If you start helping someone, is it unethical to stop?


  1. When I was a kid I got excited about donating money to one of those “Sponsor a third-world child and they’ll write to you” charities. My dad said no, it wouldn’t be right to start if you couldn’t commit to keeping it up for years, and that I’d do better to make a one-time general donation. (I think he was right.)

  2. When you pick out a pet at the shelter/wherever, ideally you are making a commitment till death do us part. What about when you take in a starving stray cat on a cold winter’s night? Can you take it to the shelter in the morning, knowing it will probably be soon put to sleep? (I think yes. You were just preventing it from suffering overnight.) How about keeping it for a few weeks and then taking it in to the shelter? What about if a year goes by – is it now wrong to send it to its death? The longer you live with the cat, the more heartless you’d have to be to off it, right?

  3. You are a rich philanthropist who has built schools in poor countries. Hundreds of kids benefit from the education and dozens of teachers are employed. Now your spouse is diagnosed with stomach cancer and you pull all your funding to put into cancer research. (Seems like you should make some effort to preserve the schools you’ve invested so much in, but is it an ethical requirement?)

I’m juggling some issues in real life that hinge on this question, so I’d appreciate any input.

There is no hard and fast answer to this. You don’t want to help someone off a desert island and end your help in the middle of the ocean, but there are circumstances that may lead to doing metaphorically that going into it with the best intentions.

Just do the best you can with what you know and it is really faith in a Loving God who will see your efforts for the good and make it right even if it seems like it’s going wrong.

I’d agree with you on one and two.

Three is trickier, if the philanthropist set up the schools as a permanent addition to the community but dependent on his ongoing funding, he has some obligation to either continue or find alternate funding. It would be unethical to effectively destroy the educational system that he created and solely funds.

If he had set up the schools as temporary fixtures, then that’s what they are.

If the schools were set up and the ongoing funds are a donation each year, they should be well aware that it’s not guaranteed income and have alternates set up themselves.

We’re in the throes of this ourselves in the non-profit sector. Between the recession and emergency funding going to Christchurch, a lot of agencies are receiving less or no funding from their usual sources. It’s well understood that these funds have to be applied for each year, so as hard as it seems, these agencies (schools in your example) have no right to expect the same that they’ve always had.

So three is; Not enough information.

I’ll answer the cat question.

I would ask why you would keep the cat for a few weeks or a year if you didn’t have the intention of trying to make it a pet? Once you have that intention, you’ve made a commitment. If for some reason, the cat cannot be a viable pet for you due to its behavior or whatever, you owe to your commitment to see that the best is done for the animal. Possibly, you might try to place the animal in a no-kill shelter. As a very last resort, if the animal cannot be rehabilitated, have the animal humanely put to sleep in your presence at your vet.

I think they’re all subtle, and the most important issue is that help is help is help. But this isn’t quite complete.

A secondary issue is that cultivating expectation or dependence in someone - whatever the species or even groups and other entities - confers a kind of responsibility. You could give a small amount of help while building a great deal of trust and expectation and dependence, and then pull the rug out, and do more harm than good overall, I think - especially if you induced the dependent to pass up other offers.

I think that if you are honest and thoughtful about it, though, you will do more good than harm.

A friend of mine was quite old and got a young cat out of a shelter. The cat had a pretty good chance of outlasting him. My friend reasoned that in the short term he was improving the cats chances and life, and the long term was too uncertain either way to contraindicate adoption. I guess he was right. He died maybe 3 years later, with the cat, now a young adult, very much in the prime of life and without a home. The cat’s been having a great time with me for about 5 years now…

Thanks for the responses. In the cat scenario, I picture a person who keeps intending to cart the cat off to the shelter but is soft-hearted and so finds reasons to put it off from day to day. Glad to hear how you solved the cat issue, Napier! (When I moved to NYC I gave my cat and my car to my parents as a package deal. I’m hoping the car will outlast the cat…)

The thing about #3 is that there is no sustainability component. The best-case scenario is to set up the schools with a way for them to continue on without regular donations from outside parties so that they can be completely independent eventually. I think the ethical requirement here isn’t so much continued assistance as it is sustainability for the future.