Robert McGee has been conducting surveys on how people perceive the ethics of tax evasion in different circumstances for many years, and he has written up the results of these surveys in a number of papers. One of the remarkable things he finds is that, by and large, people believe that you’re obligated to pay your taxes even in the most extreme circumstances — for instance Jews in Nazi Germany paying taxes to fund their own murders.

Typically, he will distribute surveys to a group of people asking them to say, on a scale of 1 to 7, how much they agree or disagree with statements that begin “tax evasion is ethical…” and end with circumstances like the following:

  1. if tax rates are too high
  2. even if tax rates are not too high because the government is not entitled to take as much as it is taking from me
  3. if the tax system is unfair
  4. if a large portion of the money collected is wasted
  5. even if most of the money collected is spent wisely
  6. if a large portion of the money collected is spent on projects that I morally disapprove of
  7. even if a large portion of the money collected is spent on worthy projects
  8. if a large portion of the money collected is spent on projects that do not benefit me
  9. even if a large portion of the money collected is spent on projects that do benefit me
  10. if everyone is doing it
  11. if a significant portion of the money collected winds up in the pockets of corrupt politicians or their families and friends
  12. if the probability of getting caught is low
  13. if some of the proceeds go to support a war that I consider to be unjust
  14. if I can’t afford to pay
  15. even if it means that if I pay less, others will have to pay more
  16. if I were a Jew living in Nazi Germany in 1940
  17. if the government discriminates against me because of my religion, race or ethnic background
  18. if the government imprisons people for their political opinions

I took some time to go through his papers and pull out the answers to two of these questions in particular (#s 13 and 16). Unfortunately, the questions were not always worded the same way (once in a while the question was phrased with the double-negative “Tax evasion would not be unethical if…”, sometimes the year on the Nazi question was given as 1935 instead of 1940, and one time the phrasing of that question was entirely different). In one case, instead of a scale from 1 to 7, the scale was from 6 to 0 (I have adjusted those numbers in the table below to conform with a 1-to-7 scale).

Below are the results, showing the number of people in each survey, the average answers to questions 13 and 16, and the average result across all of the questions in the survey. Note that some of the surveys did not include all of the questions, so these averages are not necessarily comparable across surveys. It is also possible that one or more of the surveys in the table incorporate one or more of the other surveys under their umbrella (it was sometimes hard to tell from the papers themselves):

Survey #NQ13 (War)Q16 (Nazi)Average
1714.253.594.94
21195.594.995.62
36386.355.046.10
41076.383.125.57
5904.005.25
61735.245.36
7604.535.06
8795.034.235.55
91344.454.504.59
101144.94.05.2
11425.225.155.35
122563.34.3
132794.63.94.7
141383.644.27
152026.415.266.12
163006.394.956.15
17414.753.934.94
181733.64.4
192056.005.516.03
202184.84.15.4
211964.224.72
222326.106.00
231405.115.245.67
242335.194.905.62
251774.764.904.57
264405.925.215.78
271873.634.94
281864.275.03
291775.224.85.27
301176.025.475.83
313154.794.934.78
321614.063.674.31
33314.262.244.86
341324.664.895.03
35793.763.854.14
36266.085.546.45
371313.674.855.06
38254.573.734.73
391684.872.795.01
40165.003.005.44
413195.464.76*5.38
426204.494.444.66
433005.064.875.54

The surveys:

  1. 71 business school graduate students and upper level undergraduates at the Georg-Simon-Ohm Fachhochschule in Nuernberg, Germany (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Comparative Study of Germany and the United States)
  2. 119 business students at Saint Thomas University in Miami (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Comparative Study of Germany and the United States)
  3. 638 students “at a large college in the western United States, 562 of which were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (Ethics, Tax Evasion and Religion: A Survey of Opinion of Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints & Ethics, Tax Evasion and Gender: Empirical Studies of Opinion in Utah and 14 Countries in the Western Hemisphere & Ethics, Tax Evasion, Gender and Age: An Empirical Study of Utah Opinion & The Ethics of Tax Evasion: An Empirical Study of Utah Opinion)
  4. 107 undergraduates at a branch of Touro College in New York (Jewish Perspectives on the Ethics of Tax Evasion)
  5. 90 advanced undergraduate business students at Hong Kong Baptist University (A Comparative Study on Perceived Ethics of Tax Evasion: Hong Kong vs. the United States & The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Survey of Accounting, Business and Economics Students in Hong Kong)
  6. 173 advanced undergraduate business students at Barry University in the United States (A Comparative Study on Perceived Ethics of Tax Evasion: Hong Kong vs. the United States)
  7. 60 business students at a university in Hong Kong (An Empirical Study of Tax Evasion Ethics in Hong Kong)
  8. 79 members of the Academy of International Business, the International Management Development Association, and the International Academy of Business Disciplines (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Survey of International Business Academics)
  9. 134 graduate students and upper division undergraduates at the Romanian-American University in Bucharest (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Survey of Romanian Business Students and Faculty & The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Comparative Study of Bosnian and Romanian Opinion)
  10. 114 graduate and upper division undergraduate business and law students at Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Survey of Guatemalan Opinion & Tax Evasion and Business Ethics: A Comparative Study of Guatemala and the USA)
  11. 42 business students at Seton Hall University in New Jersey (Tax Evasion and Business Ethics: A Comparative Study of Guatemala and the USA)
  12. 256 graduate and advanced undergraduate business & economics, law, and philosophy students at Hubei University and Wuhan Industrial College (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Survey of Law, Business and Philosophy Students in China)
  13. 279 economics students at the Poznan University of Economics in Poland (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Survey of Business Students in Poland)
  14. 138 graduate and undergraduate students at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing (An Empirical Study of Tax Evasion Ethics in China)
  15. 202 accounting majors at a large college in Utah (Ethics and Tax Evasion: A Comparative Study of Accounting and Business Student Opinion in Utah & Opinions on the Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Comparative Study of Utah and New Jersey & Ethics and Tax Evasion: A Comparative Study of Utah and Florida Opinion)
  16. 300 (non-accounting) business majors at a large college in Utah (Ethics and Tax Evasion: A Comparative Study of Accounting and Business Student Opinion in Utah)
  17. 41 undergraduate accounting students at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand in the elite English language business program (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Case Study of Opinion in Thailand)
  18. 173 graduate and advanced undergraduate business and economics students at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Survey of Chinese Business and Economics Students)
  19. 205 business students in a university in Colombia (Is Tax Evasion Ethical? An Empirical Study of Colombian Opinion & Tax Evasion and Ethics: A Comparative Study of the USA and Four Latin American Countries)
  20. 218 graduate and advanced undergraduate business, economics, theology, philosophy and law students at Austral University (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Survey of Law and Business Students in Argentina)
  21. 196 university students in Taiwan (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Comparative Study of Taiwan and the USA)
  22. 232 university students in the United States (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Comparative Study of Taiwan and the USA)
  23. 140 university students, mostly business students, in Ecuador (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: An Empirical Study of Ecuador & Tax Evasion and Ethics: A Comparative Study of the USA and Four Latin American Countries)
  24. 233 university students in Puerto Rico (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: Two Empirical Studies of Puerto Rican Opinion & Tax Evasion and Ethics: A Comparative Study of the USA and Four Latin American Countries)
  25. 177 business students at a university in the Dominican Republic (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: An Empirical Study of Dominican Republic Opinion & Tax Evasion and Ethics: A Comparative Study of the USA and Four Latin American Countries)
  26. 440 university students in the United States (Tax Evasion and Ethics: A Comparative Study of the USA and Four Latin American Countries)
  27. 187 graduate and advanced undergraduate business and economics students at the University of Macau (When is Tax Evasion Ethical? An Empirical Study of Macau Opinion & The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Comparative Study of Guangzhou (Southern China) and Macau Opinion)
  28. 186 undergraduate students of Zhongshan University, China (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Comparative Study of Guangzhou (Southern China) and Macau Opinion)
  29. 177 business students at three universities in New Jersey (Opinions on the Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Comparative Study of Utah and New Jersey)
  30. 117 accounting students at a large university in Miami, Florida (Ethics and Tax Evasion: A Comparative Study of Utah and Florida Opinion)
  31. 315 faculty, graduate and undergraduate students at La Trobe University, Victoria University, the Melbourne campus of Central Queensland University, RMIT University and the Caulfield campus of Monash University (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Survey of Australian Opinion)
  32. 161 graduate students and advanced undergraduate students majoring in business (finance and accounting) and economics at Odessa Mehnikov National University and Odessa State Economics University (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: An Empirical Study of Business and Economics Student Opinion in Ukraine & Tax Evasion in Ukraine: A Survey of Opinion & Ethics and Tax Evasion in Ukraine: An Empirical Study)
  33. 31 French executive MBA students (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: An Empirical Study of French EMBA Students)
  34. 132 third and fourth year undergraduate business and economics students at the University of Sarajevo in Bosnia (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Survey of Bosnian Opinion & The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Comparative Study of Bosnian and Romanian Opinion)
  35. 79 students at KIMEP, a western style university in Almaty, Kazakhstan (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: An Empirical Study of Opinion in Kazakhstan)
  36. 26 students at an Episcopal seminary in the southern United States (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Survey of Episcopal Seminarian Opinion)
  37. 131 master’s degree accounting students at governmental universities in Iran (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Case Study of Opinion in Iran)
  38. 25 executive business masters students in Mali (An Empirical Study of Attitudes Toward the Ethics of Tax Evasion in Mali)
  39. 168 business & economics students at the Technical University of Kosice (Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Survey of Slovak Opinion)
  40. 16 philosophy and theology students at the University of Presov (Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Survey of Slovak Opinion)
  41. 319 students at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas, the majority of whom were Hispanic (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Survey of Hispanic Opinion) * For question 16, this survey used “Tax evasion would be ethical if I were a victim of an oppressive regime or dictatorship similar to that in Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany.”
  42. 620 accounting, business and economics and law students in New Zealand (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: An Empirical Study of New Zealand Opinion)
  43. 300 faculty, graduate and undergraduate students at Tallinn University of Technology (The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Survey of Estonian Opinion)

Some things that jumped out at me while I was reviewing the data:

  • In two cases, #25 & #31, the 177 business students at a university in the Dominican Republic and the 315 faculty and students in Australia, the Nazi example actually scored worse than average — in other words, survey responders thought that a Jew in Nazi Germany had a worse excuse for tax evasion than the majority of other questions on the survey (in fact, the Australians rated that excuse 15 out of 18).
  • In comparison, the “unjust war” example was considered a worse-than-average excuse for tax evasion in ten of the 43 surveys. Eight of those ten surveys were done in the United States (the other two were the Dominican Republic and Australia). Only 13 of the 43 surveys were done in the United States, so this seems to indicate that the United States is a particularly hostile place for the war tax resistance argument.
  • The survey respondents most hostile to the idea that Jews in Nazi Germany could ethically resist their taxes were 26 students at an Episcopal seminary in the southern United States, who gave them a 5.54 out of 7.
  • The group most hostile to war tax resistance was 202 accounting majors at a large college in Utah.
  • Six surveyed groups gave war tax resistance an average score indicating that war tax resistance was more ethical than not (<4). The strongest show of support was a 3.3 average score from 256 students at Hubei University and Wuhan Industrial College in China. The other five groups included two groups of students from Beijing, one from Macau, one from Kazakhstan, and one from Iran. These groups typically had lower scores in general across the board, with the exception of the Iranian students, who had a 5.06 average score but a 3.67 score for the war tax resistance question.
  • Only ten surveyed groups, on average, agreed more than disagreed with the idea that Jews should not feel ethically obligated to fund their own extermination. One group was evenly split, and 24 surveys showed that on average, people felt Jews were obligated to pay Nazi taxes.

In the third section of the second book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle puts some flesh on the bones of the assertion he made in book one that a virtuous person is a person who takes pleasure in acting virtuously.

Virtue doesn’t consist in doing the right thing even though it is unpleasant to do so, but in taking a pleasure in virtue that outweighs any incidental unpleasantness of any particular virtuous act.

So for instance, although a courageous person is pained by fright in a frightful situation, he takes pleasure from his bravery in standing his ground and rising to the occasion, and this pleasure outweighs the pain. For a coward, the pain of fear outweighs the pleasure of bravery.

Aristotle believes that it is important to get proper education and training from a young age in order “both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought.” An example of this sort of training is punishment, which associates vice with pain in a Pavlovian way.

Pleasure and pain are primary motivators, and so investigating them is very important to the ethicist: “it is by reason of pleasures and pains that men become bad, by pursuing and avoiding these — either the pleasures and pains they ought not, or when they ought not, or as they ought not, or by going wrong in one of the other similar ways that may be distinguished.”

Aside from pleasurable/painful, two other motivators are noble/base and advantageous/injurious. But pleasure/pain is the important one, since noble & advantageous things are typically also pleasurable, and base & injurious things are typically also painful.

To sum up, “the whole concern both of virtue and of political science is with pleasures and pains; for the man who uses these well will be good, he who uses them badly bad.”

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

browse«»
Find Out More!

For more information on the topic or topics below (organized as “topic → subtopic → sub-subtopic”), click on any of the ♦ symbols to see other pages on this site that cover the topic. Or browse the site’s topic index at the “Outline” page.