Ethics Quiz: From The Ethics Alarms Mailbag…

burningmoneyimageReader and sometime commenter Elizabeth 2 e-mails…

Here’s a question for which I’d appreciate some input.

I am generally a sucker for street people who ask for money. I frequent the 7-11 for quick trips for needed household items, and over the past couple of months I’ve often seen a young woman outside, just sitting there.  She once asked me if I had any spare change:  I gave her $10.  A couple of weeks later, same question, same response.

Then a month or so after I had last given her money, I was in the same 7-11 and saw her buying lottery tickets.

Last week she saw me as I entered the 7-11, recognized me, and asked me again for “spare change.” I said “I don’t have any cash at all.  Sorry!”  I was not of a mind to help this young woman use my charity for the biggest scam of all time:  the Virginia Lottery.

My question is this:  if I am willing to part with money for a person who seems to need it, and to do so without the vetting that a charity usually gets from me, am I in any position at all to care or change my behavior because of the way the money is spent?  Admittedly I have no ability to realistically judge the true need of anyone who asks me for money, but if I have some evidence that makes me wary, should I act on it?

Or, since charity (monetary or otherwise) is an important pillar of character for me, should I simply give what I can when I can and make no judgement whatsoever?  After all, these people don’t have Form 990s for me to examine.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Is it ethical to withhold charity from a needy individual because you regard her likely use of your gift as irresponsible?

My answer: it’s not unethical to do this. This is an ethics decision, and there are legitimate ways to reach alternative answers.

One is naive to think that the odds don’t favor any hand-out to the homeless, beggars or others asking for cash being used irresponsibly. People are unlikely to end up on the street if they typically make sterling, well-measured choices. If you are expecting the beneficiary of your gesture to invest your ten bucks in a junior college fund or to buy a nutritious meal, you are deluded.

My belief is that a charitable person is using a gift to attempt to control another person’s life when they require that the money be used in a particular way.  That is unethical. It is also foolish, as a single transaction is not going to make a material difference in the recipient’s life. If you give someone in need ten dollars, give her the respect and autonomy not to make them meet your standards of conduct in exchange. Treat her with the dignity you would expect. Your gift gives her a choice: let her make it. If she wants to spend the money for a movie ticket to “La La Land” because it might brighten her day, give her hope, and ease the stress, then respect that choice, and her autonomy. If she wants to use your gift to buy a kitten, or some cigarettes, or a porn magazine, or some make-up,  or even a lottery ticket, it reflects her priorities, and that’s fine.

Of course, if you see the contribution as making you complicit in harmful or self-destructive conduct, think that there are more effective uses of your discretionary charitable dollars, or feel that you are being conned, then don’t give away your money. That is ethical too. You also have a right to your priorities.

If I was certain that I was paying for lottery tickets, when I believe that the lottery itself is unethical and that spending the money this way is essentially like setting fire to it, no, I wouldn’t keep giving to the woman. I wouldn’t give her money if she set fire to the ten every time I gave her one either.

47 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: From The Ethics Alarms Mailbag…

  1. In such cases, I have purchased folks a meal or a bus ticket or whatever, depending upon the story I’m given as to their needs. That way, I know the money goes for the stated purpose, not something else.

  2. Jack asked, “Is it ethical to withhold charity from a needy individual because you regard her likely use of your gift as irresponsible?”

    My answer is no; it is your choice to use your money as you see fit.

    My general answer to beggars asking for money because they are hungry is to buy them food instead of giving them money that way I know exactly what the money is being spent on. AS a general rule, I choose not to hand someone I don’t personally know cash for any reason and I do not loan money to anyone I know for any reason expecting it to be paid back, I give freely when I give without expectations of return.

    As for the lottery ticket buying beggar; you could always buy her a lottery ticket instead of giving cash.

  3. I’ve had far too much experience with beggars in my life to have much faith in them. The way I see it, if I give $10 to a street person, I’m probably getting him (or her) good and drunk. If I give that same $10 to a homeless shelter, I can put a hot, nutritious meal in three or four bellies.

    That strikes me as a far better use of the money.

    About the only time I’m willing to give directly is if the street person has a dog, in which case I pray that the dog at least gets fed. One doesn’t encounter this sub-group often, but in my experience the street people with dogs DO seem to put the animal’s welfare ahead of their own.

    • What if they need that alcohol to avoid DTs? I’m not suggesting that their need constitutes an obligation on anyone else’s part, but the assumption is that it’s about having a good time, when the reality is that it’s pretty hard to get a bed in a detox facility, where things like Librium are used to make the transition to sobriety relatively safe. For that matter, I’d say that the state of homelessness is itself often a good enough reason to want to stay drunk, even if it played a large role in getting you there to begin with.

  4. I am the generous sort and have posted before that I never take a tax deduction on contributions, but that does not mean I am stupid. Many years ago in Mattapan (a section of Boston), a woman with a small child came up to me for money for food for her and her child. I pointed to the BK across the street and said: “Meet me there and I’ll get you anything you want.” What I got was an FU A-hole.

    So how do you determine? I taught in a school program that had many families well under the poverty line, but they would all make the rounds for meals, clothing, food banks, etc. IMO it was needed, but also unnecessary greed. If they had MBA’s Wall Street would beckon. In the surface they all “needed,” and far too many abused the system.

    Again – determine. I have come to the conclusion that I do as much possible for local charities including volunteer work. I am familiar with my area and the charities since there are no hidden agenda or six/seven figure salaries involved. Like politics – maybe all charities should be local? I still give in to the occasional questionable handout realizing that this is just the occasional charitable collateral damage.

        • I usually just give the $5-10 I happen to have in my wallet. I figure if 1 out of 10 actually need it, that’s not too bad. For that 1 person, that might make a real difference in their life, at least for a day. A cup of coffee and a decent meal can make you feel like a human being again.

  5. I believe that the lottery itself is unethical and that spending the money this way is essentially like setting fire to it…

    The lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math. Had a college professor sum it up this way: “you have a greater statistical chance of getting hit by lightning in alternating eyes, on two consecutive days, than winning the Lotto” Play with disposable income, if you must, and don’t go to a movie or out to eat.

    I’ve had far too much experience with beggars in my life to have much faith in them.

    Me too. I have had people with signs stating ‘starving!’ give me disgusted looks (tossing the food at their pile of stuff) if I provided food but not cash.

    Except in very rare (like, not at all last year) do I give directly. We give to vetted charities and through our church instead.

    That said, if I was to give cash, the person is free to do with it as they wish, without my blessing (but within my judgement if I catch them.) That is another reason I don’t give cash.

  6. The residentially challenged have always caused me great discomfort (which may be the result of consistently and constantly being targeted for a bit of a hand out from the local traffic island or sidewalk preacher – my son says I am an easy mark . . .). I agree with Jack’s overall analysis, though. If I decide to give a ten spot to a person down on his or her luck, then I am free to do so but should not expect such person to be prudent with my gift – experience would lead me to conclude that said Entrepreneur might not be the most adroit at finances, hence said person’s traffic-island prophet (profit?) status. If I give the cash and it is blown on lottery tickets, that is their decision. However, if my experience shows that the person is going to blow on dumb stuff, I have no continuing obligation to finance such dumb stuff.

    My wife suggested an alternative to the cash donation – prepackaged meals and/or personal items such as toothpaste, toothbrushes, etc. She thinks that is just as good as money. I wonder if it imposes a gift-giver’s value judgment on what the gift-receiver should do with the gift. She is probably right, though. She usually is. If the point of charity is to help someone, and that gift-giver determines that he/she wants to give pre-packaged gifts, and the gift is given with no ulterior (that doesn’t look right – is that usage/spelling correct?) motive other than helping the gift-recipient, then the gift should pass the Ethics test. The Golden Rule is not violated.


  7. It’s always your right to give or not give someone a gift. I would never give a panhandler money because they will then think you are a soft touch and ask you again, and again, and again. I have no qualms about telling someone who comes up to me as I am trying to get in my car or waiting for the train into New York and wheedles “excuse me sir, could you help me out…” to get lost. No I won’t help you out because you intruded into my personal space from whence I can’t easily leave, and asked me for help. I finally erased someone from my online world who just showed up for favors when she started asking me to loan her money, and pressured me to get it to her within 24 hours, couldn’t even wait for payday.

    The way charity is handled today is a bit of a pet peeve for me. It’s one thing for me to put some money in the basket at church, although it disgusts me to know that it may as likely be going to settle a sex abuse lawsuit as to Catholic Charities, which HAS done a fair amount of good. It’s another to respond to charities that cold-call or cold-mail, because you know they share lists and it will just get you more flyers.

    It’s still another to be guilted by pesky emailers or callers telling you you can afford to give up one luxury to help their cause. Yes, maybe I can give up a meal out, or I can make my morning coffee at home instead of getting Dunkin (I don’t do Starbucks), or I can not buy that book or CD or DVD, or I can stay in this weekend instead of going to the movies or theater or museum, or I can trim this year’s vacation by a couple of days, but I don’t choose to. It’s my money, which I worked for, and I can do with it as I please. I may indeed choose not to do any of the above things, but if I do it’s going to because I choose to apply my resources elsewhere. I may choose not to do anything this weekend – because I am doing something I really want to do two weekends hence that is going to be expensive. I may choose to go on a shorter vacation this year – because I am planning a longer one next year. I may not buy whatever because I decide I just don’t need it, but that money is going back into my own coffers, it isn’t then available to the first idiot who calls me up asking me if I care about kids or if I know about the refugee crisis wherever.

    I don’t even like to talk about money with family, because if you even drop a throwaway reference that you are saving a few bucks for vacation or a new vehicle, suddenly everyone comes to you with their hands out. Bachelor cousin: “Things are tight, can you lend me a hundred to make the rent this month?” Divorced sister: “My ex is late with the child support and the kids need new clothes for school, can you help? I’ll pay you back as soon as he pays up.” Mom too lazy to go to the ATM the day of an event: “I need to fill this envelope for the birthday/wedding/communion, how much do you have on you?”

    Don’t be a chump, because if you lend, you will never see that money again. Your cousin will tell you that as soon as things get better he will pay you back in full, but right now he can’t pay you back even a part of it. Your sis will tell you her ex still hasn’t paid her or hasn’t paid her enough to pay you back, but her kids are very grateful, and isn’t that what’s important? Mom will just tell you not to be tiresome, you know she’s good for it. The only loser will be you, who will have to cancel your planned vacation because you didn’t have enough for the deposit only the timeshare, or lose the deal on the new car because you were a couple hundred short of the down payment.

    • “It’s still another to be guilted by pesky emailers or callers telling you you can afford to give up one luxury to help their cause. ”

      Now THAT is obnoxious! I’d probably say “Well, technically, I can afford to give them all up, that being the definition of a luxury”.

  8. This is very helpful, except that I am still a sap. It is hard for me to drive up in my BMW and tell someone I can’t help them. I’ve had good and bad experiences before:

    1. The homeless Army vet (with his great dog) which for a time I saw at the same stoplight on a regular basis. I always gave him money. My judgement may have been clouded by the fact that (1) he was a veteran, and (2) the dog looked healthy, and didn’t seem to be surviving on booze or crack. The last time I saw him (and his dog) he thanked me for my support and told me he’d found a job and a place to live, and that I’d probably never see him on that corner again. I never have.

    2. On my way to a client meeting in DC, a woman with a babe in arms asked me so desperately for money to feed her child that I gave her a $20 bill. Her response? “I see all that money in your wallet! I need more!” Furious, I asked her for my money back, but then the light changed and I was off and she was $20 richer. I was a true sap this time, and now am probably unfairly suspicious of the “immigrant mom with kids” who thinks I should empty my wallet for her.

    3. Not my experience, but a story from the Washington Post some time ago. A couple, both without jobs (didn’t say why) supported their mortgage and their budget by begging at two different locales around DC. They admitted to the reporter that together they “made” almost $1,000 a day by telling their “unfortunate” story to passers-by. Yikes.

    So my basic problem remains. And perhaps it not an ethics question so much as a personal one. Can I / should I — with what others see as the trappings of wealth or at least comfort –“just say no”? Should I /must I explain that I am very generous to charities of various kinds that could help them, and carry with me a list with phone numbers of agencies who can find them food and a place to sleep?

    To be perfectly frank, my life is full enough –with both positives and negatives — that sometimes I’d rather flip a quick 10 to someone than get really engaged. So really, that’s not benevolence, is it?

    No answers yet.

    • E2: did you come by your money any other way than by earning it, marrying it, or inheriting it (don’t answer, not my business)? If so, you should not have guilt over how you manage it. You are obviously doing a decent job (I can’t afford a BMW, but am glad you can) as you still have enough money to stress over, so you are already ahead of those with less savvy (and the crooks) who are asking.

      You and your family are ultimately responsible for how you live your life, finances included, and other’s opinion range from ‘nice to have’ to ‘thanks for your input’ to ‘none of your business.’

      I am more concerned that you flashed the cash for the scammer to see. Making yourself a target needlessly carries risks (what if she was a lookout for thieves who would, having gotten your license plate, follow you home for a home invasion robbery?) If you choose to give, have the money out beforehand separate from your wallet, at least.

      This is akin, in my mind, to the white guilt issue that leads to very liberal thought processes. I am what I am, had ZERO ‘white privilege’ growing up, and earned every penny I call mine. That the government takes from me under threat of force and give to others who don’t work at all bothers me.

      We still give to charity, but *we* get to determine how that is disbursed.

      • Missed a thought: I find that physical donations of time and labor are beneficial where money seems too little. Volunteer (even if just once) at a food bank, distributing food to the poor, at a home for unwed mothers, and so on, to get a feel for what you are supporting, and to feel like you have done more than ‘just’ writing a check.

    • The “homeless vet” with a dog is a very common scam. They might put on a phony “emotional support” vest on the dog to make their hard luck story more convincing. Same thing with the “homeless” woman with the baby. Believe me, she gets food stamps, Obamacare, and many other freebies.

    • ” Should I /must I explain that I am very generous to charities of various kinds that could help them, and carry with me a list with phone numbers of agencies who can find them food and a place to sleep?”

      Sounds like a winner.
      Incidentally, I ended my homeless stint many years ago by going to college. Pell grants and Stafford loans payed for my housing while I learned how to take care of myself again.

  9. The ethical answer is not to give money to an individual, buy them food, give them shelter, show them where to get aid. I often site then story of passing a woman begging every day back when i was waiting tables she was alway right out of the metro station. One afternoon I went to the bank to deposit my tips. Only to see her in the bank depositing as well. $400 I heard the Teller say to confirm her deposit. I found out later from teller she made deposits every day Of similar amounts. Have not seen her in years. Now i know not every “homeless” person is a scam artist working a good corner. Some are truly down on their luck. Use to pay one to wash the shops windows and sweep in front of store ( i own a costume shop) I have bought meals for homeless families volunteered at shelters And currently employ two former homeless people. They are good hard working people. The problem with giving money is you enable some of those that are not prepared get the proper help. This area has several programs read to help. Find one in your area support it. Carry an organizations cards with you and referr the people that need the help to them, Have a thick skin about it as those who do not really want to better their situation may reveal themselves harshly!

    • Related story…my oldest son, my wife, and I were approached in a Target parking lot by a Hispanic woman and her adult daughter. They said they hadn’t eaten in 2 days and asked all three of us for money. They got my standard “No”, and we went into the store. Unbeknownst to me, my son bought 2 sandwiches and 2 bags of chips for the. He gave them to these people after we exited the store. It was obvious that neither of these people were starving, and my son expected at least a thanks. He did not get it. Both women walked over to a trash can and deposited the sandwiches and chips there. I shouted “You’re welcome” at them as we drove off.

  10. Disclosure: the only reason I let go of a dollar is to get a better grip, but a couple of personal experiences.

    ~ 14 years ago, a Black man came to the door asking for $10 after telling a very convincing story of need (I have a sick child, I’m a black man in a white neighborhood, I’ll give you my jacket, etc.)

    It was just before Christmas and we were providing hospice for our 15 1/2 year old Golden’s final couple of weeks, I was a little sappier than usual and I gave him $20.

    I noticed a smug smile on his face as he zoomed off, so I called my best friend, a Black woman, to commiserate. I barely finished the story before she openly guffawed, “Paul, you just gave a donation.”

    She tells her mother and I hear her nicotine cackle in the background “tell Paul I’m on my way over, an’ it’s gonna cost him a fiddy to git rid a me!” I call the police to alert them, the officer, barely able to stifle his chuckling “take your friend’s offer, I’d get a C-Note.”

    And oooooooh had the ignominy ended there! Crestfallen, I went up the street to check on the fixer-upper we were readying for occupancy to check on the carpet installer.

    I told him my tale of woe, and he said, “you know, that guy stopped by here to. I told him whatever he clears today, be sure to set aside some for acting lessons.”

    At a Home Depot recently I was approached for cash and honestly claimed I had none. He: “we can use your credit card to fill my prescription.”

    Going through a busy intersection, a presentable young woman was panhandling with a sign at the median. ~ 15 minutes later on the way home on that same median, a young man was holding the the exact same sign; shift change?

    At a Sam’s Club, a guy was soliciting cars entering. After ~ 30 minutes I was returning to my car and saw this guy walking over to whom I presume were his wife & kids sitting comfortably in lawn chairs in the shade, they all got into a late model, full-sized van and drive off; end of shift?

    There’s an old saying that charity softens the recipient and hardens the provider.

    E-2 (nee E-2) I agree with some of the other posters, just say “come on in and I’ll buy you a sandwich and a drink.”

    If they take you up on it, you won’t second-guess yourself, and it’ll cost you less than a sawbuck; the lottery is a tax on fools.

    • “We can use your credit card to fill my prescription?” Seriously? I’d just say “take a walk, you bum.” One time I was getting lunch in Subway near my office when a scruffy guy started pestering a young woman obviously not from the City, I guess he figured she was an easy mark. She was practically cowering as she tried to eat her sandwich in peace. In disgust I flagged down a passing plainclothes police officer who I knew, who promptly flashed his badge and gun and told the bum to hit the pavement. Slug. Didn’t even have guts to approach regular folks on the street. Had to harass a young woman who weighed about 120 pounds soaking wet who was trying to eat her lunch in peace.

  11. Back in the days when street folks still asked for a quarter, I used to pass the same guy every day and always gave him $.50 ($2.50 a week). A co-worker seeing me give money to the guy mentioned that the same street person usually arrived to his “office” in a cab. I thought about it for a second and decided that my $2.50 a week – constantly available to me and replenished on a bi-weekly basis – was not enough to challenge what he did with it after it left my hands.

    I am also one who will invite someone into McDonald’s with me and have them order what they like. I keep a few dollars in the car for the men and women who haunt the very large intersection near my house. My end-of-the-year charity dollars go to the local food banks.

    I am no paragon (I will, however, agree to “exceptionally soft touch” or “sap”). It is simply my own personal practice to help when I can with a fair certainty that I will not – God willing – in this lifetime lack for a dollar (or someone to help me). Perhaps it’s just so much new age crapola, but I believe we get back what we put out. For this sap, it’s just that simple. I have enough trouble sussing out my own motives without trying to figure out strangers with a hard-luck story.

    My $2.50 🙂

    • Ever notice how all these street people, same as the charity pests and the occasional Christian anarchist, all seem to have their story perfectly rehearsed, no holes in it, and an answer for every question? I refuse to help create the next Bernie Sanders (who spent a chunk of his life driving a car without working windshield wipers and getting his electricity turned off).

  12. It is simply my own personal practice to help when I can with a fair certainty that I will not – God willing – in this lifetime lack for a dollar (or someone to help me).

    And since they are YOUR dollars, no one can say otherwise. You have a healthy attitude about the giving (and can afford it), it seems, so are not harming yourself, and may do someone some good.

    Perhaps it’s just so much new age crapola, but I believe we get back what we put out.

    Not new age at all, but on of the oldest truths there are. “As a man sows, so shall he reap” is an explanation of how things work. “Give and you will get back more than you gave.” New age folks noticed that this works like gravity: it does not care who you are.

  13. There’s a sign posted at Ocean Beach in San Diego. It says “Do not feed the bums”. I agree with the sentiment: Nothing good comes of it. Give you cash to the Salvation Army or Goodwill.

  14. Many years ago, I was walking through the neighborhood where I worked, and I ran into a teenage kid carrying a young boy. He told me his little brother was too worn out to make it home and he asked me for bus fare. I looked at him carrying that kid, and I figured that if it was a scam, he’d have to be carrying that kid around from one mark to another all day, and that just seemed too tiring to be likely. So I gave him a few bucks.

    Man, I ran into that guy carrying that kid around for months after that. Months. In a strange way, I have to admire his work ethic.

  15. When you have your own money in your own pocket you are entitled to use it in any way you desire. There are lots of variables, but those variables are enforced by the law of consequences. If you can live with the consequences it’s your right to choose whatever you want to choose. The probable consequences of giving money to a person who is indigent and still buys lottery tickets is that that person will use it to buy lottery tickets. I don’t think ethics is the issue. Integrity is. If your value system allows other people the right to choose for themselves the way they spend the money you give them, then there’s no issue, you practice what you preach. If there are conditions then you really don’t believe in their right to choose.

    Removing consequences from actions just muddies the issue. I often wish ethical, moral and legal consequences were as evenly and fairly applied, as physical consequences are. I think we’d have a better society if they were. There’s no virtue in choosing to avoid hot things, or avoid stepping off of tall buildings. It’s just acknowledging the inevitability of consequences. To that degree (and to respect the rights and safety of others) I would prefer law or ethics or morality to limit people’s ability to have completely free choice. Anything else would be chaos.

  16. .Charity is just that: Going above and beyond. I don’t think you can be called unethical if you don’t do extraordinary things. We’re not talking about helping a drowning person whose need for help is unquestioned; when it comes to giving money because someone or organization is telling you a story, it’s a matter of whether you trust that you’re not being scammed, which is a very real possibility, whether it’s a guy on the street or the American Red Cross, which is littered with ethical violations.

    If you decide you don’t want to give money to a cause because you don’t like how you think it’ll be spent, then that’s entirely your decision, and certainly not unethical, IMO.

  17. For the past 22 years I’ve been working a volunteer job nights, 3-5 a week, 4-10 hour shifts depending on whether I had to go to Work work the next day or not. The workplace is downtown: wide sidewalks, plenty of alcoves and crevices where the homeless can roll out a bedroll and get some sleep. I’ve learned a bit about most of the regulars over the years 15-20 of them, those who have laid claim quietly to three blocks I walk from the bus. Unlike the daytime scammers the guys don’t talk about themselves but they’ll tell you a thing or two about what’s going on with the street people. That’s how I learned how many of them, including one guy who I hope is not near as old as he looks which is about 100, several on (or too often off) their psych meds, and quite a few vets (honorable or otherwise) with heavy PTSD who find it necessary to stay outdoors as much as possible, all choose not to go to the shelters even in the worst weather [that is, the worst in San Francisco which is, except for the quake in ’89, better than most], thus avoiding TB, theft, constant noise and lack of privacy. They gang together under one of the bridges in daytime, share what they choose to share including shower privileges at a YMCA (all on the same “lifetime” membership one guy inherited from an uncle – the Y staff must be okay with it after all these years.

    They wouldn’t take money from me — whether it was because of pride or, more likely, because they knew I didn’t have much and also had a habit of not carrying cash. So one day, when Safeway just seemed to have ridiculously low prices on things-used-to-make-sandwiches (I have a friend who speaks Jeopardy), I took home a giant loaf, meat, cheese, mayo and yellow mustard, and picked up along the way — at one of a hundred farm-fresh (I see them unloading at dawn when I get off early) dirt-cheap open air produce shops surrounding my Chinatown home — whatever interesting fruit was around. Made 20 sandwiches and

  18. Like the proverb says, “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

    Give a person money once, then you might help them out of a bind that one time. Give them money everytime, and all you’re really doing is teaching them to ask you for a fish from you every time they need to get out of that bind. Given there’s no contract that you will give money (or fish) every time you meet that person, the ethics questions answer themselves in respect to giving and how gifts are used. Neither party can expect the other to do what they want with the money.

    So really the question shouldn’t be one of the ethics of refusing to give money, but one of is it right to enable that person to continue to live the lifestyle they lead? After all, that money isn’t helping them get out of that rut. And that’s a question that should be asked every time you consider reaching into your wallet. If you find hard-luck stories are just too much for you to resist, then consider finding out what organisations exist in in your area (e.g. shelters, social workers, churches, street vans and soup kitchens) who provide for the down-on-their-luck. Donate that $10 you’d give out here and there to them instead (and your time if they need it and you can spare it) and start carrying their contact cards to give out when asked for money. Like others have said, the truly needy appreciate any help they can get.

  19. It might be easier if you lived in a country running a decent welfare safety net. You’d only then have to worry about those who slip through the cracks. You might well pay more tax and have to drive a Ford instead of the BMW. But at least in principle you’d finance a support system running on rules, without you having to agonise about who gets what. This takes you off the hook somewhat. (Of course there are typically still plenty of problems, particularly of corruption.) It is intriguing that you worry about the ethics of using the power of your dollar to control or influence behaviour. Do you also worry about ‘controling’ waiters through your tips, perhaps leaving more for those without obvious tats and body piercing? How ethical is that? Outside the US service staff typically receive higher pay, tips are much lower, and so the customer has less scope to discriminate, whether fairly or not. Is that likely to be ‘less unethical’?

    Yes I too am a sucker for those with great dogs, particularly hungry looking labradors with big soulful brown eyes. I can however easily resist small snappy terriers. This probably leads me into major unethical discrimination to which Jack would no doubt disaprove.

    • “It might be easier if you lived in a country running a decent welfare safety net…”

      What might be easier? Are you saying that it might be easier to avoid ethical quandaries if only some other entity would take away your resources and responsibility to care about your fellow men and women? Once a “decent” welfare system exists, your responsibility, and hence your guilt, is mercifully removed?

      Is it ethical to rely on a system like welfare that does not typically do anything to address underlying problems? It’s the equivalent of going to a doctor whose solution to a broken arm is to prescribe pain relievers until it stops hurting.

    • Unfortunately welfare safety nets doesn’t make the problem ‘go away’. I speak from experience having lived in Australia and the UK, both countries which have outstanding welfare systems in place. So good, in fact, it’s not unusal to encounter families on their third or fourth generation who have known no other lifestyle than one supported entirely by state welfare payments. And more often than not, those families still need to reach out to charities, friends, family or good samaritans/soft touches to make ends meet, since they aren’t restricted on what they can spend their payment on.

      • I would never suggest the ‘problem’ can be made to ‘go away’. Welfare safety nets do generate dependency. As does living off charity. And the decision whether to donate, how much and to whom can have ethical implications. As an expat in India we were confronted every day at the traffic lights by young mothers with babies begging pitifully for food. My Indian driver told me it was a racket, and how young girls with disabled children brought the organiser the best returns. The way he told it, by donating we were doing more harm than good. What would you do? The safety net in India is practically non existent. I am so glad not to face that stress any more, living currently in a decent country (Australia) with a safety net.

        Jack’s trite jibe about socialism making one ‘stupid, intellectually lazy, smug, unproductive, and state compliant’ is no surprise. There are no perfect answers. We just have to manage as best we can, collectively with our publically funded support, and individually with our charity.

        Having lived many decades in both the UK and Australia I haven’t had any of your ‘not unusual encounters’ with families on their ‘third or fourth generation entirely supported by state welfare payments’. Long term welfare dependency certainly exists in Australia, but it seems wrong to imply it is widespread.

        • I said it’s not unusual, not it’s a widespread problem. The widespread problem, particularly in Australia, is that government welfare extends beyond the poor and under-class to the middle-class and even to the rich and big-business. That, however, is an economics debate, rather than an ethical one. The ethics question that comes back to state provided welfare is one regarding the justification not to give. Is “I pay my taxes” a valid justification, or is it merely dodging ownership of one’s choice by deflecting it back on to a faceless man/higher power?

          • Yes. I am in principle happy in Australia to have financed and empowered my agent (the State) to provide safety net provisions, and to determine any conditions or restrictions. I don’t expect to pay twice. I am however well aware that there are gaps, flaws, frailties, inefficiencies and corruptions. Nevertheless I still expect the State system generally to work better than me (with all my inevitable biases) deciding who deserves what. It is a comfort to know that no one needs to depend on my charity for basic life support.

            • Unless truly exceptional circumstances warrant temporary help, people shouldn’t be encoraged to depend on the government for basic life support. It’s a soul-draining condition for one, our inner-cities and other low-income areas being perfect examples of that. For another, it’s probably worse than the March of Dimes, in terms of how much of your income earmarked for charity actually finds its way to the needy. Lastly, what is so charitable about forcing acts of charity on your neighbor at the point of government guns?

  20. My decision to give people charity isn’t based on how badly they need it but rather the circumstances which lead them there. If you’re broke because your kid has cancer, no problem. But if you need money because you just lost your shirt at the casino, get lost.

    My experience with street beggars is that they are almost always there for casino-type reasons and not kid-has-cancer reasons. I don’t have the time to make those determinations, which is why charity organizations are useful. They do the vetting the rest of us can’t. Unfortunately many charities seem to be tax shelters for the rich, outright scams, or engines for political causes rather than social good. It’s such a minefield I just reserve my charity for close friends and family.

    Humans have a genetic disposition for giving. Helping people gives you a dopamine high that feels really good. I like to joke that beggars are actually drug dealers selling happiness. If you look at it that way, it doesn’t matter what they do with the money or why they need it. You helped someone, so let the happy chemical flow.

    • “. Unfortunately many charities seem to be tax shelters for the rich, outright scams, or engines for political causes rather than social good. It’s such a minefield I just reserve my charity for close friends and family.”

      This is why I love those boxes of groceries that you can buy for local food pantries at supermarkets.

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