From The Signature Significance Files: A Question For “The Ethicist” That Proves The Questioner Is Ethically Obtuse

GoFundMe for car

When I read the headlined question in an April installment of “The Ethicist” advice column in the New York Times Magazine, I would have done a spit-take if I had just taken a sip of something. It was “Is It OK to Use Money Raised for a Child’s Cancer Care on a Car?” What? No it’s not “OK,” you idiot! The questioner has to write to a professor of philosophy like Kwame Anthony Appiah, who is the current version of the Times’ ethics expert, to puzzle out that query? Why not ask a neighbor, a minister, a friend who isn’t in jail, a reasonably socialized junior in high school?

Then I started wondering what percentage of American think that question is a really tough one, and I got depressed.

Here was the whole question:

My grandchild is being treated for leukemia. A friend of the child’s parents set up a GoFundMe page for them. They’re both well loved and have siblings who know a ton of people. So the goal was surpassed in three hours, and donations totaled more than double that amount. They plan to donate anything over and above direct hospital-related expenses to leukemia research organizations.This couple have some needs that aren’t strictly related to the child’s care, like a new car. Am I rationalizing by saying they need to drive the child to the hospital and should use some of this money for a dependable car? Is there a strict line you would not cross? And is it germane that they’re not extravagant and extremely honest?

I don’t need to discuss Appiah’s answer; he got it right. If he hadn’t, he would need to have his column, his teaching position at NYU and his degree in philosophy taken away. My concern is how hopelessly inept our culture must be at installing the most basic ethical principles if someone grows to adulthood unable to figure out in a snap that if one receives charity to pay for a child’s medical expenses, it is unethical, indeed criminal, to use the money to buy a car.

This isn’t hard, or shouldn’t be. Why is it? If the GoFundMe raised more money than is needed for the purpose donors contributed, the ethical response is to send the now un-needed fund back, with a note of thanks. (Appiah, after far more explanation and analysis than should be necessary—but he does have a column to fill—-eventually points this out.) No, you do not give the extra contributions to “leukemia research organizations,” because the donors could have contributed to those on their own, and didn’t give the money after a general appeal for all leukemia sufferers. They gave money for this particular child’s treatment. Doing as the family plans is a classic bait-and-switch. The questioner doesn’t comprehend that, either.

Then the rationalizations for theft start. “This couple have some needs that aren’t strictly related to the child’s care, like a new car.” “Strictly” is such a wonderful weasel word; it greases slippery slopes so well. Again, “The Ethicist” is forced to explain the obvious: the donors weren’t contributing to a needed car, they were giving to support leukemia treatment. If the family wants a new car, let’s see what that GoFundMe will bring in.

Which of the family’s needs couldn’t be sufficiently linked to the child’s welfare to support a rationalization for using the funds? “Am I rationalizing…?” Of course you’re rationalizing; in fact, I think even this ethically illiterate correspondent knows this is rationalizing, and is just hoping that an ethics authority will validate an unethical calculation. The tell is that she feels it necessary to add that they are only seeking a reliable car, not a Lexus. But come on. “Think of the children!”(Rationalization #58) Isn’t this desperately ill child worth, not just a reliable car, but the most reliable car?

As if any further evidence was needed that this reader of “The Ethicist”—and wouldn’t you think that if she did read the column, she might have picked up just a teeny smidgen of ethical thinking over time?—has no clue at all, we get, “[I]s it germane that they’re not extravagant and extremely honest?”

What is that, some kind of cut-rate version of the King’s Pass? Actually, it is: this is a blatant Rationalization #11A, ”I deserve this! or “Just this once!” (The King’s Pass is #11.) The theory is that ordinary, greedy, sneaky people shouldn’t use money intended to save the life of a child to get a new set of wheels, but thrifty, honest, good people deserve a little leeway.

What percentage of the population thinks like this? 25% 50%? 90%?

In his answer, “The Ethicist” does provide an unintended hint regarding how Americans end up thinking this way. Like most academics, he’s a socialist, so he writes, “It is immoral that anyone here has to borrow large sums of money for essential medical treatment, especially for a child….we need to expand the pinpoints of empathy to … light the way toward a country where health care is treated not as a privilege but as a right.” Bad Ethicist. Bad! That’s a false dichotomy, and he knows it, but he’s spouting progressive cant now. Health care is like many other human needs that we have to work and plan for as individuals, and recognize that the vicissitudes of fate sometimes turn against us. If health care is a right, surely a home, sufficient food, an education—heck, why not a graduate-level education?—a satisfying job, guaranteed income, having as many children as one’s fertility allows, child care and transportation also should be “rights.”

Why shouldn’t it be ethical to use other people’s money to get a reliable “reliable” car?

13 thoughts on “From The Signature Significance Files: A Question For “The Ethicist” That Proves The Questioner Is Ethically Obtuse

  1. I’ve never understood why it is that GoFundMe doesn’t even have the option to put a hard upper limit cap on donations. Or maybe I’m wrong, I’ve never set up a GoFundMe, it’s possible that functionality exists, but I’ve never seen it used…. Which is almost worse. But this isn’t the first time I’ve seen a target surpassed by six figures, and I’ve always wondered how the receivers could sleep at night.

    • The last time I contributed to a GFM plea, I was advised that GFM takes a “rake” from each contribution for “administrative costs”. There was nothing said about whether contributions beyond the target amount were treated differently. Its a left-oriented organization, so use your imagination.

    • I don’t know about GFM, but things on Kickstarter for example often write of what it would cost to make product and what would be done if more is donated. However, those are normally spelled out.

  2. Dear Ethicist,

    Would it be unethical to use a spray of cold water from a garden hose, or the threat thereof, to compel it to rub the lotion on its skin?

  3. a home, sufficient food, an education—heck, why not a graduate-level education?—a satisfying job, guaranteed income, having as many children as one’s fertility allows, child care and transportation also should be “rights.”

    Damn straight, buddy. That’s exactly what Bernie Sanders and all the teeny boppers in Congress and the Biden administration are pushing for. Imagine. Again, its’ the Great Revolution, not the Great Stupid.

    • “That’s exactly what Bernie Sanders and all the teeny boppers in Congress and the Biden administration are pushing for.”

      They’re giving “Free and Open Society” a totally new meaning.

  4. I guess I am in the minority that thinks that using part of the $70,000 to buy a car to take the child to treatments would not be unethical. Where I live, it is a good 50 mile drive to a cancer-treatment center. The appointments take a lot of time. I also know a lot of people without cars or a car that could reliably make that trip. Can you imagine breaking down on the side of the interstate in 95+ degree heat with a cancer-stricken child. Yes, friends and family often help out and will drive people to appointments, but when the number of appointments is large and take a long time, this isn’t always possible. Of course, I think using some of the money for hotels for out-of-state treatments would be acceptable as well. This is a real need and why the Ronald McDonald houses exist. Remember, I can get reimbursed for travel expenses from a Health Savings Account or Flex Account. I can get reimbursed for a taxi, I can get reimbursed for a hotel. I would rather see them get a car they could use when needed than a bunch of 100 mile round-trip taxi charges. If you wonder why there is doubt about this, it is because they have all been told in mandated meetings that these are acceptable medical expenses.

    Then why not take a cab?
    Reviews from the cab company in my town (their cabs are 20+ year old former police Crown Vics):
    “Very unimpressed with this company! A friend and I decided to drink responsibly, we took a cab to the saloon. When we called at 130am to go home, they would not answer! Even after telling us he would be available.”

    “Worse than ever! right now I’m still waiting… Called at 11:53am and ready and it is 1:25pm no answering call nothing… Almost lost my job because of them I am always late no matter what time I call… They have to correct this issue”

    Now, a new car? Well, that would raise eyebrow and questions. A 2011 Mistubishi Lancer? Completely understandable. I wouldn’t have a problem with it and I think most people I know wouldn’t either.

    I am not sure about the money over $70,000. The people that donated knew the fund was over the limit and decided to donate anyway? Why? They knew the need had been met. Why did they donate anyway? What did they want done with the money? Returning it would be completely ethical. Anything else, well, I am not sure. These GoFundMe initiatives need to be better written to account for such cases.

  5. I have a 2nd cousin with a brain tumor she’s been fighting for a good decade now. When a GFM was set up for her, we contributed, but it was also a very broad ask, which we were fine with. She’s a single mom of 2 kids and works as a hair dresser. Her medical appointments were 6 hours away and required overnight accommodations and the treatments would leave her without an ability to work. Contributions raised would support hotel stays, traveling expenses, medical bills, income replacement, etc.

    To me, the conflict in the above story is created by a lack of detail by the letter writer. What did the GFM listing specifically say about how the money would be used? Since it’s anonymous, we’ll never know. So we’ll have to go with the limited information we have and assume that it was specifically for hospital bills and that treatments are ongoing. The family should not spend or donate a single additional penny beyond that remit until all medical treatments have been successfully completed and billed.

    That being said, since society just covered all of your unexpected medical bills, I guess the family might have the financial leeway in their own expenses to incur a more dependable mode of transportation?

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