In her otherwise awful book How Could You Do That?!, Dr. Laura rightly observes that the most common kind of question asked on her radio show is “Now that I’ve done all these things I shouldn’t have done, how can I avoid the consequences I knew, but denied, and just hoped would not happen?” In my capacity as a moral philosopher, I’ve certainly seen my share of that plea for help with irresponsibility, including from some supposed Objectivists. Yet this “Dear Abby” column is perhaps the most strikingly blatant example ever:
DEAR ABBY: My heart is pounding and I’m at my wit’s end. This situation is difficult to explain. I’m afraid that other readers may be facing the same horror that I’m dealing with, so please advise us on how to handle an extremely delicate situation.
My husband has it in his head to do genetic testing for “genealogy” purposes. It isn’t cheap. One of the places he wants testing from charges a couple of hundred dollars. He has asked me to have it done, too. I told him I wasn’t interested and I thought it was too expensive.
Now he wants to have our 17-year-old son tested. I have argued that our son should not have his DNA on record anywhere, that he really needs both parents to give consent for testing, and it costs too much.
The horror I really have is that, 18 years ago, I made an awful mistake. I don’t know if my husband is the father of our son. I’m having panic attacks about his finding out how awful I was 18 years ago.
Can you issue advice that these DNA tests should not be used on minor children, and that there are powerful reasons why not? Can you think of any other reasons I can give for not having him tested so I can convince my husband to drop the idea? Please don’t reveal where we live. You can say it’s Minnesota. — IN A PANIC!
DEAR IN A PANIC!: Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive. (And no, I didn’t coin the phrase.)
Although you have my sympathy, I think it takes a lot of gall to ask me to lie in my column. I cannot come up with a reason why your son should not be tested because there are reasons why everyone should be — particularly before having children. (Two of them are Tay-Sachs and sickle-cell anemia.) I have news for you. Your husband already has his suspicions about whether he fathered the boy. That’s why he’s determined to have him tested. If I were you, I’d take a few deep breaths and come clean before the guano hits the fan — and that’s the best advice I can offer. Confession is good for the soul.
Contrary to Abby, I regard genetic testing as a pointless waste of money without some significant familial or racial history of testable genetic disease. (If Paul and I were to have children, we certainly wouldn’t need to be tested for Tay-Sachs and sickle-cell anemia! Our offspring would have hybrid vigor!) And I don’t think Abby has reason to so definitely conclude that the father wishes the boy to the tested because of doubts about his paternity. It’s a plausible hypothesis though, since the offered justification of “genealogy purposes” seems weak. That being said, I’m delighted to see Abby call this woman to the carpet for the “gall” of asking for help in more lying to conceal her misdeeds.
At this point, I suppose I should mention that my paper on such false excuses, “False Excuses: Honesty, Wrongdoing, and Moral Growth,” published in 2004 in the Journal of Value Inquiry (Volume 38, Number 2, pages 171-185), is available here. (I didn’t write this post intending to plug that paper, but I suppose the topic caught my attention for good reason!)