The Ethicist Tells Lesbian Couple It’s Perfectly Okay To Exploit Government’s Definition of ‘Single’

Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, and Maine voters’ refusal to legalize same-sex marriage, a lesbian couple finds itself able to qualify for some government aid by applying as “single,” even though the two women are certainly not single, and together would make more money than the poverty line cutoff for such benefits. Is it kosher to exploit the government’s own purposeful discrimination?

Absofrickinlutely, says Times ethicist Randy Cohen. But not because the government discriminates. Rather, you qualify under existing regulations, so go ahead and heed the benefit: “There’s no ethical obstacle to her doing so. As you realize to your dismay, in this context “single” is a technical term with a precise meaning defined by law. Your partner’s duty is to meet the criteria for aid and fill out those applications honestly. If, for the purposes of, for example, health-insurance subsidies, the agency administering the program regards her as single, she has every right — ethical and legal — to apply as such. This decision has nothing to do with the government’s compensating her for rough treatment or being evenhanded or mitigating any injustice marriage law imposes on you both. Nor could you argue that because federal marriage law discriminates against same-sex couples, denying them equal treatment, you have an ethical right to balance the scales by cutting the line at the post office or punching a homophobe in the snoot, however appealing those actions might seem. But you have no duty to set stricter standards for such programs than the law itself. Similarly, although I favor a more progressive income tax, one that might compel a nice fellow like me to write a bigger check, I am not morally obliged to send the I.R.S. more money than current law prescribes.”