DEAR CAROLYN: My sister-in-law recently opened a now-successful consulting business that provides behavioral therapy for children and young adults. Some of her clients attend the same small private preschool my kids attend. The school adheres to a strict vaccine policy that does not accept conscience exemptions (rampant in our state), only medical. I was a leader in bringing this policy to the school because my son is severely immunocompromised. My sister-in-law let it slip that she definitely knows of a family "lying about their vaccination forms." She never revealed the name and I didn't push. I did suggest she immediately contact the preschool director, but she told me, "I'm not in the business of telling on my clients." I was initially beside myself with anger. I didn't feel comfortable telling the director myself, since I didn't have a name or evidence, just hearsay — and if I'm honest with myself, I didn't want my sister-in-law to lose access to clients. My husband doesn't speak much to her and gave me a flat "no" when I asked him to talk his sister about it. It's been a while, and I'm still mad and perplexed at the way the situation was handled. Should I have pushed more? Did I fail my son by protecting her business over him? Did she have an ethical obligation to report? Was I asking/expecting too much? Where have society's morals gone?!
ANONYMOUS: You tell us, since you're the one who helped your relative help a client cheat because it was good for her business.
I do appreciate your candor, with yourself and with us. Please now shine that ray of light on "society's morals": You describe making a bunch of small calculations that you no doubt see as well-intentioned, and those calculations led you to choose pragmatism on your sister-in-law's behalf over principle.
So why can't it be that other people, just like you, are also making a bunch of small calculations they also think are well-meaning, and coming to a flawed, even dangerous conclusion? Why do you see these nameless people in "society" as so immoral while you're generally OK with yourself?
You are now questioning your role, yes, that's no small thing — and I'd like to see record-falsifying parents prosecuted for fraud. Notwithstanding, your view of other people is a textbook illustration of fundamental attribution error. For you, it's a wrenching decision under complicated circumstances; for other people, it's ... bad morals?
Please clean up your thinking here. It's all people with wrenching decisions under complicated circumstances.
From there, of course, people make better and worse decisions, from heroic to criminal — many of them not knowing (or unable to judge) their impact. Anti-vaxxers feel justified, too, remember.
The first right thing for bystanders to do, when deciding how to act on knowledge of others' bad decisions, is put selfish motives aside. Followed by a hard "Is this necessary?" reckoning.
It was your sister-in-law's responsibility to drop this client and to ask the director — names withheld — what the school's policy and recommendations are for these situations. It was and remains your responsibility to risk family backlash and challenge her "don't tell on clients" ethos with a "kids like your nephew count on us to act in good faith" argument. Because you can, and because they do.