The Ethicist: Should I Accept a Cash Reward for Doing the Right Thing?

January 14, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Should I Accept a Cash Reward for Doing the Right Thing?

My 12-year-old son and I found a cellphone in the back seat of a taxi. I called someone on the owner’s contact list who called him who then called me. We met on a convenient corner, and I gave him the phone. He was very appreciative and wanted to give us $40 to express his thanks. My son started to take it. I said: “Thank you, but no thank you. We didn’t do this for a reward.” Trying to explain integrity to my son, however, has been very difficult. He doesn’t see why we didn’t take money for a good deed. Even some of my friends said I should have taken the “reward.” What do you think? Name Withheld

My response: What do I think? I think that he knew you didn’t to it for the reward. He still wanted to reciprocate. I don’t see how not accepting the money teaches your son integrity.

The New York Times response:

I understand your concern. We should be cautious about extracting market value from moral values. Imagine if we rewarded heroism in battle not with medals but with a cash prize. In his book “The Moral Economy,” Samuel Bowles, who directs the behavioral-sciences program at the Santa Fe Institute, argues that appeals to self-interest can undermine moral motivations.

But let’s distinguish two issues here. One is why you should do the sort of generous thing you and your son did. The answer is, as you suggest, that good deeds are their own reward. And it was a good deed: You weren’t obliged to take the trouble to get the phone back to its owner yourself. You could have given it to the taxi driver, who has a professional duty either to arrange the return of lost property or to drop it off at a police station or with the owner of the cab. So what you did went above and beyond the call of duty. It was, to use a philosopher’s sesquipedalian word, an act of supererogation.

Had the phone’s owner just expressed his thanks, you would have had the satisfaction that decent people get from their decent acts. More than this, a world of decent people like you is a better world. Moments like these connect us to strangers in a way that reflects our common humanity. So we should honor these decent acts in others. I agree with you about all of that.

But — here’s the second issue — this doesn’t mean that we must reject every offer of a reward. One way to honor a kind act, if you’re the beneficiary, is to express gratitude, as this man did. His offer of money was presumably meant as a further expression of that gratitude. And it didn’t automatically turn your act into a grubby commercial arrangement. Not every gift corrodes moral sentiment.

Money talks, not just in the unpleasant sense that you can buy compliance but also in the sense that in giving you something of value, I can show that I respect what you have done. A generous act; the offer of a token of appreciation; the grateful acceptance. Each of these can continue a small moment of human connection.

Sometimes people feel that to be the beneficiary of a generous act puts them under an obligation, in a way that makes them uncomfortable. Did the man want to reduce his own sense of being in your debt? Were you worried that he thought of you as the kind of person who was motivated only by the desire for a reward? The fact that it’s natural to wonder about these questions reflects the truth that small offers of money like these are attempts at communication — and, like all attempts at communication, can sometimes fail.


An acquaintance of mine was recently diagnosed with an incurable cancer. He has health insurance but decided to spend his small retirement savings in a nontraditional medical clinic in Mexico. He was prescribed vitamins and other homeopathic treatments for a sizable sum. As he is now unable to pay his living expenses, he has started raising money online. I am a health care provider and realize the importance of combining traditional and nontraditional medicine. I disagree, however, with his departure from science-based treatment and advice. What duty do I have to help him financially? Name Withheld

My response: Did I miss something? “… to help him financially”?

I’m not a medical doctor, but I’ve never heard of doctors giving patients money. He spent his savings on water called homeopathic treatments. Adults can do what they want. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see where your question of duty comes from.

The New York Times response:

When you are confronting death, it’s hard to think carefully about the decisions you face. That’s why it’s particularly impressive when people do so with intelligence and resolution. As long as you are mentally competent, though, these decisions are yours to make. What you can’t expect is that other people will pay for you to follow your choices.

This patient is, you say, an acquaintance. Paying anything at all for the medical expenses of an acquaintance is doing more than you must. It’s an act of supererogation, again. If you do it, it will be because you care about and respect him. And if you respect him, you will want him to act on the basis of a proper understanding of his situation. Respecting people entails telling them when we think they’re wrong — at least when the issue is ethically significant, and when we think they’re capable of understanding the truth. That you would give people money if they were making sensible choices doesn’t mean that you’re ignoring their right to manage their own affairs when you decline to underwrite foolish ones.

As a medical professional, you have come to the view that this costly Mexican clinic is offering this man no medical benefit. You also know that good medical treatment, even when it can’t cure a condition, can often provide patients a longer “quality adjusted” life. If the clinic’s nostrums are useless, he’s going to find that he’s continuing to decline. In giving him money, you will be subsidizing peddlers of false hope (whether mercenary or deluded) and enabling your acquaintance to put off important end-of-life decisions. The respectful thing, if you know him well enough, is to help him face the truth.


While in the process of purchasing a home, I discovered that concrete for its foundation was supplied by a company whose product has crumbled in tens of thousands of homes in my state. Most homeowners have been ruined, as there is no relief from insurance or FEMA and little to no relief from the state. I did not buy the house, but I worry for the next buyer. What should I do with this information? Name Withheld

My response: “What should I do?” … Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

In your case, I’d talk to someone experienced in realty, maybe a lawyer too. Situations like yours probably happen regularly. If someone solved it, why reinvent the wheel?

In general, I recommend:

  1. Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
  2. Figuring what skills you have and can create
  3. Creating as many options as you can
  4. Considering what outcomes each option will result in
  5. Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
  6. Implement the option you like most
  7. Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise

The New York Times response:

This sounds like something that a prospective buyer should bear in mind, but you can’t be obliged to stand in front of the property with a warning sign. You can, however, formally notify the current owners and their real estate broker of what you’ve found. It’s up to them to do the right thing. At the very least, a formal communication from you will put them on notice that, in the event of future litigation, they can’t safely claim ignorance.

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