Promises and Penalties

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"Promises and Penalties"

I agree with Roger Lowenstein that families that think it serves their interests to default on mortgage payments shouldn’t feel morally obligated to avoid default. But people shouldn’t embrace overstated philosophical claims just to bolster this point. Lowenstein writes:

Mortgage holders do sign a promissory note, which is a promise to pay. But the contract explicitly details the penalty for nonpayment — surrender of the property. The borrower isn’t escaping the consequences; he is suffering them.

If my friend says he wants to meet for a drink at 8PM, and I say “are you going to show up 15 minutes late as usual?” Then he says “No way. If I’m late, drinks are on me.” Then he shows up 20 minutes late, but follows through on his promise to pay the tab I think it’s fair to say that he’s still open to moral criticism. Similarly, a person who drives all around town blocking fire hydrants is doing something wrong even if he willingly pays all applicable fines in a prompt manner.

The difference, I think, is that my mortgage is an agreement I’ve made with Bank of America which is a publicly traded for-profit corporation. Companies like that, unlike people or people agencies or other kinds of institutions, don’t recognize any kind of goals other than monetary ones. Under the circumstances, any relationship you might have with Bank of America is a purely transactional, purely commercial one and if you treat it as anything other than that you’re being a sucker. You don’t treat your friends or your church that way, because they’re not supposed to treat you that way and if they started you would get different friends and a different church.

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