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, “Is It Wrong If a Friend Sells My Hand-Me-Downs?”
I have two small children and am frequently divesting our household of toys, clothes and other child supplies. I sell the larger items, but I typically give the smaller items away to a neighborhood parent or leave them in a box in front of my house to be taken for free. A friend on my block recently indicated that she takes much of what we leave out, and I’ve since offered her first pick before leaving the remaining items outside. I was happy to do so, as she has two children a bit younger than mine, and I considered it a worthwhile gesture to share what we no longer need with her, despite the fact that she is of similar economic status and likely doesn’t need our castoffs. She recently held a stoop sale, and I recognized a very large number of the items that were formerly ours on display for sale. Am I wrong to see this as somehow inappropriate? I recognize that a gift means I’m not free to question what the receiver does with it, but this has changed the way I feel about her and the prospect of putting out other items in the future. Am I wrong to feel that she should have passed on these items to others? NAME WITHHELD, BROOKLYN
My response: I ask you, the letter writer: You say you changed how you feel about your neighbor. You sound bitter, resentful, or the like. If you don’t like how you feel, who is in control of your emotions, you or your neighbor?
I call the questions of the letter writers juvenile for asking questions like the one above: “Am I wrong to see this as somehow inappropriate?” and “Am I wrong to feel that …?” because children ask parents to help them figure out right and wrong. I consider part of adulthood being able to figure out right and wrong for yourself.
As juvenile as the writers are, the Times is picking them. I finally looked up the three commenters in more depth. They are a philosopher, law philosopher, and writer. Two of them teach at NYU, as I do. They have impressive backgrounds, but as best I can tell, their strengths are in passive academic analysis, not action and behavior, at least not in situations that challenge people’s choices of right and wrong.
I’ve long wondered why the media go to certain groups of people for questions on right and wrong—philosophers and academics, for example (religious authorities too). While I can see why someone might think that reading, studying, and teaching about ethics qualifies someone for speaking knowledgeably about it, I disagree. All you get is commentary and passive analysis. If that’s all you want, sure, go for it, but I think most people ask about right on wrong in their lives to improve their lives not so that they can label their activities.
If you want to play basketball or piano better, you don’t ask people who study basketball history or musical theory. You ask a coach who practiced what you want to learn, not who studied it without doing it. If you want to improve other behavior, someone with relevant experience or a coach would help you more than an academic.
The Times knows its readers and goals more than I do. Maybe its readers only want people with passive, analytical, academic backgrounds to label behavior. They don’t need my advice, but if you ask me, they’d help people more by including someone who acts more than analyzes, someone who addresses the emotional and social challenges of leadership and personal change.
Back to the person who wrote the letter above, instead of asking the Times to label your feelings—I presume you want them to say you aren’t wrong to fuel your self-righteousness—you can talk to your neighbor instead of passively watching her sell your garbage. You can develop your emotional skills so you don’t have to passively accept your bitterness but actively create emotions you prefer. You can build your relationship with your neighbor, learn her motivations, understand her better, have her understand you better, and so on. You could even make some money by sharing her proceeds. You can change your relationship with material possessions.
Instead you talk to a bunch of academics who barely know about the situation and ask them to justify your juvenile search for others to tell you right and wrong. As much as they support your passivity, I recommend you think of alternative strategies you can act on.
The New York Times response:
Kenji Yoshino: The neighbor’s behavior is unethical, because she is violating a norm of generosity: She should do for someone else what was done for her. Usually I would recommend talking to her, but I suspect the response would be, ‘‘You didn’t have a legitimate interest in the toys after you gave them to me.’’ Your obvious rejoinder is, ‘‘But I had an interest in you.’’ This will very likely cause a break.
Amy Bloom: The break has already occurred, unless you’re going to get a mortified apology. I sympathize with the letter writer because it feels as if one is bringing some level of commerce into what she had seen as a friendly neighbor exchange. But the fact is, it’s not wrong for the person to sell them later.
Kwame Anthony Appiah: I find it a bit hard to locate exactly what the problem is. One of the ways in which you pass things on is by selling them. It’s a very good idea in our rather waste-driven society for people to recycle things. Giving them away, putting them on the stoop, selling them — these are all ways of recycling. The reason there’s something slightly tacky here is that the presumption of the gift is that I’m giving it to you for your use. If you immediately sell it, then that is a violation of the understanding under which you got it.
Bloom: Right, it’s a disruption in the friendship loop. The letter writer’s feelings are hurt, and there’s a hard-to-untie knot in what had felt like a smooth and friendly relationship.
Appiah: There’s a spectrum here. At one end is somebody who takes these things and immediately runs a sale the next day. Maybe on eBay, so you don’t know about it, but still. At the other end, she uses them for a couple of years, the kids outgrow them, she has a sale on the stoop. I don’t get a clear picture where we are along that spectrum. But at some point, it’s wrong to hold it against someone for choosing this way of recycling.
Yoshino: There may be an ethical posture toward the goods themselves, to make sure that they don’t go to waste, but it doesn’t follow from that that selling them versus giving them to other people would necessarily maximize the use of those items.
Appiah: But the letter writer herself says that she sells things, so she doesn’t think there’s a principled objection to doing that, and I think there isn’t. The market is often a good way of allocating goods.
Yoshino: Right, but it doesn’t uphold the custom of continuing the current of generosity.
Bloom: It would have been nicer if she had said, ‘‘Hey, my kids have been playing with this stuff, they’re done with it, is it O.K. with you if I sell them?’’
Appiah: I’m going to run against the crowd here. These are things that you’re selling for a couple of bucks. If it were a huge amount of money, then you’d be taking something out of the circuit of generosity and putting it into the circuit of the economy, and there’s something bad about that. But I think of stoop sales as just a way of redistributing stuff, and a little bit of money in there is just the mechanism by which you do it.
Yoshino: We disagree. On your side of the case, I want to note a common theme in Japanese folklore in which objects you have wasted come back to haunt you. Old umbrellas turn into ghosts and things like that. It’s a wonderful message about thrift, which says that you have an ethical obligation — not just to people but to things themselves — to avoid waste. But here I think the obligation not to sell a gift is stronger, because waste could be avoided without a sale.
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