The Ethicist: How Can I Teach My Great-Granddaughter to Be Charitable?

April 14, 2019 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 “How Can I Teach My Great-Granddaughter to Be Charitable?”.

I have an 8-year-old great-grandchild. I would like to help her develop a sense of charity. If I were to give her $40 per year to donate, how should I present the options to her, without overwhelming her?

Were I to show her images of starving Yemeni children, homeless Americans, threatened wildlife, Syrian/Central American refugees and so on, I fear she wouldn’t be able to process such a burden of information.

How can an 8-year-old confront the neediness of our world in an age-appropriate way? Are there baby steps to charitable giving? I want my great-granddaughter to develop a sense of obligation. Name Withheld

My response: You’re asking how to lead someone, meaning you want to improve your leadership. If you’ll allow me a quick analogy, if you want to learn to create art, taking academic classes in art appreciation may help you appreciate art others made but not to create it. You have to practice, starting with the basics. It works through baby steps.

Nearly every resource I’ve seen on leadership is leadership appreciation—that is, books on principles and such that help you appreciate others’ leadership but not to lead. To learn to lead you have to practice, starting with basics.

To answer your question on how to lead people, I recommend my book, Leadership Step by Step, which gives you exercises to practice the skills of leadership, not just to appreciate others’ practice. You have to do the work of the exercises, not just passively read it, but what expressive or performance-based practice can you learn without work?

I’m not just plugging my book. I wrote it because nothing existed to give you experience and skills, not just appreciation.

Units 1 and 2 covers what you want in her—they develop personal leadership. Unit 4 covers what you want in yourself—leading others.

The New York Times response: The duty of charity is what Kant called an imperfect duty. That is, it’s not a duty to help anyone in any particular way. He thought you should sometimes help those in need, but no particular others and in no particular way. The Islamic duty of charity, or zakat, is binding on all Muslims who are rich enough: They must pay some small percentage of their wealth annually. But it, too, is imperfect in the sense that you do not have to pay it to any particular person in need. In both cases, it’s a duty you may fulfill in a variety of ways. You’re not expected to give to everyone who asks, or even to everyone who has needs. And it’s also limited, in a sensible way, by your ability to give.

Commendably, you want your great-​granddaughter to be someone who will contribute to helping those in need. Should we call it a sense of obligation? This might suggest that what matters is doing good out of a sober sense of duty. Instead, I favor what I take to be Aristotle’s view — that if we develop the right feelings, we will take pleasure in exercising the virtues. In other words, you’ll want your great-granddaughter not just to think that she should give to those in need but to develop and enjoy the habit of doing it. And asking her to choose among assisting those in very dire situations far away — refugees, the homeless, disappearing species — might not be the best way to do that.

Maybe, too, the giving of money isn’t the best place to start, because it might not help her sense the effects of her contributions. Later in life, she might find herself drawn to the sort of carefully tested “effective altruism” that my colleague Peter Singer has advocated. But for now, why not find opportunities for her to help others more directly, such as in one of the many charities that work in your local community?

If there’s a soup kitchen, for example, maybe you and she could make something to contribute. Your plan was to have her research charities elsewhere. How about beginning your research locally? In time, you’ll want her to develop a sense of the connectedness of the world and an interest in supporting philanthropy in other places, especially those where the needs are most substantial. But for a child, the old maxim may be right: Charity begins at home.


I have been living abroad for the past five years, and my mother is planning her first visit. My father has expressed interest in joining. (They are still together but live separately and spend limited time together.)

My father has a history of mental health issues that makes spending time with him, particularly in settings outside the home, almost unbearable. My sibling recently went on a trip with him and was forced to cut it short because of his behavior.

He can be very aggressive and quick to anger, particularly when he is outside his comfort zone. My mother and he fight constantly in a way that gives me severe anxiety. I believe he will ruin the trip for my mother and me.

On the other hand, he is my father, and I love him. I know how hurt he would be if I asked him not to come. Given his history of depression and suicide attempts, I fear that excluding him would be incredibly taxing on his mental health. (He also refuses help and therapy.)

My parents have left it to me to decide if I want him to join. Do I owe him an invitation because I fear for his safety, or do I owe it to my mother to ask him not to come, when I am almost certain he will ruin the trip? Name Withheld

My response: They’re adults responsible for their behavior, as are you. There is no absolute measure of “owing” that everyone would agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it. There isn’t, so you’re here.

You can decide for whatever reason you want.

The New York Times response: Obviously, you’d feel terrible if your father harmed himself as a result of your not inviting him. But that’s the core problem here: Your father has untreated psychological problems and won’t do anything about them. It might be that, were he to accept treatment, he’d be able to join you without ruining the holiday. You report his refusal of help as a given. Maybe you could take this occasion to urge him once more to get help, precisely so that you can have him along. That’ll allow him to see that you care for him but need him to change. Otherwise, it might be a better plan to invite him on a separate visit. Your mother has to deal with his psychological difficulties often enough already. I’d give her a holiday you can both enjoy.


I discovered that two of my co-workers are having an emotional and sexual affair with each other. During that time, one co-worker began divorce proceedings; the other married someone else. I am very close friends with one of these co-workers. When I confronted my friend about the affair, she stated that she knew it was wrong and intended to break it off. Since then, this co-worker has regularly confided in me about the relationship. She has admitted that she is in love with the other co-worker but knows they have no future together. They are still sleeping together.

I have met the other co-worker’s spouse, and I know they intend to start a family.

Do I have a duty to tell the spouse about the affair, or is it none of my business? If I do speak up, could I do so anonymously? Name Withheld

My response: There is no universal measure of duty, so no on your first question.

Yes, you can do so anonymously.

The New York Times response: Most of what you know about this relationship is a result of information confided in you by your friend and co-worker. You can’t pass it on without first discussing the matter with your friend. Absent your friend’s consent — or a clear and present danger of harm to the lover’s spouse — you have a duty not to tell anyone. Even if your friend did give her assent, her motives for doing so would be, at best, conflicted. And you’d still have to decide whether it was any of your business. That someone might benefit from knowing something does not impose a duty of disclosure on anyone who happens to find it out. And other people’s sex lives are usually not our business.


I work at a company with a toxic culture, and we are planning to hire a senior leader who will be moving across the country to take the position. I very much respect this person personally and professionally, so I would like your opinion about how honest I have to be about the culture before the person accepts the role, which is very likely.

On one hand, someone who is senior should understand the necessity of conducting due diligence, but on the other hand, I fear that not saying something would cause this person to view me as having been disingenuous during the interview process, and could burn a professional bridge.

One complicating factor is that I believe in our product. I also want the company to be successful because I have a potentially valuable early-stage equity stake. (I plan to quit within the next three or four months because I no longer wish to be associated with the culture.) This senior leader would be a great replacement for me. Name Withheld

My response: We’ve all experienced trying to help someone only to find what we meant to help got the other person angry, frustrated, or the like. We’ve also all experienced someone trying to help us who only made things worse.

I usually respond to letters with no questions by saying something like, “Thank you for sharing your story,” and not giving advice or commenting much more. Not commenting may sound like an easy way out of more thoughtful and helpful writing, but I’ve learned many times in coaching, teaching, and friendships that helping people who haven’t asked for it is a recipe for disaster.

My starting point for why is that what different people consider “helping” depends on their values, views, goals, and other factors that you, giving unasked advice, don’t know. For example, offering potential solutions to someone who just wants to be heard often leads to exasperation, frustration, and feeling devalued. But just listening to someone who wants advice can lead to impatience, frustration, and other emotions neither party wants.

However obvious you consider your interpretation of what the letter-writer wants, dozens of other interpretations exist, any of which the writer may have meant, or not. Acting on unchecked assumptions risks imposing your values on others, which usually provokes responses you wish you hadn’t from others.

I’ve found the best policy to keep neutral until the person clarifies what they want so I know what “help” means to them in that situation.

The New York Times response: When Mrs. Gradgrind is on her deathbed in Dickens’s “Hard Times,” she’s not sure that she’s in pain; she just knows that there’s a pain “somewhere in the room.” That’s how you speak about your company’s “toxic culture” — as if it’s a hovering vapor, not a set of specific activities by specific people. Maybe your defeatism is well grounded; maybe it’s part of the problem.

Now then: You mention two conflicting interests here, the company’s chances of doing well, which will protect the value of your equity, and your relationship with this potential senior co-worker. (If you thought you or the potential senior leader could improve the toxic culture, I assume you’d have mentioned it.) You apparently want this person to come because you think he or she would improve the company’s prospects, especially if you yourself departed.

But before you try to calibrate these concerns, take note of a larger consideration you haven’t mentioned. You should be honest. If everybody thought like you, how could “due diligence” be conducted? People would just be calculating the upside and downside for themselves of telling the truth. Answer the questions you’re asked honestly and bring up — if he or she doesn’t — the facts this person should know in order to make a good decision.

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