The Ethicist: We Sponsor Refugees. What to Do About Their Patriarchal Ways?

December 24, 2017 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 “We Sponsor Refugees. What to Do About Their Patriarchal Ways?

I am a member of a group that has sponsored a family of refugees from rural Syria. When the family arrived, group members signed up all four children — two boys and two girls — for soccer programs. Various group members also offered to drive the kids to soccer, only to find that on nights when the girls were to participate, the parents always made some excuse about why their daughters couldn’t go. It didn’t take long for us to realize that in their family, girls aren’t allowed to participate in programs outside of the home, a decidedly nonegalitarian attitude if there ever was one. Here’s the dilemma: There are those who don’t want to enroll any of the children in future recreational programs because of the family’s highly conservative attitudes toward females. Others feel that this would make the group guilty of imposing its value system on a refugee family and, by extension, just end up hurting the young sons. Who’s right? Name withheld

My response: If you’re asking who is right by some objective measure, 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 right. 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.

The New York Times response:

Neither view is right. The objection to “imposing your value system” is confused. Unless your neighbors’ relativism includes thinking that it’s right for people to exclude girls from sport programs because their culture thinks they should be excluded, you all believe they’re making a mistake. Threatening them or harassing them would indeed be disrespectful of them as moral persons. But provided that they understand that your sponsorship won’t be withdrawn if they continue with what they’re doing, it isn’t an imposition to discuss with them why you think their girls should be able to participate in after-school programs. It’s the way you talk respectfully to reasonable people.

So has anyone had a discussion with the family about this issue? They are presumably learning English, and they would do well to learn something about Western values as well. It’s hard for them to adjust, of course, and it won’t help simply to make them feel that you condemn their behavior. But neither should you avoid the issue by going along with their evasions: That’s neither helpful nor respectful. Considering the situation in Syria, these refugees are going to be in your community for quite a while. And their children are attending school with local kids, so before long they’re going to have to deal with these differences in attitude. Depriving the boys of recreational opportunities because the girls are kept at home does look like punishing children for something that’s not their fault. It will also slow down their integration — and they may be the ones who will get the family to see your point of view.


I am a lifelong runner, and after graduating from college this spring, I am in my first few months in a new city. While in college I ran competitively on a large cross-country and track team, and I have been transitioning to a new running routine outside of that group. On my intercollegiate team, running with no shirt or, for women, a sports bra and short shorts was the norm in hot weather, and it was not uncommon to see groups of similarly attired young men and women spread out throughout the community. Since I arrived in my new community, however, I have gotten the sense that this is not a look that people regularly encounter, and I worry that I am making them uncomfortable. This morning, I passed a woman and a girl who I presumed was her school-aged daughter, and as I did, I heard the woman berate the girl, saying: “That grown man was wearing no shirt and no pants. You are not going to look at him!” I generally run in the parks near my house and avoid residential areas when possible, but it is unlikely that I will be able to completely avoid areas frequented by other people. I am not breaking any local indecent-exposure laws, but community norms also have value. It might also be worth noting that I am a white man in a predominantly Hispanic and black neighborhood, so I wonder if there are cultural norms and questions of power and privilege at play here that I am not familiar with and to which I ought to be more sensitive. Should I feel an ethical obligation to change my running clothing to something more modest in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of the people I encounter, or is it acceptable to continue to wear what is most comfortable to me based on the weather? Name withheld

My response: You answered your question when you wrote, “community norms also have value.” How much value do they have to you relative to a threshold for you to follow them? Only you know the value you place on them. If it’s more, your values tell you that you should follow them. If less, you don’t have to.

In any case, you seem not to know the norms as well as people who have lived there longer. Why don’t you ask them?

You can affect the norms too, as a member of the community. What I would call leadership.

The New York Times response:

When should you defer to the norms of your neighbors? Suppose they objected if you put up a rainbow flag on your home or wore a T-shirt defending atheism. Concessions on such matters would require you to weigh their feelings against your own moral judgments; and you’re entitled (morally as well as legally) to express your convictions in public places. But sartorial norms, within certain bounds, are another matter. Once you know your neighborhood is full of people who will be offended by your approach to exercise apparel, you certainly have a reason to dress more modestly, if it’s not especially inconvenient. You would be commendably considerate of their sensibilities, without compromising any important values.


I am in my mid-50s and self-employed, and had a heart attack last year. Fortunately, the heart-attack treatment was covered under Obamacare. I continue to pay for Obamacare, but given that it’s a new year, I am concerned that my follow-up treatment won’t be covered until my $6,500 deductible is reached. I currently don’t have the finances to cover the follow-up treatment: Is it unethical to get it and hope to find a way to pay for it later? Name Withheld

My response: 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.

The New York Times response:

Situations like yours are among the great moral crises of our society. Why, in a prosperous society, should anyone have to choose between what is clearly necessary medical treatment and a debt they can’t afford? Decent doctors and hospitals will allow you to set up a payment plan, but that may not be affordable, either, given your income. If it isn’t, get the treatment you need and then make a plan. The wrong here is your being in this situation, not your getting medical care to which you’re morally entitled.


I grew up in a typical small town in the South that enshrined the Civil War with a statue of a Confederate soldier beside the courthouse. A childhood friend, who became a professional artist of some note, painted a picture of the courthouse, which my mother bought for me as a gift because of my connection to the artist. The picture has been hanging in my home since the 1970s. It is a lovely watercolor perfectly in tune with the décor of the guest bedroom where it now hangs. The Confederate statue is not a prominent focal point in the impressionistic painting. I had never paid much attention to it until the current uproar over the actual statues caused me — a raging white liberal on issues of civil rights — to do soul-searching about whether I wish to give such a symbol any space in my home. I am torn, of course, between keeping a gift from my beloved deceased mother that few will ever see besides me and my family and taking it down. I have been polling several of my friends (all white liberals like me) about whether the picture should continue to hang or be “toppled.” Unanimously, they have urged me to “keep it up.” Hoping to get more clarity, I’m writing to get your opinion. Name withheld

My response: I can’t help but break from offering advice to offer two posts on visiting my friend’s grandparents’ house for a vacation to find pictures of the grandfather in Nazi uniform from his youth as an Austrian soldier during the second world war.

Here is the first post, You don’t know your values until you test them. And the second, You don’t know your values until you test them, part 2. The posts may not give you the opinion you’re looking for, but will give an alternative view.

The New York Times response:

I agree with your friends. The picture’s meaning for you has nothing to do with supporting white supremacy. At the same time, it does no harm to be reminded that we live in a country full of such pro-Confederate legacies — a country full of small town squares that harbor those statues. That’s one reason I’m not so keen on taking down the statues (or your picture). People should know that the South went to war in order to preserve slavery and then put up Confederate memorials in order to celebrate or obfuscate that legacy a couple of generations later. For those who realize, as you and I do, why the statues were put there, they’re doing us the service of preserving a past that explains too much of the present.

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