To Break, or Not to Break, a Promise

Sunday, November 24, 2013
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“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


Independent Discussion Guidelines

Unless you have a reason to believe this time would be different from his other attempts at rehab, keep the money. Ask yourself: "What is different about this time"?

It seems the reason your mother didn't want you to give him the money was because she had run the course with him and concluded he was beyond help, not because she didn't care about him.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
November 24, 2013 at 6:49 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Rule #1: Unless you enjoy being used, never, ever give money to an addict/alcoholic, for any purpose - even if it is for rehab - even if it is your sibling. I speak from personal experience.

banjo (anonymous profile)
November 24, 2013 at 11:31 a.m. (Suggest removal)

If you can get specific promises from your brother (say, a month in the facility), and any funds really do go directly to the rehab place, modest help would be an ethical action. Is there a time-limit to "I am my brother's keeper" ?

DrDan (anonymous profile)
November 24, 2013 at 7:42 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I'm with Dr. Dan on this one. Sometimes you're not going to find a permanent solution, just an ongoing problem that waxes and wanes. I'm not sure I can agree with your mother making such a demand of you; it sounds like she was concerned for your well-being but there's a tone of retribution toward your brother, too, for hurting her so much. Well that's over for her now, and you don't have to have her pain on your conscience. Whatever crap happens now happens to you! I think you can honor your mother but still act compassionately toward your brother. The trick is to find the balance that allows you to feel you've been able to help him without harming yourself, if that's possible. If this rehab helps your brother find some peace, even if it's not permanent, then perhaps it's a good thing, and you can feel lucky that you can afford it. If it's just a stunt to get money well then no. Very painful situation to be in and perhaps Al-Anon would be helpful? --Nitz's wife

Nitz (anonymous profile)
November 25, 2013 at 12:17 a.m. (Suggest removal)

AA/NA is the most effective program and it costs nothing except a commitment to a better life.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
November 25, 2013 at 1:08 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Was not integrity the goal of the mother? If so, if what was once believed to be a violation of integrity (helping the brother financially) becomes the right thing to do, how is that violating the intent of the mother.

Know ye not the adage "the spirit of the law vs. the letter of the law"?

dolphinpod14 (anonymous profile)
November 25, 2013 at 3:10 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Help your brother. Think about what you will regret more, later.

rambler (anonymous profile)
December 7, 2013 at 9:39 p.m. (Suggest removal)

If it were me, I would keep the promise to my mom.

If you were not around, or had the money to help him, he would have to help himself and find other ways to overcome his drug problems. In a sense, he will be using you to enable his problems.
It's your call.....good luck.

zuma7 (anonymous profile)
December 8, 2013 at 12:01 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I couldn't find Al Jolson so this will have to do

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
December 8, 2013 at 1:51 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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