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Everyday Ethics – Can You Stop Buying The Big Issue?

by The Ethics Centre
18 February 2016
Once a week I buy a copy of The Big Issue from Geoff, a homeless man outside my office. We’ve gotten to know each other quite well – sometimes I buy him a coffee and we catch up. Lately though, I’ve lost several large clients and I’ve taken out a new mortgage, so money is tight. Geoff is far worse off than I am, so it's a bit rich to say I "can't afford it" anymore. All the same, I do want to save money and I’m cutting back in lots of areas. Would it be selfish of me to stop buying the magazine?

This reminds me of Peter Singer's arguments about poverty. He argues that we're obliged to give any wealth that is surplus to our essential needs to the poor. His argument sets a high bar though, and not everyone agrees with his claim. It does capture why you think it's "a bit rich" (pun intended?) to stop buying the magazine – your surplus income could be used to keep Geoff alive. 

But another possibility is that your duty to Geoff involves respecting him as a human being, and helping where possible. You could do this in other ways than by buying his magazine. Perhaps you could offer him the use of bathrooms in your building. Even engaging in friendly conversation treats Geoff with dignity. Treating a homeless person with respect without giving them money might be preferable to paying them as a way to avoid interaction. 

You also need to consider if Geoff is your friend or not, as we have special responsibilities to our friends. If he is, you should talk with him about your situation, even if it's awkward. Honesty and frankness are virtues of friendship that Geoff is entitled to expect from you as his friend. 

In short, no, you don't have to keep buying Geoff's magazine, but if you respect him as a friend, you should explain why. 

I play a weekly game of squash with a friend. A few months ago he asked me to introduce him to the game as I’ve been playing for years. Until recently, I've been happy to play, even though it's no challenge for me. But last week, a workmate who I know plays competitively asked if we could set up a regular hitting time. I've only got time for one match a week. Can I ditch my friend so that I can have a more enjoyable match? 

This is a tricky one. One the one hand, you don't owe it to your friend to keep making a weekly appointment indefinitely. On the other, it could be hurtful to replace your standing appointment with the same activity, only with another person.

Let's start with your obligations. If you've got a match booked with your friend next week, I think you should stick to it. While it's not always unethical to break dates with friends, you should have a good reason. Otherwise, are you really treating your friend as a friend, or as an item of entertainment? 

With that said, the primary purpose of your arrangement was to teach and play squash. You were motivated by joint interest in an activity, not quality time as friends. If you've lost interest, it strikes me as acceptable to stop playing squash with him, although it's not the most friendly thing to do. 

Given that you are friends, you should have some interest in his happiness. If part of his happiness comes from squash, you might want to try to find him an alternate partner. If this isn't possible, perhaps play a competitive match once a fortnight, and play with your friend on the alternate fortnight. 

If you've got a question or dilemma you'd like ‪#EverydayEthics to review – email us at and we'll post an anonymous selection on our blog this year. 

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