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The Ethicist
April 4, 2011

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. If you'd like help with a moral dilemma you're facing at school, at home, or at work, send your question to: ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a phone number.

Who Should Pay For My Stolen Money?

After agreeing to lend money to a friend, I withdrew it from the bank in cash. While I was on my way to deliver it to him, I was mugged. My friend was sympathetic but left it there, with no offer to pay me back. What should I do?
Name Withheld, Manila, Philippines

YOU SHOULD endure your loss with stoicism. It's admirable that you were willing to help a friend and unfortunate that you were robbed, but it doesn't follow that your friend pay back any of the stolen money. You never actually gave your friend any money—even if it was because of your bad luck—so there's nothing for him to repay.

If you trace any chain of events back far enough, it's all somebody else's fault. But it's not fair to think this way. Why not send the bill to your penniless friend's parents? If they had never met, fallen in love, and gotten married, he wouldn't have been born, descended into hard times, and needed a loan. Or his grandparents, or...well, I think you see where this is going.

If the robbery left you too broke to lend any money to your friend, so be it. But then everybody loses. Except the mugger.

You might take some comfort in the old maxim "No good deed goes unpunished."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, April 4, 2011)