Can I Ditch My Roommate So I Can Live With My Friend?

I’d been living in my apartment for a year when my current roommate moved in. We didn’t know each other beforehand, but she has turned out to be a nice person whose lifestyle is very similar to mine. As roommates go, she’s a good one, and I have no complaints about living with her. But I just found out that one of my best friends is moving to my city in a few months (around when my lease expires), and she and I would like to live together in this apartment. The problem is that I don’t think my current roommate has any desire to leave.

In many ways, this apartment is mine. I was here first, the apartment is stocked and furnished with things I bought and my name is the only one on the lease. My roommate wanted to sign a lease, but because my landlord already knew me, he preferred to keep our current arrangement. We ended up just signing a sublease agreement between us. Of course, none of that is my roommate’s fault, and after living in the space for a year, she must feel a certain claim to it. Is it wrong of me to tell her she needs to leave at the end of our lease? And if not, how do I broach that conversation? Name Withheld

Your roommate’s legal rights will be determined by local statutes; I’ll leave that to the lawyers. But the ordinances of morality have a wider bailiwick. So does your roommate have a moral claim to stay on?

As you say, you were there first; you selected her as a roommate and offered her a place; you have the relationship with the landlord. To speak formally, you’re the primary, or “master,” tenant; she is the subtenant. Your sublease agreement comes with a fixed term, an expiration date. This is morally, not just legally, significant, because it sets reasonable expectations, with mutual obligations. And it isn’t as if you’re proposing to break the sublease early.

Suppose that you, as primary tenant, were to marry or have a child. Nobody would think you owed more than fair notice to a roommate who had been around for a year. Simply having held a fixed-term sublease doesn’t create a substantial moral expectation for renewal. If you had both been there for many years, a presumption might develop that both of you had some kind of claim on the place. But she has not been there long, and you have a reason (a bestie, not a baby, but still) for asking her to leave. When it came to formalizing your relationship, you did so in a way that permits you to ask her to move on: She has a sublease that she can’t unilaterally renew.

Given that she has been a good roommate, you owe her as much notice as you can manage, so that she has ample time to find a new place. You also owe her courtesy in explaining the situation. You’ll be better placed than I am to decide how to broach the conversation; it depends on the relationship you have and what sort of person she is. But let me mention a general point: You can regret certain consequences of a decision you’ve made without regretting the decision (“I’m truly sorry I missed your wedding, but my wife went into labor”). In this case, you can sincerely express regret — you feel bad about inconveniencing her — without saying or thinking you are at fault. You’re not wronging her; you are acting without malice and for an intelligible reason.

My bike was stolen a few weeks ago. I have since been scouring online marketplaces for a new one. While I have the means to buy a new bike, I’d rather not spend an exorbitant amount of money on a single purchase.

In my online searches, I came across a bike that fits my criteria, but I believe it is most likely stolen. The bike price is significantly under market value, and the seller is exclusively using the online marketplace to sell low-priced bikes. The seller also told me the bike was a model that doesn’t exist. I feel morally conflicted about buying a bike I suspect is stolen; I don’t want to perpetuate a system of bike thievery. On the other hand, my action (or lack thereof) will not impact his bike-thieving habits, and I wouldn’t feel upset at whoever purchased my old bike under similar circumstances. Is the purchase justified, or is this like any other social issue in which individual action is essential to an overall cause? Name Withheld, Washington, D.C.

A bicycle is a marvelous contraption of sprockets, chains and wheels: in short, a system. To combat the system of bike thievery — I’ve seen it estimated that two million bikes are stolen each year in the United States, and owners seldom get theirs back — we need a contrary system. Otherwise it’s as if we’re pedaling a bike without a chain. There’s nothing unusual about this situation: When it comes to all sorts of social issues, individual action is effective only if it’s a part of a collective action. The full benefits of shifting from a gasoline-powered motor vehicle to a plug-in one will require not just that lots of people give up gas cars, but also that we decarbonize the generation of electricity. So what (aside from better locks!) would a systematic response to bike thievery look like?

For starters, bike owners should register their serial numbers on sites such as and It would help if the serial number were discreetly engraved on the bike in more than one location (manufacturers usually put it on the underside of the bottom bracket); it might help too if the bike had a tamper-evident decal advertising its registration — the New York Police Department has a program that does this. Trackers can help, too. And here’s a legislative proposal: We should require that bicycles be advertised for sale only with serial numbers, which can be checked against a database of bicycles reported stolen.

It isn’t that any of these measures is foolproof; for one thing, thieves can always ditch the frames and sell the parts. But when a type of crime becomes riskier and less remunerative, criminals tend to get out of that business. (Think about bank robbery, which used to be common and has become rare.) I wouldn’t be much troubled if you bought the suspiciously inexpensive bike, given that your individual abstention won’t affect the marketplace, but I hope you’ll donate some of the money you’re saving to a nonprofit that, like Bike Index, is helping to promote the systematic changes we need. We won’t get far with this problem unless we’re all pedaling together.

My family owns a rural vacation property, and we’ve had the same caretaker for more than 50 years. I have a transgender sister who came out to the whole family, including the caretaker, with whom she was particularly close, a few years ago. At the time, there were no issues, and she has interacted with him in person since. Recently, they made plans for her to interview him for a story she’s writing, but when she called to confirm, he said: “Are you the one who used to be — ? I want nothing to do with you. Forget everything I promised you.” This came completely out of the blue, and my sister is devastated. My immediate family is furious. As the caretaker is now older and disabled, he doesn’t do much work anymore, but we have continued to support him financially. He is deeply entwined with our whole family, but this seems unforgivable. Do we ask our extended family to cut him off? Name Withheld

I understand why you’re exercised. What he said to your sister gives you a good reason to drop him and to urge others to do so. Yet what you’re reporting as a story of deplorable intolerance could also be a story of disability — an older man experiencing not just physical infirmity but the onset of dementia, with attendant personality changes. Whatever his personal views, after all, it’s wildly imprudent of him to lash out at a member of a family that helps support him. The issue, then, is whether someone who has been employed by your family for half a century should be cut off based on a single phone conversation, distressing as it was. Try to get a clearer sense of what’s going on with him. You owe that much to your sister, to the disabled caretaker and to your extended family. If it does turn out the story is one of straightforward and obdurate intolerance, you may break with him; indeed, you may owe it to your sister to do so.

To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.) Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.”

Back to top button