The Ethicist: Must I Honor My Dad’s Gifts to Political Groups?

July 1, 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 “Must I Honor My Dad’s Gifts to Political Groups?”.

Last summer, I had to tell my father that he had terminal lung cancer. We had an opportunity to make him as comfortable as possible for however much time he might have left, and I encouraged him to focus on that. He begrudgingly agreed.

He lived in Florida. I stayed down there with him for a while, and we talked about how to ensure that he would be taken care of and safe. I didn’t want him to be the victim of “elder abuse,” as the disease progressed and he became increasingly vulnerable. I reviewed his will with him, got him transferred into a rehabilitation-nursing home, bought him a refrigerator for his room so he could keep his milk and vodka cold and generally made sure that he was comfortable.

I also asked him if it would help if I handled his bills, and he said he would appreciate it, so I happily took this on. I took all his checks with me, because I didn’t want anyone taking advantage of him once his long-term care kicked in. My aunt, who lives nearby, sent me all the bills after my dad had carefully filled out, in pencil, how much I should pay of each on a weekly basis.

One of my father’s mantras when I was younger was: “If you lie, you cheat, and if you cheat, you steal.” It’s the code by which I live, and I honored all his commitments. Or almost all of them, which is why I’m writing. You see, my dad fell a little to the right of Attila the Hun on the political spectrum. While I didn’t agree with nearly anything he did politically, I loved him. However, this new responsibility put me in a bit of a pickle. Some of the “bills” were donation forms to organizations and people I don’t see eye to eye with: the N.R.A., Ted Cruz, Trump for President, Hillsdale College, Joe Arpaio and a plethora of conservative, even extreme, organizations. My dad did have a soft spot in his heart: There were some donation forms with dollar amounts carefully written in pencil by him for the A.S.P.C.A. He loved cats. I paid those donation-request forms. But I developed a workaround for the ones I didn’t support, creating a “pending” section in the plastic accordion file where I kept his bills.

My dad died late last year. All those donation forms still sit in that “pending” file. What can I do, so that I don’t violate the core values he instilled in me of not “lying, cheating or stealing”?

My response: After saying “I didn’t want anyone taking advantage of him once his long-term care kicked in,” you describe wanting to take advantage of him.

The answer to your question “What can I do, so that I don’t violate the core values he instilled in me of not “lying, cheating or stealing”?” seems clear: don’t lie, cheat, or steal.

The issue seems to me not what to do but that your actions make 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.

The New York Times response:

I’ll tell you what you should have done while he was alive. You should have asked him whether he really wanted to pay money to these groups, explained to him why you thought it was a bad idea and then done what he asked. You were holding those checks to do his will, not yours. When you promised him you would act for him, you accepted the obligation to do so. By penciling in an amount, your father was making his intentions clear. These were decisions that he was competent to make and that expressed his longstanding commitments.

Now that he’s no longer around, you can’t consult him. But your duties to him weren’t extinguished by his death. Assuming that the legal situation with respect to his estate allows it, you should clean your slate with your father and honor him by honoring his requests. If it’s any consolation, those conservative causes have huge accounts, and the checks you should have written are probably within the rounding error of their budgets. Those checks won’t enable them to do much more than they can already. What those checks will do is express your father’s political will. Each of us in a democratic society should be allowed to do that for himself or herself.


My immediate family holds citizenship in three countries: A, B and C. I was born in Country A. My husband was born in Country C, and we met in Country B. We spent a couple of years living in his country of birth, Country C, but we realized it would never be a place to put down roots. We lived over a decade in Country B — married there, had kids, bought property and set up a business that is still running.

A few years ago, we moved to my home country, Country A. We’ve left open the possibility of some day returning to Country B, but we’re very happy where we are at the moment. My question is this: I vote in Country A, and I feel fine about voting in Country B, as we still have ties and a possible future residency that might be affected by the political situation there. But I don’t feel comfortable voting

Country C just had elections, with a real possibility of an extreme right-wing party gaining power. I was not going to vote, but then my husband joked about “taking care” of my absentee ballot. (We have different political views.) So then I did fill out my ballot, just to nullify his vote. I also thought I should do whatever is in my power to keep extreme parties from gaining power. Is this ethical, as I don’t live there and don’t plan on ever living there?

My response: There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

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.

In this case, others wrote the laws you’re following. If they created them through some reasonably democratic process, then everybody involved seems a consenting, sane, fully informed adult.

The New York Times response:

I’m always fascinated when a letter comes from someone who has very different politics from a spouse. The social-science literature suggests that Americans are increasingly marrying and socializing within political tribes. But if we’re to run the republic together, we need to be able to know and be able to work with people from other political tribes. So I worry about America’s political segregation, and I’m glad your marriage is working in Country A, despite the fact that the two of you are pulling for different outcomes in Country C.

As for the ethics of casting a vote in its elections: Provided the laws of a country are reasonable, you may exercise the rights it allows you. Your view seems to be that your connections to Country C are too loose — that you have too little at stake there — to be entitled to vote. But wisely or unwisely, that country has given you and others in a similar position the right to vote. And while having stakes in a vote may make someone more attentive than someone whose future doesn’t depend on what happens there, voters shouldn’t aim to secure their narrow interests. They should aim to pick the people who will best serve the country where they are being elected to office.

Bear in mind that voting is, critically, an expressive act. The point is not to determine the outcome — which a single vote almost never does — but to participate in a good outcome: to be one of those who, together, secured it. If you’ve been given the right to do so, contributing to the best outcome for Country C (by your lights) would be a commendable thing to do.


I was an editor for my school’s yearbook, and as I was adding portraits of students, I noticed a few people went by different names from the ones officially listed. I got approval from my teacher to change those names.

I was also part of my school’s gay-straight alliance. One student was transgender, and while he used male pronouns in the alliance, I didn’t know if he was out to the rest of the world. He was in a different grade, so I didn’t know him very well (and wouldn’t have felt comfortable asking him about this anyway).

While I was going through portraits, I noticed that he was listed under a different name. I wondered if I should change it to respect his identity, or if I should keep it the way it was, so that he didn’t get outed if it turned out he was closeted. We live in a very progressive community, so he was unlikely to be the object of physical violence, but, it could still hurt. That said, it could also hurt to be called by the wrong name. We ended up leaving it as it was written in school records. I don’t know how he reacted. What should I have done?

My response: I recommend a different perspective than asking what others think you should have done. 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. Also not to judge your choice based on information or experience that came after you chose but couldn’t have known at the time.

I would have involved the person in the process and talked to him since you had access to him.

The New York Times response:

The best solution would have been to overcome your discomfort and ask him what he wanted; you did see each other in the gay-straight alliance. But if you couldn’t bring yourself to do this, be mindful that managing his coming out is up to him. The risk that he would be hurt by being listed under a female name was outweighed by the risk of outing him against his will.

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