Not the ethicist

September 26, 2014 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment, Tips

Continuing yesterday’s series on responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on them, here is a take on an earlier post, “Accounting Principles“.

My spouse and I earn too much to contribute to a Roth I.R.A. Recently, we learned that it is legal to contribute to a traditional I.R.A. and then convert it into a Roth. My understanding of the Roth is that people who make over a certain income shouldn’t benefit from its advantages. My spouse says that because it is legal to roll a traditional I.R.A. into a Roth, there is nothing unethical about doing so. Is this a case in which the law and the ethical standard conflict? S.R., TENNESSEE

My answer: What alternative is there to paying what the laws say? You could pay more than the law requires. If you feel the laws disagree with your values, like you think the government should do more to level the playing field or redistribute wealth, you can try to change the laws through the usual means of influencing the government, but living in a pluralistic culture with representative government means living with laws that you disagree with, even if they benefit you.

You can choose to act independently of the laws if you accept the consequences. In this case the only consequence is you have less money.

If you want to achieve your goals independent of the tax system you disagree with, you can give money to charities or others you feel could use your extra money more. You can try to influence others who have money to spare to do the same too.

The New York Times Answer: Saying there’s an ethical “standard” behind the Roth limit would suggest that there’s some kind of nonnegotiable, inherent justification for what the specific financial cutoff should be. That’s not the case. The so-called standard for who is eligible merely reflects whatever the rule states; if the legislation were marginally changed (and people in your income bracket were suddenly deemed within the range of Roth eligibility), you would not worry that the previous standard was altered. We all have an abstract obligation to contribute to whatever society we engage with, but the legal particulars of that contribution — the details outlining what any individual person owes and which exemptions that person is qualified to use — are arbitrary (and created through imperfect legislative consensus). The tax code is constantly changing, and rarely for moral reasons. So if the tax code states that this (seemingly sketchy) I.R.A. conversion is legal, you can use it. The rule itself may be flawed, but, in this specialized case, your only obligation is to stay within the boundaries of the code.

In a country like Norway, the tax rate is much higher than it is here. If you moved to Oslo, that’s the rate you would be obligated to pay — whatever the Norwegian tax code states. If you want to debate which country’s tax code is more ethically sound, that’s a different discussion. That’s a theoretical debate. But as a citizen of any given country, you are responsible only to adhere to the tax system that exists (regardless of its logic).


At a bank branch, I was turning in some lesser bills for $100 bills when the teller handed me back a 50 and said it was no good. I thought that banks confiscated counterfeits, but now it was back in my possession. Ethically, what do I do with this bill? I believe I got it from another branch of the same bank some months ago. WALTER ROBINSON

My answer: You no doubt realized that if you don’t spend the bill, you lose fifty dollars but don’t risk penalties. If you do spend it, someone else faces that problem. The counterfeiters already gained their fifty dollars and this bill won’t likely be useful to help find them. You never intended to break the law when you received or tried to deposit the bill.

If the law says spending counterfeit money is illegal, spending it breaks the law. If you agree with the law, break it, and get away with it, you will have sacrificed your integrity, even if no one else knows about it. You may feel guilty at knowingly putting someone else at risk. You may not get away with it and have to pay a penalty or go to jail. If you think you can get away with it and don’t think the loss of integrity or guilty feelings add up to $50, you might conclude spending it is worth it.

If you disagree with the law, you may feel justified in spending the counterfeit bill. Martin Luther King broke laws he disagreed with on a principled stance, but he did so publicly, trying to change the law.

Those are the consequences of your actions. You have to decide what is right for you.

The New York Times Answer: The bank handled this incorrectly. Banking institutions are supposed to keep the counterfeit bill and deliver it to the Secret Service. You should go to a different bank (or at least a different teller) and hand it over. Now, the obvious downside to this is that you’ll lose $50. You will not be reimbursed, even though none of this is your fault. But life is unfair. Crime happens. This is no different than if you were painlessly pickpocketed: The authorities can investigate the crime, but they can’t return whatever you lost. I’m sure you will be tempted to take the fraudulent $50 and buy a $1 pack of gum while feigning ignorance, and I suspect many people in your position would try exactly that action. But then you would be a criminal, too.

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