The Ethicist: Should I Turn in My Tax-Cheating Relative?

August 27, 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, “Should I Turn in My Tax-Cheating Relative?

My relative works in the marijuana industry, which has been legal in my state for almost two years. Nevertheless, he has worked under the table during that time, earning tens of thousands of dollars and not paying taxes on it. I confronted him and told him that I didn’t think the tax evasion was ethical. He disagreed, saying that plenty of people do not report their tips. Our relationship has been a little strained since the confrontation, but we still mostly get along. Is it unethical of me to report him to the I.R.S.? Name Withheld

My response: You’re seriously considering reporting your relative to the I.R.S.?

I suggest that instead of considering the act’s ethics and ask yourself what you stand to gain and lose.

More importantly, what is motivating you to escalate so much? Can’t you think of more effective ways to resolve your differences? If not, I suggest you work on your communication and leadership skills instead of asking about abstract philosophical labels.

The New York Times response:

What your kinsman is doing is, of course, wrong. The costs of government are largely paid through taxes, and those who don’t pay their fair share are taking advantage of the rest of us who do. That plenty of people don’t report their tips is neither here nor there: A misdeed isn’t redeemed by its prevalence. Now that his business is legal, he doesn’t have the excuse that he can’t report his income because his business is underground. Whether that was ever a very good excuse depends in part on whether it was wrong to ban the mari­juana trade. But only in part. In general, we ought to obey even ill-conceived laws until we can get them changed. Either way, that issue is now moot.

Here’s one that isn’t: He revealed his scofflaw behavior in the context of a familial relationship. Our lives go better if we’re able to assume that frankness in family conversations won’t end up being used against us in a court of law. (That’s one reason the old doctrine of spousal privilege — the general principle that you can’t be compelled to testify against your spouse in criminal proceedings — was a good idea.) Reporting your relative exposes him to penalties for extensive tax evasion, which can include imprisonment. Is this something you can live with? When loyalty to family and loyalty to the law come into conflict, the illegality in question has to be very serious to win out. You don’t want to be the kind of person who finds everyone falling silent at family gatherings when he or she enters the room.


I am a tutor at an inner-city charter elementary school with predominantly Latino enrollment. One of my first-grade students was not able to learn even one new letter of the alphabet in the entire year, despite the efforts of four tutors working with her five days a week. This little girl, very pleasant and hard working, seems to have a learning disability, and nothing is being done about it. I asked her teacher if she has been assessed for learning disabilities, and she punted. I asked the principal if any assessments are being done, and she said yes, but this girl should have been at the top of the list, and I am certain she has not been assessed.

To compound the school’s possible misconduct, they may be taking advantage of the parents’ ignorance of students’ rights or fear of being found out by immigration authorities. If I report this to the state, it may get the school in trouble. Since I am convinced they fill a great need in the community and accomplish much good, I am reluctant to take any steps to report this. Meanwhile, this student has lost another year in which she should have made great strides in learning to read. What is my ethical responsibility? Name Withheld, Minnesota

My response: I suggest a more important question is what can you do to get the results you want. That’s a strategic question about taking initiative to get results, not an abstract philosophical question.

I recommend you consider what resources you have, what results you believe you can achieve, and try to achieve the best results you can. I call that approach problem solving.

Asking your ethical responsibility doesn’t get results. It just analyzes. If you knew how to get the results you want, you’d just do it instead of asking abstract philosophical questions. Wouldn’t you rather solve a problem than find out the New York Times’ opinion on your responsibility?

The New York Times response:

Teaching is a profession. Among its ethical norms is that your primary responsibility is to your students. If a school’s management betrays the needs of its students, a teacher can’t just sit back and watch — and the same goes for a tutor. You raised the right issues, and you were told they’d be dealt with. Now you know that promise was broken. On the other hand, this is not your only tutee, and the school is, you say, good for many students, all things considered. (Indeed, given that four tutors have worked with this girl throughout the week, the school hasn’t entirely neglected her needs.) I’d say you have identified exactly the two conflicting ethical demands here.

Have you considered contacting the girl’s parents to discuss her situation? They are better placed to push for more action than you are, unless, as you suspect, they have a well-founded fear that in drawing attention to themselves, they risk deportation. But the school should have little interest in reporting them to the immigration authorities. So you can probably reassure them on that point. They could also contact an organization like Family Voices of Minnesota, which offers resources for children with special needs, or a similar group. It would get people involved whose aim will be not to threaten the school’s survival but to press it to do the right thing.


Every year my place of employment holds a survey on employee engagement. This year, we have a new manager. In the past, previous managers have done some ‘‘survey prep’’ by holding discussions in staff meetings. We were asked to think back on activities over the last year that would support positive scores to each survey question. It was clear to me that this type of meeting was intended to raise scores from our unit. But the discussions were robust, everyone participated and I found myself thinking, Oh, yeah, I forgot about that positive initiative from 10 months ago.

This year the new manager had public, one-on-one discussions out in the open, where it was easy to overhear. They went something like this: ‘‘Employee X, you’ve worked here for five years, correct? So I assume that you are completely satisfied and ready to submit straight 5s (out of 5). If not, we need to have a discussion about why you aren’t ranking 5s, don’t we?’’ The tone was patronizing and imperious. It made me very uncomfortable, even though the new manager did not have this conversation with me directly. I am very happy in my position, but there is always room for improvement, and I did not give very many 5s. I answered the survey honestly.

Was it ethical for her to have a discussion that was really a directive? Should I have said something to her? Scores (and year-over-year improvement in scores) are often wielded as a sign of the company leadership’s success. Name Withheld

My response: Was it ethical? Obviously you think it was, which is why you did it. Others may have different opinions There’s no book in the sky with absolute answers that everyone will agree to.

Should you have said something? I suggest a more relevant question is if you “should” have said something, but what is the most effective response you could achieve. You did your best, but you suspect you could do better. You sound like you can’t think of anything effective to say to her. If you can’t think of anything effective, keeping quiet is probably your best option. If you can think of effective things to say, it probably benefits you to say effective things.

I recommend learning communication, problem-solving, and leadership skills to improve your options of what to say. Besides being able to handle situations like this one, you’ll probably get promoted faster and have the option to take on more responsibility.

The New York Times response:

Survey prep, huh? Ours is a world where SAT cramming has become an industry and even little kids train for kindergarten-entrance exams. So it was bound to come to this. If you can test it, you can game it. I assume that the survey is anonymous, so that managers don’t know who gave which scores. Otherwise you would have been more cautious in your own scoring (and your company would be wasting its time with these surveys). But the new boss, you make plain, isn’t as subtle as the old ones. Provided that her suggestions didn’t come with threats, what they mainly were was stupid. Bullying people who are about to assess you confidentially is not a good idea. If the questionnaire allows for free-form comments, that would have been a good place to complain about her campaigning. Given her tone, I doubt this is the kind of boss it would be wise to address directly.


I work as a graduate research assistant to a professor while I earn my master’s degree. I am required to work 20 hours a week. The actual time slots I work are up to me to determine. Additionally, graduate assistants are allowed to work on their own research or homework when they are not asked to do work for a professor. Unlike other people on my research team, I have taken to coming in very late to the office, and I receive few work projects. I have not been asked to come into work at different times. I complete all projects I have been assigned well and quickly. Am I treating my employer ethically by setting my own schedule such that I am unavailable to receive project assignments in person much of the day? I know other members on my research team are assigned more work than I am. Name Withheld

My response: You wrote “The actual time slots I work are up to me to determine” so according to you, you can set your schedule how you want.

Why don’t you ask your professor or someone there?

The New York Times response:

Given the sparsity of your assignments, I wonder if you’re working the 20 hours for which you’re being paid. Even supposing that everything you’re doing is permitted under your terms of employment, though, you’re not fairly sharing the burdens with your co-workers. If your employer hasn’t noticed the discrepancy between the demands on you and the demands on others, it would be an honorable move to point this out.

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