Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Can a Woman Pretend to Be a Lesbian to Get a Couples’ Discount?

October 16, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Can a Woman Pretend to Be a Lesbian to Get a Couples’ Discount?


My local pool offers memberships for single people, couples (defined as “significant others living together”) and family memberships. The couples and family memberships are discounted from the rates for single people. I am a woman married to a man. I wanted to join this pool, but my husband was not interested, so a female friend and I joined as a “couple” to obtain the discounted rate. On the application, I described my female friend as my “partner” and listed her address as my address.

When one of my colleagues learned of this, he told me that my actions were questionable since I posed as a lesbian to obtain the discounted rate. I argued that because the discounted rate was not a benefit exclusive to gays and lesbians, my actions were not harmful to the L.G.B.T. community. I could easily have joined the pool in a “couples” membership with a male friend, but the friend who was interested in joining with me happened to be a woman.

I recognize that I committed some level of fraud in pretending to be in a relationship with someone I am not actually in a relationship with. But beyond that transgression, do you think my actions were unethical? Name Withheld

My response: If someone punches you in the face for money, if they recognize they’ve committed some level of assault, beyond that transgression, would you consider their actions unethical?

If your actions are so upstanding in your opinion, why don’t you tell the pool managers or owners and ask their opinions?

The New York Times response:

I don’t quite grasp your colleague’s reasoning. Does he fear that were your fraud to be uncovered, same-sex couples would come under suspicion of being closeted, discount-demanding straights? That’s a stretch. So if you’re making a list of all the ways in which your conduct is irreproachable, here’s one: It isn’t harmful to L.G.B.T. people. Also: It doesn’t contribute to global warming. It doesn’t involve the exploitation of minors. I could go on.

You seek reassurance that your actions weren’t unethical, outside of their being, well, unethical. Let’s be clear, then. The problem with what you and your friend did wasn’t that you pretended to be a lesbian couple. It was that you pretended to be a couple. So the answer to your question is: No. But that hardly leaves you in the right.

I was a stay-at-home mom for the last 20 years. Before that I worked in retail. Recently I began volunteering at a local nonprofit animal sanctuary. I have been working there two days a week for approximately 10 weeks. In that time, I have come to see that certain animals, mostly mammals — and mostly mammals on display to the public — take priority over other animals, particularly over snakes and other reptiles. The on-display mammals have lush, enriched enclosures, while most of the reptiles I work with do not have their basic needs — temperature settings or proper lighting — met.

Early on in my volunteering, I stepped on someone’s toes by asking about a better way to clean a tank. Since then I have been told that things are very political within the organization. Having been out of the work force for many years, and having not previously worked as a volunteer, I am unsure of my role at the sanctuary. Recently the sanctuary purchased a large mammal from another state. Personally, I find this unethical, given that we are not providing proper care for the animals we already have.

However, I fear asking about things such as UV lighting, systems for proper humidity levels and heating within enclosures. I think I would most likely become very distrusted and despised among my colleagues. But I cannot help feeling that I am not standing up for the animals. It breaks my heart as an animal lover to see them not properly cared for, particularly when I don’t think all that much money would be required to rectify their living conditions and I believe the conservancy does have the money to do so.

What is the ethical thing to do? Should I risk losing my job as a volunteer (in which case the animals would not get the extra love and attention I have been giving them), should I say something to the people who run the sanctuary or should I contact an animal-welfare organization? Name Withheld

My response: You’re seeing animals suffer and can do something about it and you’re asking what the ethical thing to do is?

Everyone has their own values and ethics, but you have to live by yours. It’s obvious you know what’s ethical for yourself and that you aren’t doing it. It’s up to you to decide for yourself how ethical you want to be or not, how much integrity you want for yourself or not, and how to enable yourself to sleep at night.

I don’t think you want to know what’s ethical. I think you want motivation to act according to your values and are looking for motivation. I recommend finding that motivation inside yourself. Then you’ll have access to it for future occasions.

The New York Times response:

I’m going to assume that you are right about the situation of the animals behind the scenes: They are not being properly taken care of, and it’s because, in part, they are not so important to the public face of the sanctuary. I’m making this assumption explicit because the fact that others have responded badly to your earlier interventions makes me wonder if they disagree with your judgment. People who presumably think they are making competent decisions have created the conditions in these reptile enclosures, and determining how such creatures are best treated requires some expertise. So the first thing I’d say is: Be sure that you’ve got the facts right.

If your assessment is correct, though, you should certainly focus on trying to get these animals better care. They can’t speak up for themselves, so anyone who knows about their situation and is in a position to improve it has a good reason to intervene. If quiet diplomacy with management fails, try alerting the board. And if it proves necessary, tip off authorities or a responsible animal-welfare organization. Anonymously, if you think it best to keep your involvement quiet. There’s something to be said for being around to make sure that the necessary improvements are actually carried out and maintained.

My mother made a pact with another family member to quit drinking. I was supportive of this idea until she explained the terms: If she breaks her resolution, she will give $1,000 to a morally repugnant organization. We are both very left-leaning and she considered giving to the Republican Party or an anti-choice organization, both of which, in our eyes, are behind a great deal of evil in the world. The concept is that the threat of contributing to evil will help keep her from drinking. I think it’s a terrible idea. Why not give 10 times more money to an organization you support? That way the pain can be the loss of money and not helping an evil cause.

I’ve heard other people talk about using this tactic to strengthen their resolutions. I fail to see how enacting something like this is any different from just being evil, and I’m bothered by the myopic selfishness of this technique for buttressing self-control. To exaggerate the idea slightly, it would be unacceptable to say something like, If I don’t stay on my diet this week, the dog dies. Perhaps she won’t donate money despite the oath and perhaps she will stay dry, but I wonder if you would dissuade others from taking this route to self-control. Name Withheld

My response: Your message makes me think of 0:30 – 1:15:

The New York Times response:

What your mother is doing can be understood as a negotiation between the part of her that wants to stop drinking and the part that doesn’t. (The other family member is really there to monitor the agreement.) Your concern is that giving money to one of these organizations isn’t just repugnant, like drinking castor oil; it’s morally repugnant, like, well, killing a dog. There’s some resemblance here to an argument made against having a nuclear deterrent: To discourage a terrible thing (an unprovoked attack), we’re pledging to respond with another terrible thing (destroying millions of innocent people), and how is that O.K.?

And yet incentives and disincentives can be moral as well as material, and the disincentive here draws its power from just this sense of moral outrage. Suppose the only thing strong enough to keep your mother from drinking is her distaste for groups like Operation Rescue. On the upside? Sobriety, which is clearly important to her. And on the downside? Whatever harm is done by the organizations you detest, an extra $1,000 isn’t going to increase it more than negligibly. True, if large numbers of people adopted this strategy and lots of them failed in their resolutions, we’d be talking about real money. But there’s no reason to think that more pro-choice than pro-life people would do it, so things might come out more or less equal.

There’s another issue here: What ensures that your mother will keep her word? If she breaks down and drinks, she might decide — and the other family member might accept — that it’s better to break her word than to fund her foes. But of course, if she realizes that now, it won’t help her resolve. Trying to trick yourself into doing things generally involves these sorts of paradoxes. So if sobriety proves elusive, she might consider an alternative. Instead of sending money to her adversaries, why not send herself to A.A.?

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