Last week, I wrote an article discussing the ethics of purchasing foreclosed homes. I suggested that there is something ethically suspect about doing so, and that when we do this, we run a very real risk of using others as a means to our ends. Several individuals replied to this article by arguing that the violation of the original contract to purchase the home gets them off the hook ethically. This is not a surprising reply, but it’s worth exploring a bit further in order to understand what this response amounts to, and why it remains somewhat suspect.
First, let’s briefly review the argument that buying a foreclosed home is ethically questionable. The argument, roughly, is that when one purchases a foreclosed home, one uses a person solely as a means to their end. The new buyer benefits at the expense of the old one, and fails to show regard for the original buyer’s interests. If this is an accurate description of purchasing a foreclosed home, there is some concern that this action is ethically problematic.
The reply from some of you was that because the original buyer violated a contract that they entered into with the financer, the purchasing of a foreclosed home is not an example of using a person solely as a means to an end. However, merely citing the violation of the contract doesn’t show that the original buyer isn’t being used solely as a means to an end. There are two further points that one would need to make in order to complete this argument.
One might argue that the original buyer also benefits from this situation. After all, foreclosure gets people out from under a debt that they can no longer handle, and the fact that people are willing to purchase these homes means that the economy remains healthier that it otherwise would’ve been. The original buyer benefits both from the foreclosure, and from the economic health that results from these homes being sold to others. Thus, we are off the hook ethically because we show concern for the original buyer’s interests. Because the original buyer also benefits, it is acceptable to buy a foreclosed home.
The other possibility would be to argue that once the home has been foreclosed on, the original buyer no longer has an interest in the home. This is where the point regarding contracts holds more weight. One might argue that in violating the purchase contract, the original buyer forfeited their interest in the home. They are not being used as a means to an end because the home is no longer among their interests.
Both of these replies are problematic. The first one has two concerns. First, the original buyer benefits from foreclosure, but not necessarily from having their foreclosed home purchased. In addition, this reply is an argument for the general permissibility of purchasing foreclosed homes, but it’s not clear that it would necessarily justify particular cases. It might be that this is permissible in general, but objectionable in certain instances. The fact that economic health is generally beneficial does not mean that it necessarily benefits all individuals who have lost their home to foreclosure.
The second reply is more obviously a contractual point, and also more problematic than the first. The original buyer of a foreclosed home has no doubt invested money into the home, and they do not recoup any of this money as a result of foreclosure. It would seem that their interest in the home remains even if their contractual entitlement to the home itself no longer exists.
Kudos to those of you who are thinking critically about this issue, and congratulations to those who have been able to purchase a home thanks to the prevalence of foreclosures. The point I want to make is not that this is some sort of deep moral dilemma that we ought to be up in arms about. Rather, I want to point out that even “great financial opportunities” have ethical components, and that it’s not always the case that the business savvy decision is also the ethical one. It might be ethically acceptable to purchase foreclosed homes, or it might be a complicated contextual question that largely depends on the given situation. Whatever the case, the question is not as easy to answer as it first seemed.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.