I work for an international medical-aid nongovernmental organization. I usually have a perfectly safe desk job at headquarters. Recently I was offered a three-week detachment to Ukraine and decided to take it. My job there won’t be near the front lines; I’ll be in Kyiv, which admittedly has been experiencing some targeted airstrikes, and moving a little toward the southeast. I am not blind to the risks of being in a country at war. My partner is supportive, and I’ve told my brother.
The issue is what to tell my parents. My mother, in particular, was quite worried about my previous detachments to places that were deemed relatively safer. I am planning to tell my parents that I’m staying in a town in a country near the Ukrainian border — I’ll be passing through it on my way to Ukraine — and will tell them the truth only once I’m safely back. Although my brother isn’t happy about where I’m heading and about the fact that I haven’t told our parents, he agrees that they should be spared the worry.
I already feel guilty for not telling them now, and I am worried about their reaction when I reveal the truth. It has come to the point where I’m considering not telling them anything at all. What’s my duty here? Do I tell them now and have my mother racked with stress, anxiety and sleepless nights for three weeks? Do I tell them later and risk hurting them and undermining their trust in me? Or is ignorance bliss? Name Withheld
I understand your desire to spare your parents stress, and don’t lightly set it aside. But what you’re contemplating is not simply an act of omission. You would, in fact, be actively deceiving them — leading them to believe something that is not true.
If you came clean after your sojourn in Ukraine was over, your parents would rightly feel that they were treated disrespectfully. What’s more, your mother, in particular, may feel needless anxiety about your safety in the future, having concluded that your assurances can’t be trusted. And if you try to cover up the whole thing altogether? You, your partner and your brother will have the burden in your parents’ company of taking care never to slip up in an unguarded moment. Were your parents to discover the truth later, they would probably feel even more deeply betrayed.
So tell them. Explain that you know they will worry but that you want to maintain a relationship of honesty and trust. You may have to deal with a long argument about whether you should have agreed to go. But you can talk to them about the considerations that led you and your employers to conclude that the risk was reasonable. That won’t entirely reassure them about your safety — experiencing anxiety about people you love is, alas, part of what loving them entails — but it will reassure them of your caring, candor and respect.
A few months ago, the wife of a very close friend asked if I would babysit for their 2-year-old son for the evening. I love kids, and as a gay man who doesn’t plan on having children of my own, I welcomed the opportunity to help them out. She didn’t say what their plans were, only that they would be gone for a few hours. Respecting their privacy, I didn’t inquire further.
When the couple returned home that evening, my friend’s wife told me that they had been at a “pro-life rally” at a local church, where a nationally known (and notably anti-L.G.B.T.Q.) political figure spoke.
This couple and I do not openly discuss our political views, but they know that I’m an out gay man and that I support abortion rights. Reflecting on the situation, I found myself feeling used and deceived by her. (I’m fairly certain that she was the one who really wanted to attend the event and that my friend complied.) Worse, I felt that I had indirectly supported causes that do not align with my beliefs. On the other hand, who am I to dictate what is acceptable for them to do on their night out? Should my agreeing to watch their son really come with stipulations? Name Withheld
In this case, I don’t see that anyone was guilty of active deception: Your friends simply omitted saying ahead of time what they would be doing that evening. Still, you could reasonably think it was manipulative of them not to tell you something that they knew might have affected your decision to babysit for them.
You refer parenthetically to the figure with anti-L.G.B.T.Q. views; it seems you find that this is a troubling but incidental feature of the situation. Gallup polls from the past two years have found that while 70 percent of Republicans consider themselves “pro-life,” a growing number — 55 percent — support same-sex marriage. Having out gay friends like you may play a role. Friendships with those who we think are mistaken about the important moral and political questions that divide our nation can be fraught. But we should be open to them. Something goes wrong when we treat people as simply a member of a faction we oppose, or reduce them to a policy position. These friendships have civic value, too; they allow us to talk about fractious issues with people we know and value. Maybe this would have been an opportunity to do so?
What I don’t see is that your babysitting made you an indirect supporter of a cause you don’t agree with. You had no reason to know what they were doing that evening. Suppose you discovered afterward that the couple not only visited an anti-abortion rally but also worked a shift at the local soup kitchen. Reproaching yourself for supporting the anti-abortion movement would be as misplaced as congratulating yourself for helping feed the indigent.
The neighbors who live behind us are, like us, animal lovers. We appreciate and respect them for that. They have five or six indoor cats; we have two indoor kitties and a parrot. We don’t socialize with the neighbors, but over the fence we chat about our pets, the weather and gardening. In other words, we get along.
But now they’ve taken their love of animals to the next level and, unfortunately, added a common rodent to their list of favorites: They are treating countless squirrels to a never-ending buffet of peanuts in the shell. The squirrels are digging everywhere there is dirt in order to bury their treasure. The bottomless abundance of our neighbors’ peanut inventory has far outpaced any reasonable supply-and-demand algorithm for the entire neighborhood; it also seems to have tripled or quadrupled the nearby squirrel population, making it a sort of terror show. My and my other neighbor’s potted plants, gardens and even lawns are riddled with unearthed plants, unfilled holes and peanut shells.
We know there are commercially available anti-rodent products that can be spread over “sensitive” areas, but it would cost a small fortune to coat every inch of our 50-foot-by-110-foot lot. How do we approach the subject with our neighbors without sounding like ogres or putting an end to an amicable relationship? Michael, St. Catharines, Ontario
I take my lead here from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wild Animal Health Fund and PAWS, the Progressive Animal Welfare Society. They all point out the dangers that this well-meaning practice poses to wildlife. The food we provide can prevent young animals from developing proper skills as foragers. It can concentrate the population of a species in ways that increase the spread of diseases among them, which for squirrels may include leptospirosis, tularemia, squirrel pox and notoedric mange. It can lead them to lose their fear of people, which can make them appear aggressive or rabid and increase the probability that people will end up killing them. It can distort reproduction rates beyond what’s sustainable in the long term. And it can unbalance their diet; most animals fare best with a variety of foods. (The Fish and Wildlife Service says that bird feeders are OK, though.)
All these organizations have informative web pages on the topic. Your provincial government probably does, too. Take a look at one or two of them. Tell your neighbors you’ve done so, and invite them to do the same. After all, you and your neighbors are animal lovers — and love is best when it isn’t blind.
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.)