The last ethics quiz posed the questions of whether a financially struggling (that is, like most people) brother [NOTE: In the earlier version, I incorrectly said they were twins. Why, I don’t know, except that it makes the set up more perfect. I apologize for the error. It didn’t change the issues any, or the commentary.] in his Sixties should suggest to his lottery-winning brother, now 50 million dollars richer, that he could use some of that excess cash…and whether the brother would be unethical to refuse.
The more I think about it, the more I am sure that Slate advice columnist Emily Yoffe was answering a fictional hypothetical carefully devised to coax out the answer it did. I write these things for a living, and the brothers element is suspicious. The idea was to emphasize the perception of unfairness: here we have two genetically similar human beings raised with the same advantages and disadvantages, not just metaphorically “created equal” but equal in fact. How cruel and unfair that, in “Dear Prudence’s” words, “your brother-in-law, through no effort of his own—save the purchase of a quick pick—was smiled on by fate and now enjoys luxuriant leisure. Especially since the two brothers suffered from a start in life that would have crushed many, it’s disturbing that the lottery winner hasn’t been moved to share a small percentage of his good fortune so that his brother doesn’t spend his last years scrambling to meet his basic needs.”
I didn’t exactly give my preferred answer to the quiz, but I did suggest that Yoff’e’s answer and the orientation of the questioner were redolent of the prevailing ethos of the political left. This was met with some complaining in the comments, but come on: “it’s disturbing that the lottery winner hasn’t been moved to share a small percentage of his good fortune so that his brother doesn’t spend his last years scrambling to meet his basic needs” would be a great Occupy Wall Street poster if it wasn’t so long, and it perfectly states the ethically dubious mantra we can expect from Bernie, Hillary or Elizabeth and probably any other Democrat who is selected to be called “a lightweight” and “a loser” by Republican nominee Trump. In fact, I think this hypothetical would be a great debate question….and better yet if we explore some of the variables.
1. Is this just a sibling rule? How about your best and oldest friend? What about your neighbor? If you are Ebenezer Scrooge, shouldn’t you take care of Bob Cracchet and that huge brood of children he can’t afford to feed?
2. When is the obligation to be one’s poorer brother’s keeper triggered? Is the crucial element the size of the fortune, or the fact that it was just luck that produced it? Many social justice warriors are certain, or say they are, that skill, risk-taking, intelligence, diligence and character have nothing to do with success, that it’s all just luck. In fact, “winning life’s lottery” is one of their favorite ways to denigrate success or imply a duty to assist those who got a losing number. Longtime Democratic Party House leader (1971-2005) Dick Gephardt said, “Those who have prospered and profited from life’s lottery have a moral obligation to share their good fortune.”
3. If it’s the size of the wealth disparity, when is the brother a cruel, cheap, unfeeling overlord to withhold a grant? If the amount is in the multi-millions? A mere million? A million after taxes? Why not six figures? Or why shouldn’t the brothers be completely equal in their financial security: isn’t the ethical thing for Rich Bro to share it exactly? Isn’t it better, fairer, more ethical for the brothers to be as exactly not-quite-poor?
4. Are only windfalls and lotteries the issue? Why shouldn’t the same ethical obligation (Emily and “Not Jealous, Just Sad” say they don’t think that Rich Bro is “obligated” to share his money, but it is clear that they are lying through their teeth) apply if that 50 million came from a moment of inspiration that caused RB to invent a simple, brilliant new device that that everyone wants to buy? That’s just luck too, right? If that apple had fallen on Poor Bro’s head, he would have had the inspiration, and he would be Rich Bro. Or perhaps the two brothers both started their own businesses in randomly different fields with exactly the same promise when they began, but events beyond the control of either brother caused one business to thrive and the other to fail. How unfair! Since the resulting inequality of outcomes is just luck, isn’t the ethical thing for the brothers to do is split the difference? If the randomly created Rich Bro suddenly decides that Poor Bro made his own bed and must lie in its torn and soiled sheets—convenient confirmation bias that, redolent of Ann Richards’ swipe at George H.W. Bush that he was like the guy who woke up on third base and thought he hit a triple—should the law step in and make him do the right thing?
After all, as I’m always saying here, when ethics fails, the law must step in.
Let’s think about all of this a bit, and later I’ll return with some proposals regarding where the ethics lines should be drawn.
No, I don’t think Bernie, Hillary and Elizabeth will like them.