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US President Donald Trump speaks about the tax reform legislation in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington
Smart or unethical? What does philosophy say about avoiding taxes? SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Is tax avoidance ethical? Asking for a friend

Personal taxes featured heavily in the final presidential debate before the Nov. 3 election.

While Joe Biden boasted of releasing “22 years of tax returns,” President Donald Trump addressed reports that he paid as little as $750 in annual federal taxes. “I prepaid millions and millions of dollars,” he countered. It was a different strategy from four years earlier, when Trump in a debate against Hillary Clinton declared himself “smart” for not paying taxes.

Though there is general public consensus on the illegality of tax evasion – the act of deliberately not paying taxes that are due – much more variance exists in how the public evaluates and scrutinizes public leaders’ tax avoidance strategies that seek to minimize the amount an individual pays through legal loopholes. A poll taken just before the 2016 election found that nearly half of Americans agreed with Trump that paying no taxes is “smart.” But two-thirds said it is “selfish” and 61% declared it to be “unpatriotic.”

Rights and responsibilities

As a scholar who studies business ethics, I see these differences in how individuals view tax avoidance as being dependent on a person’s ethical foundations. Ethical foundations are the principles, norms and values that guide individual or group beliefs and behaviors. They can shape what people believe is important – such as fairness, care for oneself or others, loyalty and liberty – and guide judgments about what is right, or ethical, and what is wrong, or unethical.

Philosophers have debated these ethical foundations for centuries, coming up broadly with three different perspectives that are worth exploring in the context of tax avoidance strategies.

Thinkers from Immanuel Kant to John Rawls have offered what has been called the deontological argument. This emphasizes ethics based on adherence to rules, regulations, laws and norms. Such an approach suggests that “what is right” is defined as that which is most in line with an individual’s responsibility and duty toward society.

Meanwhile, utilitarian philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham put forward an argument that recognizes the costs and benefits, or even trade-offs, in pursuing what is right. Under this belief system, called consequentialism, behaviors are ethical if the outcome is beneficial to the greatest number of people, even if it comes at a cost.

A third perspective comes in the shape of what is called the virtue ethical foundation that is associated with Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. This suggests that what is right is that which elevates the individual’s virtues and efforts toward moral excellence – defined by both avoiding vices and striving to do good. In this way, ethical behavior is that which enables the individual to achieve his or her most excellent moral self.

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On morals and money

When applied to the tax avoidance strategies of individuals, each perspective offers a unique understanding of what is right.

An individual who adopts the deontological perspective likely evaluates a public leader’s tax avoidance strategies – and that of others – with less scrutiny. As long as an individual follows the tax code, and acts legally, the tax avoidance strategies are likely to be viewed as ethical.

In contrast, a consequentialist is likely to evaluate tax avoidance strategies by also looking at how those taxes could have been used to benefit society – by paying for schools and hospitals, for example. When one individual – be it Trump or any other person – avoids taxes, it increases the costs experienced by everyone else while also decreasing the benefits experienced by society as a whole. However, the cost to society in terms of lesser funding for programs and services supported by tax dollars may be even greater when a wealthy individual avoids taxes, given what is likely a highter tax responsibility than that of individuals with modest incomes. Thus, consequentialist individuals may well conclude that tax avoidance strategies are unethical.

An individual who adopts the virtue perspective of Aristotle might evaluate tax avoidance strategies in the context of an individual’s other virtuous behaviors. If someone avoids taxes but provides financial support to other institutions or entities that are meaningful to the tax avoider but also produce benefits for society, then the virtuous individual may view this behavior with less disdain. For example, someone may use tax avoidance strategies and direct some wealth to provide funding directly to an academic health care center for cancer research. But if that person employs tax avoidance strategies in the absence of any other virtuous behaviors, then the tax avoidance is likely to be seen as unethical.

Social influencers

So whether tax avoidance strategies are ethical depends on the ethical foundations of the person judging such actions.

But when it comes to Trump and other public figures, there is an additional ethical concern at play here. Public leaders are evaluated not just on their own personal morality, but also by what influence their behaviors could have on others. If a public leader avoids taxes, it might signal to the public to do the same, which could have greater consequences.

As such, the question of whether tax avoidance strategies are ethical depends not only on an individual’s ethical foundation, but also on the individual’s ability, and desire, to influence others to do the same.

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