Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “What Should You Do With Your Father’s Nazi Keepsake?”
A few years ago, before my father died, my two brothers and I were going through his things with him. He wanted to have some say in where his belongings went. We agreeably found a home for most of the things: Brother No. 2 has children; Brother No. 3 and I have no children. When it came to my father’s World War II box, which had not been opened for years, we thought it best to give his Bronze Star, Purple Heart and other military decorations to Brother No. 2, so they could be passed down.
My father spoke little of the war until he had been sober for more than 20 years. After the rest of the family left that day, he handed me a belt buckle and said: “Do something with this. I don’t want it with the other things.” It was a belt buckle from a Nazi uniform. I said I would take care of it. I have kept it stashed in my desk. I’m now in my 60s and really don’t want it in my house, either. I have checked resale sites, and it does have some monetary value, but I do not want it to fall into hands that may use it symbolically for what my father fought against.
What is an ethical way to deal with this piece? Peter Hulit, Los Angeles
My response: I’ve never seen value in taking responsibility for other people’s behavior, even Nazis’.
Anyway, you asked for an ethical way to deal with the piece. What’s ethical depends on the values of whom you ask and people disagree. Nazi supporters would consider it ethical to sell it to them, but you don’t mean their ethics. You probably mean some abstract set of universal ethics that everyone would agree to, but they don’t exist, as evidenced by the Nazis’ ethics differing from yours.
If you think you’re right and they’re wrong in some absolute sense, then you already think you have access to absolute right and wrong. If so, you can answer the question better than I can, at least according to you, since you have perfect knowledge.
Absent that perfect knowledge, which asking your question implies you don’t believe you have, you’re left with doing what you think is best, accepting that others will disagree with you.
I can’t help but comment on how you put, “for what my father fought against.” You can just say you don’t want to support Nazis. Since you bring up honoring your father as the main issue instead of Nazi ideology, I can’t help but wonder how he got the belt buckle. The overwhelming majority of times I see belt buckles that aren’t mine or in a store is when people are wearing them. We’ll never know, but wouldn’t that imply he got it from a dead man?
The New York Times response:
I remember once visiting a small antiques shop in Swakopmund in Namibia and being astonished to see a great range of Nazi artifacts — copies of “Mein Kampf,” Iron Crosses and the like. Namibia was German Southwest Africa until the end of World War I, and there are many Namibians of German ancestry, descendants of the settlers who came to the area when it was a colony. I wondered whether the interest in these legacies of the Third Reich reflected some sympathy with its aims. Either way, there was something creepy about the experience.
Why creepy? Well, we are required not just to act in accordance with morality but also to have the right moral emotions. And having this stuff around suggests that you just might have a problem there. Indifference toward a genocidal regime is bad. Active approval is, of course, worse. In the United States today there are some people who say that they identify with Nazi aims, and they use Nazi symbols and memorabilia to express those sympathies. Because you, like me, are repulsed by this sort of celebration, you naturally don’t want to allow this belt buckle — presumably it’s the kind with the eagle and swastika — to be misused in this way.
Now, here’s the problem. As far as I can see, if you want to ensure that the buckle is never misused, you can’t really sell it to anyone. You can tell buyers that they must not use it in this way, but that stricture isn’t enforceable. Even if you gave it to a responsible museum, it can’t stop people coming in to look at it for the wrong reasons. And again, the museum could always decide to sell the buckle later.
Are you right to be concerned about the uses that might be made of the object? No doubt most buyers of this sort of thing are military-artifact collectors with no untoward predilections. And we’re not generally responsible for what people do with the things we sell them, mostly because we can’t be expected to foresee those things. Still, the more obvious the possibilities for an object’s misuse, and the more serious its consequences, the more diligent you need to be in avoiding selling that object to the wrong buyers.
If there were no legitimate uses for the buckle, you would, in letting it out of your control, be guaranteeing that it would be misused, and you’d bear some responsibility. That’s not the case here: The buckle could, in fact, be used in an anti-Nazi display or join a general collection of wartime memorabilia. The impulse to destroy troubling historical artifacts is usually best resisted. Even if the item did end up in the wrong hands, the primary responsibility would lie with those who used this relic to celebrate Nazi ideas.
Finally, in any sale, you’re connected with those who would use the buckle to signal pro-Nazi attitudes, because their preferences are one source of the economic demand that sets the price. I’m inclined to think that this connection is too remote to worry about, though. Many objects have morally unattractive elements shaping the demand that sets their prices.
A sensible precaution would be to identify an interested buyer who doesn’t intend to sell it and whose collecting interests don’t seem guided by neo-Nazi sentiments. But if you’re really determined to avoid any possibility of misuse, I suggest you give your father’s buckle a decent burial.
I work for a large company that has a scholarship fund for employees. Some of the grants are need-based, others are not. The fund is administered by a nonprofit employee group and has a finite amount to give each year.
I earn $100,000 per year and am pursuing an advanced degree. A $1,500 grant would be nice but would not impact my lifestyle. Many of the other employees who apply work front-end jobs and make below $50,000 if they are full time and much less if they are part time. Some are trying to get an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. I think that $1,500 might make the difference for them between being able to attend college or not or between taking on manageable debt and missing repayments.
I am not planning to apply as others have a greater need. If it were an employee benefit that was available no matter how many employees asked, I would. Did I make the right choice? Name Withheld
My response: You sound like you want a pat on the back or recognition that you made some noble gesture.
Without knowing the point of the grants, we don’t know the point of the grants, nor do we know the others’ situations. The part-timers may make more than you per hour for all we know or value their freedom more than you value your money.
You sound like the money should be distributed by how much it affects lifestyle, which seems to imply that you should start your own grant where money you give away affects you less than it helps others. I don’t see how you giving away money differs from not getting a grant you could have won.
Hm… what would the difference be if you applied for the grant and won and gave it to one of these other employees? For one thing, you might not win, so that strategy exposes a vulnerability. For another, if you won and gave it to them, you’d expose that the granters felt you deserved it more. Depending on the criteria, you might expose a vulnerability of the non-winners.
That’s speculation. You asked if you made the right choice. “Right” depends on values. By your values you seem to have made the right choice. Other people have different values. Some would agree with you, others wouldn’t. You knew that already: people with different values disagree on right and wrong. Are you comfortable with people considering you wrong?
The New York Times response:
It’s the job of the people who run the system to decide what weight to give factors like income in deciding who gets the grants. For your strategy to work, other well-off employees would have to make the same choice. You’d collectively decide to override the preferences of those who set up the scholarship fund. But that’s not your role. The need-based grants exclude the likes of you; this one, by design, does not. Unless there’s something unethical in the administration of this grant, you should feel free to compete for it.
I work for a tutoring company that charges $60 per hour, of which I receive $30. If a session happens to end early, I notify the company to bill the student less, and then I invoice the company. I recently learned, however, that the company often bills the students for the full session even if I tell them it finished early. Is it unethical for me to invoice the company for a full session, knowing that if I don’t they’ll just pocket more of the money they (and I) didn’t earn? Name Withheld
My response: What does the contract say?
One reason I don’t like the premise of this column is that it supports people asking these abstract philosophical questions instead of thinking for themselves about their personal relationships with the people their actions affect.
Asking about the “ethics” of this interaction isn’t elevating it to a higher level. It’s distancing yourself from the people in your life, your emotions, your responsibility for your actions, and your caring about how your actions affect people. You signed a contract agreeing to behave certain ways if they did. You have the written agreement and a relationship with the people. You have everything you need to resolve this without involving a philosophy department or newspaper columnist.
The New York Times response:
First, what does the fine print say? Services provided at a per-hour rate aren’t necessarily prorated at a per-minute rate when they go a little over or under. But it isn’t O.K. to bill the client in full and not pay you accordingly. If your assessment of the situation is correct, money is being stolen here. So I understand your logic. Your employer isn’t entitled to the overpayment. Your client isn’t going to be able to keep it. Why not take a share? It’s the logic of the person who steals the TV from the looted store during the riot. Someone is going to take this stuff; why shouldn’t it be me?
I wonder how this situation is even possible. Maybe the students aren’t telling their parents that you’ve let them leave early. Rather than go along with a dishonest practice, though, why not insist that the students stay for the time their parents have paid for? It can’t be that you’ve got nothing more to teach them.
Read my weekly newsletter
Subscribe for a weekly update of musings on leadership, the environment, and burpees.