Everyday ethics: Should I visit my mother?

My family may drive from Boston to New York to visit my mother for a day. We think that if we sit with her outside, it will lift her and our spirits. She’s against us going, but we know that she will be happier if we go. Should we go to the airport? Do we put anyone else in danger besides my mother?

Why would you do something your mother strongly opposes if you think you know what will make her happy better than she does? Even if it were trivial – such as “taste this dish, I’m sure you’ll love it” – one would question whether this was the best approach.

Why would you put your mother at risk for something that she doesn’t want, especially during a pandemic? In your question, you asked if there was a risk for anyone other than your mother. This shows that you are aware of the risk.

The respect of autonomy is a central ethical debate. Should you force someone to do something that goes against their moral beliefs because it is supposed to serve a greater moral goal, even if it violates those personal moral beliefs?

The debate is raging in schools of thought that judge the morality and consequences of actions. This includes utilitarianism. It is about whether an individual is selfish if they care more for their happiness than a greater number of people. One of the most common examples used to criticize utilitarianism is whether it’s right to force someone to kill another human being if that will save more lives.

We discussed this in ethics class by using the “trolley” problem – would you put one person at risk to save five others if a train was out of control and heading straight towards them? You may think it’s for the “greater” good, but would you do it? Are you still immoral if your answer is “no”?

Those who see this as a violation of individual autonomy believe that utilitarianism’s moral demands are absurd. How can it be ethical to demand that someone perform an act they are personally against?

Even if you are useful in your case, I believe you’d be on very shaky ethical ground. Imagine that your visit was a disaster and made your mother angry, or worse, she received COVID-19. You could spend the first part of your visit blaming her for not telling you to come, but you still did. These unpleasant scenarios are not impossible.

Even if your visit was safe and enjoyable, you still have to question whether violating the autonomy of your mother is worth it to increase happiness in general – including hers.