A Good Day to Hail Good Ethics

We spend most of our time on this blog pointing out ethical lapses, but let’s use America’s birthday to celebrate a very important collective good deed:  Charitable donations are at record highs since the start of the pandemic.

It’s heartening to note that when the coronavirus shut down the economy, leaving millions without jobs and in desperate need, Americans stepped up to help, setting records in both the number and size of contributions.

While much of the increased giving has come from foundations, companies, and institutions, a great deal has also come from individuals. Exact numbers are impossible to calculate at this point, but grants to food banks and other safety net programs, were up 667% as of June. Thirty-two community foundations that reported their giving to June provided more than $200 billion. And Fidelity reported that donor-advised funds (a tax-advantaged charitable-giving tool for the wealthy) have given $3.4 billion, up 28% from 2019.

This is a reversal from 2018 and 2019, when charitable giving declined after the 2017 tax cut act eliminated the tax deduction for millions who no longer had the incentive to itemize. Congress reversed some of that damage in the CARES Act by loosening rules for large donations and by permitting a deduction of up to $300 for those who don’t itemize.

There’s still a lot more to be done. One survey shows that America’s 50 richest people have together donated $1 billion to coronavirus relief, just 0.1% of their net wealth. And with cases of the virus surging and some states going back into lockdown, it’s obvious the need for assistance is going to remain high for some time to come.

Ethical Outrage: No Excuse for This Kind of Behavior

This story in the Washington Post caught my eye and gave me an instant headache. Here is a man who fought to reopen Maryland prematurely, caught the coronavirus, and now refuses to provide information on who he’s been in contact with because he doesn’t want the government to have anyone’s information. This despite the fact that infectious disease experts say contact tracing is key to containing the virus.

People have a right to control their own behavior and exercise their individual rights—but not when it puts others at risk. This is why it’s important to wear a mask indoors with others present. You can put your own health at risk if you want, but a mask protects others. Not wearing one is the equivalent of driving drunk and not caring who you might run down.

It’s hard to believe anyone can be so uncaring, so selfish, so unethical as the gentleman described in this article.

Is there any sane argument in his favor? If you think so, please leave a comment or email me at mark@markwillen.com.

Some Companies Still Don’t Get It

J.C. Penney, a department store with 840 retail outlets in 49 states, filed for bankruptcy this month, 118 years after it was founded. The company hopes to reorganize, but 242 of its stores are closing for good. The company, hit hard by the coronavirus shutdown, won rent relief as it tries to stay afloat, but thousands of employees have lost their jobs, investors have lost millions, and consumers in many poor areas will lose valued retail outlets.

But the pain only went so far, and it certainly didn’t reach the executive suite. Just prior to filing for bankruptcy, J.C. Penney paid its chief executive, Jill Soltau, $4.5 million, while the chief financial officer and the head of human services each got $1 million in bonuses.

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When It’s Unethical To Be Thrifty

In a recent post, I suggested that people who receive a government stimulus check even though they are not suffering any economic hardship should try to donate the money to charities overwhelmed by those who have lost jobs and income. When asked a related question, The New York Times Ethicist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, suggested those who can should spend more to stimulate the economy and resist the urge to be thrifty despite these uncertain times. (See the second question in this column.)

Now there is strong evidence, that those most able to spend are pulling back, just when low income workers need the economic jolt the most. Please take the time to examine their research here.

Democrats’ Tricky Ethical Issue: Is It Okay to Hope Trump Fails?

Ethics is about doing the right thing. It’s primarily about actions, about how we behave when we interact with others. But it also involves how we think about others. Having racist thoughts, for example—believing someone else is inferior just because of skin color—is clearly unethical. That’s because such thoughts end up influencing our behavior, whether we realize it or not, and because they likely make us more tolerant when others act with prejudice.

But what about hopes, especially when politics is involved? Can a hope be unethical?  If you’re a Democrat or Independent who pines for President Trump’s defeat, is it okay to hope that he’ll fail in dealing with the coronavirus, the economy, or anything else because you know that will hurt his re-election prospects?

That kind of question has always been in play, but the Covid-19 crisis raises the stakes considerably. As red states like Florida, Georgia, and Texas reopen their economies, Republicans and Democrats disagree in almost every poll. Republicans are far more likely to support a relaxation of restrictions, usually arguing that the economic damage is just as bad or worse than the health risks. Democrats tend to be more cautious about reopening, fearing a spike in deaths that would outweigh the harm from a deep economic recession. The divide has the awful effect of building on pre-existing polarization to turn the pandemic into a blue vs. red phenomenon.

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Can I Refuse to Wear a Mask?

No, you can’t.

I usually write about complex ethical problems for which there is no clear answer, with the aim of promoting thought and discussion to help you make a decision you feel comfortable with.

But when it comes to wearing a face mask in public to fight the pandemic, there is no gray area. Just wear the damn mask!

The author shows his colors.

Opponents, including a few who have reacted with violence when told to put on a mask, often question the legal authority behind mask rules or cite the First Amendment or some other patriotic sounding tripe about the supposed “right” to do what you want. I’m not going to bother with the legalities here because ethics is about doing the right thing, not the legally required minimum, and there is no doubt that you are ethically required to do what you easily can do to keep the rest of us safe. How this ever became a political issue is beyond my comprehension.

Let’s be clear. You wear a mask not to protect yourself, which is arguably our choice, but to protect others, which shouldn’t be your choice. The problem is you can have the virus and spread it without knowing it, so it’s not about your own safety, it’s about everyone else’s, and it is ethically wrong to endanger others unnecessarily. Period. End stop.

Viral Ethics: How Will You Help?

Despite our political divisions, a significant majority of Americans have come together in this time of crisis to help our neighbors. You see this when you take a walk and more people are friendly, or when young healthy people on a grocery run ask their elderly acquaintances if they need anything, and in a growing willingness to keep a safe distance and wear a mask to protect against contagion.

20200501_135333That’s all well and good, but surely ethics demands a lot more from those of us who remain healthy and able. Whatever particular theory of ethics you follow,  the overwhelming aim is to do good for others, to do the right thing, follow the golden rule, and to minimize harm. So how does this apply right now?

The coronavirus has made the economic divisions in our society clear. Essential jobs are overwhelmingly performed by minorities and those at the lower end of the economic ladder. Our health workers, who are most at risk, are filled with the ranks of immigrants, as are meat plant workers and those in the gig economy. It’s the well-off who still have jobs and can do them at home, and while balancing our-of-school kids and jobs at home may be a challenge, it is not the same as struggling to file for unemployment, losing a business you created, or standing in food lines that stretch for miles.

So the question is, what can those of us who are not suffering physically or economically do to help. More specifically, what is our obligation to help?

Let’s start with the money the federal government distributed last month. The need to move quickly meant that beyond very crude means testing, the checks had to go to everyone. But many of us hadn’t been hurt economically and didn’t “need’ these checks.

I’m one of those people. I’m retired, have a steady income from Social Security and pensions, and while my IRAs and investments were hurt, I don’t live off those and expect they’ll recover in time. I didn’t need or deserve the money I received, and the same is true of many others who have not suffered harm. To be sure, paying a debt or back rent is a legitimate use of the money because it helps those on the receiving end. It also helps to order deliveries or pick up from struggling restaurants or other stores, but I’m guessing you would have spent money on those restaurants in normal times anyway – in other words,  you didn’t need the stimulus money for that.

Ethically, the obligation is to use the money as it was intended: to help those really hurting. That means donating your check and as much more as you can to the charities doing the heavy lifting: food banks, shelters for the homeless, those providing health care for the uninsured, a friend or relative in need, and so many more. I would argue that the obligation is to help worldwide, but obviously that’s a personal decision. Harder to decide may be whether to also help theaters, symphony companies, public TV and radio, and other cultural organizations that are hurting. Again, that’s up to the individual.

What about household help? I started a debate on Facebook when I posted an article from a home health care worker who was locked out of her job when the family decided they’d take care of their aging parent because they were home anyway. Should we continue to pay those who have cleaned our homes even if they are no longer doing that work? What about nannies, childcare workers, or those helping the aging? Does it matter if the decision to cancel work is yours or if the worker is the one who thinks it’s too risky?

If your answer is yes, what about the beautician who has done your hair for the last several years if you have a long-standing relationship and she counts on your income?

If your answer is yes to any of the above, how long are you ethically obliged to keep it up? If you answer no, do you feel that small businesses that have had to close their doors should continue paying employees? If not, what’s the difference?

I’m interested in your thoughts so here is a small survey to see how you feel. It is completely anonymous – neither I nor anyone else will ever know who replied. And remember, I am not applying these questions to people who need the government payments – only to those for whom it represents the equivalent of found money. You can also comment below or send your thoughts to mark@markwillen.com.

Despite our political divisions, a significant majority of Americans have come together in this time of crisis to help our neighbors. You see this when you take a walk and more people are friendly, or when young healthy people on a grocery run ask their elderly acquaintances if they need anything, and in a growing willingness to keep a safe distance and wear a mask to protect against contagion.

That’s all well and good, but surely ethics demands a lot more from those of us who remain healthy and able. Whatever particular theory of ethics you follow,  the overwhelming aim is to do good for others, to do the right thing, follow the golden rule, and to minimize harm. So how does this apply right now?

The coronavirus has made the economic divisions in our society clear. Essential jobs are overwhelmingly performed by minorities and those at the lower end of the economic ladder. Our health workers, who are most at risk, are filled with the ranks of immigrants, as are meat plant workers and those in the gig economy. It’s the well-off who still have jobs and can do them at home, and while balancing our-of-school kids and jobs at home may be a challenge, it is not the same as struggling to file for unemployment, losing a business you created, or standing in food lines that stretch for miles.

So the question is, what can those of us who are not suffering physically or economically do to help. More specifically, what is our obligation to help?

Let’s start with the money the federal government distributed last month. The need to move quickly meant that beyond very crude means testing, the checks had to go to everyone. But many of us hadn’t been hurt economically and didn’t “need’ these checks.

I’m one of those people. I’m retired, have a steady income from Social Security and pensions, and while my IRAs and investments were hurt, I don’t live off those and expect they’ll recover in time. I didn’t need or deserve the money I received, and the same is true of many others who have not suffered harm. To be sure, paying a debt or back rent is a legitimate use of the money because it helps those on the receiving end. It also helps to order deliveries or pick up from struggling restaurants or other stores, but I’m guessing you would have spent money on those restaurants in normal times anyway – in other words,  you didn’t need the stimulus money for that.

Ethically, the obligation is to use the money as it was intended: to help those really hurting. That means donating your check and as much more as you can to the charities doing the heavy lifting: Food banks, shelters for the homeless, those providing health care for the uninsured, a friend or relative in need, and so many more. I would argue that the obligation is to help worldwide, but obviously that’s a personal decision. Harder to decide may be whether to also help theaters, symphony companies, public TV and radio, and other cultural organizations that are hurting. Again, that’s up to the individual.

What about household help? I started a debate on Facebook when I posted an article from a home health care worker who was locked out of her job when the family decided they’d take care of their aging parent because they were home anyway. Should we continue to pay those who have cleaned our homes even if they are no longer doing that work? What about nannies, childcare workers, or those helping the aging? Does it matter if the decision to cancel work is yours or if the worker is the one who thinks it’s too risky?

If your answer is yes, what about the beautician who has done your hair for the last several years if you have a long-standing relationship and she counts on your income?

If your answer is yes to any of the above, how long are you ethically obliged to keep it up? If you answer no, do you feel that small businesses that have had to close their doors should continue paying employees? If not, what’s the difference?

I’m interested in your thoughts so here is a small survey to see how you feel. It is completely anonymous – neither I nor anyone else will ever know who replied. And remember, I am not applying these questions to people who need the government payments – only to those for whom it represents the equivalent of found money. You can also comment below or send your thoughts to mark@markwillen.com.  We’ll report on the survey next week.

Viral Ethics: Let the Needy Go First

I serve as treasurer of a small nonprofit organization for writers in Maryland, and because of the Covid-19 stay-at-home order, we had to cancel our annual conference. That cost us about $2,000.  At a recent board meeting, someone suggested we apply for money being made available by the local government to assist nonprofits in sudden need. We talked about it and decided not to apply. We have a big enough rainy day fund to cover the loss, we have no employees to worry about, and we’re in no danger of slowing, let alone ceasing, operations. Other organizations clearly need it more.

None of us had to think hard about this; it was clearly the ethical thing to do.

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Viral Ethics: Covid-19 Questions

I stopped writing the TalkingEthics blog shortly after the 2016 election. I didn’t see any way to continue without getting mired in the nastiness and hatred that characterized any discussion involving politics, and I wanted to avoid that (and still do). It was also true that the media started paying a lot more attention to ethics as the new administration pushed what were already questionable boundaries. Plus, I started writing novels, which gave me a different kind of opportunity to explore ethical questions.photo-1586065390014-a796af790da7

All of that is still true today, but the Covid-19 crisis raises some serious new issues, and I’m starting to see neighbors and friends discuss them, so I decided to jump back in. I’ll start with a few thoughts on a handful of issues and ask you to join in the discussion with your own views (details on how to participate below). Let’s start with wearing masks.

Is it ethical to leave your mask at home? Here in Maryland, masks are now required in grocery stores, pharmacies, and other places of business where it’s Continue reading