in Ethicist

The Ethicist: 10 January 2018

Should I Accept a Cash Reward for Doing the Right Thing?


My 12-year-old son and I found a cellphone in the back seat of a taxi. I called someone on the owner’s contact list … and I gave him the phone. He … wanted to give us $40 to express his thanks. My son started to take it. I said: “Thank you, but no thank you. We didn’t do this for a reward.” … He doesn’t see why we didn’t take money for a good deed. Even some of my friends said I should have taken the “reward.” What do you think?

Correct answer:

First, you did the right thing by returning missing property to its owner. The owner then did the right thing by offering a reward for it. Then you did the right thing again by turning down the reward.

If the owner wanted to be perfectly gracious, he could have insisted that you accept the reward that he offered. And if you wanted to be perfectly gracious (or if you wanted to demonstrate it to your son), you could have accepted the reward – only to donate it to charity.

But those extra steps aren’t strictly necessary; the important things are that missing property was returned to its owner and that the owner expressed his gratitude for it.

Nor is there any reason for someone who returns a cell phone to its owner not to get rewarded for it. Don’t mistake the motive for a kind deed with its outcome.


An acquaintance of mine was recently diagnosed with an incurable cancer. He has health insurance but decided to spend his small retirement savings in a nontraditional medical clinic in Mexico. He was prescribed vitamins and other homeopathic treatments for a sizable sum. As he is now unable to pay his living expenses, he has started raising money online. I am a health care provider and realize the importance of combining traditional and nontraditional medicine. I disagree, however, with his departure from science-based treatment and advice. What duty do I have to help him financially?

Correct answer:

You have no duty to help him financially. His insurance has a duty to help him financially – with relevant and valid medical bills. Since, however, any money you donate to him is likely to be used for homeopathy, or fungibly to offset the costs of homeopathy, you should avoid giving him any money.

If this were a friend rather than merely an acquaintance, I would recommend other forms of help like cooking meals or cleaning his house, but as this is a person that you may not know well at all, visiting in the hospital should be plenty.


While in the process of purchasing a home, I discovered that concrete for its foundation was supplied by a company whose product has crumbled in tens of thousands of homes in my state. Most homeowners have been ruined, as there is no relief from insurance or FEMA and little to no relief from the state. I did not buy the house, but I worry for the next buyer. What should I do with this information?

Correct answer:

Don’t do anything to interfere with the owner’s attempts to sell his house. If you want, you could definitely notify the owner, however, to give him the chance to have the problem fixed.