Not the ethicist 3

September 28, 2014 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment, Tips

Continuing my series on responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on them, here is a take on an earlier post, “Sketched Out on the Subway“.

I was sitting next to someone on the subway who was surreptitiously sketching portraits of fellow commuters. I once spotted someone opposite me doing this, and actually changed cars when I suspected he was eyeing me as a subject. Being present in a public space does not seem akin to offering permission to record your likeness without consent, despite the intended (lack of) audience or purpose of the final piece. Unlike being captured in a tourist’s random photograph, this act seems to involve a level of scrutiny, focus and invasiveness that makes me uncomfortable. Is it ethical to draw someone without his or her permission or knowledge? CHRISTIANA MAVROMATIS, BROOKLYN

My answer: Your comparison of sketching to taking photographs implies you’re thinking about the legality too. A lawyer can give you that perspective, which I expect will begin with “It depends…”

As for the ethics, that’s a matter of opinion. Obviously the sketchers consider their behavior ethical and you don’t. You’re asking others because you know there is no absolute standard. Otherwise you would have found your answer and moved on.

The question I consider important is what you do about it and the consequences of your actions. One time you moved away, which sounded like it solved the problem, though you still want closure, which you are looking for outside yourself. I think you’ll resolve the issue more conclusively for yourself not by asking others but by considering your values.

If you considered the sketching wrong, you could have called the sketcher out or told the sketchee what was happening. I suspect in both cases others would consider your actions a bigger problem than the sketching, but you never know.

An action that comes to my mind is that you could have talked to the sketchers. I find I can learn a lot from people whose values differ from mine so I think you could have learned from them. Their sketching in public almost invites others to ask them about it. Maybe you could have learned from the sketcher something new about art and working in public you never thought of. In my experience, the more open you are to learn someone else’s opinion, the more open they become to learning yours.

I find suffering in silence hurts yourself.

The New York Times Answer: Part of what makes this question compelling is your discomfort with an act that most people view as vaguely flattering (which is not to say you should be flattered by this — I’m just noting that it’s something people seem to like). I certainly understand your argument and your desire to be left alone. But I still wouldn’t classify this practice as unethical for two reasons.

The first point is that having your image drawn against your will is not the same as being photographed against your will. A photograph is generated by a machine that uses optical technology to capture your actual likeness. It is literally a one-to-one depiction of who you are at a specific moment (unless the photographer uses additional technology to distort it). But a drawing is always interpretive. It’s not really you; it’s someone’s artistic construction of what she believes you look like (and if the artist is into something like Cubism, it might not resemble you at all). You possess the rights to your image, but you don’t possess the rights to what someone thinks you look like. Now, if we were debating the commercial rights to your image, everything changes: If the artist were slapping your face on a bag of potato chips, a photograph and a recognizable drawing can be viewed interchangeably. But that’s not the problem we’re dealing with, nor is it your central concern. We’re just considering the ethical difference between capturing your image with a machine and interpreting your image by hand, and the difference is significant.

The second point has to do with the aspect of the experience that you find most unsettling: the “scrutiny, focus and invasiveness” of the artist’s eye. Basically, you’re saying you don’t want anyone looking at you with this level of intensity. But the sketch is secondary to this. Someone could stare at you with “scrutiny, focus and invasiveness” even if he had no intention of drawing your picture. (Someone could also avoid looking at you completely while taking your photo.) If you’re in public, people are allowed to look at you. This can be creepy and annoying, but it’s not unethical. If the individual scrutinizing you starts sketching your face, you can say, “Don’t do that,” and the person should stop (out of normal human courtesy). But the act is not inherently unethical.


A local restaurant advertises Sunday brunch for $10, including a complimentary Bloody Mary, mimosa, house wine or draft beer. I dined there with my wife and two teenage children. My wife and I each enjoyed our free cocktail. Then, during the meal, I told the waitress that I wanted the additional free Bloody Mary that came with one of my children’s brunches. She obliged. But when I received the check, there was a $7 charge for the second cocktail. She said that the owner had instructed her to charge me. I inquired with the owner, who told me that each brunch comes with a complimentary cocktail, but because the children were not of legal drinking age, their cocktail could not be served. Was the owner ethically obligated to serve me the cocktail that my teenager could not have? NAME WITHHELD, LOCUST VALLEY, N.Y.

My answer: As above, asking about ethics is just asking another person’s opinion. The owner thinks they were right and it sounds like you disagree. If there were an objective measure or ethics, you would have looked it up, but there isn’t so you couldn’t.

Besides, what does it matter what label you attach to this past behavior? You can’t change the past. You can learn from it, though. I think one of the most valuable things you could learn is how to respond more productively the next time.

You had an opportunity to resolve the conflict rather than just accept the owner’s opinion—at least you could share your perspective without trying to impose it on them. As you wrote it, you specified you expected a free drink. When the owner suggested bringing you a drink that wasn’t free, they instructed the waitress to bring you something you hadn’t ordered. I suspect calmly pointing out that the restaurant brought you something different than you expected, maybe suggesting that you would have expected them to tell you they didn’t see things as you did yet still delivered the drink, would have led the owner to drop the charge.

The New York Times Answer: He was not. If I owned the restaurant, I would have probably let you have it — but the actual owner was not “ethically obligated” to do so.

When a restaurant creates a special, it also establishes the parameters for how that product operates. The offer doesn’t become some kind of inalienable right. The stated policy is not a semantic word puzzle that the consumer is supposed to dissect for maximum value; it is a reasonable description of what the special generally entails, expressed in good faith by the establishment. This special is a brunch that comes with an alcoholic drink. If your under-age kid orders the brunch, it would be reasonable for him or her to request a nonalcoholic version of the included beverage. But if the restaurant’s policy is that the accompanying drink is explicitly designated for the person eating the meal — and because alcohol can’t be served to minors — it can decree that the drink can’t be passed over to you.

Read my weekly newsletter

On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Sign up for my weekly newsletter