Here’s a quandary for you.
Martin and Maria are happily married and devoted to each other. Maria has a cat, Fluffy. Fluffy was Maria’s mother’s companion, and since Maria’s mom passed away, Fluffy has become even more precious to Maria.
Fluffy is getting along in years, so it’s no surprise that she no longer sees very well, that she doesn’t hear much, and that she has recently become less steady on her feet. It is clear to everyone, including Maria, that all of Fluffy’s nine lives are coming to an end.
Maria’s work demands that she travel out of province for a few days. Just when she is about to leave, Fluffy disappears! Frantic searching, setting out favourite treats, and calling incessantly have unearthed no sign of Fluffy. Maria is distraught.
It would have been sad if Fluffy had died peacefully in Maria’s arms, but to have lost her this way seems too cruel. Even if she could believe that Fluffy deliberately wandered off to die, Maria is beside herself. She doesn’t know for sure where her precious Fluffy is, and she will not even have a grave over which to mourn.
With a heavy heart, Maria sets out on her journey. She has extracted a promise from Martin that he will look for Fluffy every day till she returns. Martin readily agreed.
What’s the quandary? Martin wants to do everything he possibly can to reduce Maria’s pain. He can’t bring Fluffy back. He could get her another cat, of course. However, he knows that no cat can replace Fluffy, and Maria might even perceive the gesture as an insult.
Now, it has occurred to Martin that there is something he could do! He could create a grave for Fluffy. He could tell Maria that he found Fluffy in the woods, brought her home, and buried her in their beautiful garden. It won’t bring Fluffy back, but in Martin’s mind, it would bring some measure of comfort to Maria. She’d have a definite answer about Fluffy’s demise and a place to mourn and remember her.
Martin’s only motivation is to try to reduce Maria’s heartache. So, which is better? Deceive Maria by pretending to have found Fluffy, thus possibly bringing her a sense of closure and reducing her sense of loss? Or tell the truth: that he searched every day for Fluffy, found no sign of her, and there’s no choice other than to accept that Fluffy is gone forever.
While this tale is about a cat, the general quandary applies to plenty of serious situations. Would you make a decision that involves a small deceit in an effort to reduce someone’s suffering? Or would you have them work through their painful reality? Is it ever appropriate to mislead someone to spare their feelings, that is, to deceive “for their own good”?
The more general question: does a good intent—the fact that you perceive your action as a kindness— outweigh the inherit badness of a deception?
What would you suggest to Martin? What do you think a choice theory response to this quandary would be?