The Ethicist: Should Kids Whose Parents Could Earn Higher Salaries Get Financial Aid?

December 23, 2018 by Joshua
in Blog

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Should Kids Whose Parents Could Earn Higher Salaries Get Financial Aid?”.

I have a friend with school-age children who is a professional in a fairly lucrative field. The spouse is in a nonlucrative field. My friend chose to work fewer hours to spend time with their growing children, greatly reducing the family’s take-home pay in the process.

This friend wanted the kids to go to an expensive private school that has a scholarship program with income requirements to qualify for student aid. Aid was applied for and received.

I feel that it is inappropriate to use scholarship funds when the lack of income was merely a choice and not a circumstance. That scholarship money (which is limited) could have gone to a parent who had no capacity to make more money, regardless of effort.

Do you think it was right that this friend received scholarship funds? Name Withheld

My response: Someone asked a similar question to this column in Should My Rich Friends Apply for Financial Aid?. In any case, you asked if I thought it was right. Since everyone has different values, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on. 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.

The New York Times response: Your letter scrupulously avoided specifying the genders of the parties. That’s helpful, because I have a hunch that many people would respond more sympathetically to a woman who decided to spend time raising her children — to take the “mommy track” — than to a man who made the same choice. And thinking that way reflects and supports unfortunate stereotypes.

But I can’t accept your contention that it’s wrong to accept financial assistance — scarce funds to which one is entitled under the rules — if one could have obviated the need by making different career decisions. In particular, deciding to be more actively engaged in the lives of your children is an honorable choice, and I’d urge the school to support it. And how would you generalize your principle? There are people who could have gone into investment banking but instead brought their financial acumen to the nonprofit world. Yes, they chose to earn less money, but it can’t be right that they are thereby obliged to renounce the scholarships for which their kids are qualified.

All of this takes place, of course, against a disquieting background: In our society, some parents must decide between private schooling that is excellent and public schooling that is not. If that is the situation here, these parents are entitled to do the best they can for their kids (given the constraints of honesty and obedience to the rules), even if it disadvantages others. But it would be better to live in a society where parents didn’t face that decision.


My grandniece posted on Facebook that she is trying to raise money so that she can go on a trip to Nepal with other high-school students from her Christian school to “evangelize the unreached people” of South Asia. My husband and I can easily afford to contribute to her fund-raising effort, but I am opposed to evangelizing. I fully support mission trips when the participants travel to needy communities to provide assistance, but not when the object of the trip is to convert people to Christianity. I believe that we should honor — and work to understand — the religions and spiritual traditions in South Asia, not try to change them. Is there a way to support her without supporting the underlying reason for the trip? Name Withheld

My response: Yes, tell her what you wrote here instead of a third-party stranger.

The New York Times response: Missionaries will consider almost everyone in Nepal “unreached,” even though most Nepalis have a mobile phone. So your grandniece isn’t arriving to some premodern redoubt. Nor is she going to coerce or bribe or threaten people into changing, or pretending to change, their religion. She’s aiming to explain to them why she thinks Christianity is the true faith. It’ll be up to them to decide whether they agree with her. To assume that they can’t be relied on to do so in the light of their own best judgments is to risk condescension.

Evangelizing Christians played a role in the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, contravening settled traditions in both Britain and Africa; in late-19th-century China, missionaries played a role in ending foot-binding. All that was indeed good news. More recently, in Uganda, a handful of American evangelical ministers evidently helped spur the passage of legislation that sought to drastically increase the penalties for homosexual acts. That was bad news. It’s useless to try to draw up a ledger sheet here of good and evil. The point is that God and the Devil are in the details.

Still, you might want to suggest to your grandniece that if she wants these South Asians to be open to hearing her good news, she should probably be open to hearing theirs, too. That way, she can make an effort to understand the traditions of the place she’s going, which you rightly suggest is a good idea. Whether she should honor those traditions as well depends on what they are — and she won’t be able to decide about that if she doesn’t know anything about them. There are, after all, a great many ways of not being a Christian.


I worked in a creative industry that has a close-knit community. An individual in a prominent position within the industry has been accused of sexually assaulting several subordinates. This person is currently under investigation, which some are aware of, to varying degrees. I know and believe many of the victims. Here’s the snag: Not many within the industry are aware of the abuse. The individual is very good at covering their tracks, and the victims, for their own privacy, have avoided taking their details public. As a result, several former co-workers of mine, unaware of the assaults, have been vocal in supporting this person. I am horrified by the thought that these former co-workers and friends are being hoodwinked. Should I tell them that this individual has been accused of multiple sexual assaults? Or, given that I’m not a victim myself and that the information has been only quietly circulated, should I say nothing? If I keep quiet, am I enabling this abuser to continue their pattern of abuse? Name Withheld

My response: “Should I?” . . . Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

I recommend a different perspective than asking what others think you should do. 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.

The New York Times response: If you’re right, this abuser is wrongly gaining the support of your credulous co-workers. They surely wouldn’t be speaking up for this person if they knew what you know. Assuming you’re confident in your assessment of the facts, you should go ahead and tell them what you’ve learned. Otherwise, by allowing this abuser to gain undeserved support, you would indeed be helping to defer the day of reckoning.

I’ve been divorced for 27 years, and my ex-wife died recently. Her pension plan called me trying to locate her. I told them that we’ve had absolutely no contact in 27 years. The pension plan called again and told me that I was her beneficiary. She has a son, but she hadn’t made him her beneficiary. Should I accept the money? Name Withheld

My response: “Should I?” . . . Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

Everybody involved seems a consenting, sane, fully informed adult, or was before dying. She had 27 years to update her pension. I don’t see the issue, but why wouldn’t you talk to the son?

The New York Times response: I assume you think your ex-wife would have wanted the money to go to her son, not to you. If so, trying to make it happen would be more respectful of her will than scrupulous attention to what was long ago written on some piece of paper. Explore the most tax-efficient way of getting this money to her son. Where it doesn’t conflict with other moral imperatives, we should try to honor the wishes of the departed, including ex-spouses we haven’t seen in a long time.


I teach journalism at a major state university, and one of my favorite courses is basic editing. I give 10 A.P.-style quizzes in the first half of the course, graded from 0 to 100. Student grades run from very low to 100. I always tell students the grade range when I hand quizzes back, but I exaggerate. If the lowest grade was 45, I tell them the lowest grade was 40. Similarly, if the highest grade was 90, I say it was 95. I do this so the worst-performing students don’t feel quite so bad and the high achievers have something to strive for.

A colleague says I am being dishonest and serving no real purpose, but I see no harm. After all, I do record the accurate grades for everyone. What do you say? Name Withheld

My response: I don’t see any way to disagree with the colleague that you are being dishonest. I don’t see an educational purpose and it sounds patronizing. Does protecting their feelings help them learn?

The New York Times response: Isn’t one of the principles of basic editing in the field of journalism that truth is better than fiction, however benevolently intended?

Read my weekly newsletter

Initiative leadership spodek

On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Sign up for my weekly newsletter