Reader 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?
Awww! Who could object to a little snuggle?
Almost any rule, low or ethical principle can be deconstructed using what I call border anomalies. The first time I was aware of it was as a Harvard freshman in the late Sixties, when all assumptions, good and bad, useful and not, were considered inherently suspect. The college required all students to wear jackets and ties to meals at the student union, and up until my first year, nobody objected. But that fall, my classmates set out to crack the dress code, so they showed up for meals with ties, jackets, and no pants, or wearing belts as ties, or barefoot. (Yes, there were a lot of future lawyers in that class.) Pretty soon Harvard gave up, because litigating what constitutes ties, jackets and “proper dress” became ridiculously time-consuming and made the administration look petty and stupid. Of course, there are good reasons for dress codes—they are called respect, dignity, community and civility—-but never mind: the dress code couldn’t stand against those determined to destroy them by sending them down the slippery slope.
If any rules are to survive to assist society in maintaining important behavioral standards, we have to determine how we want to handle the effects described by the Ethics Incompleteness Theory, which holds that even the best rules and laws will be inevitably subjected to anomalous situations on their borders, regarding which strict enforcement will result in absurd or unjust results. The conservative approach to this dilemma is to strictly apply the law, rule or principle anyway, and accept the resulting bad result as a price for having consistent standards. The liberal approach is no better: it demands amending rules to deal with the anomalies, leading to vague rules with no integrity—and even more anomalies. The best solution, in my view, is to regard the anomalies as exceptions, and to handle them fairly, reasonably and justly using basic principles of ethics, not strictly applying the rule or law alone while leaving it intact. Continue reading
“Most theorists of self-government have maintained that certain modest virtues are necessary to democracy and free markets: deferred gratification, diligence, a prudent concern for the future. There is an ongoing American debate about the degree to which government can or should promote such virtues. But here is an extraordinary case of government actively undermining the moral underpinnings of market capitalism for its own benefit. It holds out the promise of sudden wealth without work or productive investment, engaging in a purposeful and profitable deception. A corrupting fantasy becomes a revenue stream, dependent on persuading new generations to embrace it. Perhaps we have given up on government as a source of moral improvement. Does this mean we must accept a government that profits by undermining public virtues? Nearly 20 years ago, William Galston and David Wasserman wrote, “While history indicates that gambling is too ubiquitous to suppress, moral considerations suggest that it is too harmful to encourage. The most appropriate state stance toward gambling is not encouragement, but rather containment.”’
——- Washington Post op-ed columnist Michael Gerson, on the implications of a new report by the Institute For American Values titled, “Why Casinos Matter.” Continue reading
Also known as “North Carolina”…
The Bizarro planet, occasionally mentioned on “Seinfeld,” was a humorous feature in Superman comics, a cube-shaped planet populated by flawed clones of Superman and Lois Lane. Nothing made sense on the Bizaaro world, since its denizens were sub-cretinous, their traditions absurd, and their logic inverted. They threw away food and ate the plates—that sort of thing, hilarious if you’re a nine-year old boy in 1962.
I sometimes refer to “Bizarro World ethics,” which invokes the principle that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be ethical in a culture where a lack of ethics is the norm, just as behaving normally with Bizarro Supie and Bizarro Lois would be rude and confusing to them. This is the dilemma facing North Carolina, which is apparently trying to devise an ethical way to run a state lottery. That is a hopeless goal. It is like insisting on clean mud-wrestling, non-violent Jason Statham films, or healthy junk food. State-run lotteries are by definition unethical. The states that run them, and almost all do, have traded principle for encouraging and endorsing activities they once declared harmful and criminal, as a cowardly way to acquire revenue without paying the political price of raising taxes.
By doing this, they… Continue reading
Think of the children!
Maryland is supposedly one of the most progressive states in the country. One can make one’s own calculations about what it means that such a state is ready to wholeheartedly embrace government-sanctioned gambling as the easy and cowardly solution to its fiscal problems, despite the fact that the populations most harmed by gambling are the very people good progressives are supposed to care about most. My assessment is that resorting to gambling for state revenue is irresponsible, callous, venal and hypocritical. But an unholy alliance of cynical liberals, who argue for gambling because its ill-gotten tax revenue will support education (and we all know that the more money you pay teachers, the better educated our children will be), greedy business interests, and libertarians, who regard gambling as “victimless,” is now poised to add casino table gambling to the state’s sanctioned traps for its poor, desperate, dumb, corrupt and addicted. should Maryland’s voters approve “Question 7” on the ballot November 6th.
How progressive. Continue reading
“Hey! No fair! Smart people aren’t supposed to play the lottery!”
On one level, I love this story, for it confirms what I have been arguing for over a decade. State lotteries represent an unethical capitulation of governments to laziness, cowardice and greed, as they choose emulate casinos to entice the poor, desperate and stupid to give away their money rather than do their duty and make hard political choices about taxes. The inherent corruption this engenders was beautifully demonstrated by the lottery scandal recently revealed in Massachusetts.
A group of science and math whizzes, many of whom had MIT credentials, formed a gambling syndicate to beat the lottery, and did, generating almost $8 million in winnings after exploiting a flaw in the lottery rules to execute a system that virtually guaranteed profit. Their domination of the lottery continued over seven years, and was known about by lottery officials, who did nothing. Why? Because the money was coming in, and they didn’t understand that they were facing a net loss. Continue reading
Amanda Fick, er, Clayton
Following in the despicable footsteps of Leroy Fick, the Michigan millionaire lottery winner who collects food stamps because of a loop-hole in the law (and whose name, “fick,” has made the Ethics Alarms glossary as the word for someone who is willfully, openly and shameless unethical), here comes a Ms. Fick, a.k.a Amanda Clayton. She says that she is entitled to food stamps despite having two homes and a million dollar lottery prize that will leave her with $500,000 in the bank. No need for me to be creative here; what went for the Original Fick goes for her as well:
“What ethical principle doesn’t his conduct violate? He’s not responsible; he’s not accountable; he’s not fair. He doesn’t respect his fellow citizens or their opinions. He’s not loyal to his state or his community. He’s not compassionate, and I wouldn’t trust him to walk my dog: he’d probably sell him. Is he honest? Applying for food stamps is an act that declares that you need them to eat, because that’s the only reason they exist: Leroy Fick isn’t honest.”
Ditto the honorary Ms. Fick, 2012, Amanda Clayton. And if there are any eugenics practitioners out there, please try to keep these ficks from ever getting together. That’s all Michigan needs…a litter of little Ficks.
Thanks to tgt for the tip.