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.