I have had the same woman come once a week to clean my house for the past 10 years. Several times a year — amounting to between 10 to 15 percent of her scheduled days — she gets a migraine and cancels for the week, always at the last minute. She is a one-woman operation, so there is no one else to come in her place. I realize not having someone come to clean your house is not the world’s biggest tragedy, but it does leave me in the lurch with either cleaning projects left undone or a scramble to get done things I had not planned on having to do. I don’t believe she is lying to me about feeling unwell. And it is, of course, reasonable to expect people to be ill once in a while, but is there such a thing as too often — i.e., can I let her go and find someone else that would be more reliable because she gets sick too often? Name Withheld
I grant that there’s a big difference between your situation and that of a larger employer. The large employer can plan around the possibility of intermittent illnesses among workers, with a policy of allowing sick days and adapting to infirmities by redistributing the workload as needed. (Employers of 15 or more, along with public accommodations, must also comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.) When a sole employee is unexpectedly away from work, for whatever reason, there is often no one but the employer to take up the slack. If this woman were providing child care, say, her being absent every eight to 10 weeks might be a serious problem, because it could mean you had to take time off on a regular but unpredictable basis, too. How easy this would be to cope with would depend on your occupation.
But having a housecleaning canceled in a random pattern, five to seven times a year, does not strike me as posing that kind of challenge. You have known this woman for a decade, and you voice no complaints about the work that she does. You do not say that these absences are a recent development; perhaps she has always had to cancel in this way. She has, it would seem, settled into the reasonable expectation that you can handle these occasional unscheduled absences.
In a more equitable society, with a more finely woven social-safety net, someone with a frequently disabling migraine would be able to secure employment more compatible with her condition or to qualify for disability benefits. (The main public programs require total disability, have various eligibility requirements and frequently reject migraine sufferers.) In ours, we end up having to depend on the good will of others.
My husband and I recently bought a house in a lovely town in Mexico. We plan to stay there during the winter months. We went there for a month this fall to begin furnishing it and met the staff of the management company that maintains it when we are not there. The housekeeper and I got on particularly well. She did such an amazing job and was very pleasant. Over the month we spent in Mexico, this woman and I talked a lot about her children, and the issues of sending them to school during Covid. Once, she brought her 11-year-old daughter by the house and introduced her to me. Now that we are back in the U.S., I hear that her daughter has cancer of the knee. Mexico provides no assistance to the poor in terms of cancer care. The hospital wants 30,000 pesos for each chemo treatment (about $1,500), and they are talking about more than 10. This woman earns about $15 a day, so a $1,500 bill is impossible for her to ever pay, let alone 10 times that. When we expressed dismay at the situation, our management company reached out to us to see if we could help out.
We donated money for the first treatment, but said we could not afford more. While this is sort of true, it is not entirely true. We have enough money in our savings to pay for her treatments but are not prepared to pay out more than $20,000 for this child. I feel very guilty, even though shelling out the whole amount would really deplete our savings. What is our ethical obligation here? I am sure we will give more money as time goes by, just not thousands of dollars. Name Withheld
The situation you describe is indeed appalling: In the wake of a botched overhaul of Mexican health care in 2019, public hospitals there have, in the past couple of years, experienced a severe shortage of cancer drugs, among other medications. People across Mexico depend on the public system’s free or low-cost care; when the government slashed its budget for pharmaceutical procurement, those in need of expensive drugs were simply left without options. An expert in Mexican health care told me that President López Obrador has promised to remedy the situation, in response to widespread protests, but wasn’t optimistic that the crisis would be fully resolved anytime soon. Given the president’s promises, though, if your housekeeper goes to one of the government hospitals in a major town — my expert told me that juvenile-cancer treatment in these hospitals tends to be pretty good — the money for the drugs is now supposed to be available.
But let’s assume it isn’t. Does this systemic failure require that you deplete your savings? Most Americans could save the lives of many poor children somewhere in the world if they spent all their savings. There’s a philosophical debate between those utilitarians, like Peter Singer, who think that not doing so is a moral failure and those of us who think that we can be obliged to do only our fair share to meet the needs of the poor. At the same time, those utilitarians wouldn’t think you had any special reason to help this child (that $1,500 could surely do more good elsewhere), whereas it seems to me that people may have an ethical call on you because of this sort of chance connection. But given your resources, and the strength of your connection, you can reasonably judge that you’ve done your fair share to help this child. And giving money isn’t the only way you can be of assistance; there could be benefit in doing a bit more investigation and directing the woman and her daughter to the right health care NGO.
I am a white man. I have a great friend who is also a white man, and a really brilliant artist. He did a work featuring an African American couple that I liked so much I persuaded him to sell it to me.
I got the idea to commission him to create portraits of women of color, some famous and some not famous, but all significant in some way and all of whom contributed to the U.S. or in some cases the wider world in ways that deserve recognition. My intent was to support the creation of beautiful art that featured people who are often unconsidered and unrecognized and to eventually exhibit it, with any proceeds going to organizations that work to advance and promote issues related to women of color.
Now, many created works in, it occurred to me that two white guys making art representing women of color might be unethical. Should I have only commissioned such work from women artists of color? Should I have even considered this project? Should I have just donated the money directly? Name Withheld
This sounds like an interesting art project. Commissioning such paintings by women of color would be an interesting project, too. Still, we don’t want to live in a world where only Black artists are commissioned to paint Black people and only white artists to paint white people, where men are to be rendered by men, women by women, and so on. Nobody should wish to purge Alice Neel’s oeuvre of the remarkable portraits she made of her Harlem neighbors, many of them men of color.
So it’s hard to fault you for encouraging an artist you admire to do work you admire, creating portraiture that others can enjoy, while you hope, generating money for a good cause. What’s the argument for the other side? Well, given your reference to “proceeds,” you might ask whether the current art market is likely to reward your vision. What you have in mind isn’t unethical; you’re not taking work away from women artists of color. But it may not be very practical.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)