Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Finishing What You Start

I was speaking with a friend last night - a friend who had been engaged, but broke the engagement a few days later. He brought it up in conversation and proceeded to tell me what had happened, why he broke the engagement, and mentioned another friend who had recently done the same. While obviously it would have been better to have never been engaged in the first place, this is a case "of better now than later" - or never.

But in general, what happens when someone makes a long-term decision... but years later, regrets that decision and decides to drop that life plan and switch to another? As an example, let's use a medical student who, after four years of medical school, decides that medicine is not the path they think is best for them. Rather than do a residency, they switch to another path. Is there something wrong with doing this? I think there is not. I think the person has made a wise switch, recognizing that this simply wasn't for them, even if originally they thought it was. Did they blow a lot of their own - or even their parents' - money? Perhaps, but that doesn't mean they must now be unhappy or do what is not best for them.

At the same time, there are exceptions to this: If someone agreed to a deal with another person, they cannot renege on that deal simply because it became "too hard" - and certainly, if they never planned on completing the deal in the first place, they should never enter into it. But if they went into the deal in good faith, but at some later point they feel that the other party is letting them down, and are willing to forfeit whatever else is due to them from that other party... then why should they not be permitted to back out? There is a fine line between 'too hard' and 'uninterested', but nevertheless, I think that such a line does exist. Obviously, this also requires a clear understanding of what one's expectations were vs. what has actually occurred, but assuming that one's expectations were reasonable, I don't see why they cannot now change their mind.

A good friend, however, disagrees. This friend feels that once a person has signed on to doing something, they must complete it - so long as they are not completely miserable. While I hear their point, I disagree. Am I way off base?


  1. In economics, this is referred to as a Sunk Cost.

    Read the linked article for a more comprehensive understanding. The basic idea, however, is that after you've spent money (or time, or resources) on a project, the decision whether or not to proceed should not be based on the sunk costs, because those costs are spent regardless.

    The Wolf

  2. The question here is not the time or money spent, as it is in economics. It is more a question of whether the first party has a moral obligation to finish what they started.

    I think that my friend basically agrees that one should ignore the sunk costs.

    I originally planned on majoring in economics, but a) Lander didn't offer it; and b) it doesn't do much in terms of finding a job later on. Ah well. I still love it.

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  4. OK, but your two cases were not analogous. Attendance at (and even completion of) medical school does not constitute a commitment to become a doctor.

    Under normal circumstances, if you make a commitment to another party, you must honor it to the best of your ability. Any deal should also spell out the repercussions of reneging on the deal. Perhaps that's one of the reasons that a T'nai (condition) must specify both consequences to be halachically binding.

    WRT an engagement, it is, of course, an engagement. However, it is understood when one makes an engagement that it can be broken -- no one wants to marry someone who doesn't really want to marry them anymore.

  5. Attendance at (and even completion of) medical school does not constitute a commitment to become a doctor.

    Agreed, as noted in the post. Agree with marriage, as well.

    Any deal should also spell out the repercussions of reneging on the deal.

    Exactly - so if the deal allows for one side to exit, and the person is willing to accept those repercussions, then I believe they should be allowed to exit the deal. My friend disagrees with this and thinks they are morally obligated to finish regardless.

  6. "Are they allowed" and "are they morally obligated" are two very different questions.

    Personally, I think that no moral guilt should attach. Consider the following:

    When Moshe struck his deal with the children of Gad and Menashe, the deal was explicit: come with us and you get land in the Transjordan. If you don't, you get land in Cana'an.

    I would think that if there was some moral guilt attached to the decision to not fight, then they shouldn't have even gotten land in Cana'an. After all, they were told to fight with the words "your brothers are going to war, and you will stay here?" implying a moral obligation to fight. And yet, even if they don't fight, they still have the same rights as any other tribe -- they would still inherit land in Cana'an. As such, while they may have had a moral obligation to fight, the fact that they renege on that moral obligation has no effect on the deal itself.

    In any event, if it was important to the other party that the deal continue regardless of the wishes of the other party, perhaps that should have been expressed in the contract to begin with (i.e. that the parties must continue unless absolutely unable to do so).

    The Wolf

  7. I agree, though I understand why one could argue that certain aspects are 'understood' from the deal being made.

    That's a very interesting example from the shevatim (tribes). Why *would* they have still received a portion despite not fighting?

    But to apply it to what I'm talking about, it would be like Gad and Menashe deciding after 3/4 of the conquest that they'd had enough of the fighting, and no longer wished to fight. In exchange, they would be willing to not receive the lands that were in the Transjordan. I see no obligation for them to continue, while my friend thinks that they must finish what they started.

  8. The question of whether or not they are allowed to back out must be strictly determined by the language of the contract.

    The question of whether or not they are morally obligated to continue is something that must be determined by each person - and cannot be enforced in a court.

    Let's take an example where it really makes a difference. An old man decides to take his life savings and give it to some worthy high school senior so that they can become a doctor. He wants to see his money come to some good and wants more than anything to help the medical profession by allowing for the creation of a bright young doctor.

    So, the high-school senior goes to college and medical school. The old man watches his progress with pride and is glad that his life-long dream is going to be fulfilled.

    Now, in his last year of medical school, the student decides that he doesn't want to be a doctor. He even offers to refund the old man 110% of the money spent. The problem, however, is that the old man is dying and does not have the time to see another high-school senior proceed through med school.

    Does the student have an obligation to go on and become a doctor?

    Legally, he has no obligation. I don't think any court in the country would tell the person that he must become a doctor against his wishes.

    Morally, does he have to continue? Well, there are two sides to look at: the wishes of the old man to see a doctor created with his money, and the wishes of the student to do with his life as he wishes.

    He certainly has a moral obligation to see the program through and become a doctor. But, in this case, I would think that he has a *greater* moral obligation to his patients to not become a doctor -- would you want a doctor who really didn't want to be practicing?

    The Wolf

  9. The question of whether or not they are morally obligated to continue is something that must be determined by each person - and cannot be enforced in a court.

    Of course. My friend and I are only disagreeing on the moral obligation.


    I basically agree. But what about where nobody is truly affected but the party who wants to back out?

    Or, to take your example but apply it: Let's say the student went into the deal planning on doing what his benefactor wanted, but later decided it wasn't for him. And for the sake of argument, let's make the money a non-factor: The benefactor would have given the money regardless of what path the student took, only preferred the student did as he wished. Finally, the benefactor is doing the same for a number of students in different fields, and is young enough that he will see many more such students. Must this particular student still follow the wishes of the benefactor?

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  11. Well, in terms of contracts, there are definitely ways of backing out if you have good evidence that the other party is not going to live up to its part of the bargain.

    In terms of the rest of your life, I definitely think that the earlier you find out that you're not satisfied with where you want to be and change the course, the better... But sometimes life doesn't work as smoothly. Yes, we have certain obligations towards other people, both legal and moral, and should be as careful towards fulfilling them as possible... but sometimes, if you're turning your life into hell, it's better to back away. Otherwise, not only will you make YOURSELF miserable, but for sure the bad choice will have the effect on others around you as well, as they will be the recipients of your misery.

  12. Stam - Agreed completely. I was using it as a lead-in as it was on my mind.

    Irina - Amen.

  13. Obviously these things very much depend on the situation and the person as to whether it is a correct decision to change (particularly if it is contractual). However, I've always believed that you should enjoy what you choose to do in life. Granted there will be ups and downs and things that aren't wonderful in any career or life choice and things won't always be all fun games but if, like Irina said, it's bad for you then it will have a ripple effect around. (Unfortunately though, if someone is in debt, the option to change may not be there.)
    Switching to another path can often be so much more rewarding, particularly if the change is something you are more enthusiastic about. (Says me after making a decision for a bit of a change... who would have thought I'd actually want to go back to study again!)

  14. oh party already started without me. I'll just sit here in the corner with the au dervs

  15. I wanted to comment but reconsidered.

  16. I think the moral obligation issue depends on how you view marriage. If you're thinking of it as a financial arrangement -- I'll support you and give you children -- then that can be provided even if one party is miserable. If that's all they agreed on with the engagement, then they should honor their commitment.

    However, I certainly hope that this couple wanted more than that. If two people enter into an engagement with the belief that this marriage will bring comfort and/or happiness, then the person having doubts has a moral obligation to break off the engagement. The choice becomes "cause pain now by ending the engagement" or "cause more pain later by denying you the opportunity to find happiness with someone else." It would be a cruel bait and switch to offer a mate emotional support and a congenial future at the engagement knowing the actual marriage is likely to be reduced to (at best) nothing more than a roof over their head and food on the table.