Continuing my series on responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on them, here is a take on an earlier post,”Tourist Retractions.”
I recently spent several days at a relatively expensive hotel. The place was deplorable and unsanitary, with an unresponsive front desk. I gave it a poor write-up on TripAdvisor.com, the travel website, titling my review “An Overpriced Dung Heap.” The following day, the owner contacted me through the site with an offer to refund almost half the cost of my stay if I would retract my review. I accepted the handsome offer and deleted my post. Who was the most unethical: me (for accepting the bribe), the owner (for offering it) or the site (which enables this chicanery and therefore has untrustworthy reviews)? HOWARD OLARSCH, FLORIDA
My answer: Your asking about the relative ethics of three parties’ behavior is a red herring. First, there is no objective measure of ethics you can compare the behaviors against. If there were, you would have used it and not asked anyone else. Instead, whether you realize it or not, you’re asking someone else their opinion, which is no more right or wrong than yours. By asking someone else, you deprive yourself of figuring things our for yourself—that’s challenging, but it’s part of the life examination that the time honored phrase, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” talks about.
Second, judging others may make you feel better if you or others condemn them, but it doesn’t often help you act more responsibly in the future. People often use judgment to deflect responsibility. Whatever anyone else did, only you chose your actions. Calling the other person’s behavior bribery partly makes you sound like you’re accepting your complicity, but it implies they acted first and you only responded. I see it otherwise. You chose to do something you considered wrong.
The issue here is integrity—sticking with your principles, even when no one else knows. I write a lot about the problems with imposing values on others, but I see no problems with imposing your values on yourself. I can see why you put up the red herring—to deflect attention from yourself to a group of people. But you can’t control their behavior. I suspect you wrote your letter to assuage your feelings of guilt. I don’t say you’re guilty, right, wrong, good, or bad. I only point out that your behavior has consequences, and that’s what matters. People who break their own rules lose trust and credibility from others when found out, which makes others do less business with them, not share vulnerabilities with them, and other things that limit the depth and richness their relationships can have. Even when not found out, their internal feelings of guilt, insecurity, fear of being found out, and such hold them from their potentials.
Forget about this red herring ethics talk, which is a cover for you trying to impose values on others and deflect attention from yourself. You can look at your behavior from your values, apples to apples. You know how much you value the money you got and you know how you value your integrity and what it gets you in your relationships with other. Here is the question that would help you improve your life most, but you won’t ask because you know the answer: Which do you value more, the money or your integrity?
You know you valued the money over your integrity. You did business with the people you condemned, meaning you condemn yourself. You’re benefiting from practices that lead to others befalling the same deplorable and unsanitary conditions. Once you put the money in your bank account or spent it, it was effectively gone, but your having sold your integrity and made yourself complicit in what you condemned will last forever, or at least until you improve it enough to consider yourself a new man.
So I suggest that your important question is how to improve your integrity so that you can feel deserving of the type of trust you’d want from people interacting with you.
I don’t claim myself a model of integrity, but I believe I have more now than before and can point to a few things that helped me improve mine. Top on the list are my self-imposed daily challenging healthy activities (SIDCHAs). Nearly all of my burpees and all of my cold showers I do alone, with no one able to observe me or check that I do them. Getting into a cold shower is hard. So is starting a set of burpees a few hours after I ran twenty miles. But I know and each time I do them, it makes it easier to behave how I want in situations like yours. I recommend doing simple exercises that build your integrity like those to develop your skills in the area.
Or, enjoy spending the money and forget this integrity business. Maybe it was worth it. Even then, you still have to work on yourself, because of the angst your message shows. If you think the money was worth it—and only you know for yourself—you can drop all this angst and enjoy a decision you feel right about.
The New York Times Answer: In this case, I’d classify the hotel owner as the least ethical actor. But you’re a close second.
TripAdvisor has clear guidelines regarding what business owners can and cannot do about bad reviews, most notably the following: “Owners may not ask reviewers to remove a review” using the TripAdvisor messaging system. Of course, this is not legally binding — and even if it were, there are many other ways an owner could contact a reviewer. Moreover, TripAdvisor has almost no editorial control over the veracity of the reviews it hosts, all of which are written by unvetted writers beholden to nobody. The site can’t necessarily be trusted, and anyone using it has a responsibility to realize that. So I would say TripAdvisor’s ethical breach is the least troubling.
Your decision to remove a review upon the acceptance of a bribe was lame (which you clearly understand). If you were a professional newspaper critic, such behavior would be grounds for termination. You, however, are just an annoyed guy who wrote a free review.
I can’t accurately gauge the depth of your ethical malfunction because I don’t know what your original goal was. If your motive for writing the review was to altruistically warn other travelers, it would seem your integrity has a pretty low price tag — but maybe your true motive was to mock the hotel. Maybe you simply wanted to vent your displeasure in public or to entertain the kind of weirdo who enjoys reading over-the-top TripAdvisor takedowns. Maybe you wrote it hoping you would get a refund. Regardless, you’re an unreliable narrator with no critical credibility.
But the hotel owner is unequivocally unethical. For one thing, he’s ignoring the rules established by TripAdvisor. Granted, he may never have agreed to those policies in the first place, but he’s choosing to involve himself with the site and interfering with a process in which the goal (at least in theory) is consumer transparency. He also did not offer reimbursement as a way to satisfy a customer, but only in exchange for the removal of an honest assessment of his hotel. If this is his normal business practice, it’s almost as if he’s involved with reverse marketing: He overcharges for a bad experience and only offers a rebate to those who inform strangers that this is how he operates.
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