The Ethicist: Can I Let My Friend Pay Off My Mortgages?

November 26, 2017 by Joshua
in Ethicist

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, here is my take on today’s post, “Can I Let My Friend Pay Off My Mortgages?

My closest American friend here in Japan, of more than 30 years, is worried about me and wants to pay off my mortgages. He says he doesn’t want to be paid back; he just wants to make sure I am out of debt before he dies. He is not dying, but he is 98. He has been mentioning this more and more, and says he wants to write a check the next time we meet. I never talk about this with him unless he brings up the subject. The amount he would give me would come to about 3 percent of his assets. It would have no impact on his financial needs. And frankly, it would be helpful for me.

Yet, I have a gnawing feeling that I would be taking advantage of him. Or that I have unconsciously manipulated him. But I can’t think of anything I did. I’ve never asked for or taken money from him. I got myself out of credit-card and student-loan debt — he offered to help, but I declined. My only remaining debts are my mortgages. I think he is pleased that I managed to get my finances in shape.

Even though he is 98, he is not suffering from dementia. However, he isn’t as capable of doing things as he once was, and he depends on my help more and more — with his computer and finances, and to serve as a translator.

Should I decline and feel noble? Or should I be practical and take the offer in the spirit he intends? Name Withheld

My response: As I read it, you’re second-guessing an adult not only consenting but initiating.

I don’t see an ethical issue. If there’s a problem, I see, it’s your inability to manage your emotions, exemplified in, “I have a gnawing feeling that I would be taking advantage of him. Or that I have unconsciously manipulated him.”

If you asked, I’d suggest learning to understand and work with your emotions so you don’t feel they gnaw at you uncontrollably, communicating with this man if relevant.

The New York Times response:

You don’t mention your age, but the relationship you have with this man sounds very like the relationship between a father and a son. (We’ve withheld your name but know that you’re a man.) His generous offer is in the spirit of paternal love, and your services to him, your clear concern for his interests, your scruples and your wish not to take advantage of him are like those of a loving son. You are lucky to have this relationship, as is he. He can afford to do what he proposes to do. It will allow him to express his gratitude and his friendship. It will make him happy. And it will permit you to have one less thing to worry about.

If you were preying on some emotional or physical or mental vulnerability, you’d be guilty of exploitation. But nothing in your letter suggests that. And even if the parental model isn’t quite right — even if, as sounds possible, he is a little in love with you — your reciprocated caring and affection mean that you’re not taking advantage of him. Go ahead. In accepting his gift, you’ll be making a gift of your own.


I recently spoke on the phone with an old friend from college. During the call she mentioned that her son is taking a drug for A.D.H.D. and that it really helps him focus. I know there is controversy surrounding this class of drugs, but I didn’t feel comfortable bringing that up. I assume she has looked into the pros and cons, and I know her mother is a psychiatrist. But should I mention my concerns nevertheless? Or should my concerns about seeming a busybody outweigh concerns about her son’s future health? Name Withheld

My response: Should I, should I …

Asking binary questions will get you binary answers. In other words, you’re creating a false dichotomy through your perspective. Plus you’re infantalizing yourself by asking others to take responsibility for your choices.

I propose asking open ended questions about what options you can create, what role models you can learn from, and how to act.

You may also want to ask yourself if you want to act to mollify what looks to me like a craving. I know it feels like you want to help, but it may be an impulse you can’t escape from feeling, still self-serving.

The New York Times response:

The answer to your last question is easy: No. If the only issues were being thought to be a busybody and the possibility that a child would be seriously harmed, the latter would win out. But you’d be raising this issue with a mother who has a psychiatrist parent and, presumably, another doctor writing the prescriptions. You don’t have a basis for thinking that you’re better-placed to see the risks than your friend is. So one reason you might have hesitated to say something is that you didn’t want to insult her by suggesting she was either ignorant or careless about her child’s welfare.

Still, I doubt she’d have taken affront had you said at the time, “Oh, I thought I’d read there could be bad long-term consequences with those drugs.” Your friend could have told you if she’d looked into them (or rushed off to do research if she hadn’t). The more time that passes, though, the more awkward your interjection becomes.

You can reassure yourself that parents these days are likely to Google the names of drugs prescribed for their children and look up side effects. If you do this for two of the major drugs prescribed for A.D.H.D. — methylphenidate (e.g., Concerta) and amphetamines (e.g., Adderall) — you find arguments suggesting or denying significant risks to long-term use. It’s an issue that a concerned mother would take up with a doctor. At this point, you should probably direct your attentions elsewhere.


I teach at a prestigious private art school. Every year, we take in 600 or so young people with little understanding of how the arts work as an industry. We charge a very high tuition, offer almost no scholarships and load them up with a lot of debt. Even though we claim to offer “career planning,” the illusions of our students are not addressed. Our graduates, even those with a degree in design, rarely find a job in their field. Those who do rarely last long before realizing that they are in a hopeless situation. Most have given up on art within a few years of graduation. When I encounter them, they convey a considerable amount of bitterness about student loans and the education they received. By preying on their naïveté and ignorance, I feel that we are essentially robbing our students. Some colleagues argue that we are not doing anything that Harvard or N.Y.U. isn’t doing — that we are simply a “special place for a certain kind of young adult.” I do not have tenure and have no influence in admissions or tuition policy. Without this job, I am virtually unemployable at my age. Is it wrong to take the “caveat emptor” approach and let these naïve young people continue to pay me through their student loans? Name Withheld

My response: All that text and you only ask about how to label it?

So far you haven’t considered it wrong. Others might. You might. There’s no absolute measure that nearly 8 billion people will agree on. If there were, you would have consulted it instead of a newspaper columnist.

How can you feel more comfortable about whether you consider it right or wrong? What other options do you have, if any? I would have asked such questions, which prompt self-reflection and action, enabling you to handle such situations without writing a newspaper columnist.

You sound like you’ve been doing what you ask about for years. That’s a long time to act without bearings, or unsure of them. I recommend figuring out how you feel before too long.

The New York Times response:

Having taught at Harvard and N.Y.U., I confess to thinking that the education they offer is not a matter of preying on “naïveté and ignorance.” But even if it were, the bad behavior of other institutions wouldn’t excuse that of your own. The school would do well to provide, and draw attention to, reliable information about the career prospects of graduates. It might lose some students this way, but it would gain something as well; a trail of bitter graduates is not a sound basis for seeking alumni support.

Are you obliged to take a public stand on this, at the expense of your career? You are not. Especially because it’s highly unlikely that the school will change its practices as a result. But you certainly shouldn’t mislead any students who ask you about their prospects. The trope of the “starving artist” got established for a reason.

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