I'm curious as to how much free help is it fair for me to ask.

I have been trying to learn some pretty technical material by reading a someone's online notes. At one point, I e-mailed this person to ask for some clarification , and he was very generous in offering help. He also gave me a green light for asking more questions. I asked whether I could do something to reciprocate, like doing spellchecks, etc., and he replied that no, it was not necessary. This person has now replied around twenty of my questions. How much longer is it fair for me to ask for his help? I do make it a point to go as far as I can in answering the questions myself, and then to ask specific, carefully-phrased questions to make it easier for him to reply. I periodically thank him for the help. What aspects/variables should I consider in deciding whether to ask questions, and on how much longer is it fair for me to expect some help?

EDIT. Maybe to make this more philosophical in scope: what are one's obligations when interacting with someone who may be too generous for their own good?

Thanks in Advance.

  • 1
    Unfortunately off-topic. I'm guessing it should soon be welcome on Etiquette.SE. Check that out; commit if you're interested. Apr 27 '14 at 5:46
  • But I'm concerned with the fairness of getting free help, not on whether I'm going about doing it in an acceptable way. How long can I expect to receive help when someone offers help for free? Isn't this general-enough to be a question in ethics? Is it fair for me to go on accepting help when the help is offered for free. Am I taking advantage of someone who may be too generous for his own good by continuing to receive help?
    – Guest
    Apr 27 '14 at 5:49
  • Vote retracted. I hope others agree with you and it leads to interesting answers. Apr 27 '14 at 5:59
  • 1
    Suggestion: start doing the same for people in an area where you have expertise. Tell the person you're asking questions that he/she inspired you to do this. Perhaps he/she will see that as the best way of paying him/her back.
    – labreuer
    Apr 28 '14 at 0:17
  • It varies with context. For instance, in bicycling forum (or any kind of internet forum), free help is almost its reason for existence and accepted and expected. But if you were to try ask for a lot of advice at a bike shop without spending any money, you could be crossing boundaries.
    – obelia
    Apr 28 '14 at 0:25

Your broader philosophical question is, I think, an easier question to approach from a philosophical view point.

"What are one's obligations when interacting with someone who may be too generous for their own good?"

Different View Points

The Utilitarian

Depending on the utilitarian you are most likely morally right to continue to ask for help as long as the following are true.

  1. The unhappiness you would suffer from not asking for and receiving the information is greater than the unhappiness he is suffering from providing the information.

  2. There are no other options that would produce greater utility.

The first criteria is probably fairly easy to assume. If the person is continuing to reply than obviously they are not suffering greatly as they are under no obligation to reply. One could even argue that people who posses knowledge often times give away their knowledge for free because it makes them happy, so this situation could be mutually beneficial. On the opposing side the person could be unhappily giving out information for free in which case you would be morally wrong to continue to ask them for help (provided #2 is true), however interestingly it is also morally wrong for them to continue to give out information if their unhappiness is greater than the unhappiness you would have without the information (again provided #2 is true). You would have to weigh all the exchanges you've had with the person to determine what you think their happiness would be and also examine what your happiness would be without the information in order to determine if the first criteria is true.

The second criteria is important because it is most likely where your morality is called into question. Provided that the first part is true you are morally obligated to look at all other options, such as enrolling in a class, purchasing a book, or even hiring a personal expert on the subject. All options have to accessed. Then within each of these you must consider the happiness of all parties involved. This may seem daunting however their are a few quick questions that could put to rest most of these scenarios. Most likely you are morally right if the other person is gaining happiness through knowing their own charity and possibly living vicariously through a young mind. You are most likely immoral if you could just as easily (if money isn't an issue) enroll in a course and stop pestering someone who has better things to do.

For more info on utilitarianism see the wikipedia page and look for instances of the greatest happiness principle.

A Categorical Imperative

If you believe in Kantianism than you must follow these steps. (taken from wikipedia)

  1. Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

  2. Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

  3. Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.

In essence you would have to believe in something like this: "It is morally right to continue to ask for something as long as the other person allows you to." and believe it should be a categorical imperative.

Bits of Classical Liberalism

It's important to note that you are making a very big assumption in the second half of your question. You propose the idea that you are able to judge whether or not someone else is "too generous for their own good". Classical liberalism calls into question this idea, in terms of government, whether it is up to you to impose your view of the good on another person. So you could conclude that the only obligation that you have to the other person is that you always give them the right not to answer you.


There is no set answer to this question it has to do with what you believe. I hope that you can agree with one of the above points and that one of them answers your question.


In reality it is very hard to set up limits. In anything. It is hard to set up limits YES, but it is even harder to follow them.

Usually it is good to brake limits (probably always). Because you will discover what lies beyond them and more.

Now you maybe exceeded desired limit of interaction with this kind person but you got something VERY important out of it - it MADE you think. Made you reason about limits of this type of communication.

Out of something possibly very mundane you arrived at very global and serious question.

Generous side also did not lose anything. Perhaps the kind person lacks the ability to say - "Sorry I am busy at the moment, good luck in your findings". And this is also something very important -- active understanding when to stop and when to start. Your overwhelming queries could helped him to start thinking about his own communication/thinking habits. OR! It could pushed him to write a better notes and formulate ideas more clearly.

Potentially you both benefited a lot from this situation.

I think globally there is no such thing as too much help, because too much help makes receiver weaker (like lion in a zoo) and receiver himself will break helping mode.

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