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Brod’s Dilemma

It was Summer 1924, and Max Brod was in Franz Kafka’s office. Kafka died of tuberculosis in Austria leaving his dear friend, Brod, two written requests. Brod sat down at Kafka’s paper strewn desk, moving stacks of writings to make room. The first note, undated written in pen read: 

Dearest Max,

My last request: Everything I leave behind me . . .  in the way of notebooks, manuscripts, letters, my own and other people’s, sketches and so on, is to be burned unread and to the last page, as well as all writings of mine or notes which either you may have or other people, from whom you are to beg them in my name. Letters which are not handed over to you should at least be faithfully burned by those who have them.

Yours, Franz Kafka

 The second note, also undated, written in faded pencil on an even more faded yellow paper read:

Dear Max,
Perhaps this time I shan’t recover after all. Pneumonia after a whole month’s pulmonary fever is all too likely; and not even writing this down can avert it, although there is a certain power in that. For this eventuality therefore, here is my last will concerning everything I have written: Of all my writings the only books that can stand are these: “The Judgment,” “The Stoker,” “Metamorphosis,” “Penal Colony,” “Country Doctor,” and the short story “Hunger Artist” . . .  But everything else of mine which is extant . . .  all these things without exception are to be burned, and I beg you to do this as soon as possible.


Max Brod and Franz Kafka seemed to have a good friendship based on their correspondence and the immense responsibility and trust Kafka put in his friend Brod to destroy all of his work when he died. But when the time came, Brod was unable to go through with Kafka’s wishes – he could not destroy his work because of the value in Kafka’s work. The question posed to Brod and the reader is an ethical question because it is requiring the acting person to deal with “helpful or harmful behavior toward people” and because it deals with one’s judgements of right and wrong (Paul and Elder, 15).  The ethical question now is: did Brod do the right and ethical thing by denying Kafka his dying wish? The answer is yes. Based on the ultimate basis for ethics, the situation Brod was in and the attitude Kafka held, the significance of the work and how it would benefit the public interest, Max Brod was ethical in denying his deceased friend’s dying wish and publishing his work.

In The Thinker’s Guide to Understanding the Foundations of Ethical Reasoning, the bottom line to ethical actions is laid out in a simple explanation that human action needs to result in a way that increases the quality of the lives of the people around them, stating that “The ultimate basis for ethics is clear. Human behavior has consequences for the welfare of others. We are capable of acting toward others in such a way as to increase or decrease the quality of their lives. We are capable of helping or harming” (pg 4). Additionally, when understanding the basics for ethical questions, one must be mindful of the fact that people are not alone in the world and that, “moral conduct does not go in a vacuum. It is lived in society and in social relationships. Ethics in other words, is not concerned solely with so-called ‘right’ intentions or ‘good’ conduct on the part of the individual, but with the general well being of the community” (Schilpp, 62). There are two additional points that can be squeezed out of these statements. One is that ethical actions are ways to “increase or decrease the quality of their lives” (italics for emphasis) (Paul and Elder, 4). The other is that ethical actions are aimed to benefit the general well being of the community and welfare of others. Well, Franz Kafka is dead. There is no more well being that can be given to him. It is a taboo in society to seemingly disrespect the wishes of the dead, probably for two reasons: out of the strong and very natural human emotion attached to people and their memory and people’s fear of death morally dumbfounding people by forcing them to act on strong emotions rather than on ethical reasoning. When one hears that a dying person’s wishes were intentionally denied, most will recoil in disgust. But that reaction, although completely natural, is one that is conditioned into people and “they forget that what is social repugnant to us may not violate any ethical principle but, instead, may merely differ from social convention” (Paul and Elder, 12). The latter point of fearing death themselves speaks to the idea that people fulfill dying wishes in the hopes that others will do the same for them. The fear that their own wishes would not be completed drives most people to take dying wishes very seriously. But it is best to “recognise the vanity and narcissism of the practice, and do what is actually best for the living” and if one is to answer this ethical question with ethical reasoning, taboos need not hold so much weight (Lam, 2017). 

The reason this scenario is such an interesting question is because it is a complex ethical question, one where there is no clear answer. A question in ethics is not on that is set in absolute stone, but rather “a qualitatively personal problem” because the “novel and strange aspects” of the given situation “call for new ways of dealing with them” (Schilpp, 60). Ethical problems, as opposed to legal or otherwise divergent reasoning, are “concerned with the search for and discovery of new or revised proximate objectives for the purpose of dealing in a rationally adequate way with new situations and novel experiences” (Schillp, 58). Additionally, an ethical question is one that requires “one to reason through more than one ethical perspective, and come to reason ethical judgments” and to think critically, one must “identify the viewpoint” of the actors in play as well as distinguishing the facts behind the story and the position the actor was in when making the decision (Paul and Elder, 25 & 29). Paul Schilpp (1936) provides a great foundation for investigating any ethical question when he asserts that “ethical judgments are synthetic rather than analytic, that is to say, they are tentative, searching, and conjecture…Analytic judgements can only dissect the facts, develop the conditions and relations which are either already completely given or await merely descriptive determination”. It is the nature of an ethical query to start with the facts given and the situations the actors find themselves in. 

Now, Brod does not clearly state “my dear friend Kafka would want me to do this” nor does he address the many possible issues at hand clearly and articulately asking what he needs to do. He does, however, give some background to their friendship and Kafka’s attitude toward his own work. This attitude needs to be considered to understand the position Brod was in when making his decision. Kafka was a great writer – a master of the pen, but often downplayed his own work “because certain unhappy experiences had driven him in the direction of a kind of self-sabotage and therefore also toward nihilism as far as his own work was concerned” and although Kafka often referred to his work as mere scribblings, he also “applied the highest religious standard to his art” holding his work to an immensely high standard (Bord, 1). Friends of the great writer had to persuade or push Kafka with great difficulty to share and publish his works. In the end, Kafka was very happy with his published work with that he judged “with an irony which concealed the infinite pathos of a man who admitted of no compromise in his striving for perfection” (Brod, 2). It is no wonder that when Kafka travelled to Austria for treatment for his tuberculosis, he left a note in his office desk for his friend Max Brod declaring it his last request to find all the work in his office – unread written work, diaries, manuscripts, letters, and sketches in the bookcase, cupboard, desk,  or “anywhere else where anything may have got to and meets your eye” and burn them unread (Biography, 2014) (Brod, 2). 

This very serious request was on that put Brod into a “difficult conflict of conscience” because he valued Kafka’s work – in life, Brod never even threw away a postcard from him, and yet, Kafka perhaps knowingly assigned him with this task (Brod, 3). In fact, three years before his death, Kafka expressed his wish to have everything burned – to which Brod replied quite clearly “if you seriously think me capable of such a thing, let me tell you here and now that I shall not carry out your wishes” (Brod, 3). Of course, all of these facts lead the reader to believe, maybe Brod was quite clear in his words and actions that he would never do this and Kafka was well aware. But that is something we can never know for sure. People, have in their very nature, “a strong tendency toward egotism, prejudice, self-justification, and self-deception” (Paul and Elder, 4). One must remain cautious when taking Brod’s word, or any unverifiable claims for that matter just for the reason that people tend to knowingly or unconsciously bend stories and facts to their own benefit. But I am inclined to believe him for the most part because of his transparent ethical courage in releasing the background, reasoning, and honesty in the situation.

Brod was in a difficult situation without a doubt. He was handed the responsibility of Kafka’s work and had to balance his deceased friend’s wish with the benefit society and the general will would receive. Brod later explained that the final justification to his decision was based “solely on the fact that Kafka’s unpublished work contains the most wonderful treasures…in all honesty, I must confess that this one fact of the literary and ethical value of what I am publishing would have been enough to decide me to do so, definitely, finally, and irresistibly” (Brod, 7). One cannot doubt that Brod would want anyone to make the same decision when such a valuable treasure is at stake, satisfying Immanual Kant’s categorical imperative which states that “the maxim implied by a proposed action must be such that one can will that it become a universal law of nature” – this is compared to hypothetical imperatives which are not based on reason and relies on desires of those involved (Honderich, 125). Although most would admit the knee-jerk reaction to carry out the wishes of the dead, when weighing the well being of the people alive and their innumerable descendants and the wishes of a dead writer, the benefits overwhelmingly belong to the public interest. Kafka is dead, so the amount of benefit he would get will always be null. If anyone would benefit from the destruction, it would be Brod knowing that he carried out his close friend’s wishes –  that is not to say this solution is solved by invoking strict utilitarianism or consequentialism – but rather invoking the well being of the society and future readers. 

One cannot solve any complex ethical action without considering the consequential and deontological theories. Consequentialism is the view “that all actions are right or wrong in virtue of the value of their consequences” where as deontologicalism asserts that “certain acts are right or wrong in themselves (Honderich ,154 & 187). One reader may now be thinking that Bord’s actions of denying a friend’s dying wishes while another reader may now be thinking that the consequences of Bord’s actions are justifiable because no one was harmed and many more people benefitted from Kafka’s work being released. Deontology can also be “at its core an adherence to duty. Duty to what you may ask? To moral principles that have been arrived at in some way” and in this case, those moral principles of honoring the dead is a social construct whereas releasing the unpublished works is a real value to society at large (West, 2015). The benefit to deontology is that actions have meanings and doing something out of kindness or some other ethical action is far more ethical than acting because one wants a prize or a goal. The flaw in pure deontology is when telling white lies (such as those told to the enemy interrogators) and when it is applied as through moral absolutists such as deontologist Cardinal John Henry Newman who puts it perfectly:

“it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremist agony, so far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, though it harmed no one, or steal one poor farthing without excuse” (West, 2015)

Besides religious fanatics like medieval Catholics and Puritans, this extreme interpretation is not agreeable and in the situation given, it is unimaginably strict and extremely inflexible given the value of the consequences. Consequentialism, on the other hand is in complete agreement with Brod’s actions because, no matter the actions taken by Brod, the outcome was highly beneficial. Consequentialism is far more flexible in that, though some actions like killing someone is normally wrong but given a certain circumstance, say self-defense, it can be seen as ethical. Just as strict deontology is unimaginable, so is strict consequentialism because the intentions of the actor does not matter and those actions can be used to justify horrible atrocities. One example would be the Tuskegee experiment of the 1930’s where the health and well being of hundreds of men were sacrificed in the name of scientific research (Nix, 2017). Additionally, the problem with using consequences to value ethical judgments is that no one knows the future and “you can’t always know what the consequences of your actions will be!” (West, 2015). The fix for this problem with consequentialism is solved by a deontologist, Immanuel Kant, who asserted that people should never be treated as a means to an end, but rather an end in and of themselves. 

It is also important to note that humans value famous works. If one was to hold the Mona Lisa over a flame, most would be in shock and fear of losing such a valuable piece of art. But when it is revealed to be a duplicate and not the original, onlookers would breathe a sigh of relief. No doubt, if we could witness Brod holding Kafka’s works over the fire, we would have the same reaction. Even though it is of little to no value to Kafka,or rather not something he wants to share, does not mean that society and the general public does not or would not value that piece of art. It has value because society and the public has assigned it value and needs to be treated as such. The value Kafka would have assigned it, given he survived his tuberculosis, or whether or not Kafka knew that Brod would not destroy the work has no meaning other than that which those who knew him can give it. Where the reader stands now is how would denying Kafka’s wish benefit society.

Public administration and government are front and center before the public as servants to their will and threfor are held to a much higher ethical standard than say private businesses who can and do mask their actions and intentions. Administrators represent and are key to the actions and perception of their agency and serve as a model for others to look up to. A huge question posed to the field of public administration is what foundational ethics should they based their and their agencies decisions on.

In fact, when Dr. Terry Cooper began devising the big questions that torment the minds of public administration, he found many asked “whose ethics should we adopt in making ethical decisions” (Cooper, 396). This question, far more broad than the specific situation Brod was placed, addresses the foundation of ethics in the public sector and although there are many nuanced answers to it, the field lacks a professional ethic or a professional identity regarding how ethical decisions should be based. But by far the most “widely recognized and most generally espoused normative touchstone for public administration ethics” is to rely on public interest. When deciding on foundational ethics, administrators should consider the nature of the ethical problem as well as which course of action would result in an ethical result. Ethical decision making is an important part of public administration because those who work and operate in the public sector are often very much exposed to the judgments of the public. The public puts officials into office or has some sort of power of the organization and can seek recourse if they are not satisfied, represented, or respected in the way they want or deserve. Using public interest as an ethical foundation not only creates a sense of duty in public official actions, but it also plays to the Epicurean ideal that Jeremy Bentham appealed to when he asserted that “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters: pain and pleasure. Human action can be distilled down into an avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure” (West, 2015). So not only are those in the public sector acting as servants to fulfill the collective public interest, but they are also ensuring the greatest amount of pleasure. But this ethical foundation is not reserved for the public sector alone – in private life, every individual, when committing to an ethical judgment, must too consider the well being of the public and community around themselves if they wish to be ethical remembering that “the ultimate basis for ethics” is that “human behavior has consequences for the welfare of others” and must consider the wider community who maybe affected by said decisions (Paul and Elder, 4). Dr. Cooper, too, recognized “the public interest has a place in the construction of a normative administrative ethic as our moral compass” and just because the public sector is more exposed to public scrutiny, does not mean the public interest is theirs alone to be concerned with. The other suggestions as to the foundation ethical reasoning in public administration – constitutional theory, citizenship theory, social equality, and virtue are all good ethical principles to hold but become redundant when public interest is honestly held as the highest of ethical principles. 

Just as public interest should be held highest for public administration, all other ethical judgments too must come down to the general welfare of those who could be affected by the actions of the individual. Max Bord, given a seriously difficult task, did the right thing be denying Kafka his last wish by serving the needs of the general public. From the perspective of serving the public interest through a consequentialist point of view as well as satisfying Immanual Kant’s categorical imperative, Brod did society a favor while, harming no one, and helped spread the beauty of Kafka’s work to future generations.


Biography Editors. (2014, April). Franz Kafka Biography. Accessed September 4, 2019 from

Brod, M. (1925) Postscript to the First Edition of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” The Modern Library, New York, 1956).

Cooper, T. L. (2004). Big Questions in Administrative Ethics: A Need for Focused, Collaborative Effort. Public Administration Review, 64(4), pp 395-407.

Honderich, T. (1995). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lam, B. (2017, June). Is it moral to respect the wishes of the dead above the living. Accessed September 4, 2019 from

Nix, E. (2017, May). Tuskegee ExperimentL The Infamous Syphilis Study. Accessed September 5, 2019 from

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2006). The Thinker’s Guide to Understanding the Foundations of Ethical Reasoning (2nd ed.). Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

Schilpp, P. A. (1936). On the Nature of the Ethical Problem. International Journal of Ethics, 47(1), pp 57-69.
West, S. (2015, May). Episode 58 – Kant part 3 – Deontology vs Consequentialism [Audio Podcast]


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