How much help do I owe my debt-ridden father?
I wonder though if you haven’t omitted one of the main ways you could help him. What if you and your dad had a candid discussion about your respective situations, developing a strategy to solve his financial problems? You might have a conversation about what is reasonable to expect of you, given your circumstances. These conversations are bound to be uncomfortable, and you may have both avoided them for this reason. But I suspect that facing the issue – with love and respect – will be best if each of you continues to torment yourself about it. In the end, it will be up to you to decide what you give him. And a loving father won’t want to undermine your chances of living a happy and successful life, whether here in the United States or at home closer to home.
For nearly a year and a half we were in a pandemic pod with another family, and our children quickly became friends. We saw this family almost every weekend; it was our only social interaction. A few months ago, just after the children went to different preschools, the parents suddenly announced that they were separating, much to our surprise. Several months later, one parent had sole custody, claiming the other parent suffered from mental illness and recounting several violent incidents.
The other parent has contacted us to ask us to write a letter on their behalf to support regaining partial custody of their child. She says her ex-partner’s allegations of abuse 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 just heard stories. On the one hand, the claims of violence could be true, and my account of his character would be false, although true for me. On the other hand, if the abuse allegations are false, am I helping a system that denies my child’s friend interactions with the other parent by not writing a letter on their behalf? I want to do what is in the best interest of the child, while maintaining healthy boundaries. My husband says don’t get involved, and my instinct is to trust the system. Do I have to write a letter on his behalf? Masked name
The legal system to decide custody issues is far from perfect. But it’s more likely to work well if decision makers have as much useful information as possible. So accurately describing what you know — and avoiding guesswork about what you don’t know — should be more helpful than not.
In a contentious custody battle, each parent is naturally tempted to exaggerate the other’s faults. Although things have changed since the time you were together in a band, it’s relevant that (as I assume) your two friends seemed like responsible and caring parents when you spent time with them. You are concerned that your character’s claims are false, although “true to me”. Really, they are either true or they are not. The fact that you present it like this highlights your uncertainty about what you know. Make it clear that you can only talk about what you were there to see. The parent who requested the letter is the one submitting it to the court, and they will not do so if they or their lawyer have reservations about it. Still, this is one case where the saying “write what you know” is worth taking to heart.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at NYU. His books include “Cosmopolitanism”, “The Honor Code”, and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity”. To submit a request: email [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018. (Include daytime phone number.)