The Ethicist: Can We Disinherit Our Addicted Son?

November 11, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Can We Disinherit Our Addicted Son?”.

Our son has been a heroin addict for 10 years. He has drifted in and out of homelessness and prison. We have spent a fortune on rehab, counseling, legal fees and more, which changed nothing. We love our son, but we have also painfully learned that he is an inveterate liar, will steal anything not nailed down and has an incredible capacity for manipulation. We are in the process of updating our wills to reflect this reality, and we are struggling to articulate a fair plan as to inheritances. Our other children are living normal, happy, productive lives. Under other circumstances, we would split everything equally among our children, but for our addicted son, this would be like throwing gasoline on a fire. Even the process of distributing family treasures is fraught, knowing our son would head straight to a pawnshop. We are thinking of putting his share into a trust to be used exclusively for his future health needs, rehab and, hopefully, sobriety. But again, we love our son, and it is heartbreaking to realize we are essentially leaving him nothing tangible. What is the ethical thing for us to do? Name Withheld

My response: You ask what’s ethical. Since everyone has different values, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.

Besides the problem you describe, you say you feel guilty/anxious/angry/other emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

Your question is legal/medical/other professional service. Talking to a professional will answer your questions more effectively than a newspaper columnist.

The New York Times response:

I am sorry to hear about your son. Knowing that his mistreatment of you and others is a result of an addiction he has not learned to manage can’t make his behavior any less painful to experience. It explains, but it doesn’t excuse.

And your reasoning is sound: He would probably spend any money you leave him on doing himself further harm. It’s true that the allocations in a will have an expressive aspect as well as a material one, but your love for your son would be conveyed by the consideration you are showing in setting up a trust.

We should respect the autonomy of others. Yet addiction is effectively a disease of autonomy. Treating addicts who are not in recovery as if they can make reasonable decisions is a mistake. Better to ensure that the money will be used for his genuine welfare.


I am an adjunct instructor at a small art school I will call College A. Because of the financial instability of this position, several of my colleagues and I also teach for a different school online, College B.

Throughout my time working for College B, I’ve been asked to rewrite and develop course content for its online curriculum, a great source of revenue. To develop this content, I have used my expertise from teaching previous classes, but I have always been careful to change the course so that the students have a unique experience; I believe it is my ethical obligation to create new content if I am being paid to do so. Also, the students we teach at both schools will essentially be one another’s competition upon graduation, so it is important to me that each school show distinct projects. It has never been explicitly stated by either school, but I assume that they do not want me taking content I have developed from one college and selling it to another.

Several weeks ago, I was grading final portfolios for the students in College B and noticed that their projects looked extremely similar to work I have seen from students in College A. When I looked, I saw that the professor for the class for College B was the same professor who teaches the course at College A. It appears that my colleague developed the curriculum for one college, and instead of developing something new, self-plagiarized and sold duplicate content. My colleague’s employment at both colleges precedes mine, so I am not sure which college the colleague originally created the content for and which college received the plagiarized content.

To me, there are several ethical issues here: First, self-plagiarism or plagiarism is grounds for expelling a student; I suspect this would also be true for teachers. Second, it is my understanding that what is created for one school belongs to the school, so this is copyright infringement. Third, tuition for each of the schools is different, but students are getting the same product at two different prices. Fourth, when they apply for jobs, students are competing with what they believe is a portfolio of unique projects, but they are not. When we homogenize the curriculum of education for this degree, we lose the diversity of thought that comes from new pedagogical experiences. Finally, online education in my industry is growing, and my colleague seems to be the first one in the door developing course content for all the schools; I suspect this will continue if the colleague is not stopped.

What is my ethical obligation here? I have a good rapport with both of my bosses, but if I were to report my colleague, it would be obvious it was me. I have been paid in the past to fix and refine courses that this colleague developed for the online curriculum for College B, content that was also self-plagiarized and raises questions about quality too. If I were to report this colleague, I would potentially be securing additional employment for myself to rewrite the courses, which could be viewed as self-serving. What’s a prof to do? Name Withheld

My response: Labeling something doesn’t change your situation. You probably want to resolve it more than label it. I suggest that more than a New York Times columnist labeling something for you, you’d benefit from developing the social and emotional skills to resolve the situation and improve your emotional well-being. You’ll lose the excuse to say, “But the New York Times told me to” but gain the ability to resolve these inevitable parts of life without needing others’ help. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. Experience is the best way to learn these things, I’ve found, as have millions of others. I recommend accepting the missteps you’ll make, looking at them as learning experiences, and using them to learn and grow.

What should you do? I recommend:

  1. Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
  2. Figuring what skills you have and can create
  3. Creating as many options as you can
  4. Considering what outcomes each option will result in
  5. Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
  6. Implement the option you like most
  7. Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise

The New York Times response:

It isn’t easy to keep clear about issues of intellectual property, as your letter shows. Generally speaking, when teachers at one institution join the faculty of another, whether as a visitor or as a permanent member, they are free to use a curriculum that they have developed, unless the first institution has acquired copyright to it. One college hires a Milton scholar from another college, and the syllabus of the Milton seminar she has developed over the years comes with her. Nobody sees this as a problem. And given that there are some terrific and widely used textbooks, plenty of students study the same curriculum at different institutions.

Indeed, the whole idea of self-plagiarism is distinctly unhelpful. Certainly, there can be issues of property and of contract here. If you create an intellectual product, it may be wrong to sell it to someone because you’ve already sold it to someone else or because you otherwise agreed not to do so — or simply because there’s a settled expectation that you won’t. (It’s perhaps worth noting that this problem wouldn’t have arisen if your colleague were afforded a position that was properly paid and that, in consequence, discouraged him from teaching elsewhere.) But scholars routinely rework their essays or lectures into books, and we call that process road-testing, not self-plagiarism. We shouldn’t even speak of self-plagiarism when students submit the same work in different classes: The sin here doesn’t involve intellectual theft; it involves dishonesty and sometimes laziness.

But there’s a set of serious questions that you’re pointing to. As large-scale online education develops, with less and less interaction between students and teachers, the value of a course is going to depend mostly on the materials associated with it and the instructional tools that guide students through those materials. People developing materials for these courses will be selling them once, producing copyrighted material that will often belong to the course provider. Legal issues of defining what counts as breaching the copyright will naturally arise. In such a world, if two online courses created by the same person look very similar, valid legal complaints may arise.

Still, it strikes me that the risk of intellectual homogenization here is easily overstated. This might be a concern if one professor or course truly dominated a field, which is unlikely, and even at art school, the same assignment is likely to produce widely different responses. And students might be better off using a great curriculum that is also used at a variety of other institutions than a lousy curriculum created just for them.

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