Should I Have Lied to Help My Kid Brother Get Vaccinated?

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To see it from your parents’ point of view, imagine that you have two kids. Your son wants to get treated by a traditional healer who serves a god your religion believes it is sinful to honor, and his big sister, who worships that god, too, arranges for this. She has provided a treatment for your son that served no purpose. Worse, she led him to betray his faith. It would be natural for you to feel resentment.

The point is that for some people, opposing what we know to be sensible public-health measures is central to their identities, in the way religion can be. That’s deeply unfortunate. But it’s important in understanding your parents’ reaction. If you had helped your brother get a fake ID, I suspect, your father might have been mad, but you’d be back on speaking terms. In this instance, you showed not only that you disagreed with your parents about their views but also, more wounding, that you didn’t trust them to look after your brother — to fulfill the basic responsibilities of parenting.

Many people are drawn to a bookkeeping model of morality: Tot up a row of numbers, determine whether there’s a plus or a minus in front of the sum and proceed with no regrets. Suppose that, owing to personal or public obligations, you have to tell a lie. The moral bookkeepers would assure you: The math works out, your conscience is clean, don’t give it a second thought. The greater wisdom is in both regretting the deception and understanding why it was justified. With hard choices, there’s no option that’s best in every way. We can, coherently, feel bad about actions we would not undo. It speaks well of you, as a loving child and as a caring sibling, that you’re uneasy.

I can see why you didn’t simply start by trying to persuade your parents to let your brother get vaccinated. You’ve plainly had unrewarding conversations with them about these issues and found that they are firmly in the grip of their delusions. Telling them about your intentions in advance would have been respectful but surely futile; indeed, they may have taken steps to keep your brother out of your hands. Still, if you hadn’t had a conversation in advance, it would, I agree, have been more respectful to come clean once it was done.

So tell your parents that you acted out of love and concern for your brother but that you understand and are sorry that you betrayed their trust. Of course, you’re sorry too that your parents have these gravely mistaken views — but you don’t need to say so, because they know it already.

Often we face choices where we can reason our way to one clear answer. We can then say that we’re “complying” with what moral reason dictates. But sometimes complexity swamps compliance: We simply have to turn inward for guidance and own our decisions. In fact, Chang argues, it’s when we’re making hard choices that we become “the authors of our own lives.” We decide what we’re for — we decide who we are. Helping your younger brother get vaccinated and setting out to repair your relations with your parents aren’t self-canceling impulses; they’re self-defining ones.

I’m writing from a nonprofit Zen center, technically a church in the eyes of the I.R.S. We’ve been holding monthly board meetings by Zoom, and one member has been attending in a state of inebriation. The meetings start midmorning and last up to two hours. During that time, the officer drinks from a cup, and her speech becomes increasingly slurred. All of the board members, including the officer in question, are members of our church, and all are highly regarded. Our ethics policy discourages intoxication at the center, but doesn’t refer to Zoom meetings.