy, architecture, the political system, etc. He knew the bare minimum. Maybe we had been spoiled by our last three guides — in Ireland, Scotland and Turkey — who seemed to know everything about everything and were constant sources of facts and anecdotes throughout the trips.

The guide in Morocco was a nice person who took good care of us. We liked him and always felt safe and in good hands, and we gave him a good tip. But he spent an inordinate amount of time chatting with the driver, paying little attention to many of our questions.

The issue is what to tell the travel company in its evaluation survey. I would like to be honest, mentioning what we liked but being clear about our disappointment and offering suggestions on how he could improve. My wife prefers not to say anything negative. Before our trip, because of Covid, he hadn’t worked for two years. She is afraid a critical appraisal may result in him losing his job. I say it is unfair to the company and future travelers to be dishonest. Richard, New York City

Your wife’s concerns have some basis. In Morocco, where college graduates have an even higher unemployment rate than nongrads, there are likely highly qualified candidates who could replace him on the company’s referral list. In your desire not to harm the prospects of someone you got on well with, you’re focusing on the effects your candor would have on him alone. But by keeping your misgivings to yourself, you may be denying a more competent person the chance to deliver a better experience to the company’s future clients.

I recently took a three-hour domestic flight, and the woman seated next to me spent the entire flight using a vape pen. Despite wanting to remind her that vaping on a plane is a federal offense, I didn’t say anything. I can see the argument for speaking up (vaping is prohibited on planes because the lithium batteries pose a fire risk) and the argument against (it wasn’t bothering me, and a larger conflict could have ensued from my speaking up). People have been behaving especially aggressively since we came out of Covid isolation, so who knows how this woman might have reacted. And because flight attendants have endured so much harassment lately, I hesitated to involve them. Was I wrong not to speak up? Jenny

The scofflaw in the next seat has always presented a quandary. It’s not as if you can have a tense exchange and then go your separate ways. And so, like you, I tend to bite my tongue. Still, I hope you and I would both speak up if someone were doing something that posed a serious danger.

Violations of reasonable social norms are everybody’s business.

She probably wasn’t. The federal ban on vaping on commercial flights, instituted in 2016, was meant to protect passengers from unsought exposure to aerosols. Lithium batteries are found in almost all personal electronic devices. What’s true is that the T.S.A. is antsier about some of these batteries than others, and so you can take vape pens in your pocket or as carry-on luggage, but not as checked luggage. The bigger worry with poorly designed lithium batteries is that they might cause a fire buried away in the hold. If you can feel them overheating in your pocket — or in your hand — you can do something.

The fact remains that what this passenger was doing was inconsiderate, even if you weren’t bothered by it. Violations of reasonable social norms are everybody’s business, and, in any case, she was exposing you, willy-nilly, to the aerosol of a poorly regulated fluid — an aerosol that, research suggests, contains more toxic metals than even cigarette smoke does. Besides, nicotine addicts have options (lozenges, patches) that don’t produce effluents.

Part of what makes people comply with rules is that other people call them to account. A disapproving look, a calm but firm reproof: these sort of norm-reinforcing interventions ultimately help everyone who travels, including those of us who shun confrontation in pressurized cabins. In this sense — if, alas, only in this sense — you and I are free riders.

My wife and I are selling our house, which is far too big for us, and getting rid of a lot of stuff accumulated over a lifetime. We’ve had it all appraised, and most of it is virtually worthless (area rugs, silver-plated cutlery, cheap souvenirs, etc.). We could donate it to charities or simply throw it away. However, our middle-aged daughter has begged us not to get rid of our junk but instead to give it to her to put in her storage unit. The trouble is that she has a hoarding problem (she is the first to admit it), and that storage unit is already full of things that she has been meaning to sell for decades but simply can’t bear to part with. Do we give her our stuff, thereby enabling her hoarding addiction, or donate it, thereby presuming we can make choices for our adult child? Name Withheld

Donating the stuff — and accepting a tax deduction of its fair market value, however small — would solve your problem without adding to your daughter’s. Taking her wishes into consideration doesn’t mean capitulating to them. This isn’t a matter of making choices for her; it’s a matter of not letting her make choices for you.

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; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)

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