Am I Right?

How to live ethically

A Mother's Impossible Choice: Who Gets What

Every choice has its critics

Karen is a single mother of three. Maria, 10, is a smart, talented but underachieving and petulant child. Greg, 12, is a hard-working, sweet boy who needs little attention to remain an average student. Valerie, 14, was born with a debilitating chronic illness. Given constraints upon her time, Karen has decided to divide her time equally amongst all three children.

Karen's problem is impossibly difficult. It is parent's bad dream. But as extreme as this appears, it is common variation that many a parent face when making out a will. I know my wife and I had to think hard about what to do with our estate. You have two children, a foster daughter and two grandchildren. How much money do you leave each child? Do you look at each child and decide who has the greatest need? Do you base you decision on the basis of whose lifestyle you most approve and who will put it to best use? Do you decide to treat each family as a unit or each person as an individual? This last option isn't so much a problem as long as each family has an equal number of children. But what do you do if this changes?

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Every choice has it proponents, each choice its critics.

While this vignette is fictional, it is close to a real one I am familiar with. Jocelyn had three children. She had a girl, Stacey, from her first, brief marriage. Two sons were born in her second marriage. The daughter was a troubled child. She loved her a great deal but no more than she loved her two sons. No matter what she did for her daughter it was never enough. Stacey was highly destructive to family life. She was abusive, stole from the family and began to use drugs. Stacey took so much time, energy and money away from her two boys that she eventually forced her daughter out of the house. Jocelyn continued to love Stacey, but she felt that she couldn't sacrifice the lives of her two sons. Until her own death, Jocelyn felt guilty about excluding Stacey but she was also convinced that she had done the right thing.

These two vignettes raises some of the most perplexing issues in all of moral philosophy. It pits three interests — that of the talented, the needy and the average — against one another and asks us to decide what is the fair way to divide our time and resources.

While posed in terms of domestic considerations, the issues it addresses apply to the larger world as well. A school board, for example, has a budget and must decide whether to spend its money on average students (the largest number), talented students (those who may make the largest contribution to society) or handicapped students (who, per capita, are the most expensive to educate).

 

Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than twenty books.

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