Not the ethicist, part 5

October 1, 2014 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

A friend and I spent the weekend camping. On Monday morning, we were late getting on the road. I was going to be late for a summer course and asked my friend to hurry. At some point, I noticed that we were traveling at 130 m.p.h. I did not say anything because I wanted to make it back to class. Shortly after, we were stopped for speeding. My friend thinks I should help pay for the $500 ticket. I did not tell him to drive 130 m.p.h. Do I have an obligation to help with this ticket? NAME WITHHELD, HOUSTON

My answer: You can pay your friend or not. Calling it an obligation is just opinion and label. He thinks you have an obligation. If someone else doesn’t, as you hope to learn from your letter, does that mean it’s not an obligation? If there was an absolute standard for obligation-ness, you’d consult it, but there isn’t so you don’t, because it’s opinion.

You’re issue, I believe, is what options you have and their consequences. Your options include paying or not paying, trying to influence him to agree with you or not, and so on. The main consequence of your not paying is likely that he will feel frustrated, blame you, and feel justified in blaming you. You can find people who say you weren’t obligated all you want but if he doesn’t change his beliefs, those opinions won’t matter. Most people in his situations would communicate their frustration to your mutual friends. That’s what we humans as social creatures do. Unless you have very strong skills in influence, some will agree with you but others won’t. They’ll call you cheap, unfair, or something like that. Your credibility and friendships will suffer—that’s your likely main consequence of not paying.

If you pay, the likely consequence is that he’ll feel grateful and strengthen your relationship, though you’ll also lose the money you paid him. You can also use the occasion to talk to him and negotiate how much you pay. You can probably improve the relationship from its current state and avoid paying half.

You can try to create other options too.

By the way, you didn’t mention if you were already paying gas, tolls, and wear and tear on the car or were getting a free ride to that point. That may also affect how he and the mutual friends he tells.

The New York Times answer: I’m glad you “noticed” that you were traveling 130 m.p.h. That would be a rather extreme phenomenon not to notice, even if you were writing this letter from Germany and commuting on the autobahn.

You concede that you urged your friend to “hurry,” which equates to directly telling him to drive faster than the posted speed limit (unless your friend regularly drives his vehicle below the legal limit, but — considering the manner in which he tried to satisfy your request — that does not seem like a plausible possibility). You didn’t instruct him to drive 130 m.p.h., but you also didn’t tell him to slow down when you realized he was. And while you both overslept, you were the only person who had a stake at arriving anywhere at a specific time. Your buddy broke the law to compensate for your irresponsibility.

As the vehicle’s operator, the driver is legally responsible for the violation. As the motivating factor of this infraction, you are ethically responsible. Split the difference.


Recently I had to travel from Montreal to Chicago, one way. I saw that Montreal-Chicago flights were exorbitant. I checked alternatives and saw that Montreal-Milwaukee flights were about half the price. Upon looking more closely, I saw that the flights to Milwaukee were not direct; they involved connections. One itinerary involved going through Chicago. This created the absurd situation in which two flights cost less than the single Montreal-Chicago direct flight. Is it O.K. to book the cheaper Montreal-Chicago-Milwaukee itinerary and be a no-show for the second flight? EPHRAIM HALIVNI, JERUSALEM

My answer: Is it O.K.? You realize you’re just asking someone their opinion, right? The airlines probably don’t think it’s okay.

You may want to consider the consequences of your actions. Unlike the case above, the counterparty to your deal is a large corporation that can’t complain to your friends. It may keep track of people who do what you do. If so, I can only speculate on what it would do. It may refuse to sell you tickets in the future, communicate with other airlines with similar interests to refuse to sell you tickets later too, or who knows what. I’m just guessing.

It may not keep track of your actions and you may find no consequences to your actions. You could call the company and find out, even anonymously. Maybe someone there will tell you there’s no problem.

The New York Times answer: Absolutely. Purchasing something doesn’t mean you’re obligated to consume it in totality. You can use whatever portion of the purchase you choose. If you buy a loaf of bread, you don’t have to eat every slice.

It’s blatantly obvious these flight prices are not based on the amount of fuel, maintenance and labor required for the respective journeys. The airlines are manipulating the prices based on demand. No one is losing money here — you are paying the full price required for a trip to Milwaukee and simply electing to suspend your travels midway there. If you really want to be a good person, inform an airline representative in Chicago that you will not be boarding the flight to Milwaukee; this way, someone trying to get to Wisconsin on standby can be pushed onto the flight.

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