Moral Briefs – Chapter XCVIII – What Excuses from Restitution

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonThose who do not obtain full justice from man in this world will obtain it in the next from God. If we do not meet our obligations this side of the tribunal of the just Judge, He will see to it that our accounts are equitably balanced when the time for the final reckoning comes. This supposes, naturally, that non-fulfillment of obligations is due on our part to unwillingness – a positive refusal, or its equivalent, willful neglect, to undo the wrongs committed. For right reason and God’s mercy must recognize the existence of a state of unfeigned and hopeless disability, when it is impossible for the delinquent to furnish the wherewithal to repair the evils of which he has been guilty. When this condition is permanent, and is beyond all remedy, all claims are extinguished against the culprit, and all losses incurred must be ascribed to “an act of God,” as the coroner says. For no man can be held to what is impossible.

Chief among these moral, as well as legal, bankrupts is the good-for-nothing fellow who is sorry too late, who has nothing, has no hopes of ever having anything, and who therefore can give nothing. You cannot extract blood from a beet nor shekels from an empty purse. Then a man may lose all his belongings in a catastrophe, and after striving by labor and economy to pay off his debts, may see himself obliged to give up the task through sickness, misfortune or other good causes. He has given all he has, he cannot give more. Even though liabilities were stacked up mountain-high against him, he cannot be held morally responsible, and his creditors must attribute their losses to the misfortune of life – a rather unsubstantial consolation, but as good a one as the poor debtor has.

There are other cases where the obligations of restitution are not annulled, but only cancelled for the time being, until such a time as circumstances permit their being met without grave disaster to the debtor. The latter may be in such a position that extreme, or great, want would stare him in the face, if he parted with what he possesses to make restitution. The difficulty here is out of all proportion with the injustice committed for, after all, one must live, and charity begins at home, our first duty is toward ourselves. The creditors of this man have no just claim against him until he improves his circumstances; in the mean-time, the burden of responsibility is lifted from his shoulders.

The same must be said when the paying off of a debt at any particular time, be it long or short, would cripple a man’s finances, wipe out his earnings to such an extent as to make him fall considerably below his present position in life. We might take a case during the late coal famine, of a man who, in order to fill his contracts of coal at six dollars a ton, would be obliged to buy it at fifteen and twenty dollars a ton; and thereby sacrifice his fortune. The thing could not be expected, it is preposterous. His obligee must wait and hope for better times.

A man’s family is a part of himself. Therefore the payment of a just debt may be deferred in order to shield from want parents, wile, children, brothers or sisters. Life, limb and reputation are greater possessions than riches; consequently, rather than jeopardize these, one may, for the time, put aside his obligations to make restitution.

All this supposes, of course, that during the interval of delay the creditor does not suffer inconveniences greater than, or as great as, those the debtor seeks to avoid. The latter’s right to defer payment ceases to exist the moment it comes into conflict with an equal right of the former to said payment. It is against reason to expect that, after suffering a first injustice, the victim should suffer a second in order to spare the guilty party a lesser or an equal injury. Preference therefore must be given to the creditor over the debtor when the necessity for sacrifice is equal, and leniency must be refused when it becomes cruelty to the former.

Outside these circumstances, which are rare indeed, it will be seen at once that the creditor may act an unjust part in pressing claims that accidentally and temporarily become invalid. He has a right to his own, but he is not justified in vindicating that right, if in so doing, he inflicts more damage than equity calls for. The culprit has a right not to suffer more than he deserves, and it is mock justice that does not respect that right. If the creditor does suffer some loss by the delay, this might be a circumstance to remember at the final settlement but for the present, there is an impediment to the working of justice, placed by the fatal order of things and it is beyond power to remove it.