I overheard two girls I know having a discussion. One girl, whom I will call Maria, wanted to go out on the town alone. This was against her parents’ wishes, due to the risk involved. The girls agreed to tell their parents they were going to a mall together. Should I tell Maria’s parents what the girls are planning? If I do, the parents might ground Maria as well as lose trust in her.

Contributed by a high school student.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

One response »

  1. John Hooker says:

    We don’t know whether there really is significant danger in going out alone, or if Maria’s parents are overprotective. I will assume the danger exists, because this makes the case harder.

    Your obvious first move, from a utilitarian perspective, should be to approach Maria and try to convince her not to take the risk. You may be reluctant for Maria to see you as interfering, but if the danger is real, avoiding the risk should outweigh any squeamishness about interfering. You may protest that this is a “family matter” and “none of my business.” It is certainly a family matter. But saying it is none of your business merely begs the question at issue. Maybe it is your business.

    If Maria ignores your advice, you must make a judgment. Informing her parents will create negative fallout that is hard to predict, while there is a small chance that failure in inform them could result in serious injury to Maria. If you decide you should talk, you should start by warning Maria that you will do so, because this may avoid the necessity of going to her parents. Maria will resent this, but she will also resent learning that you went behind her back.

    If there is no rational way to balance the risks, the utilitarian principle has nothing to say. Either course of action satisfies it. This doesn’t help you decide, but the problem is not with ethics. We can’t expect ethics to make the world more predictable.

    If Maria had told you about her plans in confidence, alerting her parents could be an unethical breach of confidentiality. Presumably Maria tells her friends her secrets on the assumption that her friends won’t broadcast them to the world. Doing so is not generalizable, because if friends always betrayed confidence to avoid risk, they wouldn’t hear about risky plans in the first place. However, in this case, you overheard the plans, and so there is no obvious breach of confidence.

    One might bring virtue ethics into the picture by arguing that you owe your friend a loyalty obligation not to betray her plans. But virtue ethics is squishy in this case. Being a friend sometime requires tough love, and it is unclear whether it does this time.

    Ethics doesn’t require you to police the behavior of others. There is no obligation to intervene simply because someone is behaving unethically. However, if another person is about to harm herself or others, and you can prevent it, the utilitarian principle may require you to act. In the present case, it is hard to assess the outcomes, as explained above. If there is no rational way to do it, you can ethically intervene or not intervene, whichever you prefer.

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