Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q.I read your column about making an ethical decision and it made me think about something that happened in my family.

My parents split about 10 years ago. I was 7. I never knew much about why they divorced. Last month my older brother told me he was part of it. At first I thought he had to be wrong. I like psychology and read a lot. I know it’s common for kids to blame themselves for divorce, and I told him that. He said, in his case, it was true. He was 16 then, and he discovered our dad was cheating on our mom. He debated telling her for a long time, and keeping the secret made his life change. His grades dropped. He withdrew from friends.

Once he told mom the truth, they separated but he felt better. I know he went through a true ethical dilemma. I was too young to help him. I’m glad he told me now. I wonder what I would’ve done.

In your opinion, was he correct to share information that broke up our parents’ marriage? Knowing what I know now, like how messy the divorce has been and how difficult it is to spend time with our dad, I’m not sure he did the right thing for us.

Was it the right thing to do? Our mom has remarried and seems happy, but I don’t get along with our stepdad. My brother never had to live with him. Can a decision be the right thing for one person in a family but the wrong thing for another person?

17-year-old

Mary Jo’s response: Your questions show wisdom and insight beyond your years. I’m impressed with your critical thinking skills and the empathetic way you consider everyone’s feelings. I’m honored you wrote to me.

Yes, your brother did endure an ethical dilemma. He was faced with a challenging choice and weighed the pros and cons of his decision. He knew sharing would hurt your parents and tried to keep a secret. His reactions to holding the information inside – failing grades, withdrawing from friends, and, even depression – were signs the stress of not sharing wasn’t mentally healthy. Mr. Rogers said “we are all one piece.” I think he meant our bodies, minds and spirits are all affected by the choices we make and the trauma we endure. Many young people’s lives are changed by mental stress and anxiety.

You ask a tough question: Did your brother do the right thing? You’re trying to be a Monday morning quarterback. Do you know the term? Most football happens over the weekend; a Monday morning quarterback has the advantage of knowing the game play and can offer suggestions after the fact. Advice given after a decision isn’t fair, since the results of the choice are known. I try to avoid “What Ifs.” “What Ifs” are thoughts we all have where we replay our life’s choices and agonize over them. What if we reacted assertively instead of our real response to a bully? What if we studied more for a test we failed? We need to learn from our past choices and grow, moving forward, without self-blame.

You also ponder what you would’ve done in your brother’s place. Keeping this secret from your mother may have put off your parents’ divorce, but it wouldn’t have healed their relationship. How would that awareness affect your decision?

Your final question is your most powerful one. Absolutely, a decision can be good for one person and bad for another. The true challenge of an ethical dilemma lies in the ambiguity of knowing how everyone involved will be affected. I learned about a common dilemma called the Trolley Problem in college; it was created by philosopher Phillppa Foot in 1967. You can view the Problem here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yg16u_bzjPE. It is a thought experiment that asks people if they would sacrifice one person’s life to save five people. There are many variations as well as critics of the problem, but it might appeal to your thinking skills.

While I’m very glad your mom is happy, I’m sorry you find living with your stepdad difficult. Have you tried talking with your mom and explaining your feelings? She may be able to help you with the relationship. At a minimum, your mother would have insight into your thoughts.

Thank you again for thinking and writing. May you face few difficult ethical dilemmas in life.

Peer Educator response: One of the toughest things some of us deal with is living with an adult we don’t like just because a parent choose that adult as a partner. It’s not easy. Still, we think your brother did the right thing. Keeping the secret would have hurt your mom.

Q. What if I know my best friend’s girlfriend is cheating? Should I tell him?

15-year-old

Mary Jo’s response: I paired your question with the one above because they are similar. You risk the loss of your best friend if he chooses not to believe you. You also may alienate his girlfriend if your friend remains with her. On the other hand, it can be difficult to watch a good friend as he is betrayed.

One thing you must consider is the validity of your knowledge. Is it only a rumor, or do you have solid proof? I also think you need to honestly examine your reasons for telling your friend. Are they genuine?

Do you have a conflict of interest in the situation (for example, are you jealous he’s happy?) Doing the right thing is often challenging. Good luck making a difficult decision.

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