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,”Should Free Office Food Be Taken Home?”
My company offers certain food items free in our office pantry. Every morning, my co-worker Brandon eats a serving of Cheerios from the pantry while getting settled for the day. Would it be acceptable for him to take the cereal home the night before and eat it before going to the office? Brandon swears that he’s more productive after he eats, and taking the cereal home would allow him to eat on his time (instead of after arriving at the office). Since the food is offered freely, what’s the harm? DAVID McCORMACK, NEW YORK
My Answer: Ask your office manager. Why are you writing a newspaper that has nothing to do with your office when you can just ask the people providing the food? When you use the word “acceptable,” who do you think of doing the accepting? A journalist at the New York Times? How about the people putting the food there?
You can ask everyone in the world their opinion on the acceptability of your co-worker’s activity. Then you’ll have seven billion opinions and nothing absolute, which you seem to be looking for. “Acceptable” is just an opinion.
Instead of asking abstract questions, why not look at who is affected and consider the consequences of the actions you’re asking about? The people who decided to offer the food aren’t offering it freely, as you asked. I’m sure there are conditions, like that it’s for employees, not random people off the street. Freely with conditions means not freely. So instead of guessing at and assuming their intent, why not ask them and build your relationships with them. They’re affected by it. These managers represent the shareholders and owners who are paying for it.
If you assume wrong and act on mistaken assumptions, they may take away the food from everyone. You don’t have some abstract right to it forever just because they offered it once.
The New York Times Answer: The logic you are employing is not crazy. The problem is that you are conflating perks with obligations. If, for some reason, your company promised to provide all employees a daily breakfast, it might be acceptable to take the Cheerios home and consume them on your own time. But this promise was never made. Your office pantry has free cereal in order to keep people from leaving the facility to get food. It’s not as if Brandon would be justified in going on strike (or even complaining) if the Cheerios suddenly stopped appearing. These Cheerios aren’t owed to him. He’s reasonably taking advantage of something offered by your employer to make the office more livable. It’s a shared commodity, centralized in the office pantry. To take these boxes home suggests that he owns them.
At work, we sit on very hard stools. To soften the impact, I sit on a hemorrhoid pillow. I am teased mercilessly about this, even though I explain that I don’t have hemorrhoids. (I don’t.) I finally took a different approach. After one badgering, I replied: “Thanks for your concern. My hemorrhoids are feeling so much better with this pillow.” I was never bothered again. This inconsequential lie has saved me from a great deal of aggravation — but is it ethical? NAME WITHHELD, NEW YORK
My Answer: All this focus on abstract concepts like ethics distracts people from things that matter, like making sense or learning skills to improve their lives. I can make up any concept, give it a definition, and then ask if something meets that definition. Great, now all I did was find out if something meets a definition of a made-up concept. With a concept like ethics, there are as many definitions as there are people on the planet, so asking if it meets one person’s definition only tells you their opinion.
In this case, what difference would it make to anyone if the answer was yes, no, or anything else? All you know is someone’s evaluation of the past.
What if I ask if the statement was asnoinafow, okangoin, or ioang? How are these nonsense concepts less relevant than one random person’s definition of ethics?
A few more relevant questions in my opinion are
- How might my actions have affected other people in ways I hadn’t thought of?
- Have people solved the problem in other ways that I could learn from?
- How might I resolve my conflicted feelings over what I did?
- How can I motivate people not to make fun of me more effectively than lying to them?
I think answering those questions could improve your life. I’d enjoy answering them, but you asked about the definition of an abstract concept instead. Okay, here’s an answer: “some people would say yes, others no.” Feel better?
The New York Times Answer: Your decision to lie reflects a curious contradiction: Though you do not want to be teased about having hemorrhoids that are not there, you are comfortable claiming you have hemorrhoids (even though you don’t). I would place this deception on par with responding to a casual question about how your morning is going by saying, “Great,” even if “Slightly below average” would be more accurate. It would be far different if you were misleading the human-resources department in order to get this pillow expensed, or if you were claiming that this imaginary discomfort required you to leave work early. The consequence of a lie must be considered — not just the rote mechanics of doing so.
Still, there’s no way I can argue that this is either cowardly or brave because it’s meaningless. You’re pretending to have a physical problem in order to avoid an annoying one. You’re both the sole victim and beneficiary of your lies. It’s a wash.
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