The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on whether to assist a family member when they want to watch conspiracy-mongering videos.
I am 50. My father and I have not been especially close for all of my adult life because of his inability to communicate or relate to me, to others or to the world in general in a meaningful way. He and my mother separated before I was 2. He was occasionally abusive with her. Decades ago, when he was having some acute mental health issues, there was apparently talk of schizophrenia, but he abandoned conventional mental health care and ran off to a monastery instead. Eventually, he returned and held down a good job and lived his life, but there has always been either the threat or presence of his mental illness.
Delusions, psychosis, idées fixes, persecution complex, whatever: To some extent it has always been there. Sometimes it would manifest as raging verbal abuse and threats of violence, sometimes as just an obsessive need to talk about things I don’t believe in or that are otherwise meaningless, but it was always impossible to get past them without conflict of some sort. He’s also deep into almost every malignant conspiracy theory you can think of. As you can imagine, this has made any sort of close relationship impossible, and we’ve gone between careful, infrequent contact and outright estrangement.
As he has aged, his danger and menace have pretty much disappeared, and he has had health issues. Now he’s just a sick, frail old man. I helped with his cancer treatment, and he was very appreciative and generally a good patient, and we eventually settled back to our old routine. He can be a very kind, gentle, humorous and generous person. But now he has had a stroke, and he basically can’t speak, read or write. There’s nobody else to help him. So I’m seeing him more than I have in decades, taking time off work and helping every day with speech therapy, email, banking, shopping, medical correspondence and video visits. But here’s the problem: He’s getting bored and wants help navigating to the various websites (which he can’t read anyway) and YouTube channels that push all this ridiculous, hateful nonsense. Anti-masker “plandemic”? “Globalist” world takeover? Stop the steal? 9/11 an inside job? Sandy Hook massacre was faked? Yes, and then some. He can’t find any of this without my help, and I just can’t bring myself to help him here.
Can I refuse to help him access information he desires but which I find morally objectionable? Or is he just a frail but crazy old man who doesn’t have long to live, so let’s humor him because it’s harmless and it will make him happy? Name Withheld
So we’ve got a stroke patient with aphasia, a history of psychiatric difficulties and a child — a child whose devotion to him has surmounted many years of distance and estrangement. You are understandably reluctant to have anything to do with these sites and channels. If your father were not so diminished, and real conversation were possible, you could just tell him that you thought his cherished feeds were propagating dangerous nonsense, and that you’d have nothing to do with them.
There are many reasons this stuff is troubling, including the strange mirror game their purveyors enact: They peddle hoaxes that warn of hoaxes, scams that warn of scams. They dupe their victims by cautioning them not to be duped. Yet our main concerns about these digital toxins are about what they do to people and what they encourage people to do. When it comes to your father, plainly, the first is a lost cause and the second is a nonstarter. He’s irretrievably wedded to these delusions, but he’s no longer in a position either to spread or to act on them. And I’m guessing that if you offered him other online entertainments, he’d be less satisfied with them — otherwise you wouldn’t be writing about the quandary. The main consideration is that you find this toxic stew of misinformation disturbing: You don’t want to spend time with it.
Nor do you have an obligation to help your father do so. You’ve already gone above and beyond. But if watching conspiracy-mongering videos is what he needs to pass his hours in relative psychic comfort, making that possible would be an act of filial love. Just mute it when you’re with him: Caretakers must take care of themselves too.
In 2020, my friend’s employer set up a GoFundMe account for the employees affected by the company’s shutdown during the pandemic. Later that year the employer distributed the proceeds of the campaign to its employees. At year’s end, the GoFundMe payment was reported as consulting income on Form 1099-NEC, while wages were properly reported on Form W-2. Putting through the GoFundMe payments as consulting income resulted in tax liabilities for the employees: taxable income, self-employment tax, underpayment penalty and estimated tax payments. I am a retired C.P.A., but because I did not specialize in personal income tax, I looked for guidance on the I.R.S. and GoFundMe websites, and I really didn’t find any. I do not believe the GoFundMe donors or the Internal Revenue Code intend to tax these gifts (which are below the $15,000 limit and would be exempt from the federal gift tax). My friend has asked me to do nothing. I would like to write to the I.R.S. anonymously and ask them to look into it, not just for my friend but also for the co-workers who may fear for their jobs and can ill afford to pay unwarranted taxes. I want to respect my friend’s very strong wishes based on her work relationships, etc., but I also feel that an innocent error has harmed low-wage workers. May I contact the I.R.S. anonymously and reveal the name of the employer if they respond? Name Withheld
I’m no tax expert, but if you’re right, the firm’s accountants slipped up in treating the payments as having been made by the employer rather than by the GoFundMe donors, and correcting the error would be the right thing to do. What puzzles me is that your friend is evidently worried about raising the issue. All she has to say is: I have a friend who is an accountant, and she thinks this probably shouldn’t have been reported as consulting income but as a gift. Or she could talk with her colleagues and a group of them could raise the issue with the relevant manager. There’s something wrong about a company that would penalize someone for doing so.
I certainly hope it isn’t a sign that the company has mishandled other matters — like whatever financial assistance it may have received from the federal pandemic-relief programs. There are two reasons that you shouldn’t report your concerns to the I.R.S., however. The first is that you don’t know enough. You can’t be sure why this happened, and so you can’t be sure that you won’t end up casting suspicion on your friend and damaging her relationships at work. A second reason is that the person who gave you this information asked you not to act on it. You could make the case to her that no harm would come to her were the I.R.S. to make an inquiry, and that, were matters set right, her co-workers would receive the full value of what was meant for them. But you shouldn’t proceed without getting her permission to do so. Otherwise, you will have betrayed a confidence and betrayed a friend.
Kwame Anthony Appiahteaches 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@example.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)