Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should I Marry the Son of a Crook?

December 6, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Should I Marry the Son of a Crook?”


I have been dating someone for quite some time, and we have been discussing getting married. I love him dearly, and I can see spending the rest of my life with him. But a lingering issue has recently been causing me some doubt about our future. His father spent time in jail for stock manipulation and embezzling money from his company. I have always considered myself to be an ethical person (perhaps to a fault), and his father’s criminal history makes me uncomfortable. I am not sure that I want to be associated with someone like that, and I certainly would not be able to accept anything from him in the form of gifts or contributions to a wedding reception. If we were to get married, I would have to take the name of and otherwise associate with someone I find morally reprehensible. Would it be wrong to break off a relationship that is going well because of his father’s criminal past? Name Withheld

My response: The only person’s values that matter here are yours. You would live with the guy, no one else. What relevance is there for other people’s opinions of right and wrong, especially newspaper writers who know nothing about you besides a short note?

Your message doesn’t mention you talking to the guy you’re dating, his father, or anyone else who knows you or them. Since such conversations seem important and relevant, I conclude you haven’t had those conversations, which would make your decisions unilateral and ignorant of their inputs. I suggest you talk to them instead of deciding unilaterally. Has the father changed? How does the son feel about the situation?

I can’t help commenting that in a relationship you say has the potential to last the rest of your life, the weight you put on a wedding gift or contribution seems inflated. Are you sure you’re thinking about your lifetime and not the one day?

The New York Times response:

The ancients would have understood you. The book of Numbers speaks, in the resonant language of the King James translation, of the Lord’s ‘‘visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.’’ All of Oedipus’s problems, meanwhile, started with a curse upon his father for wrongdoing. (Sophocles, in ‘‘Oedipus at Colonus,’’ has his hero remind the chorus that the evils for which they blame him were ‘‘more sufferings than doings.’’) You seem to dwell comfortably in this moral milieu.

Over the millenniums, however, most of us have come to view people as responsible for their own actions and inactions — for their doings rather than for their sufferings. (It’s an ethical principle with biblical support too, notably in Ezekiel and Jeremiah.) You’re right to see marriage as a union of two families, even though there’s a couple at its heart. But I wonder at your belief that moral pollution will attach to you because your prospective father-in-law is a felon. It’s shame, not guilt, that sometimes spills over. And shame can be morally misleading; victims of crime often feel shame.

Your virtue is not measured by how much you hate vice. Kindness and compassion count, too. Which brings me to another point: Associating with felons who have served their time, rather than ostracizing them, is a part of what we do to reintegrate them into society. You don’t say if your prospective father-in-law is remorseful or has changed his ways; perhaps it doesn’t matter to you. But won’t you consider how he might benefit from conversation with a fine, upstanding person like yourself? Above, I quoted a verse from Numbers, but the earlier part of the verse is more ethically apropos: ‘‘The Lord is long suffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression.’’

It’s possible that none of these considerations speak to you. Then maybe you really should call it quits with your boyfriend. Not for your sake, but for his.

About seven years ago I began taking yoga lessons with an influential yoga instructor. The instructor insists that everyone take private lessons with him, in addition to group classes. Anyone can enroll in his classes, but his goal is to teach yoga to those with addiction and mental-health issues. During a few private lessons, he made several unwanted passes at me. I quit the private lessons and left the studio for several months because I felt uncomfortable. I resolved to return to the studio but promised myself not to be alone in the room with the instructor. I didn’t tell anyone about what happened. Now, several years later, I’ve found out that my yoga instructor sexually assaulted a close friend during her private lesson (she does not plan to report the incident to the police). I plan to leave the studio indefinitely. However, several friends at the yoga studio have asked why I am leaving. Should I tell them what I know? Can I do anything to help protect others? Name Withheld

My response: My understanding of our justice system is that when people can’t resolve differences, we turn to the government. Based on what you wrote, he may have acted illegally. He also has rights. Acting on one’s own, as a vigilante, makes for great movies but also risks committing crimes yourself.

If you plan on acting, the advice of a lawyer seems more relevant than a newspaper writer.

The New York Times response:

Yes. Your friend is entitled not to pursue the matter with the authorities, but this yoga instructor’s conduct with you was wrong, and his conduct with your friend was criminal. Silence will enable this abuse to continue. I’ve heard nothing that would prevent you from warning others — in ways that protect your friend’s privacy. Indeed, given that he works with people who are especially vulnerable, I’d be inclined to say that you ought to let as many people know as you can.

I have two friends — one leans somewhat right in his political views (Friend No. 1), and the other leans fairly far left (Friend No. 2). I stand somewhere in the middle. A few months ago, Friend No. 1 bought a new camera in a store but had the store record it as an online purchase and send it to his home to avoid the sales tax. Just recently, Friend No. 2 was explaining to me why he and his wife live half the year out of state and half the year in our high-tax state. If they maintain their residency outside our state (in a state with no income taxes), they can avoid paying the income tax for our state. After hearing each of these stories, my stomach turned. I pay taxes. I get benefits — roads, fire, police, education and so on. My friends get these benefits, too, but somehow they don’t seem to connect the dots between paying and receiving services. Is there anything I can say to my right-leaning friend to remind him of the services our taxes provide and to my left-leaning friend to inquire why he would vote for a party that believes in taxes while he himself avoids paying them? Name Withheld

My response: I don’t think you’re asking the questions you want answered. First I’ll answer your question as asked. To remind the right-leaning friend, you can say “The services our taxes provide include roads, schools, the military, and so on.” To the other you can say “why would you vote for a party that believes in taxes while you yourself avoid paying them?”

In other words, you can say to them what you said you want to say to them.

I suspect you sense that you feel you are right about something that they’re wrong about, which would not likely lead to the conversation you want. I would ask yourself what you want from these conversations and act on those interests. That is, instead of asking others what to say and ask, think of what you want and figure out how to achieve it. You don’t sound to me like you want just to talk to your friends. I think you want to influence and persuade them, or get them to agree with you. Trying to persuade someone when they sense you think you’re right and they’re wrong hasn’t been effective in my observation.

Figuring out what you want from the conversations — for them to agree with you?, to change their behavior?, or whatever — will help you get it.

The New York Times response:

Tax evasion and tax avoidance are two different creatures. Only one has fangs. Your right-wing friend engaged in tax evasion. He and the camera dealer agreed to report their transaction, which occurred in a way that incurred sales tax, as if it had been a transaction that didn’t. That’s wrong (and illegal too). Your left-wing friend, on the other hand, is engaging in tax avoidance. He and his wife are willing to spend enough days out of a state to escape its income tax — although they are probably contributing, either directly as owners or indirectly as renters, to property taxes in both states. They’re also paying federal taxes, of course, which you can’t escape by carefully timed movements across state lines. And they’re benefiting the low-tax state through their consumption.

Tax laws are complicated, and many of them are actually meant to shape our behavior. Friend No. 2 is playing by the rules. I don’t think this sort of tax avoidance is wrong. If your friend does, however, he’s certainly acting against his own principles. But if the problem is just that you think he’s taxed less than he ought to be, fault the rules, not your friend.

If you and Friend No. 2 think he oughtn’t be able to avoid taxes in this way, you could always invite him to join you in a campaign for tax reform. But revolution, not reform, would be needed to prevent states from setting their own tax rates!

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