This New York Times Article entitled, “How a Will Treating Children Differently Can Still Be Fair” discusses the implications of parents leaving behind a will that does not evenly divide up their assets. The article discusses an interesting point that while a son may be a successful doctor and a daughter may be a hardworking teacher for example, parents have a right to decide to leave more wealth to their daughter who needs it if they want to treat their children fairly, rather than equally. This unevenness may not seem exactly equal on the surface, but through difficult conversation the article claims it is the most thoughtful way to divide things as long as it does not impact relationships among siblings. Easier said than done. It seems that leaving behind an unequal amount of money on purpose requires a lot more “foresight” for the parents unless one child has a special need and requires continuous funding throughout his or her lifetime writes author Paul Sullivan. William D. Zabel, a founding partner of the law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel remarked, “It’s rough justice.”
This article has “fairness” written all over it, but what does that have to do with Aristotle’s teachings?
A few things, actually. Aristotle believed that happiness is the end, or the goal of all our actions and discusses the three common answers: Pleasure, Honor, and Wealth. Upon further evaluation we see that wealth, however, is instrumentally valuable as it is a means to getting something else (say a new car or a flat screen tv.) Essentially what Aristotle is saying is that wealth is just a valuable tool and not the end result of true happiness. So when we look at this article and decide if it is virtuous for parents to leave behind unequal amounts of assets to their children, can this really be fair as the author claims?
Perhaps it is important to first decide how one acquires virtue. Aristotle says that functioning excellently as a human being is the key to happiness which requires some sort of virtue. When reading this article I started thinking about how some families are torn apart over this issue when in reality, the wealth these parents leave behind isn’t going to fulfill their children’s lives. I would agree with Mr. Zabel that it can be virtuous for parents to leave behind an unequal list of assets because it’s a form of “rough justice.” One child may depend on that inheritance more for day to day living, but in the end regardless of how much wealth one receives it isn’t going to bring them everlasting happiness; it’s merely fleeting. There is no need for families to divide and parents to agonize over if they’re doing the right thing when it comes to something as superficial as wealth. I would rather my parents leave behind a legacy of virtue and fairness over something instrumentally valuable. We have to find that “golden mean” between the two extremes of living a life of excess or deficiency as Aristotle once described, and that may require getting a fair portion of inheritance rather than an equal one in my opinion.