The Ethicist: Should I Go to a College I’ve Been Admitted to as a Legacy?

May 27, 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 Go to a College I’ve Been Admitted to as a Legacy?”.

I am currently a senior in high school and am lucky enough to have been admitted to a prestigious private university. I’m strongly considering attending this school because of its excellent academics and the other opportunities it offers me, and because my family can afford it.

Both my parents attended this school at various points, so I’m sure that being a legacy didn’t hurt my application. But I’m worried about the ethics of inserting myself into a system that so many criticize as racist, unfairly influenced by privilege like my race (I’m white), the legacies that I have and my socioeconomic status. However, even if I were to turn down this school, I’m sure someone else would take my place, and I’d still most likely be attending a fancy private college; it seems unlikely that my individual decision would impact the overall system.

Do I have an ethical obligation not to enter a system that is clearly deeply flawed, if it so happens that those flaws seem to have worked out to some degree in my favor? Name Withheld

My response: You didn’t ask for alternatives or advice. You asked if you had an ethical obligation.

You ask what’s ethical. Since everyone has different values, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.

Besides the problem you describe, you say you feel guilty/anxious/angry/other emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

I would categorize this situation as a problem-solving, not an ethics, issue. Abstract questions of philosophy won’t resolve this issue as effectively as adopting a problem-solving approach. As with most of life, each potential action has results and you want to find an outcome most acceptable to the most number of people. Not that you asked for advice, but if you want to influence the system 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:

Many people consider the legacy system to be among the social mechanisms that generate significant inequality of opportunity in this country. This would seem to be your view too. You worry, more broadly, about how the other advantages you have smooth your way toward the collection of yet more advantages — about what the Yale law professor Daniel Markovits calls “snowball inequality.” Fair enough. In dozens of elite colleges, there are more students from households in the top 1 percent than there are students from the bottom 60 percent.

Yet it’s not your job to solve the problem on your own. Turning down this opportunity isn’t going to make a detectable difference to the system, but it may well make a significant difference to you. Better to take your unearned advantages and put your shoulder to the wheel of making things better at the college you’ve been admitted to. Within a few years, you’ll be in the alumni association. When it comes to the legacy system, you could start a campaign of reform there. And while you’re still in college, you can make sure to study up on the larger sources of inequality and injustice in our society and the strategies for doing something about it.


I am divorced. I recently learned from one of my children that my ex is leaving them uneven shares of his wealth. He’s leaving less to our son, the child he dislikes. His rationale is that this particular child has poor money-management skills.

My will, so far, is divided evenly. As I’ve told my children repeatedly, I love them equally, and I want this love reflected in my will.

Should I change it to give more to the child disliked by his father, in order that the children come out more or less equal? Would the other child, our daughter, feel slighted and less loved? 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.

As for their feelings, why don’t you talk to them about it?

I recommend a different perspective than asking what others think you should do. There are many choices you can make where you don’t know all the possible outcomes, who will like the results, who might get hurt, and so on. I think of it like looking down a ski slope that splits, the paths diverge so you can’t either past the first part, and you have to choose. Or choosing which wave to surf.

When you can never know all the information you wish you could but still have to choose or risk standing in the cold while others pass you by, in life or on the slopes, the best I can think to do is to know that whichever you choose, you’ll enjoy it or live it the best you can, and that you’ll take responsibility for making it work. In this case that means involving the people affected before you die, unless you’re comfortable letting things happen after you die. Also not to judge your choice based on information or experience that came after you chose but couldn’t have known at the time.

The New York Times response:

Because your children know what your ex has done, it shouldn’t be hard to explain to them that you’re trying to make up for what you see as their father’s unfairness. You suspect that your ex was really expressing his hostility to one child. That’s why what you’re proposing is a way of expressing your equal concern for your children. Of course, if the other child agreed with you about the unfairness, she could do something about it herself. But even if she disagreed, you’re entitled to your view, and she should be capable of respecting it.

If the disfavored child really does have poor money-management skills, you can solve that problem (as your ex-husband could have) by putting the money in a trust.

One caveat: Someone might see this as a way of continuing the conflicts between you and your ex-husband that explain why he is your ex. So search your heart and make sure this isn’t so before you make your plans.


I am a college student at a small liberal-arts college. My friend takes a class with me that is a requirement for each of our majors. However, she has acute autism, so when we take the exams she goes in another room to take hers.

She recently informed me that when she takes these tests, there is no one in the room, so she uses her notes to get a good grade on the exam. This hardly seems fair to everyone who actually studied, and I also don’t understand how this situation is supposed to help her learning disabilities.

I am not sure if the professor knows she is cheating, so I’m not sure if I should tell the professor, because while it is breaking my friend’s trust, it also is not fair to the rest of the class that had to study for the exam. Name Withheld

My response: We’ve all experienced trying to help someone only to find what we meant to help got the other person angry, frustrated, or the like. We’ve also all experienced someone trying to help us who only made things worse.

I usually respond to letters with no questions by saying something like, “Thank you for sharing your story,” and not giving advice or commenting much more. Not commenting may sound like an easy way out of more thoughtful and helpful writing, but I’ve learned many times in coaching, teaching, and friendships that helping people who haven’t asked for it is a recipe for disaster.

My starting point for why is that what different people consider “helping” depends on their values, views, goals, and other factors that you, giving unasked advice, don’t know. For example, offering potential solutions to someone who just wants to be heard often leads to exasperation, frustration, and feeling devalued. But just listening to someone who wants advice can lead to impatience, frustration, and other emotions neither party wants.

However obvious you consider your interpretation of what the letter-writer wants, dozens of other interpretations exist, any of which the writer may have meant, or not. Acting on unchecked assumptions risks imposing your values on others, which usually provokes responses you wish you hadn’t from others.

I’ve found the best policy to keep neutral until the person clarifies what they want so I know what “help” means to them in that situation.

The New York Times response:

Start by taking this up with your friend. It does sound as if she’s abusing the system, but — even if the class is graded on a curve — it’s not damaging you and the other students very much. What you say she’s doing is wrong, but I wouldn’t place much weight on the fact that she’s wronging you.

One possibility is that your friend isn’t clear about the rules here. (A subgroup of people with autism-spectrum disorder are preoccupied with rule-keeping.) That she told you may reflect this fact. Another possibility is that you aren’t. You’re unsure whether the professor knows that she’s using her notes. If the professor does know and condones it, she’s not in violation.

Assuming, though, that your description of the situation is correct — that she is cheating — you can point out to her that her test results aren’t telling the professor how she’s doing, which is needed if the professor is to help her as her teacher. If you think you’ve persuaded her not to do it again, you could also ask her to think about whether she should tell the professor what has happened.

Autism-spectrum disorder, as a diagnosis, covers a very wide range of behavior. But it’s perhaps worth observing that it can be difficult for some people with autism to interpret your emotions and to express their own. The conversation I’m proposing would be hard with any friend. With your friend, it may be especially so.

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