Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: D-List Doppelgänger

January 4, 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, “D-List Doppelgänger.”

I share a highly uncommon name with a very minor celebrity who hasn’t worked much in decades. A fan, mistaking me for the celebrity, sent me a note offering praise for his fine work several decades ago and asked for an autograph on an enclosed publicity photo. I’ve had a few such misunderstandings over the years and have come to learn that the celebrity is impossible to locate. The fan’s note was quite endearing, and I am tempted to simply sign the photo and thank the fan for the support. I’d be claiming to be someone I’m not, which is deceitful, but the fan would probably be happier with that than with the truth. Does the charity of such an act outweigh the deception? NAME WITHHELD

My Answer: I was about to write, “Finally the New York Times picked a letter that doesn’t specifically ask about ethics, obligations, “should”‘s, and such!” but realized that the term charity is another abstract concept.

I expect you’ll be able to answer your question yourself by focusing on the results of your actions to people, not by measuring them against these abstract principles. Think of all the people you might affect: the fan, the celebrity, your friends and family, yourself, and so on. I would guess the celebrity might be the most important person, since you enable him and the state to pursue you for forgery. The fan might not like you either. You could gamble that no one would find out, but even then, what do you gain? I guess you could have fun cocktail party stories. But you can get just as fun stories without forging anything.

As usual, I recommend acting over navel-gazing and building relationships over mailing third-party writers. If I were you I’d use this occasion to connect with the celebrity. You’re doing him and his fans a favor. You might get to meet him in person.

All this passivity. If more people took my entrepreneurship class or learned social and communications skills from me, they’d live more active and rewarding lives.

Someone once advised me “Avoid doing things that will embarrass yourself.” I found that advice helpful. Maybe it will help you.

On a side note, I once met a bohemian guy who sold forged Basquiat paintings. He didn’t lie. He told people he made the paintings so they weren’t Basquiats. I didn’t know him well enough to follow what happened, but the FBI pursued him and I think he spent time in jail. Years after losing touch with him I heard from the guy through whom I met him that the guy saw the jail time as an interesting life experience, but I didn’t hear that first-hand so I don’t know. In any case, you could learn from him. You don’t sound that bohemian, though, as you’re writing the New York Times instead of acting on your passions or sense of truth and beauty, so maybe more useful advice might be “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

The New York Times Answer: For my 40th birthday, I was given a football, supposedly autographed by my boyhood hero. Sometimes I look at this pigskin and quietly wonder: Is that really Roger Staubach’s signature? Is it possible that this is a forgery? Yet my takeaway remains the same: The intangible value of this autograph — or lack of value, depending on your perspective — has no relationship to its authenticity. The symbolic import of the signature remains unchanged as long as I assume (or pretend) that it’s genuine. I’ll never sell the ball, which means my own relationship to it is the only one that matters. So what you would be doing to this fan, though technically deceitful, wouldn’t hurt him (or help you) in any way. It’s like letting a child believe that Santa Claus exists.

It is, however, unfair to the celebrity. Some people don’t give autographs on principle. Others sign only a limited number of artifacts, in order to uphold the scarcity and value of their signature (which might be the only valuable commodity they possess). By signing a publicity photograph, you are literally suggesting that you are the person depicted in the image. And you can’t do that unless you know the celebrity doesn’t care.


I consider Dumpster-diving to be moral. I understand that supermarkets don’t like it because the divers are their potential clients. But is it ethically wrong to Dumpster-dive in a private Dumpster? TOMO JACOBSON, NEW YORK

My Answer: If you had asked on the practice’s legality you could talk to a lawyer and at least get the principles to measure it against, though lawyers always begin their answers to me on legality questions with “It depends…”

You asked about its ethics. You probably don’t realize you were asking about opinions with even more arbitrary principles than the law because you probably read only the New York Times’ ethics column instead of my take on it. If you read mine more, you’d develop more self-awareness, especially of your values. Why? Because instead of asking questions that presuppose an objective response that doesn’t exist, you’d ask yourself about the consequences of the actions you’re asking about. You’d also know that your answer is no better or worse than anyone else’s.

There is a reason the phrases “Know thyself” and “The unexamined life is not worth living” have stood the test of time and advice on the equivalent of dumpster diving from thousands of years ago haven’t. I could tell you the reasons but that would deprive you of the joy and deeper learning you’d get from finding out yourself.

I recommend practicing examining your life and knowing thyself to understand your values and emotions to answer the question for yourself. It takes time and challenges you more than reading someone else’s opinion, but you may find the personal growth worth it. Let me know how it goes.

The New York Times Answer: You suspect the supermarkets are against this because the divers — if not allowed to take the rubbish — would be forced to pay for nonexpired food through conventional means. That would indeed be unethical; if food is deliberately being discarded, there’s no reason a person should be stopped from consuming what someone else views as waste.

In actuality, however, supermarkets are primarily against Dumpster-diving because it happens on private property, and “diving” constitutes trespassing. Furthermore, having people rummaging around in garbage reflects badly on the perception of the business, not to mention the liability risks involved with allowing strangers to jump inside a massive metal box filled with refuse and then consume the contents. This is ultimately an issue over trespassing and how a private business wants to represent itself in the public sphere. The supermarkets absolutely have the right to stop people from rifling though their privately owned receptacles, in the same way that a homeowner does.


A friend recently got a ticket for speeding — just a few m.p.h. over the limit within a school zone. His experience led me to wonder if the collection of money as a means of punishment for such minor crimes is a shade unethical, especially when there are alternative means (public service, license confiscation, etc.). In other words, is this really meant as a punishment or is it another way to raise funds for municipal coffers? WILLIAM PUGSLEY, HUNTINGTON, N.Y.

My Answer: I can’t tell if you’re asking about the intent of the legislators who wrote those laws, the intent of the cops executing the laws, the measurable effects, if any, of the laws, or something else. Regarding the intents of the legislators and cops, we all know their intents vary and we don’t have direct access to their minds anyway. Regarding the measurable effects, if any, I don’t see any way to get conclusive results. I can’t imagine you’d see any different.

In other words, nobody knows, nor can anyone know conclusively. I can’t imagine you didn’t already know that.

In fairness, this ambiguity exists throughout the field of justice. Different people have different views for why we fine and jail people: to punish them, to rehabilitate, to deter future crimes, to remove them from society, etc. Or maybe legislators write laws to get elected. All these reasons are entangled in a way we can’t disentangle, though you can have your opinion. Your question is like asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, at least until science finds a way of answering, which hasn’t happened yet.

The New York Times Answer: Speed limits are arbitrary, and the fine involved (at least in relation to the crime) often seems higher than necessary. But they need to exist for public safety, and they need to be enforced. Uncomplicated financial penalties, imposed equally, are the most reasonable option. Your proposed alternatives are too invasive and time-consuming (it’s depressing to lose a day’s pay, but far worse to be unable to get to work at all). Traffic laws are easy to obey, and the tickets are easy to petition in court, assuming the circumstances justify an exception. If they have the additional benefit of raising revenue from people who are ignoring the most basic agreed-upon rules of society, I don’t see the problem, unless the authorities are setting up speed traps or imposing comically oppressive fines.

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