Ethical Dilemmas and How To Approach Them

All families have secrets, and it’s almost inevitable that when we undertake genealogical research, that family secrets will emerge. Discovering family secrets might be wonderful, but they can often be distressing, upsetting and even confusing, for those involved. We might even find ourselves having to stop our research and reflect on what we have discovered and even question ourselves over what we should do with this newfound information. Here I will discuss the different types of ethical dilemmas that you might encounter whilst carrying out your research and I will highlight a few instances that I have uncovered on my own family history journey, where I have had to stop my research and reflect on what I had just discovered. I hope that by sharing this, it might help you, if you find yourself in a similar situation and you are wondering what you should do next.

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I should point out at this stage that this blog is aimed at an amateur researcher and not a qualified and accredited professional researcher. Professionals have to be accredited and follow a professional code of conduct, part of that will cover ethical dilemmas, but the same principles still apply for us ‘amateurs’.

We all come to family history and genealogy from different places and for different reasons and no two sets of circumstances are the same. But I don’t think that morals and ethics are at the forefront of our minds when we first start researching, this is something that we become more aware of as our research grows. As your family history skills become more advanced, the chances of you stumbling across ethical dilemmas increases and almost become an inevitability, but are we fully prepared for this? When you start your research they say “expect the unexpected”, but in situations like this, with potential life-changing discoveries hanging on your every decision, are you ready for the potential fall out from making the wrong decision?

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There have been at least three major discoveries on my own tree where I have really had to wrestle with my conscience and seek guidance and advice from others to help me to make an informed decision. I will highlight some of those here, but because of the potential life-changing nature of one of my discoveries, I am still unable to publicise that story, so in effect, I have become the keeper of my family secret.

Like I said earlier, I am not a professional researcher and I only research my own tree or occasional trees for friends. It was whilst I was researching a friends tree that it quickly became obvious that the person concerned’s father, had previously been married and this was not my friend’s mother. This left me with a clear dilemma, should I continue with the research or not and also whether I should pass on the information that I had discovered? I chose to discontinue with the research and not mention my discoveries to my friend, but this left me feeling uncomfortable afterwards. As a caveat to this, I always advise anyone that I carry out research for, that there is a possibility of uncovering something that might come as both a surprise and a shock and let them decide whether they wish me to continue or not. What would you do if you found yourself in a similar situation to mine? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Sometimes we can forget or overlook the burden of responsibility that comes with discovering a family secret. The weight of responsibility of the person who knows the family secret can be overwhelming and can eventually lead to family rifts. The decision of whether to tell family members about the secret is almost a no-win situation. It can destroy a family and tear up relationships, but equally, if you keep the secret for a long time and eventually the truth comes out and the family discover that you knew the secret all along, it could destroy your own family relationships. Therefore the burden of the secret holder is a huge cross to bear.

There is no easy answer to this problem, but it is something that we should all be aware of before undertaking any research. Many of us will have ordered a certificate and discovered something that we were not expecting, if that’s the case, what happens next? To tell or not tell, that is the question! The decisions we make can have a huge impact on many lives, but are we ready for that huge burden of responsibility? I know I certainly wasn’t.

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Ethical dilemmas don’t just stop there. Another big part of the ethical dilemmas that you might face when researching your family history concerns how much information should you publish online, either in a public tree for example, or a blog. Again a difficult and sensitive subject from which we will all have different opinions. Just because an ancestor lived and died 150 years ago, does that give us the right to publicise their criminal past or private letters, or mental health issues for example? This blog is not about me getting on my own moral high horse and being judgemental, these are all genuine concerns and issues that I have encountered myself during my own research and if my experiences can in some way help you with your own dilemmas then at least I will have achieved something.

Again I can give you an example directly from my own family tree regarding my own grandfather’s memoirs. My grandfather had started to write his own life story, but sadly never got to finish it before he died and I deliberated on what to do with his story for a long time before deciding to publish his story, you can read about the moral dilemmas I faced here:

My Genealogy Moral Dilemma

If you wanted to actually read my Grandfather’s story it can be found here:

Grandad’s Story

This is just another example of the different types of ethical dilemmas that you might discover whilst carrying out your family history research. The most important thing to consider when faced with a dilemma similar to the one I faced is the fact “once it’s out there, it’s out there”. Although you can of course delete something after the event, once something is in the public domain, the damage could already be done. So you need to think carefully about how you approach this. I am sure that all of us consider the lives of our ancestors, both with compassion and dignity and this should be reflected in what we are willing to publish about their lives. After all, those sadly no longer with us, have no choice about what we publish as family historians. Other things to consider, before we publish that family history biography; what if the information that you are about to put into the public domain was written about you, or an immediate member of your own family, would you be happy to make this public? Using that as our conscience, we need to therefore be considerate to those ancestors that have sadly passed, but also be mindful and have empathy for those still living today, who might be affected by what we publish. Like I said before, no two stories are the same and no two answers will be the same. When presented with a similar scenario myself, I simply ask myself, if the person that you are writing about was in the room with you today, would they be comfortable with what you have to say about them?

The important thing to remember of course, in all of this is, once the genie is out of the bottle (a family secret), you can’t unlearn something and these secrets can be life-changing.

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So to summarise, be careful what you publish and be aware of the potential consequences. Never compromise your own values. We all have a duty of care as keepers of the “family tree” to keep the privileged information that we uncover private. Remember, publishing incorrect information or just a rumour can be upsetting for loved ones and can quickly tarnish a reputation unnecessarily. We must balance our interest and quest to uncover the past, with ensuring that we also protect the feelings and wishes of the living. So think carefully before you hit “publish”, some things are kept secret for a reason.

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25 thoughts on “Ethical Dilemmas and How To Approach Them

  1. I so enjoyed your Grandad’s story, but I fully understand the dilemmas you faced. I too am the keeper of a Family Secret. At the same time I remember the forward you wrote to Elizabeth’s story where you said “the fact I am able to tell her story is the most important part”. Without stories such as your Grandad’s we would never be able to build an authentic picture of life in bygone times.

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    1. I’m pleased you enjoyed reading Grandad’s story and you enjoyed this blog. It’s always a fine balance and I hope that by sharing and reading about each other’s experiences that we can help each other to solve our own individual dilemmas.

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  2. Once I heard from a person who decided that there should be a two generations gap when sharing personal information. She sealed her parents letters to each other after they both passes away and instructed here future grandchildren to open them when they will grow up so that the connection between generations would be preserved. She felt, however, that it would be wrong for her to read her parents private letters. What are your thoughts?

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    1. That’s such a difficult scenario Hettie and I can fully understand the sentiment about why they would do such a thing. Personal letters really are a dilemma as they only ever intended to be read by the recipient. For me, something personal such as a letter I would certainly keep within Immediate family only. A memoir like my grandads was originally intended to be shared so on that basis I would happily share.

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      1. We don’t always get it right! All we can do is try our best and make an informed judgement which is key! Knee jerk reactions and decisions are fraught with danger, a reasoned informed approach always works if you manage it, easier said than done of course

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  3. Such a thought-provoking blog post and, as always, sensitive to feelings of those who came before, those now alive and those who will come after us. There are a couple of family secrets I’ve left in my files so that my genealogy heirs can decide whether the time will ever be right to disclose some or all of those stories. For me, the time is not right to disclose those stories.

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    1. Thank you Marian, I think it’s important that we consider the impact of what we do to those still around today. Like you, I have a family secret that I will be leaving for the next generation to decide what to do!

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  4. Thanks for another thought provoking post, Paul. The things we find out can certainly create some tricky dilemmas at times. I have one in particular that is causing me some angst.

    I am missing seeing your interactions on Twitter (but not missing Twitter … I hung on there for a while but after being alerted by my virus protection that my personal data had leaked from Twitter to the dark web, it was the last straw).

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words and I hope in some way that my blog helps with your own dilemma, at least you know you’re not the only one! I really hate that the genealogy community has become splintered I really miss how close everyone was

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  5. Thanks for another thought provoking post, Paul. The things we find out can certainly create some tricky dilemmas at times. I have one currenrly causing me some angst.

    I am missing seeing your interactions on Twitter (but not missing Twitter … I hung on there for a while but after being alerted by my virus protection that my personal data had leaked from Twitter to the dark web, it was the last straw).

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  6. This post directly addresses a current concern of mine: to what extent should I publish (or even tell relatives) what I have found out about about my father’s life in the 1920s? So far I have decided to leave out a few details, even though there is no one still alive who would be likely to take offense.

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    1. From experience all i would say is take your time, there’s absolutely no rush to publish anything. It’s been there since the 1920’s so a few more months won’t. Speak to who you need to, friends, family and canvas other people’s opinions, but ultimately don’t feel pressured to do anything that you’re not comfortable with. Once you publish it’s out there. taking your time will I am sure help you to come to the right decision, I hope that helps

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  7. I researched trees for lots of friends when I first got into genealogy, but I am more hesitant about doing so now. I definitely had a rose-tinted view of family history in the beginning. I imagined uncovering heroic stories à la WDYTYA or links to famous people/royalty. While you can find things like that, I eventually realised that it was equally possible to come across potentially upsetting information – including, in one awful case, graphic details of a brutal murder.

    As I say, I don’t do much genealogical research for others nowadays. But with the benefit of experience, wisdom, and hindsight, I think the best approach is to always have an open, honest conversation before commencing any research – and ask if the other person could deal with finding out anything “bad”.

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    1. I couldn’t have put it any better myself. It can be a steep learning curve in the beginning but I hope that anyone reading this blog, it will help to to resolve any of their own personal dilemmas from their own research

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