Wednesday, August 23, 2017

What Price Family Loyalty?

Kwame Anthony Appiah does not write an advice column. He writes the New York Times column called, The Ethicist. Thus he does not whine about feeling anyone’s feelings and does make a show of empathy. He is a professional philosopher, so his analyses tend to be thoughtful and intelligent.

Compared with what passes for advice columns, Appiah is in another league. He offers us some fresh air on complex moral dilemmas.

Today, in the first letter, someone called Name Withheld asks whether he should turn in a relative for tax evasion. You think that is not a serious question. But our moralistic age has produced a hearty band of professional scolds. What do you do after you have run out of ways to scold people: you turn them in to the IRS.

NW offers this:

My relative works in the marijuana industry, which has been legal in my state for almost two years. Nevertheless, he has worked under the table during that time, earning tens of thousands of dollars and not paying taxes on it. I confronted him and told him that I didn’t think the tax evasion was ethical. He disagreed, saying that plenty of people do not report their tips. Our relationship has been a little strained since the confrontation, but we still mostly get along. Is it unethical of me to report him to the I.R.S.? 

You will be thinking that NW needs to be punched in the face. Betraying a familial confidence is the surest way to find yourself expelled from your family. You will be thinking that it was none of NW’s business and that family loyalty  must supersede his wish to attain virtue. Anyway, it sounds like NW is reeking of envy and will soon be eating Thanksgiving alone.

Appiah says as much, thus offering sane and sensible moral guidance. For that we are grateful. Better yet, Appiah does so with tact.

He begins:

What your kinsman is doing is, of course, wrong. The costs of government are largely paid through taxes, and those who don’t pay their fair share are taking advantage of the rest of us who do. That plenty of people don’t report their tips is neither here nor there: A misdeed isn’t redeemed by its prevalence. Now that his business is legal, he doesn’t have the excuse that he can’t report his income because his business is underground. 

A fair point. Appiah continues by asserting the value of family loyalty. He emphasizes that family loyalty depends on being able to confide in family members.

In his words:

He revealed his scofflaw behavior in the context of a familial relationship. Our lives go better if we’re able to assume that frankness in family conversations won’t end up being used against us in a court of law. (That’s one reason the old doctrine of spousal privilege — the general principle that you can’t be compelled to testify against your spouse in criminal proceedings — was a good idea.) Reporting your relative exposes him to penalties for extensive tax evasion, which can include imprisonment. Is this something you can live with? When loyalty to family and loyalty to the law come into conflict, the illegality in question has to be very serious to win out. You don’t want to be the kind of person who finds everyone falling silent at family gatherings when he or she enters the room.

Fair enough. If we are talking about a relative who has committed an egregious crime or if we are defending a community that would be far better off if said relative were in a cage… then it makes sense and constitutes a moral duty to reveal what one knows. Here we are not talking about John Wayne Gacy or Bernard Madoff.

It matters that Appiah draws this distinction, because it shows that we should not be making these decisions by using absolutes. This is what NW does, and he is clearly wrong.

But, Appiah says, the crime in question does not rise to a high level of egregiousness. Clearly, the pot farming relative thought that he was speaking in confidence. A loyal family member is obliged to keep the secret. The crime, such as it is, represents a drop in the federal tax bucket. Being shunned as a disloyal family member and being responsible for the consequences that will befall the man and his own family should tell NW to shut up.


art.the.nerd said...

Dr. Schneiderman, may I respectfully suggest that you find a proof reader to examine your text before you post? Today you write

> Her we are

when you mean "Here". On Monday you wrote

> tetired lawyer Francis Menton

when you clearly meant "retired."

Thank you. Such gaffes undermine the integrity of your writing.

Sam L. said...

Art, I'm sure your fingers never make a mistake, this early in the morning. It happens occasionally.

Ares Olympus said...

I agree, its better to let other people's conscience lead, unless there are clear concrete victims. I sort of understand the need to tattle. Basically if there was a point in your past someone tattled on you, then you may internalize that "justice" and feel a need to turn in others.

This ethics is sort of like the "Sanctuary city" debate. If illegals are afraid of being turn in to immigration officials for reporting crime, they'll keep quiet and not report to local police and criminals can be more free to act fearlessly. Of course even in a Sanctuary city it just takes one "disloyal" tattle within the police department to break the trust of the people.

The main problem with "victimless crimes" like tax evasion is there are large legal penalties, and people acting under the law may have to go down a slippery slope of ever more dramatic coverups to stay safe, so tax evasion can lead to anything including murder to cover up being caught.

I have one friend in his early 20s who "borrowed" a rental car for 6 months and was arrested bringing it back, and got a felony on his record, while he admitted he never stopped voting (felony and voting were in different states). Voter fraud is another "victimless crime", and I wasn't concerned he was corrupting democracy as much as his own risks to getting caught and there are large penalties and he had kids who would be affected. (Reflecting I actually decided I wouldn't risk cheating like that, although without kids, perhaps I'd vote illegally as an act of civil disobedience and turn myself in, seeing the law as unjust.)

I recall Dan Ariely's talk about how our imperfect morality allows us to "cheat a little" and still feel we're good people, and if we see other people we like or admire cheat, we're more willing to cheat.