Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: The Perks of Being a Layabout

December 14, 2014 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment, Tips

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is a take on today’s post,”The Perks of Being a Layabout.”

My 28-year-old son has decided to become a novelist. He recently took a part-time job at a grocery store, working just 15 hours a week to pay his bills, leaving him enough time to write. His low income qualifies him for Medicaid. He could work more if he chose to. Considering this, do taxpayers have a responsibility to provide health coverage for him? Does it matter if this is a short- or long-term strategy? NAME WITHHELD

My Answer: Maybe my reading between the lines is off, but your message seems more about complaining about your son’s life choices and then to complain about a system that motivates those choices than on learning about the taxpayers you ask about. You sound dissatisfied and disapproving, but instead of accepting him as an adult making his own choices, you probably express your disapproval and dissatisfaction surreptitiously, and he probably sees you as meddlesome, inauthentic, and not genuine. Then again, I’ve only read six sentences of you, so I may be extrapolating too far from limited information.

Anyway, you asked about responsibilities of taxpayers. If you’ve read my posts on The Ethicist, you know I see responsibility as an opinion. I know of no book in the sky or other absolute measure of responsibility. If there was one, you wouldn’t write others for their opinions, you’d consult the absolute measure. You can’t so you don’t. Absent such absolutes, what anyone says about responsibility is their opinion.

Focusing on the consequences of actions will get you farther, I believe. You can talk about responsibility or lack thereof all you want, the government will pursue someone who doesn’t pay taxes and punish them. Once you pay your taxes, you don’t get to choose where the money goes. Henry Thoreau contemplated and acted on this issue in Civil Disobedience, my preferred primer on these matters.

If you want to change how the government distributes money, you can influence the government by getting elected, petitioning, civil disobedience, and so on. In the meantime, talk about taxpayers’ responsibility to fund Medicaid is just talk about opinions. Do you think if someone says taxpayers don’t have a responsibility to fund Medicaid they can deduct their portion from taxes?

Even if you could change Medicare to prevent him from getting it. You’ll affect hundreds of millions of people because actions don’t only have the results you want. They have all the results they do, many of which no one can foresee and you probably wouldn’t like.

If you have a problem with your son, I recommend you look at the core of that sentence: that you have a problem. It may be with your son, but the problem is still yours. Trying to change him or tax policy won’t solve your problem. I find understanding others solves problems more than trying to change them, which creates more problems. Maybe you have more success trying to change people who didn’t ask you to change them than everyone else, but I suspect you’re creating more problems in trying to change him than in understanding him and yourself.

The New York Times Answer: First of all, I think your son is making a mistake — not by trying to become a novelist, but by doing so in the manner he has chosen. It’s possible to write a book while working more than 15 hours a week, and financial security will support his creative process more than the extra hours, which he could just as easily generate from sleeping less and writing all weekend. But you’re asking whether he is wrong to qualify himself for Medicaid, and whether society should provide him with it. The Health Insurance Association of America classified Medicaid as “a government insurance program for persons of all ages whose income and resources are insufficient to pay for health care.” Clearly, his income qualifies. But do his “resources” include only the money he has on reserve, or do they also include his hypothetical employability and theoretical earning potential?

If we view his mind and body as a “resource,” he most likely has the ability to earn enough money to get off Medicaid. But that logic misrepresents why a program like this exists. The gross domestic product of the United States is more than $17 trillion. There’s no ethical reason any citizen of a country that wealthy should not be able to receive the minimum level of care if he becomes sick or injured, which is what Medicaid provides. It’s not as if your son is consciously ripping off this program. He doesn’t want to go to the hospital; it’s just something that might happen. And if it does, society has a responsibility to provide a minimum level of care, just as he will have a responsibility to pay federal income tax if he ends up selling a novel. A questionable career move doesn’t negate his citizenship.


My wife and I donate to a certain nonprofit organization every year because we like the work they do. We give more than twice what they call a “membership” level, for which they award a card that bestows discounts at local businesses. Would it be ethical for us to split our donation so that each of us becomes a member and gets a discount card? We would be giving this money just for the sake of the continued existence of this group’s work, but we do enjoy the discounts that membership gives us. NAME WITHHELD, MAINE

My Answer: How is this a question about ethics? Are you looking for some universal principle? A non-profit set up a set of rewards. You’re following their rules.

If you really want to figure this out, instead of asking about abstract concepts like ethics, think about whom your actions affect. I guess that’s the organization and the places that give discounts. Think of how your actions will affect them and what outcomes you want.

You can also use the question as an opportunity to build your relationship with the organization. You can call and ask what they think. In the process you’ll talk to the people who make up the organization, learn more about them, and teach them about you. I expect you’ll help the organization through such human-to-human interaction than by asking third-party journalists abstract philosophical questions.

The New York Times Answer: Charity is not an obligation. You’re not swindling anyone. If it’s morally acceptable to receive any kind of reward for giving a donation, it’s morally acceptable to receive two rewards if the level of donation fulfills the criteria designated by the institution. My guess is that you and your wife don’t even need to split the donation; just contact the nonprofit and tell them exactly what you told me. I’d be surprised if they refused to send you two cards, particularly as there’s no way they could stop you from exercising this minor loophole.


My sister has told us she wants to be cremated when she dies. She is single, in her mid 50s and counting on her siblings to carry out her wishes. The rest of the family, however, does not believe in cremation and does not want to carry out her directive. (The disagreement is philosophical — we believe in burial to preserve green space. It’s not a religious matter.) We have told her so, but she is insistent. Do we have an ethical obligation to carry out her stated wishes although we disagree? NAME WITHHELD, MARYLAND

My Answer: She thinks you have an obligation. You don’t. As with every questions you readers ask about obligations, you’re just asking people’s opinions. There is no absolute measure.

Your focus on abstract concepts like ethics is confusing you. You and she are trying to come to an understanding. In other words, you’re negotiating. I recommend reading Getting To Yes for how to create an agreement or for you to walk away calmly if you can’t. I’m sure if she can’t influence you to do what she wants, she can hire a service to do it without you. If, as family, you have some legal claim you could use to override her deal with her service, lawyers will help you resolve things more than the opinions of third-party journalists.

The New York Times Answer: Questions about the rights of dead people are inevitably complicated by a lack of clarity over what the person wanted, or the impossibility of gauging the “feelings” of someone who can no longer feel anything. But this case is different; it involves someone who is merely thinking about dying and can still clearly outline what she wants to happen when that occurs. You may disagree with her wishes, but her wishes are reasonable. As such, you have two options. One is to agree to her request. The other is to directly tell her that you value green space more than you respect her right to decide how her own body is dealt with upon the completion of her life (and that she will have to find a nonrelative willing to handle these arrangements). It’s possible, I suppose, to make the argument that the preservation of open space matters more than the wishes of someone who will no longer be sentient enough to care. But that makes you a stridently ethical person and a substandard brother.

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