Maybe, maybe not. You and your co-workers have lots more evidence about what kind of person she is, and you might have reason to think she’s basically honest, with this one exception. Honesty has many different dimensions; a body of research in social psychology suggests that we go wrong when we imagine it to be a “global character trait.” The scrupulous accountant might be lying to his wife about his philandering; the student who cheats on exams may be utterly upfront with his friends; and so on.
And I’ll give your boss one thing. The very fact that you’re thinking about telling her to change her ways says something positive about the workplace that she has created. It may not be ruled by absolute honesty, but — in ways not to be taken for granted — it plainly isn’t ruled by fear either.
More than a year ago, I moved 300 miles from home to care for my elderly, bedbound father until his death. (My mother predeceased him.) I have handled my parents’ finances, legal and medical needs and managed their homes since my father started having health problems three years ago. The past year was an incredibly difficult time. I did not see my husband or my two college-age children for much of the last year because Covid made visits too risky. One of my sisters has not even visited my parents for 15 years. My other sister shared some of the responsibility and also came to live with him last summer while her salon was closed, but, during his six final months, she canceled visits many times and came to see him for one five-day stay. The other sister made many excuses and then stopped speaking to me. I am so angry at them for failing to visit him, in his confusion and sadness, and for leaving me alone for six months to watch him die.
Here’s my dilemma: When his lawyer asked me to check accounts for beneficiaries, I discovered that all the accounts are divided equally among the three of us — except for one, which lists only me as the primary beneficiary. This account probably amounts to one third of the estate, excluding the real estate. It’s possible he set this account up a long time ago, and because I’m the oldest, it may have just been an oversight that he didn’t change it to all three of us. If my sisters had helped out, I wouldn’t hesitate to split this account with them. But my anger screams, “Karma!” None of us are struggling financially. Am I being unethical if I don’t share the account with them? Name Withheld
What really matters here isn’t what you want or what your sisters want. It’s what your father would have wanted. If you’re sure that he would have wanted an equal division, you should aim for that. If you’re sure that he would have been happy to see you take your full allotment, I see no problem in accepting it. But if you don’t know what he would have wanted? Then you’re also entitled to keep this sum, given that you took on the onus of care. Bear in mind, however, that the red mist of anger has a peculiar way of magnifying the past while blotting out the future. You might take time to consider how what you do today will affect your sororal relationships five or 10 years from now. Finally, because this isn’t money you need, you might take the opportunity to do some philanthropy in your father’s memory. Though you might want to keep some of the money for lawyer’s fees in case your siblings sue.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)