Ethics of our twenty-first century

January 2013


I had worked out at a Y, not my regular Y, and I was taking my watch and wallet out of a locked box on the wall. A man I did not know, a man in his 50s, came up to me, seemingly to warn me about there being robbers in the men’s locker room. He himself had been robbed, he said. However, he soon added that he had made $800 as a result. The thief had taken only his credit cards, and he, the putative victim, had called his credit-card companies and cancelled the cards, thereby absolving himself from responsibility for any charges that might be or have been made on them by the thief. And it so happened that the day of the theft was a day when he had gone to a department store and charged $800, and the credit-card companies’ computer systems had not taken this into consideration. That is, any card purchases from the day of the theft forward were not billed to him, and this included the $800 he had spent.

I am assuming that the theft had not been dreamed up by the man as a way of trying to get out of paying for his purchases. And why wouldn’t a locker-room robber quickly grab a whole wallet, any cash included, rather than taking the time and trouble to pick out the credit cards? I have begun to think it axiomatic that any story once examined will reveal itself to be a work of fiction, a fiction of the psyche. Nonetheless, accepting the man’s story on its face, I am prepared to say that most Americans of all types and ages, myself included, would have responded to this stroke of good fortune as the man had done. That is, he did nothing; he did not call the credit-card companies again to report the mistake and make himself again liable for the $800 he had spent. One might say that the man was, therefore, guilty of stealing. Why do we not then condemn the man’s behavior, and why are we willing to admit that we would have acted (or not acted) as he did? For one, we make a distinction between sins of omission and commission. If the companies had called the man and asked him if the $800 in purchases had been made by him, we might blame him if he lied and said no, but in the present case all he did was keep his mouth shut, not pick up the phone again. Moreover, experience has taught us that picking up the phone and calling a company such as a credit-card company (or cable TV company, airline, bank, . . . ) is no simple matter. There will be the automatic voice and all her commands to get past. (We are doing companies’ record-keeping work for them and without compensation.) There will likely also be time on hold, and it may be necessary to explain and re-explain, and at some length, what happened. And, in the end, the chances that the matter will be successfully, accurately resolved are not high.

More than all this, however, when I present people with this ethical dilemma, the first thing that comes to people’s minds or out of their mouths is that the credit-card companies themselves are thieves. If you believed that a company was routinely stealing money from you and millions of other people, why would you bother calling them to help them steal a little less?

Several caves for energetic spelunking now beckon, but we are only going to peek into two of their mouths before moving on to the next ethical dilemma (another anecdote). One of these caves contains the fact that many business activities involve theft or similar disreputable activities of one kind of another, some of them legal and a good deal of them illegal but carried out anyway by large and so-called reputable businesses. The large-scale money laundering carried out by the HSBC bank comes to mind. (See HSBC, Too big to jail, and readers might also see Dear Ms. Shednails regarding the thievery of my landlords, a series of large corporations and partnerships which have been headed by prominent citizens who sit on prominent boards and so forth. They sit on the boards and give to charities and . . . at least in part so that their daily thievery will go largely unpunished. See again the HSBC case or the lack of criminal charges against drug company officials involved in selling products that they had reason to know had toxic, even deadly side-effects.)

Further, many of us work for drug companies, banks, landlords, credit-card companies and the like. We participate wittingly or unwittingly in the thievery and have, in any case, a front-row seat for observing it, and this even as we are also victimized by other businesses and perhaps also by our own employers. (See, for example, the many employees who have had their pension funds raided or insufficiently funded by their companies’ owners, or the many employees who are not paid the overtime wages to which they are legally entitled, or cab drivers cheated of their tips by fleet owners.) So, among many other things, it is interesting to me that we have a way of deciding that certain specific companies or industries are particularly reprehensible, and that we but rarely move from there to making generalizations about the economic system in which we find ourselves caught up. (Cf., Proudhon, “Property is theft,” or Marx on Geld (money): “I am an evil, dishonest, conscienceless, brainless man; but money is honored, and therefore so is its possessor. Money is the supreme good; therefore its possessor is good. Money saves me the trouble of being dishonest; I am, therefore, presumed to be honest.”)

The second cave, or cave mouth, or mouths: When the stranger at the Y told me this story, I was intrigued that he was telling this story to a stranger (me), and without seeming to appreciate the not necessarily attractive light the story shed on him. Perhaps I am wrong, but, among other things, I could not help feeling there was a racist undertone to his story. One thing he was telling me was to be careful, there were robbers at the Y, and while he did not explicitly name the race of the people he suspected of breaking into his and other people’s lockers, I—perhaps this is my racism—got the impression he was referring to young black men. Later I found myself wondering: Supposing the thief, no matter his color, had used the credit cards to buy food for his family, whereas “the victim” had used them to get for himself (with the credit-card companies’ money, as it turned out) a larger flat-screen TV: Who would have been the greater thief? One might have sinned by commission, breaking into a locker, and the other by omission, not again calling a credit-card company, but could we say, for instance, that both ended up with things (foods and TV) that did not properly belong to them? Or that less properly belonged to them than did the $800 to the credit-card companies? We might ask, too, who had been harmed by all these crimes or by this sequence of events? Stockholders?

And then there is this question of why tell the story to anyone, and why to a stranger, why to me? In retrospect my sense is that it was precisely the man’s uneasiness about his behavior that had led him to try the story out on a stranger. Why me? Because I was about his age and skin color (pale)? Because there was that intangible something in my appearance that suggested that I would listen dispassionately, without voicing any judgments? (And thus, like Nick Carraway, and while as fundamentally judgmental as him, over the years I have been privy to the secret griefs of wild, or not so wild, unknown men and women. Many of us have, though many also choose to listen with closed ears and minds, to deny or ignore the griefs, and the qualms, on offer.)

In any case, my point here is that while there is a social consensus—the man had not done wrong to not have paid for his credit-card purchases—still this conflicts with another value or values which parents, teachers and others downloaded into our brains without first asking our permission. This might be the value of honesty, of not stealing, or it might be a more sophisticated “value,” which encourages us to distinguish between “them”—the lower classes, young black men, or thieving millionaires and billionaires, drug company executives and members of Congress and of our state legislatures—and “us,” respectable members of the middle class. We may not be rich—we are going to the Y, after all (and perhaps happy to go there!)—but we have principles, principles that we live by, principles that are not entirely self-serving or opportunistic.

If I steal $800 from a credit-card company, or from its millions of shareholders (of whom I am probably one, via this or that mutual fund of which I hold a few shares), the most significant effect is on my sense of myself. At least insofar as memories of my action remain in my consciousness or subconsciousness, it will be with some difficulty that I can think of myself as an honest person. I do not consider this an entirely bad thing. Nietzsche proposed, “When virtue has slept, she will wake up more refreshed.” I would say rather that in moments of coming up short and realizing we have come up short there are opportunities to get to know ourselves better and to soften our criticism of others. In any case, I do think that this was what the stranger at the Y was really talking to me about—not about these other robbers I should watch out for and not about his good fortune, the $800 worth of free stuff, but about himself and his sense of himself. And, perhaps, as I shall now discuss, the man was also touching on an unsettling aspect of this brave new world in which we live.



As I began writing about this incident and another one, still to come, I recalled an incident from my youth, an incident in which I was the sinner of omission, or the beneficiary of a tiny bit of luck, the recipient of a few extra groceries I did not really want. A college student temporarily back home, I had driven some distance from my parents’ house to a suburban supermarket to do the weekly shopping for the family. This supermarket had a system whereby after the bags were packed they were put on a conveyor belt, and young men loaded the bags from the back of the belt into shoppers’ cars. As I recall, numbers were written on the paper bags with a grease pencil. So I pulled up in front of the store, popped the trunk, showed my number—e.g., 19—and the young men loaded all the bags with 19s on them into my car and closed the trunk, and I drove away.

In another twenty minutes or so I was home, and I discovered that not only did I have my half a dozen bags of groceries, I also had several bags belonging to someone else. This being another person’s groceries, the items and brands did not accord with my families’ tastes and habits. The noodles were not the brand we bought, and I remember my parents objecting in particular to a box of Pepperidge Farm croutons, an item which, apparently, would be beneath us to consume. (We made our own croutons.)

There was also a question in our kitchen. Perhaps it was vocalized. Didn’t I think I should take the other person’s groceries back to the store? No, I did not think so. I was more interested in dinner. The store itself had put someone else’s groceries in the car. Let the store deal with its mistake and with the customer, who was going to be inconvenienced and irate no matter what I now did. Likely by the time I got back to the supermarket, he or she would already be yelling at the manager or shopping all over again.

Writing this all out here, I do not have any great ethical concerns about the decision that I made, and which my parents went along with. (After all, one of them could have driven the alien groceries back to the supermarket. We would have saved some dinner for Mom or Dad.) And yet, why has this little incident stayed in my conscious memory, and for more than three decades now? Is it a gnawing sense of having done wrong, or of not having done right? Or is it rather, and even to some extent in the case of the $800 man as well, that these are stories about modern life, about its impersonality and a certain accidental quality? If a credit-card company erroneously charges you $800, it could well take more than $800 of your time to get the mistake corrected. Similarly, I have the sense in New York of being routinely cheated by taxi drivers and in food stores where it can be hard to know the prices of items or to clearly see the weights and prices being rung up on the cash register. (And this in violation of various laws that address such chicanery.) I used to often complain, vocally and in writing, about defective products, bad service, bad food served to me in restaurants, but in late middle-age I have had a little success with teaching myself not to worry about any of this, so long as the sums are small or smaller than the value of the time I would need to invest in order to get treated more fairly. And, on the other hand—and this has been a consistent policy throughout my life—if money or goods that are not mine, or have not previously been mine, happen to fall into my lap, I keep them. (In playing cards with French speakers, I learned to refer to a lucky draw as “tombée du camion”: fallen off the back of a truck. In English we have the saying, “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”)

I have also always made one very large exception to the moral code I have just sketched. If I like a person or institution that I am dealing with, and no matter how poorly I may in fact know them, however new our acquaintance may be, I will go out of my way to be honest with them—e.g., to point out that they have given me too much change or forgotten to charge me for something, no matter how expensive this item may be. And, by contrast, if I have formed a negative impression of a person or institution, to include if I sense that they have tried or are trying to steal from me either directly or through the more subtle mechanisms of business, I will take advantage of such opportunities as present themselves to cheat them right back, even to try to take more from them than they have managed to take from me.

Of course I also have a weather eye out for not being arrested, and indeed the only time I was ever arrested was back in 10th grade, when I was arrested for doing something (chopping down highway advertising billboards in order to beautify the roadways) that I had not done. “Nicely,” the reason I was arrested was because at that time (1969) the police (fighting a somewhat secret war against the anti-war movement and thus against the First Amendment as well) were paying some of my fellow high school students to spy on and inform against those of us who were politically active and leftwing. It may be taken as a rule of thumb that if the process is corrupt, the information it produces will be too. Cf., the history of the FBI, or in New York City one is daily confronted by the fact that the police do not themselves, either while on duty or off, obey the traffic laws. When you observe such behavior in your nation or community, you can be sure that the laws in general are not being enforced fairly or with accuracy. There are the falsely arrested (or shot) and also the many who are allowed to commit crimes with impunity, with some of these crimes involving running red lights, some involving running a light and running into someone, and some of them involving $800 and some involving $800,000 and up. (See again the HSBC story, and Glenn Greenwald, author of the HSBC column to which I made a link above, has recently published an intriguing book on “How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful.”)



The seeds of this essay were sown in a taxi cab, riding home from a middle-school skating party with a friend of my son’s. This boy, 13 years old, told about how he had recently been walking along a sidewalk with his mother and somewhere ahead of them an elderly woman was walking. All of a sudden the wind or a more complex set of events caused some bills to blow out of the old lady’s purse toward him. He gathered up the bills, realizing that the total was $300, all of which he brought straight away to the old lady. Apparently, however, she neglected either to thank him or to give him a reward, or both. I am not sure of the details here; the boy told me that his mother then remarked that given the old lady’s response, or lack of response, “you should have just kept the money.” It is not that she was counseling her son to do otherwise than he had done. From one perspective, it could be that imagined that she was teaching a version of the moral principle I touched on above. If you have a good impression of another person, or at least not a bad impression, then you indeed should treat her and him with a certain kindness and generosity—in a neighborly fashion, we might call this, while recognizing that neighbors are not always treated nicely, nor always nice.

At the same time, I felt there was something avaricious in the mother’s comment, as if it had not been just a matter of a warm “thank you!” but of a reward. At issue was $300. If the boy had not returned it, the older woman was out $300, so what was it worth to her to get the money back? $10? $50? $299.99? (My son Jonah, who was also in the taxi, agrees that his friend’s mother thought the older woman should have offered a reward, and Jonah thinks $20 would have been the right amount.) I noted that the boy’s family belonged to the business class, his father worked in investment banking. From this perspective, perhaps the incident was, let’s call it, amoral—i.e., outside the realm of morality. It was a business transaction. How much is it worth to you to get what once was your $300 back? (How much is it worth to credit-card companies to get their customers to tell them when mistakes have been made in these customers’ favor? My being falsely arrested cost my family a certain amount of money in legal fees. How much would we have been willing to pay the police, in advance, to leave us alone? Every year when a policeman calls asking me to donate to the Police Athletic League I have the sense that this is the subtext: A little contribution and perhaps a sticker for my car’s bumper (not that I have a car) could be well worth it to me, and I’d be helping athletic kids besides.)



This piece began as a series of “ethical dilemmas,” featuring questions of the “how would you behave if?” sort. It has likely not slipped far from that original mooring. In the beginning I had a vague idea that the ethical-dilemmas approach might be of interest to students about my son’s age, and so I asked Jonah to read the first draft of this text. There proved to be something right about my instinct. Walking across town the next day I happened to walk between a group that was blocking the sidewalk in order to take pictures of themselves. Jonah felt that my behavior, which was intentional, was wrong. There had been a better alternative: walking around the group, which was what he had done. I proposed that one has no obligation to not inconvenience strangers who are already acting in a way that inconveniences people who are strangers to them. Jonah disagreed, basically proposing that if it is easy for you to be nice to other people, and even if they have not been nice to you, you should be nice. He did not articulate why you should do this, but perhaps it has to do with the Golden Rule or setting an example for others or holding oneself to a higher standard, and even as one recognizes that most people do not live up to this standard. I raised the problem that if you are nicer to people than they are to you, this may degrade you in their eyes and encourage them to continue to treat you badly, or yet worse. (Recently a boy at Jonah’s school had kicked Jonah out of a lunchtime poker game. The boy does not himself play in the game; he seems a bit afraid to compete; but he brings the cards and chips and plays at controlling who is allowed to play and who is not. Jonah, caught up in this other, non-poker game, had—rather than simply scorning this manipulative boy and playing with other friends—tried to get back in the game-master’s good graces. A losing strategy, I had felt.)

Meanwhile I count myself very lucky to have a Jonah, and this particular Jonah, with whom to discuss ethics. Toward the end of the discussion, I recounted for him the ethical dilemmas presented in another of my essays. In this case Jonah was quite firm in his evaluation of my refusal to take a picture for a tourist who had previously—obtusely if unwittingly—disturbed me as I was trying to get some writing done. Jonah insisted repeatedly that I had acted “like a 5 year old.” I begged, and continue to beg, to differ (and without wishing to underestimate the capacities of 5 year olds!). As I have written elsewhere, one of the foundations of my ethics is (in addition to the overarching value of talking and just being with my son) an extension of an idea of Kant’s. And I would insist that for me at least this is an emotional, rather than rational foundation. Every being is an end in itself, and is entitled to be treated as such. His, her or its nature and aims, or lack thereof, are deserving of an equal level of consideration and respect. You might say, however, that I believe this with a vengeance. The person who treats other human beings, or animals or plants, etc., as merely serviable (as available and recognizable only for their ability or lack of ability to help “me” or “us”), such a person is still entitled to respect (as an end in herself or himself), but not to any kindness. Does this find me caught, as it were, midway between Peter’s “honor all” and the Old Testament’s eye for an eye? Purity in ethics is an ideal, but not otherwise part of the reality.



Image at the very top is a photograph credited to Facundo Arrizabalaga/European Pressphoto Agency. It illustrates this New York Times “DealB%k” online story: HSBC to Pay $1.92 Billion to Settle Charges of Money Laundering, by Ben Protess and Jessica Silver-Greenberg. A line at the end of the article says, “A version of this article appeared in print on 12/11/2012, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Bank Said to Avoid Charges Over Laundering.”

The Guardian column by Glenn Greenwald is “HSBC, too big to jail, is the new poster child for US two-tiered justice system,” December 12, 2012.

Greenwald’s book on one of the larger stories here is With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful, now available from Picador in a “Reprint edition.”

As for earlier essays on subjects discussed here, please see:

  • The Social Life of Homo Sapiens (Part I?) for the “ethical dilemma” involving battles with a tourist who had previously disturbed me as I was trying to get some writing done.
  • Warmth and love and truth, which briefly discusses Kant’s proposal in Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals: “Man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will”. (The translation quoted from here, by T.K. Abbott, is available via the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library:
  • Of courtesy in just a few words discusses how “there are certainly those—to include many who earn their living on the island of Manhattan—who, seeing you behave in . . . an obliging fashion, may take you for a fool or an unambitious no-account”.

The famous phrase “Property is theft” comes from the opening lines of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s Qu’est-ce que la propriété ?

Si j’avais à répondre à la question suivante : Qu’est-ce que l’esclavage ? et que d’un seul mot je répondisse : C’est l’assassinat, ma pensée serait d’abord comprise. Je n’aurais pas besoin d’un long discours pour montrer que le pouvoir d’ôter à l’homme la pensée, la volonté, la personnalité, est un pouvoir de vie et de mort, et que faire un homme esclave, c’est l’assassinat. Pourquoi donc à cette autre demande : Qu’est-ce que la propriété ? ne puis-je répondre de même : C’est le vol, sans avoir la certitude de n’être pas entendu, bien que cette seconde proposition ne soit que la première transformée ?

If I were asked to answer the following question: What is slavery? and I should answer in one word—It is murder!—my meaning would be understood at once. No extended argument would be required . . . Why, then, to this other question: What is property? may I not likewise answer—It is robbery!—without the certainty of being misunderstood? The second proposition is, after all, only a transformation of the first.

The English translation is a slight modification of the one found in Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, “What is Property?” From No Gods No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism, edited by Daniel Guerin and translated by Paul Sharkey (AK Press, 2005).

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