How Much Help Do I Owe My Debt-Ridden Dad?
I’m working in the United States while my parents live abroad. My father made an unfortunate investment decision a couple of years ago, lost almost all his money and has been in debt ever since. I helped him pay off some of his debts, but recently I have been hesitating to send more money.
I have managed to save some money myself, but it’s far from enough to pay his debts. Plus, I’m here in this country alone, and I want to have some savings. I also fear that if he develops a habit of relying on me, he will stop trying to find a way to earn money or to collect from people who owe him money.
However, my dad has been trying to solve this situation for some time and has made little progress. It really hurts to see him so sad. I’m worried that if things continue this way for a few years, it will take a toll on his mental and physical health.
Am I coldhearted not to help my dad financially? Should I give him more money, or even all my money? I am not a spendthrift, for sure, but I haven’t been frugal either, and I sometimes feel guilty because I think maybe I should have been. Name Withheld
In this country, it’s routine for kids to ask their parents for money but not vice versa. In many places, however, children expect to support their elderly parents and will subordinate their interests to that aim. Indeed, children have historically been regarded as a kind of insurance plan for old age. Filial piety, a Confucian ideal, requires children to maintain indigent parents in old age, and in Singapore, where much of the population takes Confucian values seriously, that ideal has legal teeth: A Tribunal for the Maintenance of Parents allows needy parents to obtain a legally enforceable order for financial assistance from their children. People I grew up with in Ghana would condemn you if you lived comfortably but left your parents hard up. And many, many Americans would no doubt feel the same.
Philosophers have sometimes questioned the sentiment. The philosopher (and physicist) Jane English denies that we owe something to our parents simply because they gave us life and raised us. She thinks that the duties we have to our parents arise out of the positive relationships — the friendships, as she calls them — that develop naturally in the course of being brought up in a loving family. In her view, those duties cease if the relationship breaks down.
Whether or not you accept her account, English is surely right that a parent who has treated you badly will have less call on your assistance than one who has done well by you. And if the reason your parent is in poverty is that he has a gambling addiction, say, it may be a good idea to make support conditional on seeking treatment. (These things are true too when a child needs help from a parent.) Those strictures don’t apply here: You clearly have a caring relationship with your father, and so even in English’s view, you have duties to him. And you suggest that he was ruined by one badly misjudged decision, not necessarily a propensity for recklessness.
You haven’t given me enough details to judge how much you should do for your father. (Cost-of-living differences between the countries can affect how far your financial assistance will go.) But you’ve mentioned a number of the relevant considerations. It matters how onerous it would be for you to help and how bad things will be for him if you don’t. Even if, by pinching pennies, you could eventually bail him out, you don’t have an obligation to help him in ways he can help himself. To treat him with respect is to recognize that he has the primary responsibility for his own welfare. If there is money that he’s entitled to — you mention debts he should try to collect — you don’t want to discourage him from getting it, and you aren’t obliged to support him if you conclude he could find remunerative employment but wouldn’t if your payments obviated the need.
I wonder, though, whether you haven’t left out one of the main ways in which you could assist him. What if you and your father discussed your respective situations frankly, working out a strategy for addressing his financial problems? You could have a conversation about what’s reasonable for him to expect from you, in light of your situation. These conversations are bound to be uncomfortable, and you may both have avoided them for that reason. But I suspect that confronting the matter — with love and respect — will be better than each of you continuing to agonize about it on your own. In the end, it will be up to you to decide what you give him. And a loving father isn’t going to want to undermine your chances of living a happy and successful life, whether that’s here in the United States or back home nearer to him.
For nearly a year and a half, we were in a pandemic pod with another family, and our children became fast friends. We saw this family nearly every weekend; it was our only social interaction. A few months ago, just after the children went off to different preschools, the parents suddenly said they were splitting up, much to our surprise. Several months later, one of the parents had sole custody, claiming the other parent was mentally ill and recounting several violent incidents.
The other parent has reached out to ask us to write a letter on her behalf to support regaining some custody of her child. She says that her ex-partner’s claims of violence and mental illness are false. I wasn’t present for any of the incidents, so I can’t say who was right or wrong; we merely heard stories. On one hand, the claims of violence could be true, and my account of her character would be false, although true to me. On the other hand, if the claims of violence are false, am I assisting a system that is denying my child’s friend interactions with the other parent by not writing a letter on her behalf? I want to do what is in the best interest of the child, while maintaining healthy boundaries. My husband says not to get involved, and my instinct is to trust the system. Do I have an obligation to write a letter on her behalf? Name Withheld
The legal system for deciding matters of custody is far from perfect. But it’s most likely to work well if decision makers have as much useful information as possible. So accurately describing what you know — and avoiding conjecture about what you don’t — should be more helpful than not.
In a contentious custody battle, each parent is naturally tempted to exaggerate the flaws of the other. While things have changed since the period when you were in a pod together, it’s relevant that (as I assume) both your friends appeared to be responsible and caring parents when you did spend time with them. You worry that your character claims would be false, though “true to me.” Really, they’re true or they’re not. That you put it this way underlines your uncertainty about how much you know. So make it clear that you can speak only about what you were present to see. The parent who solicited the letter is the one submitting it to the court, and she won’t if she or her attorney has reservations about it. Still, this is a case where the dictum “write what you know” is worth taking to heart.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)