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I was recently chosen as one of multiple winners of a $10,000 scholarship. It was one that was open to anyone, and the selection criteria was just a resume, recommendation letter, and personal statement about why you are applying. The scholarship has no specific mission (i.e. "to help students who cannot afford college"). In my personal statement, I wrote about how I wish to use this scholarship to purchase supplies in aid of my research.

Following my initial joy after finding out I was selected, I read through some of the biographies of the past winners. After doing so, however, I'm now in a conundrum: I don't know whether it'd be moral for me to accepted this award. My reasons are as follow:

  1. All of the past winners seemed to come from low-income families and/or overcame major hardships. They've explained how they wish to use the money to afford tuition and books that they otherwise couldn't afford.

  2. I, on the other hand, am already able to afford my education due to a past academic scholarship. Furthermore, I'm only hoping to use the money for my research, which I believe is not as important of a reason compared to someone who's trying to simply afford the chance to attend college.

For these reasons, I feel that, should I accept my scholarship, I might be taking the money away from someone who needs it more. The scholarship would play a critical role for my project, which I will not be able to complete without. However, not completing it will not impact my grades in any way - it's only a lost opportunity (albeit a big one for me).

Therefore, I'm uncertain on whether or not it'd be right for me to accept the scholarship. Given my circumstances, I wonder if I should be morally obligated to reject this offer.


Note: I am not sure if this question belongs here but after reading some of the questions on this Stack Exchange, I believe it is okay. If not, please let me know.

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    @JosephWeissman Why so blithely urge him down the path of selfishness? It's a legitimate question. If someone else would genuinely benefit a lot more from that money, and he's unselfish enough to seriously consider a utilitarian perspective that does not favor himself, then he's in an interesting situation. I think it first depends on to whom the money would go if it didn't go to him, and on the greatness of that person's need. It also depends on how truly important this project is, either to OP or towards advancing human knowledge in general, and on OP's likely career trajectory.
    – causative
    Mar 14 at 6:28
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    Belongs to academia.stackexchange.com
    – RodolfoAP
    Mar 14 at 7:17
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    No. Most decisions are not right or wrong in isolation, only as part of a larger context. Should you decline the scholarship you have no control over who it would go to. If the selection body selected you it may well select somebody else like you again. Nor do you know their motives and justifications for doing so, you simply do not have all the information to decide who needs what "more". On the other hand, should you accept the scholarship you get to decide how to spend it. If you wish to help students who cannot afford tuition and books over your project use the money to do so.
    – Conifold
    Mar 14 at 8:55
  • @causative evaluating most of those factors seems subjective or at least impractical. I’m genuinely not sure there’s a concrete answerable question here outside of “am I going to feel like a sucker for turning down a relatively-modest unearned advantage?” Which, yes, you might
    – Joseph Weissman
    Mar 14 at 15:18
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    I see the feeling you have about this as to be celebrated. My suggestion would be to make the resolution to pay it forward - use the opportunity to advance, but file away a debt to help others who need support to advance innthe future. Effective Altruism recognises that there are benefits to using your resources in a way you can scrutinise and check aligns with your values, which you can find a way to do in the future.
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 15 at 0:15
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Let me quote one of your statements.

The scholarship would play a critical role for my project, which I will not be able to complete without.

This statement of yours has significance in deciding whether your act is ethical or not. We should not forget the saying, 'time and tide waits for none'. So, your act is ethical.

But if you had given any wrong information for getting that scholarship it would certainly be unethical.

If you are feeling you are in a dilemma, you could do one thing, accept the scholarship and after your studies save some money for the betterment of the needy. Though not unethical, if you are feeling so, relinquish it without thinking much about it.

You may feel regretted later if the scholarship providers write off the amount you declined, without giving it to a needy person.

The following statement of yours also shows that there is a possibility of regret in future.

However, not completing it will not impact my grades in any way - it's only a lost opportunity (albeit a big one for me).

Since there are no cheats on your part, this is ethical.

Moreover, refusing a scholarship without clarification is often an insult, and it is never ethical.

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  • Thank you for taking the time to respond. It has helped me consider and understand my situation a lot better. Unfortunately I don't have enough points to upvote you, but I've accepted your answer :) Mar 14 at 23:58
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Not all ethical questions have a nice tidy answer. I think this is an example. You have no choice but to make a choice. But that does not mean there is an absolutely right choice. Arguments may be advanced for either choice. But none of the arguments totally refutes the opposing side. Make your choice knowing that ambiguity is sometimes unavoidable, and be satisfied with that.

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You are committing a fallacy: You assume there are only two choices.

This scholarship should make it possible for you to finish your studies faster or better, make good money earlier or make more money, and then use your extra money to support the next person. Everyone benefits.

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