Ethics Quiz: The Lottery Winner’s Sister-in-Law

_rich_man_poor_man“Dear Prudence” (a.k.a Emily Yoffe), my least favorite advice columnist (who answers weird questions from weird people at Slate), received an ethics quiz worthy query from a woman whose husband has had some business reverses and now, as he near retirement age, is looking at two jobs and tarnished golden years without a pension or vacations. Meanwhile, her husband’s brother (let’s assume this is true: it sounds like a hypothetical to me) won 50 million bucks in the lottery a few years ago, and is having a ball. The two brothers are on good terms and speak often. She asks,

“What I don’t understand is how he can stand to see his little brother so stressed and working so hard while he has more money than he could spend in a dozen lifetimes. Obviously he is under no obligation, but he does not seem to realize how hard it is to see how he spends his money on travel and amusements. I think he should help his brother out. What do you think?”

Prudence  thinks the poor brother should ask the rich brother for money, and that if he won’t, the wife of the poor brother should:

“Sure, he has no obligation to help out his brother, but at this point I think it’s appropriate to ask. When it comes to difficult in-law relations, I usually advise for the immediate family member do the speaking, but in this case it might soften the potential awkwardness for everyone if the request came from you. Before you act, first discuss this with your husband. He may say he finds this idea mortifying, but I hope he doesn’t try to forbid you. Then if you do go to your brother-in-law, start by saying this is an uncomfortable meeting for you, but that you are asking for his help particularly because you are concerned about the effect working two jobs is having on your husband’s health. Say that if he would consider setting up some kind of annuity that would allow your husband to get by on only one job, you two could start rebuilding toward an eventual, frugal, retirement.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is this:

“Is is it ethical for the poor brother or his wife to ask the lottery-winning brother for a grant?”


“Would it unethical for the rich brother to say no?”

I think I’ll hold my fire on this one, as I am stuck in Providence thanks to a cancelled flight and typing this at the airport with the slowest internet connection in the world.

I will say, however, that the sister’s (and Prudence’s) attitude is one big reason why the recipients of large lawsuit damages for injuries due to medical negligence and product liability often dissipate millions they desperately need long before their illnesses or injuries run their course. It is also a big reason why lottery winners are often destitute within five years of winning huge jackpots.

Hey, but the important thing is to eliminate income disparity, right? It’s unethical to be lucky. It’s wrong to have more money than someone else.

Yes, I think I’ll hold my fire...


Pointer: Fark

27 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Lottery Winner’s Sister-in-Law

  1. I have no relative in need, but with my own children the approach is it is better to give with a warm hand than a cold one. The same would apply if I had a relative in need.

    Asking is akin to begging – JMO. Unless the circumstances were desperate.

    Interesting issue.

  2. Not really my judgement, but just an observation. The rich brother can’t be unaware of the poorer brother’s situation. Therefore he does not genuinely want to share his money, or he would have offered to already. Therefore, if he is asked, anything he gives will be due to pressure, and not given freely. Which is a reason not to ask.

    • Exactly.
      Money loaned or given in families causes endless heartache. My brother and sisters are all at about the same income level, but I have a friend who is vastly better off than her brothers. No matter how much help she gives them, and it has been a LOT over the years, it’s never enough. Lots of resentment and grumbling about who gets more, who needs more, who takes advantage, who is selfish, on and on. If I were her I’d be tempted to cut them all off.
      Watch Judge Judy if you want to see it in its ugliest form involving amounts in the low hundreds of dollars. Imagine it multiplied. Ugh.

      • Big money has an uncanny way of tearing apart families and setting them at each other’s throats. In my family, the hardest part is trying to be generous with my siblings. All of us are too damned stubborn to take generosity for each other. We have to shove it down each other’s throats over the dinner table! I blame Dad… he was as stubborn an old cuss as they come!

  3. Ethically, It’s almost never wrong to ask for help when you need it, especially from family. That said, it’s not clear how badly he needs help: He has income, a place to live, a wife. That’s not a life of comfort, but it’s not a life of abject poverty. And under those conditions, there’s nothing unethical about the brother saying no.

  4. My family’s done it’s share of bailing out members in need. If we’ve learned one thing, it’s that if you help someone out when they are in trouble they will remember you…when they are in trouble again. It’s also a fact that people tend to be creatures of habit and go back to the same habits that got them in trouble in the first place. Sometimes you just have to tell people – your problems, you solve them.

  5. My oldest son needed $5,000. He was 22-years-old, just out of the Navy and was trying to get settled. No problem. He said it was to be “A loan.” I told him if any of his younger brothers needs money (4 of them) or his sister they had to see him -not me. Everyone got a letter stating such. It worked.

  6. I think she should talk to her husband first, but family pride may be involved. Asking for a little help should not be shameful. I helped my brother with a phone bill once, but it wasn’t a habit. Also refusing is no horror either, brother’s money/brother’s choice.

    The unethical thing would be the end run around her husband. For all she knows, they talked about it years ago. It’s more her avarice for travel, if the brothers are fine.

  7. I have a couple of observations on this.

    First, I have had many, many financial difficulties in my life, for a variety of reasons, and of course some (but not all) of the fault is my own. I have been reduced to begging from family and friends. I have been on the receiving end of the answer “No.” I have also been the beneficiary of many who said “Yes.” Interestingly, I remember both the ones who said Yes and the ones who said No. They are all still dear to me. But, to be honest, I’m a touch less close now to the ones who said No — not because they couldn’t but because they wouldn’t. They had their reasons. But it’s a little like showing someone your festering wound and they didn’t put salve on it. You feel embarrassed in later encounters because they know something deeply personal about you, and you think, maybe they’re judging you.

    Second, I am interested in the concept of selective attention. Tonight I was at Jack’s production of “Twelve Angry Men” (absolutely fabulous production), and I watched as a group of 4 people had to split into a group of 3 and a single person for seating, because the 2 other people who had already chosen seats in that row didn’t offer to move over one seat so that the 4 could sit together. I wondered about this — did they choose to be jerks about the seating, or did they just not notice the situation? I have a hard time believing the latter, as the group of 4 spent some time right in front of the 2, trying to figure out who was going to sit alone. But I have been alive long enough to know that many people have selective attention — whether because they are so self-absorbed that they don’t notice other people having problems, or whether they have cultivated this selectivity as a way of life, or whether they are just truly oblivious.

    All of that is to say that the rich brother might have selective attention regarding his brother, for whatever reason, and just might not realize the situation. When I have been in a financial abyss, I have wondered why my relatives who have more resources don’t ask if they can help. Here’s the thing I have realized — if you are in a position to help, you might be reluctant to offer because you don’t want to insult the more unfortunate person.

    On the other hand, whenever someone in my family has had a windfall, they have always shared it with the rest in some way without anyone needing to ask. So, why didn’t the rich brother offer some share to the other brother? Even though it was noted that the brothers get along just fine — they are brothers. Sibling rivalry can go on for decades and can manifest in very subtle ways.

    So, should they ask? I don’t think it’s unethical, but I do think it’s too demoralizing.

    Is it unethical to say No to such a request? If No is all they have to offer, then I believe it is unethical. The least they could do is offer to help the less fortunate person figure out alternatives and ways to avoid future problems. But if you’re too oblivious to notice that someone is having a problem, then you’re probably too oblivious to realize that you could still help.

    Rambling. Excellent, excellent show. If you’re in DC Metro, there are 2 performances left tomorrow. GO SEE THE SHOW!

  8. I don’t think it’s unethical to ask for a little financial help. However, it would be unethical for the brother or his wife to get mad if they are turned down and go into a raging sulk. Perhaps if the now impoverished guy had given his brother lots of financial or other help in the past disappointment would be understandable. However, it is pure bs to expect that a relative is obligated to help out and people the believe this are jerks.

  9. One other thing to consider. If it is a parent who is impoverished, the situation is different. They raised you and hopefully took good care of you when you were younger so I believe there is an obligation to help out.

  10. Interesting no one picked up on this aspect that hit me in the face like a ton of bricks:

    “Hey, but the important thing is to eliminate income disparity, right? It’s unethical to be lucky. It’s wrong to have more money than someone else.”

    I wish the income disparity mongers of the left had had time to read Jane Austen when they weren’t taking their required political science and womyns study classes.

    • That jumped out at me too, but for a different reason – I fail to see the connection.

      I suppose Jack is suggesting – you certainly are – that the brother and his wife are left-leaning in their politics. Strikes me as a bit of a stretch – but even if you believe that, the fact that no one else picked up on it may simply be that the story is very much about family and personal psychology, and not very much about politics.

      • No, I’m suggesting that the supposedly “fair” treatment the wife is demanding is the essence of left-wing redistribution ideology. And it is. The culture nurtures that kind of entitlement mindset.

    • Glad you noticed it. The letter to Prudence doesn’t say that there is a specific crisis that the brother could help with—expensive medical treatment, a looming foreclosure, gamblers threatening to break her husband’s legs. He has a lot of money, and they want some, that’s all, because they have less. Oh, no, he has no obligation to give them some of his millions, but he should, or he’s a greedy, selfish bastard. Prudence and the wife agree. The letter implicitly asks, “Why should one twin (they had to be twins…increasingly I think this is a fake story) have all that money and the other have so much less? It’s not fair, and since it’s not fair, the rich brother should even up the disparity.”

      I guess I might as well say it: the sister or the brother have no business asking for money absent a specific emergency or crisis, and the bother has no ethical obligation to give them a cent.

      If I won 50 million, would I decide to spread the wealth to a struggling sibling? It would depend on a lot of things. With some people, I can imagine almost any amount causing bitterness and resentment rather than gratitude. I have a stunning story on this topic that I would tell except that I think the person involved reads this blog.

      • Yep. Thanks Jack. The underlying argument is: “IT’S NOT FAIR!!!”

        Like all the liberal arts majors looking down their noses at the business and economics majors while in college and then, fifteen years later, when they’re punching a cash register in a bookstore or working in a drug rehab place, notice the business majors are, guess what, making tons of money, whine, “It’s not fair! I had a higher verbal SAT than those jerks did. Why are they making so much money?” Maybe because that’s what the studied in college. I’m fine with bookstores and drug rehab places, but choices have consequences. You can’t save the world and live as if you work at Goldman Sachs. Sorry.

        And yes, the story sounds made up. I would like to hear more of the back story on the poor brother’s “reverses.” They could all have been completely self-inflicted.

        • And Charles, my second point was simply that all anyone needs to know about families and inherited money is on full display in Jane Austen (or George Eliot) much more vividly in a Dear Abby column.

  11. Does this analysis change at all because the brother came into his fortune by luck instead of hard work? I’m not sure.

    But what I am sure of is that the wife should stay out of it and get her own damned job (or a better one) if the family is in need of money. I would be mortified if I asked my husband’s family for money.

  12. The 38th of the Articles of Religion of the Church of England:-

    Of Christian men’s good which are not common

    The riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast; notwithstanding every man ought of such things as he possesseth liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.

    In my experience, when trying to convey the sense of this to Roman Catholics, they routinely take that “ought” as a “must” implying a positive duty of charity (somewhat like Latin’s “debes” or even “faciundum tibi”), which, if true, would render the whole article empty. I, on the other hand, read that “ought” as “it is edifying that he…” (somewhat like Latin’s “te decet”).

  13. Everyone is talking about what a great mom this woman is because she s going to care for her kids, but wasn t this unemployed woman wasting money on lottery tickets instead of actually providing for her kids?

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