Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, ”Should I Lend Money to My Irresponsible Parents?”
My parents mismanaged their finances to the point of bankruptcy several years ago and are now in pretty significant mortgage arrears. Foreclosure looms. They seem to believe that $4,000 or $5,000 will “catch them up.” Their monthly fixed-retirement income of over $6,000 should be fine to sustain them, but not with their uncontrolled spending and inability to face reality. The timing of this is about to coincide with a moderately expensive kitchen remodel at our own house. Should we write them a check for $4,500 and feel guilty about our expenditures on things like countertops, or allow them to face the consequences of their financial decisions? I love my parents and hate to see them suffer, but I’d rather help them in a sustainable way than continue to throw money at the old world they refuse to leave. Is this selfish, judgmental, beside the point? NAME WITHHELD
My answer: “What should I do?” “Should I feel guilty?” “Am I selfish?”
You’re an adult asking what you should do in relationships with other adults? Do you realize the irony of you claiming them unable to face reality as you’re asking strangers about your longest relationships, about which you know more than anyone?
What are your values? You have some conflict. Why don’t you work it out for yourself? If you have someone tell you what to do or think, how does that help you next time? Isn’t that your conflict with responding to your parents—that helping them once won’t help them sustainably?
If you don’t want to feel guilty, don’t feel guilty. If you don’t know how to manage your emotions so you don’t feel guilty, you can learn.
You can figure this out. Just like your parents can figure out how to manage their money, you can learn to figure out how to behave.
The New York Times answer:
Jack Shafer: Either path you take will be ethical. If you give your parents some tough love and say, Look, you’re not my dependents, I can’t keep on writing checks for you — that’s ethical. If you decide, My parents gave me so much, they’re in trouble, I know that if I don’t write them a check, the problems will never end — that’s probably ethical, too, to continue to support your parents.
Amy Bloom: The first thing I would give the letter writer is permission to fix up their kitchen. I don’t think that has anything to do with anything, except to show that they probably could afford to write a check for $4,500 to help out the parents. But the letter writer has reason to believe that it’s not going to be this one time; this is a pattern, not an isolated incident. There is a conversation that needs to happen with the parents, because doing nothing, or saying, “Good luck, folks,” as their house is foreclosed upon, is going to be very problematic. The letter writer will most likely end up being involved later, when the situation has gotten even worse. If you love your parents, you probably should have had these conversations a little sooner.
If there doesn’t seem to be any cognitive impairment causing them to mismanage their finances — in other words, they’re just people who like to have a good time and spend their money and have not come to terms with their smaller income — you might want to hire a financial adviser and say to your parents: “Folks, I love you, you are facing a financial problem and even if I give you this check now, I know we’re going to be in this predicament again. I would really like you to let me help you with this. Let’s get a professional involved.” Now, the parents might say, “Why don’t you just write us a check and butt out, kid?” But in terms of the effort on the part of the letter writer, that’s the ethical route for me.
Kenji Yoshino: If we know that the parents have not been responsible with their money, and if we know that that is likely to continue in the future, it seems to me there is an ethical obligation not to be an enabler and allow the parents to keep going on their merry way. I have no problem with writing the check so long as it is accompanied by a conversation, and perhaps a suggestion that a third party or a professional be involved in some way, so that they don’t keep on this trajectory. Simply writing a check is not enough.
Shafer: I wonder how much of this issue has to do with it being parents in need of money. If we were to turn things around and say that it’s a child who needs money from his or her parents, would that change the ethical dimension of the problem?
Yoshino: There is a moment when the children become the parents, and that’s such an awkward moment. As long as everybody lives long enough, it will come to all of us. When I was reading this, I was thinking, Well, this is actually kind of a parental notion, but it’s the children who adopt a parental attitude toward their own parents. But again, if we think about ethics in the form of what would enable human flourishing for all these individuals, writing a check is not going to be enough. It really does feel as if you would be enabling somebody to pursue, say, a gambling addiction. There needs to be an intervention of a very different kind.
I am a college professor who recently had a former student face deportation to a dangerous, war-torn country. He asked that I write him a letter of support to help strengthen his case against deportation. He had been a remarkably lazy student and had not performed well in my class. It would be difficult for me to find anything positive to say about him, but I don’t believe he or anybody should be deported to this very dangerous country at this time. What should I do? NAME WITHHELD
My answer: One of the rare letters I like!
Usually I don’t like someone asking what they should do, but this person is basically asking for advice. So I’ll give advice. I don’t know if it will help or not. I’ll also mention what’s guiding me is that I find involving people in processes that affect them lead to mutually agreeable outcomes more than not involving them.
I would ask him draft a letter that you would edit and put into your words. He knows his background and the goals of the letter better than you and the outcome matters more to him. He has motivation and knowledge. I would tell him before he starts writing that you can only send what you feel comfortable sending, so what he writes has to be consistent with your experience.
I would be open to what you call his laziness being something else. Could he have been disengaged by something—other students, your teaching style, etc? Could he have two jobs plus four other classes? Maybe he’s just lazy but maybe you just see him that way, like the eleven jurors saw the defendant in Twelve Angry Men.
The New York Times answer:
Bloom: I am sympathetic to the wish to express to this student how annoying and disappointing he was, but save that for another time and attend to the issue of the letter. Those are two really separate issues. I would ask the student to list at least five of his positive qualities, or at least five positive things that he has done in his life, so that the letter writer can create a letter of support. Even if the letter does not include a glowing description of the student’s academic work, it seems possible to write a letter to help this student avoid deportation.
And then on some other occasion, if the college professor feels really strongly about what a remarkably lazy student the student was, he could bring it up with him over a cup of tea.
Shafer: I want to know a little more about why this person is being deported. Has he overstayed a student visa? Committed a crime while living in the United States? If you choose to write a letter, your responsibility is to be honest, not to serve as the potential deportee’s immigration counsel.
Bloom: I agree, but I don’t know that honesty requires that the only thing that you say in the letter is that he was a poor student in your class.
Yoshino: I have written many letters of recommendation — a core part of my job as a professor — so I find it really implausible that you would have nothing positive to say about a student with whom you worked. If push comes to shove, I could write a letter that is both true and kind for most students who approach me, though I may need to do a little digging and ask a student for help, as Amy described.
Shafer: What sorts of letters are in the proceedings for deportation? What sorts of letters are likely to sway a deportation decision? If the panel or the judge receives a letter saying, “really lazy student, but a wonderful guy, and besides, I hate the deportation policies of this country,” is that going to make an impact? How much bearing do these letters have on a deportation case?
Yoshino: I asked around and was told that usually the letters are written by friends and family describing the negative effects of deportation and the positive attributes of the potential deportee. I was also told that context matters. So, one of the things that the college professor could do, as a person who is both in a position of authority and who has the capacity to do research, is ask the student questions about the kind of deportation he is facing. Whether he has access to an attorney who could advise him on these issues. Whether he knows the answers to the kinds of questions you’re asking, Jack — what kind of letter is likely to make a difference? Maybe the most ethical thing that the professor could do, regardless of what he or she thinks of the student, is to have that conversation.
Shafer: Then write an honest letter?
Yoshino: If you really can’t say anything nice about the person, then it’s better to write no letter than to write an honest letter saying this is a hideously lazy person. No one is requiring you to write the letter. Immigration officials are not requiring you to write the letter, the student is not requiring you to write the letter, the university is not requiring you to write the letter. You can always abstain.
Bloom: The letter writer believes that nobody should be deported to this specific, very dangerous country, so is it possible to create a positive and honest letter? With a little bit of effort and the act of engaging with the student, that letter should be possible.
Yoshino: I would just add — maybe I’m parsing this too finely — the letter writer says it would be difficult to find anything positive to say about him, not that it would be impossible.
Bloom: Point taken. The ethical thing is the difficult-but-not-impossible task of finding positive things to say, and that might be easier if the professor spoke to the student himself.
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