Monday, January 22, 2007

Keeper of Secrets

Suppose that I was a volunteer with a humanitarian organization and I was serving a stint in Baghdad when Saddam Hussein wrote from prison to request compassionate visits from our office. In the weeks before he was convicted and executed, I’d go to the prison twice a week and sit with him in a meeting room for an hour or so. He told me stories of his boyhood. Eventually he related episodes of his sexual abuse by an older male relative, now deceased.

He wished to tell this story, he said, because he wanted people to know what had befallen him in childhood. At my encouragement, he forwarded a written account of the abuse to my office, and some my colleagues wrote him letters expressing their dismay and compassion. Others were more skeptical. One, in particular, undertook a cursory investigation and discovered that the man Mr. Hussein had identified as his abuser had in fact never existed. Mr. Hussein’s answer to this was that he’d constructed a fake identity for this person in order to protect his family. His abuser was still alive. Despite this explanation, his credibility suffered. My colleagues moved on to other things.

Mr. Hussein was found guilty and the day of his execution loomed, At the office, I received a note from him once again requesting my presence. He said he had something important to tell me, and I went to meet him at the prison. The story of his victimization at the hands of a pedophile was, he said, entirely made up. He was merely exercising creative license as a writer of fiction. None of it had happened.

Because he had initially gained the sympathy of some of my colleagues, this information distressed me, I sought the advice of the individual who had exposed part of his lie. This person encouraged me to relate this latest disclosure to our organization, so that they might know the full extent of the deception. Though Mr. Hussein had not asked me to keep the information confidential, I wasn’t comfortable putting it in a memo for all to read. I would, I said, seek Mr. Hussein’s permission to disclose it. I made an appeal to Mr. Hussein the day before his hanging, but he requested that I not reveal this last part of his deception. He said he was convinced that his sin was cleansed by his admission to me, but that if others were party to the information, their judgment of him would surely jeopardize his chances for immortality in the afterlife. This seemed so ridiculous to me that I wondered if he even believed it himself.

Nevertheless, I did not tell anyone of his last disclosure. The colleague I had consulted has on several occasions since expressed his dismay at my refusal to speak out. He has not opted to reveal the information himself.

Questions: Is it moral or immoral to keep a liar’s confidences, even from those to whom he lied? What consequences might come about if one were to break such a confidence? Should I have revealed Mr. Hussein's last secret? Why has my colleague not revealed it?

7 comments:

MsZilla said...

-- Whether or not anyone on earth knows about this, his deity of choice already does. Allah has the "all-seeing, all-knowing" attributes just like our local Jehovah.

-- That bit about the opinion of earthly men having anything to do with the destination of his immortal soul is BS in his expressed faith. That's all up to the will of Allah.

-- I'm assuming that in your little thought experiment he was hanged on schedule. So he's dead. Whether you tell anyone a thing or not is going to have no bearing on anything for him.

-- I'm assuming from your post here that this information did not leave your organization. There is no one else who heard the lie.

-- The bulk of your colleagues already don't believe him. Why they may not have all the details, they have already agreed with the substance of that last statement and gone on.

-- That colleague who did the investigation and started to unravell the whole thing knows he was right already.

Those points stipulated, here's my take:

-- Should I have revealed Saddam’s last secret? I'll answer back with, "To whom, and why?" The rest of the world doesn't know, and your colleagues may not know that he admitted it but they already know the fact that he lied.

-- Why hasn’t my colleague revealed it? Why that colleague has kept their trap shut is beyond me. They didn't do it the first time. If they're too chicken to do it because they fear other's opinions then that's their lookout.

-- Is it moral or immoral to keep a liar’s confidences? Moral or immoral is really beside the point here. Once a person has lied to you, without exterior evidence you have no real way of knowing whether or not anything is the truth here. And with this sort of thing all you can do is start a shitstorm of he-said/she-said with no real good outcome possible.

You don't even consider the possiblity that the last "confession" he doesn't want you to share is a lie, too. He may have chickened out on his revelations and was trying to go back on them. You have no way of knowing. And your little moral crusade for justice there might just be another run down the Rabbit Hole.

My question is, is it moral or immoral to spread a liar's lies even farther and give them even a shred of your own credibility in the process. Because that's what you risk every time you forward on any facts. Particularly of a personal nature like this.

-- What consequences come about if one breaks such a confidence? Are you asking me if you're going to ache-ee-double-hockeysticks or something? I would imagine it depends on the circumstances. In this case, I can't see how.

But this sort of thing is why I try my level best to never reveal anything told to me, "in confidence" or otherwise.

Dawn Coyote said...

MsZilla: Your six assumptions are correct.

Another way to frame it might be: To whom do I owe what duty? What duty to Mr. Hussein? What duty do I owe the colleague whose advice I sought? What duty do I owe my colleagues?

I’m leaving out the question regarding the duty of an atheist to a believer. It’s more than the story will bear.

I was thinking of earthy consequences to the individual or community, in concrete terms.

Your question about the morality of involving oneself in a liar’s business is a good one. “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and all that. And here I am providing Mr. Hussein with still more airtime, alas. But this isn’t really about him, at all.

Thanks for the thoughtful response.

Gregor Samsa said...

I’ll mumble on some general issues and blithely ignore many details of your hypothetical. One problem I have with categorical imperative type reasoning is that it seems to gloss over the complexity of modern society and the specialization of roles. Should we always spread the truth and seek to redress wrongs as far as our knowledge and capacity permits? Well, not necessarily -- not if you are a defense lawyer, a priest at confessional or shrink to a sex offender, for example. Effective representation or healing may sometimes require us to work against the broader goals of justice, which is why we have stuff like attorney-client privilege. By maximizing justice in the short run, we may undermine representation or healing (and thereby justice too) in the long run.

So I think approaching the problem you pose will require, first and foremost, to assess your exact role in the situation -- a specialist confidante or an accidental fly-on-the-wall. I think the moral onus depends a lot on that. The former role would require you to be a bit servile to your client's wishes. One has to give it to Judith Miller that once in her career, she took a stand for a (arguably) useful principle. A rule which maximizes information available to the public must have some provision for suppressing it on occasion.

Another hypothetical: you’ve been kidnapped for ransom. The money has been paid but just before release, you accidentally discover the identity of your captor (Voila! It’s daveto!) Of course, now that his cover is blown, he’s gotta kill you. But you promise on your mother’s name that you won’t lead the cops to him, and after some reflection and assessing you to be trustworthy, he lets you go. Do you now provide the info to get a criminal off the streets, or do you honor the promise to which you owe your life? The point being that there often is a temporal conflict between what makes a good “universal law” (the one which requires you to help incarcerate those who harm others, or the one which requires you to disincentivize murder?) I suppose a good Kantian will upbraid me for introducing incentives into ethics, but I think it’s patently impractical otherwise.

Dawn Coyote said...

To Gregor: I wasn’t trying for categorical imperative reasoning—more like utilitarian, but what do I know? I’d like to blame my failures here on my lousy depth perception, but it’s not the lazy eye that’s the problem. My lack of stereoscopic vision makes me a lousy shot, too: I was aiming for something like this: if someone you trust discloses the secret of someone you despise, how does that change your opinion of the person you trust, and what are the broader implications of that in the community. Why wouldn’t the consulted individual make the disclosure himself? Why does he keep the secret he’d have the secret keeper reveal? Is he uncomfortable relating second-hand information? Does he feel a duty to protect her confidence, even though it’s predicated on a confidence he doesn’t feel ought to be protected? And there’s the question of credibility that MsZilla introduced. How can one believe anything a liar says?

No obligation to answer, of course. I’m probably as clear on this as I’m likely to get. Perhaps the best lesson to be taken from this is “don’t volunteer to hear a liar’s confession.”

Gregor Samsa said...

Dawn: I wasn’t ascribing any particular ethical framework to your thinking. I just took an excuse to pontificate.

I don’t think it’s too hard to find consistency in your colleague’s behavior. S/he acknowledges your proprietory right over the information as part of the implicit compact of working with you, but s/he disagrees with your use of it. Say Professor A tells Prof B that he’s discovered cheating in a student’s paper, but has decided to let him off. Is it unreasonable for B to urge A to report the incident, but decline to jump the gun and do so himself?

Regarding credibility, I tend to take the non-paternalistic stance that people can judge what to make of a claim as long as they are also told of the source. There is no need to shield people from the claim itself. The ethical problem reporters face regularly is that “unnamed government official” doesn’t inform readers of the degree of conflict of interest of said official. There is no good reason to screen signed press releases, but anonymous tips require a judgment call before publication. Let the boy who cried wolf cry wolf.

The only problem I see is that agreeing to be a confidante imposes by default an ethical obligation to the confessor to guard his secrets as he wishes, and sometimes this may clash with your assessment of what is in the interest of the community to hear. However, if he’s gonna also use me as a conduit for info to others, I’d try to negotiate beforehand some control over what I can release. Absent that, I’ll feel somewhat obliged, but if the guy’s planning to blow up a city, I’d feel comfortable calling the cops.

I don’t see what negative inference can be drawn from your described role except possibly that you may have been a useful idiot.

Dawn Coyote said...

Well, I don't know how useful I was, since I wasn't really a conduit for information. What I think happened is that I haplessly allowed myself to be placed in a double bind for someone else's twisted amusement. The fact that the "colleague" continues to bring it up a year and a half later, even though I've "left the company," is just a persisent annoyance. I suppose I understand his reluctance to reveal information that seems to be my juridiction, but on the other hand, I don't see much in the way of consequences if he does. The (non-)secret is so insignificant (in context), that the revelation of it would be the anticlimax of the week. Three things keep me from disclosing it: 1) stubborn defiance; 2) the belief that the knowledge would make no difference to anyone other than myself and my colleague (people just don't care), and 3) the idea that doing so would diminish others' trust in my discretion. The last one is most important to me.

TenaciousK said...

Well, not necessarily -- not if you are a defense lawyer, a priest at confessional or shrink to a sex offender, for example.

Gregor - for whatever it's worth, the abuse reporting statutes (and ethical considerations) trump client confidentiality in the case of your pedophile and therapist.

In this state, ecclesiastical figures are allowed to maintain confidentiality if the abuse was disclosed by the perpetrator (odd, that they should have more lattitude than a therapist I think). If the abuse is reported by the victim, confidentiality (even if previously kept for the same offense) evaporates.