A friend of mine, overwhelmed by his debts, confided to me that he has filed for bankruptcy. I didn't say anything to him, but inside I was feeling that there's something immoral about declaring bankruptcy and thereby freeing yourself from debts you yourself incurred. Am I being unfairly judgmental?
Bankrupt's Uneasy Friend
Dear Uneasy Friend,
I can't fully answer if you are being unfairly judgmental, because you didn't provide me with enough information, and whether or not declaring bankruptcy is immoral depends on that information. For example, if your friend borrowed responsibly, spent his money prudently (particularly in the months preceding the bankruptcy), and then, through a series of events that he couldn't have reasonably anticipated, suffered a great decline in income and assets, the declaration of bankruptcy wouldn't be immoral.
Having said that, many bankruptcies in the U.S. today do strike me as immoral, particularly when incurred by people who bought on credit, or who borrowed money, without a credible plan for repaying their debts.
Obviously, what's particularly immoral is making unnecessary purchases during a time when one is already aware that he or she is in a tight circumstance and may have to declare bankruptcy. Also immoral are those who incur student loans to get a higher education and then declare bankruptcy as they prepare to practice the profession that they studied on money borrowed from others.
In short, if a person, or a bank or store, sold you something, or lent you money, and relied on your word that you'd pay, you are morally obligated to do so. Thus, it seems to me that even when a declaration of bankruptcy is justified, if one subsequently makes back the money owed, one has a moral, although not a legal, obligation to repay debts. The Golden Rule of "Do unto others as you wold have others do unto you" applies here.
Recently, a neighbor was over when the phone rang. I was going to let the machine pick up the call, but my 10-year-old daughter got to the phone first. Because I didn't want to be interrupted, I whispered to her, "Tell whoever it is that I'm not home." My neighbor heard me and said that this was awful--I was teaching my daughter to lie. But isn't this really a pretty innocuous lie?
In denouncing your lie as awful, I believe that your neighbor was engaging in hyperbole. This was a lie, but certainly not an awful one. On the other hand, it was not innocuous either. It was detrimental to your daughter's soul.
As Samuel Johnson noted two centuries ago: "If I accustom a servant to tell a lie for me, have I not reason to apprehend that he will tell many lies for himself?" Substitute "child" for "servant" and the statement's contemporary relevance becomes apparent.
Children do indeed need to be taught that some types of lies are right to tell. If an elderly great-aunt asks them, "How do I look?" and a child thinks that she looks like a decrepit, wrinkled old witch not long for this world, he or she should nonetheless be instructed to answer, "You look wonderful, auntie." But, except for instances in which lies are told to avoid gratuitously hurting feelings or for reasons of safety (like a child not telling the truth to a stranger who asks his or her address), children should be raised to be truthful, and particularly not to tell self-serving lies (for example, not to lie about their age to buy a cheaper movie ticket).
I often tell audiences the first half of the following statement from the Talmud, and ask them to guess the statement's conclusion: "One should not promise to give a child something and then not give it to him because...."
Most people respond, "because the child will lose all confidence in the parent," or "because the child will be hurt and disappointed." Both responses are appropriate, but the Talmud concludes this statement with, "because as a result, the child will learn to lie."
Like you, I prefer not to have my conversations interrupted by phone calls, which is why I usually let my voice-mail pick up when I'm talking to others. But in this instance, once your daughter picked up the phone, it would have been better for you to take the call and tell the caller that you had to get off quickly. It's best not to accustom your child to tell self-serving mistruths. People who tell too many white lies can easily become color-blind.
Send your questions for Joseph Telushkin to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include "Telushkin" in the subject line.