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To Break, or Not to Break, a Promise


Sunday, November 24, 2013

“Promises, like gardens need weeding from time to time to produce healthy results.”

―Souldancer, in his book Pay Me What I’m Worth

Jack, from Montecito, asks:

When my elderly mother died a year ago she left me a substantial amount of money in her will. My brother, who has been a drug addict much of his adult life, received a small amount of money.

About a year before she died, my mother made me promise not to give my brother any money from my inheritance. “He has been an embarrassment to the family, I have spent a fortunate on his rehab, and he’s never stuck with a program.” I tried to reason with her, but she was adamant. She made me promise not to give him any money; however, nothing in her will restricts what I do with the money.

After my mother died, my brother quickly ran through his small inheritance. He began using drugs again and then asked me for a loan so that he could enroll in a well-known, and apparently effective, rehab program.

I’m not sure what to do. I feel as if I have an ethical duty to keep the promise I made to my mother; yet, he’s my brother and in need of help. What do you think?

You have a true ethical dilemma. Under what circumstances, if any, should a person break a promise to another?

You could take an absolutist position: A promise is a promise, and thus there is no dilemma. Gandhi said, ”Breach of promise is a base surrender of truth.”

Ben Bycel

But with all due respect to Gandhi and the other giants in history who have taken this position, the issue of when, if ever, it’s ethical to break a promise, is far more complex. I think most of us have broken promises to our parents, partners, children, friends, and maybe even the IRS for reasons we thought justifiable. If you’re a truthful person you don’t make promises with the intention of breaking them, but circumstances and priorities may change, and you break that promise.

Machiavelli, who knew a lot about broken promises, summed it up this way, “The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.”

What might be “the necessity of the present”? A prism to look at this through might be whether to take full advantage of an opportunity, financial or otherwise, that has come your way. If the benefit were purely for you, I’d be against breaking a promise. But if breaking a promise does not involve just an advantage for you but helps another, in this case your brother, a greater good may come from breaking the promise than keeping it.

Each time you contemplate breaking a promise, you need to weigh and balance whether it is absolutely necessary and is the best thing to do. You also must consider who you may hurt.

In the fact pattern you present, I can’t see who would be the injured person by the broken promise. It might diminish your own sense of yourself as a promise-keeper; I mean, after all, what kind of person lies to his mother, especially now that she’s dead?

Help your brother out, at least this one last time. But I’d send the money right to the rehab facility.

Finally, if it makes you feel any better, The Santa Barbara Independent has zero circulation in heaven (or hell), so your mother will never know.

And, no, that is not a line from a Coen brothers movie.

Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics. If you have an ethics question, send it to  streetethics@independent.com.

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