The Ethicist: Is It O.K. to Give Cigarettes to a Homeless Person?

October 8, 2017 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, here is my take on today’s post, “Is It O.K. to Give Cigarettes to a Homeless Person?

After a passer-by handed over a half-used pack of cigarettes to a homeless man on a Melbourne street, the man asked that I accompany him to a nearby convenience store to help him buy more cigarettes as he was running low for the week. That way, he claimed, he would be able to spend the small sums he received on food. Cigarettes are indeed expensive in Australia, as they come with a high disincentive tax. My offer to buy him sandwiches instead was vehemently refused. The homeless man accused me of being miserly and “dishonoring our agreement” (in my view, we didn’t have one). He said that I was clearly not as generous as my benevolent predecessor. I refused his request for money in the belief that it would be wasted on cigarettes.

I could have avoided all this by giving the man cash to spend at his discretion in the first place. This gesture would have been more respectful of the recipient’s autonomy. But I also believe my predecessor set a thoughtless precedent by giving a homeless smoker a health-harming product that the gifter was happy to be rid of. What are your thoughts on the matter? Joseph, Brisbane, Australia

My response: My thoughts? The homeless man was trying to lead you using guilt and related emotions. He partly succeeded and you don’t have the emotional skills to create new emotions to crowd out the ones he instilled in you.

I also think the headline writer for this column, with his or her “Is it okay to…” and “Should I…” headlines has found effective strategies that pull people in to a column that undermines their ability to develop their social and emotional skills to improve their lives. The headlines motivate us with gossip-related, value-imposing, judgmental emotions to columns that don’t improve our lives, at least not in my opinion, compared to developing social and emotional skills.

The New York Times response:

First, you weren’t obliged to give this man anything, and the terms of a gift respectfully given are up to the donor. (You may have what Kant called an “imperfect duty” to aid others, but it doesn’t require you to give anything to any particular person.) Second, the argument he made was reversible. If giving him cigarettes freed up money for food, giving him food would have freed up money for cigarettes. What’s more, his need for cigarettes wasn’t, in fact, as great as his need for food, and providing people something they need is a greater service than giving them something they don’t. His reproach was unmerited.

Still, a one-time intervention in the life of a stranger isn’t going to change anything. A small reduction in the number of cigarettes someone smokes in a lifetime has no discernible effect on the likelihood of getting myriad smoking-related diseases. If this were a friend, you’d want to encourage him to quit and adopt a policy of not supplying him with cigarettes. But giving this man a few cigarettes won’t make him worse off. It’s his life, and he might genuinely feel that the pleasures of smoking are worth the well-known risks.

Because he clearly enjoyed smoking (or disliked not smoking), your predecessor was doing him a small favor. It might have been more generous to give the fellow something the donor actually wanted. But giving away useful things you don’t want or need is still an act of commendable charity. Your reproach, too, is unmerited.


My 91-year-old father died recently in a hospice setting. When it was evident that he was going to die, my sisters and I made arrangements to move our mother, who has Alzheimer’s, to a care facility. She and my father were able to live together until then because of the wonderful work of a paid caregiver and my sister’s attention. The director of the facility advised us against telling Mom that Dad had died, as she wouldn’t remember and would grieve anew each time she was told. We were advised to say something like, “He’s at the store and will be right back.” We understood the rationale, but it still seemed wrong to deceive Mom.

The day after Dad died, we told her and stressed that he had died peacefully and that we were there. When she asked me the next day where he was, I said that he was “resting with Jesus,” an expression familiar to her. Oddly, she has not asked about him since. Had she done so, would it have been respectful of her remaining dignity and of their 68-year marriage to repeatedly lie to her? Donna, Ithaca, N.Y.

My response: Abstract terms like “respect” create situations where some will go one way and others will go the other—often called “edge cases.” Whatever the answer to this writer’s question, other edge cases will divide different groups in different ways. They result from definitions, not the world.

I suggest that the details of this particular case are less relevant than that edge cases result definitions, not the details. This writer is asking about definitions instead of his mother’s feelings. Those feelings are what matter to her.

Talking about definitions distracts from paying attention to her feelings.

The New York Times response:

Part of the problem with the way most of us will end up — if we manage to live into old age — is that some of the things that used to make us worthy of respect will gradually fall away. As a rule, hearing the truth is important to us because it helps plug us into reality and keeps us attuned to the way things really are. Those conditions aren’t met when it comes to telling a person something she can’t integrate into her picture of the world. And if a disclosure causes recurring distress, it’s not just unhelpful; it’s unkind.


I am employed at a university teaching hospital. I’ve become friendly with a colleague over the last three years; we have spirited conversations and mutual interests and occasionally grab drinks after work.

Although she is technically proficient, she lacks basic professionalism. She often dodges responsibility, complains without suggesting solutions and asks for time off with little or no notice. Consequently, my other colleagues and I usually have to work more hours in order to cover for her. I have also grown weary of her complaining; I often feel emotionally drained after she vents to me.

I try to give her timely feedback about the impact of her actions, but I sometimes fail because of our fast-paced working environment and my desire not to admonish her in front of students. When we talk outside work, she is quick to dismiss her flaws. Her professional behavior has not changed since we met.

Recently, a job opened up at a different university. She asked me to write her a letter of recommendation. Do I have an ethical duty to write a letter giving equal weight to her strengths as well as her weaknesses? Should I write a letter emphasizing her strengths and glossing over her weaknesses because of our friendship? Alternately, should I tell her that I do not want to write the letter? Name Withheld

My response: To answer your three questions:

  1. There is no absolute abstract definition of “ethical duty” that 7 billion or so people agree on, so you may as well go with your definition. What do you think?
  2. Again, your best answer will come from your values, based on your expectations of outcomes. I recommend instead of asking a yes or no question for one option, to consider your resources, create many options, consider each option’s outcome, and choose the best option based on the outcomes you predict.
  3. Same as 2.

The New York Times response:

A letter of recommendation for a friend is still governed by norms of professional responsibility. You’ve described a subpar employee who has ignored attempts to guide her toward better behavior. To write a letter that hides the problems you’ve identified would be wrong. Imagine how you’d feel if you hired someone with glowing recommendations who turned out to be, well, like your colleague.

Yet she’s asking you to write the letter only because she supposes you can truthfully support her. It would be a betrayal of your friendship to agree to write a letter and then send one that undermined her chances. Consider telling her that you don’t think you can write an honest letter that would help her, precisely because she hasn’t taken seriously the feedback you’ve tried to give her over the years. This may leave you with a colleague who’s mad at you and unable to move. It may lose you a friend. But it might also get her to take your counsel, finally, to heart.

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