New series: Non-authoritarian non-ethics

September 25, 2014 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment, Tips

The New York Times has a column called The Ethicist, where people write to ask for judgment and advice.

Though I find the writing generally fun and light, I find the premise—that someone else has more access than you to values, implied to be absolute—undermines people considering their options, considering their values, developing their social skills, developing their empathy and compassion skills, and so on.

I see that perspective as authoritarian so I call my approach non-authoritarian. Going by Wikipedia’s description of ethics as “systematizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct, often addressing disputes of moral diversity,” I’m not talking about ethics either, so I call my series non-authoritarian non-ethics. I’m sure I’ll come up with a title I like more.

The new series

I decided to start a series to respond to questions to The Ethicist based on these principles, which I expect I’ll refine as I develop experience with this series.

  • Avoiding imposing values on others, for example saying what is right, wrong, good, bad, acceptable, or the like, nor telling people what they should do
  • Considering the consequences of their actions to themselves and others
  • Don’t look for blame but take responsibility for creating the outcome you want

I encourage people to compare my perspective with the Times’. I welcome criticism. Regarding my copying the column, I hope they see it as a sign of respect that I would consider passing the Golden Rule if I were the publisher, columnist, or any other decision-maker involved.

Sunday’s column

I’ll start with last Sunday’s column, “A Quick-Change Artist“:

My next-door neighbor, who recently quit her job to pursue painting, asked if she could practice by making a portrait of my child. She said she would charge me the cost of supplies since it was for practice, and I agreed. When she finished the painting, she notified me that she had decided to charge me several hundreds of dollars because she had learned in art class the importance of correctly pricing her work. Although I was upset by the change in price, I did not want to ruin the relationship, so I paid what she asked. What was the right thing to do? NADIA, CHICAGO

My answer: I think a more valuable question for you than “what was right” is “what could you have done to achieve your goal,” presumably of improving the relationship. Giving her the money maintained your contact, but with someone you like less. Only you know if the weakened relationship is worth keeping or strengthening.

You had an opportunity to build your relationship with her, for example, by sharing your interests and asking hers. You could use those interests to build mutual understanding and a deal you both liked more, if possible. Guessing at your interests, you could have told her you wanted to support her, to help her art career with a sale, and to have the painting if you liked it, for example, but also that you want to save money, to honor a previous deal even if unwritten, and to support her art career by letting her realize that unilaterally changing deal terms hurts relationships and that just because she wants to sell a piece doesn’t mean someone has to buy it.

The book “Getting To Yes” covers how to negotiate more effectively than any other resource I know. My post, “Top models and strategies for negotiating,” has a short primer based on that book.

The New York Times Answer: Your neighbor started this transaction by asking you for a favor. You did not commission the work; she requested the opportunity to practice her craft. Now she’s acting as if this were a business transaction, based on a philosophical argument about art that does not remotely apply to the situation at hand.

Here is what you should have done: You should have agreed that it is indeed important for an artist to properly price her work. But you should have also noted that the aesthetic value of art can never truly be quantified, unless the artist is willing to view her work as a commodity that’s subject to the harsh, anti-intellectual realities of capitalism. You should have explained that — tangibly — a piece of art is worth only what someone is willing to pay for it. This being the case, you should have offered to pay a price representing the painting’s actual value to you as a consumer, which (I’m guessing) would have roughly equated to whatever the art supplies originally cost. If she had balked at the offer, you should have said that you understand her position completely, and that you are subsequently granting her the freedom to sell this amateur portrait of your daughter to whoever is willing to pay the premium she requires.


I’m a compulsive crossword puzzler. Coffee shops often have common-use newspapers available, and I’ll tear the crossword out and pocket it for later. Am I crossing a moral boundary by taking part of a common-use newspaper for my own personal pleasure? T. J. MASTERS, QUEENS, N.Y.

My answer: I don’t know what you mean by moral boundary, but the coffee shop owns the newspaper and the shop. Asking them about your using their property will give you all the answers you need. You can use the opportunity to build a relationship with the people you’re doing business with.

If you’re worried they’ll say no, you can ask them persuasively, like by first noting that you’re a loyal customer if you are, that you bring them new customers if you do, and that taking the puzzle helps bring you there. Even if they say no, you can still persuade them. You can note that unlike reading a paper, which doesn’t use it up, only one person can do a paper crossword puzzle.

The New York Times Answer: Let me begin by noting the obvious: Crossword puzzles are not hard to come by. There are thousands of available books filled with hundreds of puzzles, many of which would effortlessly satiate your compulsion. This entire ethical conundrum could be avoided for the next10 years if you made a $40 investment at any ordinary bookstore. But this, of course, is not the point. You want to know if you can continue to fill out crossword puzzles in shared newspapers. And you can. You just can’t tear them out.

Crossword puzzles represent a unique circumstance for newspapers allocated for public consumption: They aren’t useful unless someone completes the challenge presented.In other words, there is no utility to an unused crossword puzzle; it’s not as if multiple people want to “read” the puzzle without filling in the spaces. The only social purpose a crossword possesses is directly tied to the user. And that user may as well be you. So if you come across a blank crossword at a coffeehouse, you are justified in sitting at the establishment and completing the puzzle. Now, this would not be acceptable behavior at a library or a museum (where the publication itself might also be archived). But if you’re at a place where the newspaper is clearly disposable, the puzzle is an open target for whoever wants to complete it.

You can’t, however, take it with you. There are many reasons this shouldn’t be done, but the primary explanation is practical: There is always something on the other side of the paper. It might be a news article (which others may want to consume), or it might be an advertisement (which has monetary value to whoever purchased the space). Unlike a puzzle, those entities can be experienced by numerous users equally. Do not damage the medium.


On the game show “The Price Is Right,” it is common for contestants, when bidding on one of the opening prizes, to bid $1 more than another contestant who has already locked in his or her bid. In doing so, this person has locked that other contestant out of winning (unless that person has guessed the exact price). Is it ethical when people bid in this way? DENNIS MCDONALD, WESTMINSTER, MD.

My answer: The producers of the show offer people opportunity for enjoyment if they follow a game by their rules. The people who participate explicitly agree to those rules. All participants are adults and they’re all consenting. End of story.

The New York Times Answer: “The Price Is Right” is a game. In any constructed game, the ethics and the rules are essentially interchangeable. The rules allow a player to bid $1 above another player. This strategy is arguably unsporting but totally ethical.

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