Honing Moral Values


The Ethicist

Trying to become virtuous merely by excluding vice
is as unrealistic as trying to cultivate roses simply by eliminating weeds.

- Gary Ryan Blair

Source: The Christian Science Monitor

by Randy Cohen

Dirty Pallet

When I was an ad coordinator for a large supermarket chain, I saw a woman fall over a pallet in the frozen-food aisle.  It had no business being there.  When the manager asked if I saw anything, I lied and said no.  Was my obligation to the woman or to the company?

- Keith Hoffman, NJ

You had an obligation to the truth.  While there is seldom an affirmative legal duty to report wrongdoing, having been asked about the fall you ought not have lied.  Not to sound too highfalutin, but this is not a matter of loyalty; it's a matter of honesty.  And if this episode became a court case and you were called to testify, you certainly don't want it to become a matter of perjury.  Judges can be so crotchety.

I'm mindful that some vulnerable employees may put their jobs at risk if they report wrongdoing (the New York supermarket delivery people who reported wage-law violations come to mind).  But as an advertising manager you were lucky enough to face less peril when fulfilling your civic duty - as well as your duty to the stumbling customer - to be an honest witness.

Fur Her Own Good

I recently confronted a stranger for wearing a fur coat, denouncing her for the violence and cruelty that went into making her unnecessary garment.  The friend I was with said what I did was wrong, but I think I was simply speaking out against an evil.  What do you think?

- Kevin O'Connor, New York

You denounced her?  The fostering of social progress sometimes obliges one to jettison civility, but you seem to do so with an alacrity reminiscent of the French Revolution.  While the animals rights folks may have the ethical high ground here, I'm not sure that haranguing strangers on the street is the ideal form of protest - although it no doubt kindles within you the warm glow of moral superiority.  Vigourously advocating your point of view is entirely appropriate, but a burly guy (assuming you've achieved burliness) browbeating a lone woman (the sex that predominates in the fur-wearing classes) is not advocacy; it's bullying.

There is a hierarchy of wrongdoing that calls for a hierarchy of responses: the greater the wrong, the more vigourously one may oppose it.  It would have been ludicrous in 1850, for example, to urge Frederick Douglass to soften the tone of his abolitionist editorials in the North Star.  In addition, one must match means to targets.  Thus, you ought not harass my imaginary Aunt Mimma for wearing the fox stole she has owned since 1956.  Instead, hand her a leaflet.  And then rally your confreres to picket the biannual fashion shows in Bryant Park, which could be to anti-fur protesters in 2001 what the Pentagon was to antiwar protesters in 1967.

When you are in doubt about a particular tactic, here's a helpful guideline: ask yourself, "Am I working for social change or am I venting?"

Touched Litter Becomes Yours

When I come back to the mall parking lot and find an advertisement under the windshield wiper of my car, am I under any obligation to find a trash can or may I throw it on the ground?  After all, I didn't ask anyone to put it on my car, it doesn't belong to me and I consider it a nuisance.

- Eric Sommer, Israel

The question isn't where the garbage came from but where it's going.  I suggest a trash can.  To do otherwise means living waist deep in, well, waste.  The advertiser's bad behaviour doesn't obviate your obligation to act with civility.  Much of life is passed in circumstances not of our making.

There is no alternative that acknowledges the origins of your trash; take the flier back to whatever store produced it.  Or the store owner's front porch.  Late at night.  Loudly.  Accompanied by the phrase: "Excuse me.  I believe this is yours."

Send your queries to ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036 and include a daytime phone number.

What's in a Name?

by Joann C Jones

During my second year of nursing school, our professor gave us a quiz.  I breezed through the questions until I read the last one: "What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?"  Surely this was a joke.  I had seen the cleaning woman several times, but how would I know her name?  I handed in my paper, leaving the last question blank.  Before the class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward our grade.  "Absolutely," the professor said.  "In your careers, you will meet many people.  All are significant.  They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say hello."  I’ve never forgotten that lesson.  I also learned her name was Dorothy.

Major Differences: God and Morality, Homosexuality

The 1995 survey of journalists found particularly sharp differences between journalists and the public when it came to attitudes toward morality and homosexuality.  A solid majority of Americans consistently have expressed the opinion that it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person.  Nearly 6 in 10 (58%) expressed that view in a 2002 Pew Research Centre survey, while 40% said that belief in God is not a prerequisite for morality.  Journalists, regardless of their organisation and position, take a decidedly different view.  Fully 91% of those who work at national news organisations say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral; 78% of local journalists agree.

As was the case in 1995, journalists are much more accepting of homosexuality than is the general public.  Overwhelming majorities of national (88%) and local (74%) journalists say homosexuality should be accepted by society.  Only about half of the public agrees (51%).

Since the mid-1990s, however, public support has increased for societal acceptance of homosexuality, while journalists' attitudes have been more stable.  In a 1993 Times-Mirror survey, most Americans (53%) said homosexuality should be discouraged; today a narrow majority (51%) believes homosexuality should be accepted.  National journalists also have become slightly more accepting of homosexuality since 1995 (83% then, 88% today), while local journalists' views have been stable (75% then, 74% today).

Source: people-press.org

Perhaps journalists tend to be more in touch with reality?

I pity those people who think you cannot be a moral person without a belief in god.  Why would someone think that?  I can only assume it's because they're short on self-discipline, self control and self-love.  Lacking trust in themselves, they need to believe that god is always watching (and caring!) what they do.  I see them as motivated mainly by a fear of punishment.  And those who find it difficult to accept homosexuality - a natural state occurring in a fairly fixed percentage of the population (and yes, found in lots of animal species as well) are likely the same ones who find it difficult to accept their new neighbours who have a different ethnic background.  These people, religion or no, live lives that are less rich...

The Ethical 10 Commandments


Tricking a New Sales Assistant into Charging $200 for a $4,000 Wedding Dress...

I was so excited!  My long-term boyfriend had finally proposed and we were getting married.  We'd been together for 7 years and didn't want to wait any longer.  We set the date for 3 months away and I threw myself into preparations.  I was determined to have the most amazing wedding ever, but was soon shocked by the cost of everything.  We were keeping things pretty simple but we'd already gone well over our budget and I was becoming increasingly stressed as I tried to hide our spiralling debt from my fiancĂ©.  During this time my fiancĂ© was offered a job back in our hometown.  He decided to take the job so we had to add moving costs to our growing debts.

My best friend and I went dress shopping and I found the wedding dress I wanted to wear.  It was a gorgeous gown, long and white and elegant.  It cost $4,000 and although this was more than I wanted to pay, I'd fallen in love and just had to have it.  I couldn't even afford the minimum deposit but the sales assistant let me pay $100 if I promised to make regular weekly payments.  We were moving the following week and as we'd be staying with my parents for the first week and didn't have a confirmed address yet, I gave the bridal shop the address of the place we would be moving out of.  I figured I'd just change the address at a later date.  I danced out of the shop, delighted with my dream dress.

The following week I went back to the shop to make my next payment before we moved away.  I knew we'd be coming back often enough to make regular payments as we still had many friends in town.  I looked for the sales assistant who had helped me the week before but she didn't seem to be there.  The young girl behind the counter explained that she had just started at the job.  I told her I was making a lay-by payment and gave her my name.  She looked through her file for my card, all the while chatting about how excited she was to have started this new job.  She pulled out my card and asked if I was making my final payment, seeing as there was only $100 left outstanding.  She had obviously mixed up the amount I'd paid with what was owing.  I froze as I realised her mistake.  I felt terrible and knew I was doing the wrong thing but I couldn't stop thinking about all the money troubles we'd been having while trying to organise the wedding.  If I could get out of paying for my dress it would really help.

I started talking to distract her from realising her mistake and paid as quickly as I could.  As I left the store with my beautiful dress, I thought about how I had probably cost that girl her new job.  I felt sick but forced myself to think about how much I had saved.  We moved from that town several days later so they had no way of tracking me.

We had a beautiful wedding and settled in happily to our new home.  Everyone told me I looked beautiful in my dress - a dress that should have cost $4,000 but ended up costing $200 and most probably that girl's job, not to mention the loss for the bridal shop.  I never told my husband what I did - he'd be horrified by my dishonesty.  He sometimes wonders why I go out of my way to avoid returning to our old town.  I'm too ashamed to admit that I'm terrified someone from the bridal shop will recognise me.

Source: womansday.ninemsn.com.au 10 May 2007

What goes around comes around.  This person is now a thief.  The dress was not as cheap as she thought...

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