Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Two Cents, Too Late

January 25, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is a take on today’s post, “Two Cents, Too Late.”

On public transportation, a young man entered my train car and made an announcement requesting money to pay for medication he needed. Three college-age men teamed up to contribute around $20. After the man left the car, a person sitting next to the trio told them that the man was actually a scammer who had used that pitch on a regular basis for a long time. Upon hearing this, the men looked crestfallen. Did the onlooker have the right to devalue their charity? Shouldn’t he have intervened while the money was being offered? Should he have stayed silent afterward? PATRICK BACHLER, CHICAGO

My Answer: Should, should, should. A friend once said to me “Josh, there are very few shoulds in life.” I think he was on to something. I try to avoid telling people what they should do and that strategy has served me well.

I looked up the definition for should. It’s complicated but I’ve found it implies “I know what’s good for you better than you do, ” with a tinge of “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Certainly judging and imposing values on others. Have you found people imposing values on others helpful? I haven’t. Check out “Judging doesn’t annoy people. Imposing values on others does” and the related posts it links to.

“Did the onlooker have the right to devalue their charity”? I can’t imagine you’re asking a free speech issue, but what else can you mean asking about rights? I think you’ll benefit from clarifying your thinking because of course he has the right to speak his mind that way. He doesn’t know how they’ll respond. He could reasonably expect them to appreciate the news. You don’t even know how you feel about it.. If they responded to a scam, they attempted charity but didn’t achieve it. Maybe he prevented them from being scammed more in the future, freeing their budgets to give to other charities.

Your question implies you think there is some absolute best behavior here. There isn’t. If there was you would have looked it up. There isn’t, so you’re asking people their opinions. Is there anything stopping you from coming to your own opinion? What are your priorities?

You asked if he should have intervened in the moment. You didn’t respond in the moment. Why not? You could have actively talked to the people there instead of passively reading opinions of third-parties unaffected by the interaction who only look at abstractly.

The New York Times Answer: First of all, it’s possible that this guy makes the same pitch on a regular basis because he needs the same prescription refilled each month. He might be repeating himself out of necessity. But it’s also possible — in fact, probable — that this is indeed a scam. And that, of course, is unethical. But I don’t think I’d say the same about informing some naïve college students that they just got schooled.

Did the onlooker have the right to “devalue” their charity? Yes. For one thing, his words weren’t altering the literal value of anything; for another, people are entitled to say what they believe to be true, even if others don’t want to hear it. Should he have intervened while the money was being offered? Maybe. But that would require him to directly accuse the panhandler of lying (which he couldn’t prove) and would suggest that his goal was to protect the people offering the cash (when he might have just wanted to teach them a lesson). Should he have stayed silent? Probably. That would be good advice for most people riding a train.

Being a pedantic know-it-all is not unethical (and I should know). You see this onlooker’s behavior as meanspirited and annoying, and you may be right. But that’s a different kind of problem.


I received an unsolicited check in the mail. The accompanying notice explained that it was my part of a class-action settlement relating to a latent defect in the automobiles made by my car’s manufacturer. I have never had any issues with my car; it has been reliable and has performed well. I consider it to be worth the money I paid for it. Can I cash the check? JOHN ANDERSON, SANTA FE, N.M.

My Answer: Why couldn’t you? I can think of a few would-be reasons, but nothing worthy of serious consideration.

The New York Times Answer: The class-action settlement represents an automaker’s concession that its product is defective. Because this defect doesn’t affect you, it seems as though you’re getting something for nothing. But you didn’t angle for this money in any way; the car company simply acknowledged — or was compelled to acknowledge — that the vehicles it sold had an inherent weakness. The fact that the deficiency didn’t affect you doesn’t mean that it won’t come into play later, or that you did not unknowingly take on the risk of driving a car that did not perform to the company’s own standard.

Imagine if this transaction happened at the time of purchase. While you’re buying the car, the dealer says: “We have reason to believe there’s a 2 percent chance this vehicle will have an irreversible defect. As a result, we are proactively reducing the sticker price by 2 percent.” No reasonable person would expect you to embargo that rebate until something actually went wrong.


At a farmers’ market, I paid with what I thought was a $20 bill for a $5 purchase and received $5 in change. I asked the woman at the register if I gave her a $20 bill or a $10 bill, and she wasn’t able to tell me; she’d already put the cash in the register. My wallet had one fewer $20 bill than I thought it should, but I wasn’t absolutely sure. She offered me an additional $10, but I declined, having decided to assume that the mistake was mine. I’m curious: Who owes whom if neither customer nor cashier is sure what happened? J. H., BROOKLYN

My Answer: If you had evidence everyone agreed on you’d use it. There isn’t. It’s a matter of negotiation. If you have poor negotiation skills, or social skills in general, you’ll probably try to bargain with her or guess.

Since I view negotiation as an opportunity to build relationships, I’d use the occasion to create a fun interaction. What else are you going to do when you have no objective criteria? Might as well find ways to enjoy life and create relationships.

Why do people look for objective right and wrong so much? I guess partly because of columns like this one, absent my comments.

Instead of dwelling in rules to follow passively, I’ve found actively interacting with people improves my life more. Those rules don’t exist in some magic book in the sky. They exist in people’s opinions. You have your opinion. I recommend learning to understand your opinions and emotions and living by your values instead of trying to follow other people’s. Otherwise you risk ending up like a rat in a maze.

The New York Times Answer: Whenever I answer a question of this nature, some readers inevitably invoke the mantra “The customer is always right.” I disagree. I think the customer is often wrong, and sometimes a jerk about it. But this situation involves zero jerks. You’re both trying to be ethical — the problem is that neither side knows whether she has been wronged. You each handled the conflict perfectly. But if I had to take a side, I would take yours, simply because it’s not your job to keep track of a business’s cash. Neither you nor the cashier was sure what happened. Yet part of the cashier’s duties is to be cognizant of the money coming in and out of her till. If she had said, “You gave me $10, I’m sure of it,” I would probably side with her (because it’s her responsibility to know these things, and we have to assume that an employee at a farmers’ market is not a con artist). She, however, expressed uncertainty. So she has to cover the possibility of loss.

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