Last night, I flagged down a yellow cab. When I opened the door, there were five $20 bills lying on the seat. Since there was no way of tracking down the person who left the money — and I figured the cabdriver would just keep the money for himself if I told him about it — I decided to keep it and donate half to charity. Was that the right thing to do? Name Withheld, New York
The cabdriver was in the same situation as you were: Most likely there was little he could do to get the money to its rightful owner. He could have called the city’s 311 line, or left the money and the information at a police precinct. But few taxi drivers would have the time and inclination to do any of this. And I don’t blame them. They can’t be obliged to expend serious effort to undo someone else’s negligence.
Still, people who leave things in a taxi in New York City can contact the driver by using the Taxi Lookup tool of the Taxi and Limousine Commission and entering the taxi’s license number, which is on the receipt. So if a) you had entrusted the cash to the cabdriver, and b) the previous passenger realized that the money had been left in that cab, and c) knew about the license lookup tool, and d) contacted the driver, the money could have been returned to its owner.
And, if no one called, the driver could have kept the money in good conscience. Given that taxi drivers in New York earn below-average incomes, that wouldn’t have been such a bad outcome. You, by contrast, had no shot at returning the money, and what you did made the best outcome less likely.
This outcome, of course, depended on that unlikely sequence of events, from a) to d). Yours, in short, was a venial sin — a pardonable offense. And, as long as the conscience-salving charity you gave the $50 to was a reputable one, you have entered something on the positive side of the moral ledger.
After I retired, I began to tutor adult refugees and immigrants in English through local organizations such as Literacy Volunteers and Advocates. Over the years, I have had Japanese, Chinese, Iraqi, Ecuadorean and Mexican students. Their education levels vary greatly, as does their exposure to cultural differences. This volunteer commitment has been enormously satisfying to me, but inevitably when we talk about families, they ask about my marital status. I am a lesbian, with a decades-long partnership. Until now, to avoid cultural and personal awkwardness, I have said that I’m single, but in doing so I feel that I am dishonoring my relationship and missing an opportunity to educate my students on a visible aspect of American culture. What is your advice? Name Withheld
Your immigrant students come from places with a variety of views about L.G.B.T. people. You’re entitled to keep your private life from them, if you so choose. Even then, real honesty would require you to tell those who ask about your marital status that you have decided not to discuss your private life with students.
But these immigrants aren’t just learning English; they’re learning about a new country. The discovery that one can be openly lesbian here could, as you suggest, be part of that education about their new home. If they came from places where racism and sexism are common, I doubt you’d feel inclined to keep your moral views about those issues from them. So I’d tell them truthfully, if the issue comes up, that you have a longstanding female partner. You might then ask them what the situation is for L.G.B.T. people in their country (or some such), making it plain that you’re open to conversation. That won’t rule out awkwardness, but it might help ease it.
An old friend told me that his son had been fired from his job after he published an essay online. I told him I thought this seemed illegal, and he offered to send me the essay. What I read was astounding. While I am not trained in psychology, this essay was clearly the rantings of a deeply disturbed, certainly paranoid and possibly dangerous person.
Many pages in length, it excoriated banks, businesses, politicians and society in general for conspiring against “ordinary people.” While not directly calling for civil unrest, it urged readers to take matters into their own hands. It was clear to me why a company would not want the author of this piece as an employee.
My problem is what to say, if anything, to my friend. He did not signal to me that he found this essay disturbing, though he may have been holding back, waiting for my opinion. Do I have an ethical obligation to tell him that I think his son may have a problem? I can’t be sure it’s true, and it could be damaging to our relationship. On the other hand, I feel that my silence does him, and possibly his son, a disservice. P. L., New Jersey
Not having seen the essay, I can’t say whether I agree with your diagnosis. Maybe he’s simply splicing Michael Moore onto Sean Hannity. But if your friend’s son has a psychiatric problem, as you suppose, his father is in a better position to do something about it than most people. The fact that the boy’s father doesn’t see an obvious problem does make me wonder whether you’re right — though, as you say, he may just be waiting for you to confirm his suspicions. Facing up to mental illness in your own family is hard. At least if you say what you think, it’ll be your friend’s choice what to make of it, and what to do about it. And if the son turns out to be as disturbed as you suspect and creates further trouble, you’ll regret it if you said nothing when you had the chance.
Two close friends, whose values I generally admire, recently sold their businesses and retired. Over the years, I became aware that both friends regularly took cash receipts “off the top” and did not report them. While I always questioned the fairness and equity of such a move (the illegality is prima facie), I never said anything about it. Recently, my friend told me that they both have a safe at home with enough cash to live on for several years, and that it was set aside from their businesses in the same manner. These are close friends, who, as I said, are otherwise principled people. I am troubled about this. Is there anything that I should do, other than mind my own business? Name Withheld
Society is a vast scheme of cooperation that depends on the compliance of its members to secure its benefits. Not doing your fair share is a moral wrong. But what’s a bystander like you to do about it?
Scriptural traditions often enshrine sound moral insights, and there’s a long Islamic tradition, based on passages in the Quran, about “commanding right and forbidding wrong,” that makes good Muslims responsible for keeping others on the right path with “the hand, the tongue or the heart.” Stopping your friends with the hand here would involve reporting them to the authorities. At this late date, though, the main effect of doing so would be to expose these people to prison time and possibly steep financial penalties — and yourself to opprobrium from their friends and family. What’s more, your friends took you into their confidence on the assumption that you would keep that confidence, and your friendship makes that assumption a reasonable one.
That leaves you free to take the second way of the Hadith: commanding and forbidding with the tongue. You could just tell your friends that you disapprove of what they did. But then, why didn’t you say so at a point when, in theory, your friends could have stopped doing it? (It appears that you think what your friends did was, though wrong, not terribly wrong.) If there’s nothing you’re asking your friends to do, such pronouncements might seem like moral grandstanding.
That leaves you with the option of forbidding in the heart — hating the sin and, perhaps, avoiding your friends’ company. I’d favor the middle way, the way of the tongue, and suggest you figure out how to convey your feelings of disquiet. It remains the case, however, that you should have spoken up earlier. To switch (and invert) scriptural traditions: While you scowl at the beams in their eyes, you might at least notice the mote in your own.