Many years ago in California, a salesman showed up in my office holding a cardboard tray enticingly stuffed with cookies, candy bars, and chips.
“I’m going to leave this in your break room,” he said. “No, I don’t want any money up front. We’re HonorSnacks. We trust that when one of you takes something, you’ll deposit the correct change."
“What if people don’t leave the money?”
“In my experience, people are basically honest.”
I rolled my eyes. Yes, we were reasonably honest folks. But (and I did try to explain this to him) we were also young, overworked graphic artists with deadlines that required very long hours at our drawing boards. The packet of Cheetos grabbed at midnight, and virtuous intentions to settle the tab later, would inevitably be forgotten in the mad rush to get the next project out the door.
“It’ll be fine,” he insisted.
You won’t be surprised to hear that three weeks later the HonorSnacks guy stood glowering in my doorway, brandishing a battered, empty cardboard tray and a small handful of change that was far, far short of what was due.
“You slit your own throats,” he growled.
I was reminded of the HonorSnacks incident as I listened to Rich describing what he’d learned about ethics in Harvard University’s Justice course. He’d recently completed this popular 12-week online study program, which is free if you don’t want the Harvard diploma for your wall. I offered to use my graphics skills to create a fake one for him, but instead he’s simply going around telling everyone he graduated from Harvard.
“What's the take-home message from the course?” I asked.
“We studied political philosophy and ethical theory from Aristotle onwards,” he said. “It may sound like esoteric stuff. But as the teacher pointed out, we’re faced with ethical questions every day of our lives, small ones and big ones.”
We all know ethics can be slippery. My favorite definition comes from former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “Ethics is the difference between knowing what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”
“The professor,” Rich told me, “emphasized the difference between consequential and categorical morality.”
“Consequential morality is all about the outcome. The ends justify the means. It’s OK to rob a bank to keep your kids from starving. Categorial morality says that some things are just plain wrong, like murder, and can’t be justified under any circumstances. It’s not OK to murder your great-aunt to get money to feed your kids.”
“So it’s about what you’re prepared to do to achieve something?”
“In part. There’s a classic moral dilemma known as ‘The Trolley Problem.’ Imagine you’re on a bridge over some tracks and see a runaway trolley that’s about to kill five people. A fat man is standing next to you, and you realize if you push him off the bridge, he will fall on the track, and his massive body will derail the trolley car, saving five lives. The question is, would you kill the fat man?”
“Well, for a start, I doubt I’m strong enough to heave a fat man over the railing. And I am positive that I could not properly calculate his trajectory to be sure that he’d fall on the track in a way that would derail the trolley.”
“My point — and I do have one," said Rich, "is that from the consequential ethics standpoint, the outcome would justify the killing, but categorical thinkers wouldn’t agree.”
My head was beginning to spin with the effort to grasp all this. But in a vague way I saw what he meant. It’s about different ways to calculate what you’re justified in doing in order to achieve your goals. For instance, Rich and I recently resorted to a little trickery to obtain Covid tests. Was that morally wrong?
As you may have heard, Spain has lost its “safest destination in Europe” status and is now swamped with cases — 161,000+ on December 30th alone — although hospitalizations and deaths remain mercifully low. Masks are now mandatory outdoors unless you’re eating, drinking, doing sports, or sunbathing. (Yes, they have their priorities straight. No facial tan lines!)
Some areas have curfews and other restrictions, but Andalucía’s officials believe we should eat, drink, and be merry now — then cope with the fallout after January 6, when Three Kings Day marks the end of the holidays. In Seville, the shopping, dining out, and partying continue unabated, and no one wants to cancel the Three Kings parade or repeat last year’s compromise — the trio passing overhead in a hot air balloon.
Of course, everyone’s aware of the Covid risk and self-testing like mad. Home test kits, which were plentiful in Seville a few weeks ago, grew desperately scarce by December 20th.This put me in a bit of a pickle, as I’d asked my 17 guests to self-test (twice, if possible) before coming to lunch on Christmas. Rich and I had ten kits on hand already, but we began scouring the city for more. We finally found one pharmacy that had some but would only sell us five. We bought those and kept looking, unsuccessfully, until I had my brilliant idea.
“Go back to where we bought those last tests,” I said.
“But they’ll recognize me,” he objected.
“Not if you’re in disguise.”
So Rich put on a different jacket, a baseball cap in lieu of his trademark fedora, his other glasses, and my red scarf — and walked out of that pharmacy with five more tests. He is still basking in the glow of carrying off a successful clandestine mission.
From the standpoint of consequential ethics, his pharmacy caper was fully justified. Technically, the categorical thinkers might say we didn’t have a right to those test kits, but Rich and I felt that making sure our guests were safe was a moral imperative. And luckily, additional test kits were soon shipped to pharmacies throughout the city, so nobody went without.
From Aristotle to Potter Stewart to all of us, people have spent thousands of years trying to define what’s right, and it never gets easier. To me, the best starting point is considering the common good. And in this era of FOO (Fear of Omicron), the common good calls for doing our best not to catch or spread Covid. So Rich and I are voluntarily isolating at home for a few weeks. We’re going out for walks, shopping, even having an occasional coffee in an outdoor café, but we're not sitting barefaced within contagion distance of others. I’m enjoying the time to paint, write, do jigsaw puzzles, make comfort food, and solve TV mysteries.
Naturally, Rich has jumped into a new study project: pigeons. His conversation is studded with such gems as “Did you know pigeons can see in color? And they can recognize human faces in photographs!” Yes, it’s pretty thrilling stuff. Watch for an in-depth post on pigeons soon. In the meantime, stay safe, be kind, and just say “no” if the HonorSnacks guy ever shows up at your door.
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1/4/2022 06:01:33 pm
1/5/2022 08:23:37 am
What an exciting adventure you and your husband are embarking on, Linda! I don't envy you the process of clearing out a big house. We were lucky, in a way, that we had just about a month to clear out the Ohio home we'd loved for 20 years. We had to get ruthless! Of course, when it's other people's stuff, your hands are tied, and you'll have to find room somewhere in your Montana home for the books, clothes, and the PS3 player and games. But once all the sorting and fuss are over, you should have a grand time. Let me know how it all goes and what you think of expat life in Portugal. Good luck and safe travels!
DENISE SANANTONIO ZEMAN
1/4/2022 06:19:08 pm
Thanks for the delightful post, Karen. The part about Rich in disguise made me laugh out loud (a bit of a novelty during this period of isolation due to our raging Ohio cases.) Stay healthy!
1/5/2022 08:28:39 am
Yes, I heard Ohio is very hard hit, Denise, and with only 55% fully vaxxed it's likely to remain vulnerable for a while. Stay safe, my friend! As for the post, yes, Rich had a ball dressing up for his clandestine mission and we got a lot of good chuckles out of it. I was glad to have a cheerful story to share in these challenging times.
1/4/2022 06:39:54 pm
Just love this, Karen.
1/5/2022 08:40:00 am
Thanks, Tobey. Like you, I am so ready to be done with FOO! But in the meantime, it's great to know that Rich will always come up with some new interest to enliven our conversation. As you know from studying the corvids, birds are not the slightest bit worried about moral dilemmas, the state of the pandemic, or whatever shocks and surprises lie ahead in 2022. Hmmm, maybe they're onto something?
1/4/2022 07:36:33 pm
There were lots of chuckles in this one, but the photo of the pigeon with a ring of bread around its neck did me in. Doesn't he know how dangerous that is? It's like wearing a diamond necklace in a sketchy neighborhood, and that pigeon is definitely in a sketchy area.
1/5/2022 08:45:17 am
I'm with you, Nancy. The pigeon photo is priceless. I actually found several pictures of pigeons wearing bread around their necks, and YouTube has a video of a pigeon putting on a second bread necklace (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRAxl29hXq8). It's a hoot. Yes, I worry they'll attract the wrong kind of attention, but what can you do? Apparently it's pigeon nature.
1/4/2022 10:38:36 pm
Love this post! When I saw the headline, I thought you were going to describe a fiasco regarding an honor system treat box in Spain! Good heavens. Is that even a thing there?
1/5/2022 08:54:59 am
Honor snacks in Spain? Never! Like your Italian friends, they roar with laughter at the idea anyone would pay up voluntarily if they could just take the Oreos and Cheetos for free. As you point out, Kathy, it's a cultural difference. I remember being in a German city late at night, when there wasn't a car anywhere in sight, and pedestrians waited patiently at each intersection for the light to turn green before crossing. That too is inconceivable to my Spanish amigos. It's a different mind set, for sure!
1/5/2022 04:40:24 am
Indeed a fun post, Karen!
1/5/2022 10:10:23 am
Glad you liked the post, Faye. As for the Supreme Court justices, I agree we all have to set our own ethical standards and hold ourselves accountable rather than expect moral guidance from that quarter. They're experts on the law. But as as ethicist Michael Josephson put it, "Ethics is doing more than the law requires and less than the law allows." Which means it's up to us!
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
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