Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Taxicab Confessions.”
Last night I witnessed an assault on a taxi driver. After the passenger jumped out of the cab and kicked it repeatedly, the driver got out and confronted the man. The man suddenly began throwing punches, and a legitimate brawl ensued during which the man yelled things like “go back where you came from” and “I was born in this country, you weren’t.” A small crowd gathered to break up the fight. When the police arrived, I stuck around to defend the cabdriver. The police listened but told me they did not need me as an official witness. I wished the cabdriver luck and went across the street to watch the aftermath play out. The passenger, a black man, was claiming that the cabdriver would not take him to Harlem but that he probably would have if he were white. The police did not arrest the man, nor did they appear to do much of anything in the way of even taking information. During the brawl I heard a ring bounce toward me across the street. I picked it up, and after the cabdriver called the police, I asked him if the ring was his. He said it belonged to the other man. I asked somewhat conspiratorially if he wanted the ring anyway, but he said no. When I got home, I found it was a Cartier wedding band that sold new from $1,100 to $1,600. Today I found a posting on Craigslist, seemingly from the passenger, seeking his ring, lost during an assault, in exchange for a reward. So what do I do? J.P., NEW YORK
My response: While the story leading up to you possessing a ring was interesting, the only relevant information I saw was that you have someone else’s property and you know how to reach that person.
I can’t think of a reason not to return it except that if you keep it no one will know.
As always, my criteria are the results of your actions on other people. If you keep it, a man will be out a ring. He won’t know to hold you responsible since he doesn’t know you. If I were you I’d have trouble sleeping. If you can sleep well after keeping the ring, I guess you could try keeping it. I guess you could also brag to your friends that you stole something from someone you disagreed with or think you’re better than. I don’t see value in keeping the ring unless you value those results.
Also, the Craig’s List ad won’t stay up forever. If you don’t act soon, you may never be able to return it. It seems if you plan to act ever, you have to do it soon.
The New York Times response:
Kenji Yoshino: At first I was completely on your side: you were a witness, you had more information than the police, your willingness to stick around and give up your time to share that information is laudable. At the point at which the police informed you that your services were not required, you should have retired from the scene. You don’t disclose any reason to believe the police were not doing their job except for your perception that they were not doing “much of anything”; they at least had the opportunity, which you didn’t, to speak with various witnesses, and you have no idea what transpired in the cab before the altercation began.
After you picked up the ring, you should have taken it directly to the police regardless of whether you thought it belonged to one of the parties. Asking this cabdriver “somewhat conspiratorially” whether he would like to use the ring as leverage over the passenger is unethical behavior, because you’re tempting him to engage in private revenge. We have the state take over the policing function to break such cycles of personal revenge. In taking the ring home, you’re setting yourself up as the arbiter of right and wrong. Let the police sort it out.
Amy Bloom: I did wonder if, once you saw the posting on Craigslist, the right thing was to return the ring to the police along with the Craigslist listing or if it would be equally right to return the ring to the passenger. And I wondered about the reward.
Kwame Anthony Appiah: Taking the reward is probably not a good idea. The reward is meant to incentivize behavior above and beyond the norm. If you know that something belongs to somebody, then it’s not especially good behavior to try and get it back to them. Still, I think once you know how to get ahold of the person, I would be just as happy with your sending it back as going by way of the police.
Even if it were O.K. to hold onto the ring of the person that behaved badly, you don’t actually know how badly he behaved. You didn’t see the whole story. If anything did go wrong, if there was an assault here, the task of a court would be to figure that out. But I don’t see any problem myself in returning the ring directly to the person it belongs to if you’re sure that that’s the situation.
Bloom: The smarter thing is to just butt out at this point, just bring it to the attention of the police and say, “Here’s the ring, here’s the Craigslist posting and here you have it,” and get out of the situation with your partial knowledge.
Appiah: Imagine a world in which people were constantly making decisions of this sort on the basis of whether they thought you were really a good person; imagine if nobody was returning credit cards without an assurance that they were returning them to a person they approved of. I think you did an honorable thing in coming to the assistance of a fellow citizen who was under attack, especially under a kind of attack that sounds as though it was xenophobic. But beyond that, I’m afraid I agree with my colleagues that you’ve done the wrong thing.
And I’ve been talked around to the view that it’s probably better to send the ring to the police with an indication that you know whose it is.
Yoshino: Also, we don’t know that the Craigslist poster is the ring’s owner, and we have only the cabdriver’s word that it was the passenger’s. The police are better equipped to resolve these issues.
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