The Ethicist: Is It O.K. for a Chinese Restaurant to Favor Chinese Patrons?

March 17, 2019 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Is It O.K. for a Chinese Restaurant to Favor Chinese Patrons?”.

At a Chinatown restaurant we go to for lunch, there is a “lunch menu” and a “dinner menu.” Whenever a Chinese person comes in, he or she is automatically given the lunch menu. When a non-Chinese person comes in, he or she is usually given the dinner menu. The dinner menu is considerably more expensive and does not have the low-cost luncheon choices. We know this, and so we always ask for the lunch menu, which they bring without a problem. However, a majority of other non-Chinese (usually foreign tourists) who come in do not know about the lunch menu and spend more than they need to. I am always tempted to tell them to ask for the lunch menu. Would that be an ethically sound decision? Or should I just butt out? — Dr. Stephen Feld, New York

My response: While tempting to suggest considering the situation with “male” or “white” for “Chinese,” people’s views on race and sex are already set enough that whether or not they believe people can be racist to whites or sexist to men, this consideration won’t likely change anyone’s view.

In any case, you asked for judgment on your potential reaction. There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

Whatever opinion you get, it functions as a label. Labeling something doesn’t change your situation. You probably want to resolve it more than label it. I suggest that more than a New York Times columnist labeling something for you, you’d benefit from developing the social and emotional skills to resolve the situation and improve your emotional well-being. You’ll lose the excuse to say, “But the New York Times told me to” but gain the ability to resolve these inevitable parts of life without needing others’ help. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. Experience is the best way to learn these things, I’ve found, as have millions of others. I recommend accepting the missteps you’ll make, looking at them as learning experiences, and using them to learn and grow.

The New York Times response: In the scenario you describe, the restaurant’s Chinese staff members are partial to their Chinese neighbors. They give them special treatment. They don’t have anything against non-Chinese, as they show by happily giving you the lunch menu when you ask for it. So they’re motivated by in-group preference, not by out-group hostility.

Some people think that giving preferential treatment to members of your own ethnic kind is as bad as hostility to outsiders. Others even deny that such a distinction can be drawn. I think that’s wrong. In my experience, African-Americans, especially in small towns, often smile and nod at black passers-by and not at white ones. You can have that as a reflex without ever glowering at a white person or refusing to smile back if a person who isn’t black smiles at you. Partiality needn’t be prejudicial.

Granted, we’d feel very different about white servers favoring white customers. But that’s for two reasons. One is a suspicion that, in our society, behavior of that sort would in fact be motivated by negative feelings toward nonwhites — that is, by racism. Another is that whites are a majority in this country. Partiality to your own kind, for minorities, is to some degree a response to the sense that you need to stick together against majority prejudices. White people in America seldom have a reason to respond that way.

The tip-off-the-tourist campaign you propose would reduce proceeds for a restaurant you like, but what motivates you is a sense that what the restaurant is doing is wrong (causing some patrons to pay “more than they need to”). If I’ve persuaded you that what it’s doing is O.K., your zeal may diminish.

Now let’s consider another possible account of the situation. Perhaps the restaurant is simply trying to maximize profits: It has a cohort of Chinese patrons who come for the low-priced lunch specials and wouldn’t eat there otherwise. The tourists, who tend to be more affluent, happily spring for the fancier dinner-menu fare (and might even prefer it). To fill its tables, the restaurant needs both the price-sensitive locals and the more free-spending foreigners.

Is such upselling acceptable? Imagine a restaurant frequented both by rich Wall Street execs and by straitened artists. The first are distinguished by their costly, bespoke suits; the second by their graphic T-shirts and thrift-store derby hats. On the basis of attire, waiters present leather-bound menus with upscale fare to the first group, while handing out photocopies listing cheap specials to the second.

In this variant of the story, apparel replaces ethnicity as the proxy for price sensitivity. Would you consider this way of distributing menus an example of discrimination, in the invidious sense, or merely what economists call “price discrimination,” in which less price-sensitive people are guided to pricier versions of some good? Once again, I’m hoping to persuade you that the differential treatment might not be objectionable — and that the story isn’t much changed from when it was about tourists and Chinese neighbors. Unlike me, you have a firm sense of what people “need to” pay for lunch. But your fellow diners have options beyond the choice of menus. The density of dining establishments in New York’s Chinatown means that every potential patron faces an embarrassment of gastronomic riches.


A university wants to publish my journals, which cover more than 30 years. I’m honored by the prospect, but I’m also wondering about the issues involved. Some of the material is of an explicit sexual nature. I have no problem spilling the beans about myself (I’m gay), but what about the privacy of others? I also air a lot of my family’s “dirty linen” that I know will cause offense and dissension.

Other entries cover aspects of friends’ lives that their families may not be aware of. How do I handle this? I intend to state at the beginning that the journal is just my take on my life. Is that sufficient? I wonder if I should redact names or censor parts, but I am loath to do that as it will weaken the content. If I don’t take that route, do I have a duty to inform those named — an onerous task given that hundreds of people are mentioned — that the entries may be revelatory or even invasive? More important, can I be sued for libel? I don’t want to sanitize the journal, but I also don’t want to find myself in a heap of trouble. Should I give people a chance to respond or wait five or 10 years before publishing, when many of those mentioned will have died? — Name Withheld

My response: Starting simple, for the legality, talking to a professional will answer your questions more effectively than a newspaper columnist, but legality and ethics aren’t the same.

You asked five other questions. My post One of my top principles for business relationships: No surprises covers the rest.

The New York Times response: Questions about libel should be directed to a lawyer, who might also be mindful of statutes concerning, say, invasion of privacy and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. As an ethical matter, however, I can tell you that relationships create obligations. Sexual intimacy usually entails a reasonable expectation of privacy. If your journal records things you’ve been told in confidence, publishing them violates confidentiality. In short, there are various ethical reasons to tread carefully here, perhaps taking measures to ensure that certain people are not easily identified, or that you have their consent, if they are.

As a matter of courtesy, you should try to inform people who could reasonably be upset about what you’ve said about them. Too onerous? The fact that many of the people who would be disturbed by these revelations will be dead soon is indeed an argument for delay. Your most pressing duties are to the living.

And posterity can still benefit from the unexpurgated originals. No doubt your journals have value as social history. That’s a reason to give them to a well-run archive and request that they remain sealed for some period of time. Afterward, the full, unredacted contents would be available to scholars, shedding light without spreading scandal.

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