I am in my 50s, the mother of grown children and in generally good health. A friend of mine has been on dialysis for two years and is desperately seeking a kidney donor. Without telling anyone, I decided to start the process to see if I could donate and went through a variety of tests, which I would not have done otherwise. As a result of the tests, I discovered I have high cholesterol and am considered prediabetic, so obviously I am not a good candidate for kidney donation. Should I tell my friend that I wanted to donate and that because of the tests I am now taking better care of my health? I want her to know she is not alone and that because of her I am now more health conscious. On the other hand, am I seeking self-glorification without any of the actual pain, and would it be preferable to keep silent? Name Withheld
The way that esteem functions as a means of social regulation entails that people can end up doing the right thing not because it is right but simply because it wins them praise. We can feel that such people are gaming the honor code. That’s one reason we often raise an eyebrow at acts of conspicuous supererogation — acts that showily exceed the moral minimum. Indeed, the Jewish scholar Maimonides, in the 12th century, established a famous hierarchy of charity, tzedakah, in which giving anonymously ranked higher than giving face to face. The anonymous donor couldn’t be faulted for seeking to bask in the recipient’s gratitude, or engaging in generosity in order to earn a reputation for generosity.
Here, your care in not telling your friend of your intentions suggests that you weren’t looking to draw attention to your own charity. But you now have good reasons for telling your friend. You want her to know that you were prepared to undergo major surgery for her and that you didn’t do so not because you didn’t care about her but because your own health prevented you from doing it. That she has a friend who was willing to make this sacrifice should be consoling for her in a difficult time. She might even find consolation, as you suggest, in knowing that something positive for your health came of it. Those would be positive outcomes, and not just for you. I appreciate your suspicion of esteem. But the results of our actions matter more than the purity of our souls.
I volunteer several days a week at a store that is part of an organization that builds homes for families that qualify for such assistance. The store is filled with merchandise that has been donated, either by individuals or corporations. These sales fund the building of those homes. The model is very successful. Our customers are generally minorities or recent immigrants. On the other hand, we do get decorators, realtors who are staging homes or individuals who really don’t need to shop in our store but are looking for bargains. One of the signs in the store says “no negotiating on prices,” which is our policy. Lately I have noticed that the better-heeled customers are going to certain paid staff members and getting them to create new, lower price tags. This is something that neither the minorities nor recent-immigrant customers receive, even though they may ask for a price reduction. In my view, this is clearly discriminatory, even though management participates in this practice, as do paid staff members. I feel obliged to talk to management but am unsure how to do so. Am I justified in raising this issue? Name Withheld
I suspect that most donors to your store — including people like you who donate their time — would share your view that something is wrong here. And yes, there’s also something chintzy about bargaining down prices at a store where the merchandise was donated to support a good cause.
Let’s stipulate that the managers might have calculated that these price reductions will keep them well supplied with paying customers. Perhaps the loss of money from the discounts is made up for by an increase in the number of bargain-hunting decorators and the like, thereby increasing turnover and the total volume of sales. If that were the goal, though, a better way of achieving it would be to offer discounts to all customers who make a sufficiently large volume of purchases. This would avoid the appearance (or the reality) of racial or ethnic discrimination.
But it’s just as likely that this is one of the many occasions in our society where caste privileges are so routine that they don’t even strike the management as wrong. At the very least, it’s dishonest to say you don’t negotiate and then to do so with favored customers. Charities receive special tax treatment because they serve the public good, but it comes with stricter standards for how they behave. How to tell the managers? Why not send them this answer?
My son came to me with what he termed a moral dilemma. He had been doing business with a large company ordering equipment for his freelance jobs. He came to find out that said business was accused of discriminating against women and minorities. He has since found out that they have settled a lawsuit and paid a fine. His dilemma is whether to still do business with them. If they hadn’t settled and paid a fine, he wouldn’t use them. But is it ethical to use them now? After all, they probably wouldn’t have changed their practices if they hadn’t been sued. Name Withheld
It’s a fine principle to avoid doing business with a company that discriminates against its workers. But the company is ostensibly no longer doing so, having been caught, punished and forced into a settlement that prohibits further discrimination. So the concern is that the business would have kept sinning if it hadn’t been caught. The issue is not its practices but its character.
The lowest rung on Maimonides’s ladder of tzedakah was giving unwillingly. And certainly the mere compliance with a legal obligation, like paying a fine, will win no admiration. Let me suggest, though, that a business, although it certainly has practices, doesn’t really have a moral character. It’s individual men and women who have characters. Presumably, then, the character of the managers is what worries your son. But the principle that you won’t do business with a company that is run by people of bad character is hard to apply: You often know little about the character of people with whom you do business. If your son adopted the principle that he won’t do business with people he happens to know have bad characters, he may simply transfer his dealings to people whose only advantage is that he knows less about them.
I’m not sure that standing on this principle — and punishing a company that seems to have mended its ways — is a good idea, especially if finding an alternative supplier is going to be burdensome. The discrimination may have been the work of a few, and what matters most is that they’re no longer discriminating.