Read an Excerpt
Whoever commits a fraud is guilty not only of the particular injury to him who he deceives, but of the diminution of that confidence which constitutes not only the ease but the existence of society.
-Johnson, Rambler #79 (December 18, 1750)
That this is one of the book's longest chapters is unsurprising: It takes up the ethics of commercial transactions, our culture's most common sort of human interaction. One way or another, these questions involve money. In particular, they deal with shopping and with the essential conflict between buyer and seller. The former wants to pay the lowest price, the latter wants to receive the highest; the temptations of deceit are powerful. That is why the used-car dealer has long been depicted as a reviled and tormented soul. If the car had been invented one hundred years earlier, Verdi would no doubt have written an opera about a used-car dealer. (And he would have taken very different sorts of vacations, perhaps driving along the seacoast with a backseat full of kids singing "Are We There Yet?")
There is an entire body of ethics and a great deal of law designed to keep the wheels of commerce turning smoothly, and that's not entirely a bad thing. It's nice to be able to buy groceries knowing that your pound of coffee is an actual pound. And actual coffee. And it makes the shopkeeper's job more relaxing if he can be confident that you'll pay for it, rather than slip it down your trousers. (And it makes your guests happier, knowing they won't be drinking trouser coffee.)
Commercial codes are ancient and nearly universal; laws touching on business practices can be found among Roman law, and farther back among the Egyptians and Babylonians. The earliest such provisions were little more than caveat emptor, but we have made a kind of moral progress. In America, there has been something of a revival of such codes under the rubric of consumerism. Most Americans appreciate measures to ensure that today even the unwary are unlikely to buy tainted pork or a cardboard sedan.
But an uneasy tension persists between consumerism and commerce. We are, after all, a country that both discourages the sale of tobacco, a toxic product, and subsidizes its cultivation. Were you to introduce some other new product that killed off its users at so impressive a ratesome kind of exploding hat, perhapsone suspects that Congress would take more vigorous steps to discourage its sale (at least to minors).
Health and safety are not the only factors in the creation of consumer law. Tradition and self-interest also play their parts. Philip Morris is reluctant to give up its enormous profits; tobacco farmers find a sentimental comfort (and a hardscrabble livelihood) in the family farm. Of course, similar arguments have been made by Colombian cocaine cartels and small coca growers. Someday, perhaps, a satisfyingly ironic solution to our tobacco problem will be found when the Colombian government sends us a billion dollars in foreign aid so we can attack the big tobacco traffickers and shift the small farmers to alternative crops, something less deadly and less addictive. Marijuana?
There are broad ethical implications in what is sometimes referred to as the "consumer movement." Its virtues are those of our democracy itself, high among them being truthfulness and the free flow of information that enables consumers (and citizens) to make informed choices, albeit when choosing breakfast cereal rather than a congressman (although, come to think of it, lately there may be less of a distinction here than the Founding Fathers could have anticipated).
And yet, conceding the righteousness of this crusading zeal, there is something in me that does not wish to be referred to as a "consumer." It smacks of the French Revolution somehow, only instead of being addressed as Citizen Cohen, I'm now Consumer Cohen, an honorific that rather overemphasizes a single sphere of existence. The problem is not so much that commerce dominates public life, it is that commerce is public life. It is often noted that too few of us vote, but we turn out in impressive numbers to any event that includes the phrase "10 percent Off!" We spend less time in the town square than we do at the mall, where there is, for example, no guarantee of free speech (although there is occasionally a nice free sample of cheese at that snack shop). All too often, shopping is what we have instead of civic activity.
The centrality of shopping is seen in the clash between those who cherish "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and the "life, liberty, and property" crowd. Indeed, the sanctification of property "rights" by the latter group has contributed much to human misery. It is difficult to make an ethical case for those whose worship of property has led them to challenge, for example, the very idea of environmental protection laws.
Such private property extremists dwell in a fantasyland of the rugged farmer living in isolation, on his autonomous homestead, out in the wilderness, where his actions affect no other person; except, perhaps, in the case of Jefferson and his slaves. But here on Earth, a more powerful case could be made that this solitary farmer is not so solitary, that his fertilizer washes off his field into the stream from which, many miles away, others must drink; that his produce is brought to market on roads others must pay for, in a truck that spews fumes others must breathe. He learned to do his crop calculations at a public school; he follows crop prices on-line, using the Internet created by government researchers.
It is environmentalism that provides a counterargument to the worship of private property, and it is a morally superior argument, not because it proposes a more austere lifestyle, but because it recognizes that we each live among others, affecting and being affected by one another. While honorable people may differ about any particular policy, this much seems unarguable. Those private property fanatics (to whom the current Supreme Court is increasingly and distressingly sympathetic) act unethically, not just because they espouse greed and relentless self-interest, but because their assertion of autonomy is intellectually dishonest. That is to say, that there can be no meaningful ethics that does not consider human beings as social creatures.
It must also be noted that profit is not the loftiest goal to which we can aspire, nor are commercial exchanges the most deeply satisfying human encounters. Much as one enjoys the mall, there is something to be said for the library or the school, the theater or the park, or indeed for the bedroom. Even in nineteenth-century London, that proud capital of a mercantile empire, the English dreamed of traveling to Italy; one reads so few novels where a woman from Tuscany yearns to live nearer the London Stock Exchange. A society where all human interaction is a form of commerce is hardly a society at all. In other words, if I ran my life the way I ran my business, it would barely be a life at all. Although I'd give more of my friend's coffee mugs with my picture on them. And I'd have a jaunty and memorable catchphrase to sum myself up. And my name would be written in an instantly recognizable typeface.
This is not to decry commerce, but to assign it a more reasonable place in human affairs. Johnson himself was not averse to commerce, which he knew improves the condition of humanity in manifold ways. After the death of his friend Henry Thrale, Johnson pitched in enthusiastically to help Thrale's widow sell her husband's brewery, showing an understanding of the buyer-seller relationship that presaged modern advertising's awareness that it must sell the sizzle, not the steak:
. . . When the sale of Thrale's brewery was going forward, Johnson appeared bustling about with an ink-horn and pen in his button-hole, like an excise-man; and on being asked what he really considered to be the value of the property which was to be disposed of, answered, "We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich, beyond the dreams of avarice."
But Johnson did not let his commercial zeal compromise his integrity, nor did this most sociable of men lose his awareness of himself as a person living among others.
Q & A
I was at the tailor when a young, casually dressed black man came in through the front door and said he was to meet a friend there. The shop owner (who is white, as am I) immediately told him that there was no one there, and closed the door, locking it behind him. But in fact there was a young woman in a fitting roomthe friend in questionand, hearing his voice, she rushed out after him. Was the shopkeeper's lie blatantly racist? Should I have acted?
Roberta Posner, New York City
You could not be certain in that brief encounter if the tailor was being deliberately, malevolently racistnor, I suspect, could he. He may well believe that he does not exclude men who are black, but merely men who look threatening. But if he considers every African American younger than eighty-five threatening, then regardless of his intent, the result is racial discrimination. And in any case, a quick glance through the door is a dubious way for anyone to spot a potential criminal.
The frail and elderly proprietor of the Delicate Lace Shoppe may bar her door to a menacing gang of club-wielding, beer-swilling teen thugs when her experience tells her that these louts are unlikely lace fanciers. That is, she may exclude them on the basis of their behavior, i.e., what they are actually doing. But barring people from stores based simply on how they look is a violation of the public-accommodations laws (and of fundamental decency) that, because it's so hard to prove, leaves victims with little recourse.
While the tailor's security is a genuine problem that must be taken seriously, the use of buzzers is not a good solution to that problem because, far too often, it becomes a device not to deter crime but to exclude African Americans. Another solution must be found. Neighborhood policing, for example, has been quite effective in dealing with just this sort of problem. So if the tailor is frequently robbed, he might ask his local precinct to put a cop outside the door, albeit not a New Jersey State Trooper if the tailor lives in the mid-1990s.
When you witness this kind of odious behavior, you could start by asking why you were admitted to the shop and the other customer was not. (If you are uneasy about a confrontation at that moment, write him a letter.) If you are unsatisfied with his response, tell him so. Then take the matter further. Write to the mayor, to your city council representative, to your city's human-rights agency, the Civil Liberties Union, and, indeed, to the newspapers. After all, this is a matter of social policy. You would be doing a fine thing to make this matter a part of our public discourse.
My fiance and I waited in line for four hours to buy tickets to a show. There were a limited number, so each person was allowed only two. We were approached by a man who offered us a $100 bonus to each buy an extra ticket. I was ready to accept, but my fiance said it wouldn't be fair to those who'd waited in line. Was he right? What if no bonus money had been offered?
I'm with your fiance. The money-waving guy was trying to cut in line, showing contempt for everyone behind you. And by offering money, he showed contempt for you, implying that even if you disapproved of his request, you'd set aside your values if the price was right. Furthermore, because tickets were in short supply, his jumping the line means that someone farther back who might otherwise have seen the show may not get to.
Even if this smoothie had offered no "bonus"a delightful euphemism for "bribe," by the wayhis behavior would still be objectionable because it undermines one of the small civilities of ordinary life. He affronts the sense of fairness, of equal opportunity, that distinguishes a line from a mob. But that's the kind of savage behavior people might have been driven to in a desperate attempt to see the final performances of Cats.
Until recently, I was too young to be admitted to R-rated movies. If my parents didn't mind my seeing a movie, was it wrong for me to lie about my age or buy a ticket to another movie and then sneak in? After all, I wasn't cheating the theater out of any money.
Dan Margolis, Pennsylvania
If your parents are okay with your movie viewing, you have no ethical obligation to kowtow to the industry's ratings. That system might be defensible were it used merely to inform parents, but for a multiplex manager to rule on what someone else's children may or may not see is impertinent. A case could be made that when you engage in a voluntary act like going to the movies, you ought to obey the rules. However, rules ought to be reasonable, hardly the case with this capricious and arbitrary rating system (no to sex but yes to violence, vulgarity, and Chevy Chase).
When you lie to get into an unauthorized movie, you do the theater no harm: Indeed, you increase its profits without threatening its sanctimonious pose of social responsibility. However, if you buy a ticket to a G-rated movie and then sneak into an R, you deprive the creators of that movie of your nine dollars.
Lying is always unfortunate, but in this case it is a lesser transgression than sneaking, and it's not nearly as depraved as pouring a sinister gluttonous substance onto popcorn and calling it "topping."
Of course, if that R-rated movie sells out, your stealth entrance may leave a late arrival seatless. So maybe the more honorable course is to lie about your age or to sneak into only unpopular R-rated movies: There's a rich cultural life.
To lie here is regrettable, but it is the less regrettable path. Your alternative is to truckle to an overreaching authority that imposes an unreasonable stricture simply to keep the wheels of commerce turning. Obedience to such rules isn't honesty; it is docility.
SNEAK INTO BAD MOVIES
I am considering sneaking into the movies, but only into bad movies. I'll pay for independent films shown in small art houses, but not studio films in multiplexes. Given the quality of movies like Mission to Mars that leave me feeling as if someone stole my nine bucks, is it fair to say that until studios start making better films I may bend the rules?
C. Gilmore, Los Angeles
I receive many letters from people eager to justify bad behavior, but yours is the first that attempts an aesthetic argument: It’s okay to steal from those who make bad art. I admire your ingenuity but must, alas, reject your logic.
Ethics requires an examination of the act, not the person acted upon. If it is wrong to sneak into The Producers, perhaps the funniest movie ever made, then it is also wrong to tiptoe into anything that inflates a five-minute Saturday Night Live sketch into a ninety-minute feature. In short, no. You don’t sneak into a bad movie. Not only is your proposal unethical, it’s perverse: Anyone with a lick of sense wants to sneak out of a bad movie.
Let the Buyer be Square
I recently bought a secondhand bicycle from a chap working out of an empty lot. He asked $75 for it–cheap, considering what I got. But now I wonder whether I ought to have been more diligent, and worry that there’s a good chance my bicycle was stolen.
F.S., New York City
Your concern does you credit–not as much credit as thinking of it before you bought the bike, though. Let’s say partial credit. Sometimes there is an ethical obligation not to be a bonehead, or, more kindly, not to become a partner in a famously questionable enterprise. In this case, you ought to have known that many used bikes sold in New York City are indeed stolen and you should therefore have made an effort to shop where they’re not. Ask any bike shop employee to suggest a legitimate dealer. Incidentally, that three-card monte? A poor way to invest your aged mother’s life savings. Magic beans, indeed!
When my boyfriend and I rent a car, the way he follows the requirement to “return the car with a full tank of gas” makes me uncomfortable. He has me sit in the driver’s seat and call out when the gas gauge just touches the “full” line, hoping that this is gallons–and dollars–away from a full tank. He says he has no way of knowing that he received the car with a truly full tank. Is he right?
Eric West, Washington, D.C.
He is right on paranoia, wrong on ethics. The rental agreement he signed says fill the tank, not refuel until the semiaccurate gas gauge registers something vaguely foolish. His obligation is unambiguous.
It’s true that he can’t know if the car’s previous renter topped up the tank, but that does not justify tailoring his own conduct to match that of the worst-behaved members of society. He also can’t know if other other drivers are carrying weapons, but he really ought not mount a machine gun on the roof of your rental car. (For one thing, he’d scratch the paint; that can be a pricey repair.) That there are petty scoundrels among us does not preclude the duty to behave honorably.
One technical consideration: On most cars, the gas gauge registers only when the engine is on. If your boyfriend insists on running the engine while he gasses up, he puts himself and anyone near him at risk of a dramatic explosion. This is a fine thing in a Schwarzenegger movie–it cuts down on the dialogue–but a poor way to economize.
A sign at the supermarket said “London Broil $2.67 lb., “ but the actual packages were priced at $.07 a pound. I tried to buy two, but the cashier said the meat was mispriced. I think the store should honor the pricing on its packages and should have relabeled them as soon as they spotted the mistake.
Theresa Ogden, Jersey City, New Jersey
I don’t agree. You knew perfectly well that London broil was not seven cents a pound. Taking advantage of an honest error is the improper act here. One must allow for the possibility that people make mistakes; it’s what happens next that separates the ethical from the unethical.
Stores, of course, may not promote a product at one price and then refuse to sell it. This is not just a matter of ethics, but in many places it is a matter of law. But what you describe is not “bait and switch”; it’s a comical foul-up. And while the store should certainly correct errors promptly, its behavior suggests a maladroit manager, not a moral transgression.
A heads-up for the future: General Motors does not currently produce a three-dollar Buick.
TWO LEFT FEET
I just purchased a pair of sneakers and did something I had contemplated in the past but never did. My feet are two different sizes, which has always been a source of frustration. This time, I switched sizes in the box and so, although buying only one pair, I have one of each size. I am not feeling particularly guilty but am wondering what you would say about this.
J.N., Cambridge, Massachusetts
Were I not the amiable fellow that I am, I’d say you stole a pair of shoes. But it’s such a nice day out, so I’ll say you, in effect, stole a pair of shoes. It is unfortunate that shoes are sized the way that they are, so unrelated to everyone’s asymmetrical feet (and I won’t even go into my own pants problem), but the solution can’t be for you to render another pair unsalable.
Of course, the store may be able to return them to the factory, and the factory may be able to find each of those solo shoes a mate, but that’s not your decision to make. You really ought to have asked.
But happy running. Away from the security guard.
NOTE: Many readers wrote to say that the department store Nordstrom offers properly sized shoes, even if the customer wears two different sizes, by breaking up pairs. No additional charge.
SWEATERS BORROWED, USED, RETURNED
My sister was going to buy some colorful sweaters to use in a family picture and then return them for a refund. When I chided her on this, she said it was the same as when I went to Barnes & Noble and looked up European restaurant numbers in the Michelin Guide without ever buying the book. What do you think?
Here’s one way to sort it out: Ask a clerk’s permission, or at least imagine asking a clerk (who could be incredibly charming and attractive; after all, it’s your imagination). I suspect the B&N clerk would let you look up a couple of numbers, but I’d be astonished if the clerk at the clothing store would let you borrow a wardrobe. There is not an absolute distinction between these two acts, but there is an absolute door to the store, and when merchandise passes through it, things change. At least your sister didn’t plan to photograph a family dinner; it’s so hard to return even a slightly used pot roast.
I needed a video camera, so I went to a department store where the clerk educated me on the various models and let me try them out to see which one I liked best. Then I went home and bought it for $100 less on the Internet. I feel bad about it, but not $100’s worth. Is that terrible?
W.W. Lubbock, Texas
It depends on your motives. If you were determined to buy your camera on-line, it would have been exploitative to enter the store intending to use it only as a source of information. But if you entered the store with an open mind, then you’re in the clear.
Many shoppers would be happy to buy their video camera at a bricks-and-mortar operation (what we old-timers call a “store”) if the price is right. In fact, many would pay more to buy it at a store, but not infinitely more. And no one is obliged to buy it at the store if it costs, say, a million dollars more. Entering the store does not obligate you to buy the camera there at any price. Just as you can shop around, checking prices at other stores, you are free to shop around on-line.
One thing you might have tried is haggling. If you’d returned to the store and said that the same camera was a hundred dollars cheaper elsewhere, they might have been willing to lower the price.
However, your nonterrible behavior can lead to terrible results: If everyone does what you did, the store will go under, and you’ll have nowhere to try out new cameras. You must make a rational calculation of what is in your best interest–short-term savings or long-term shopping opportunities.
Ultimately, this problem may be resolved by changes not in the buyer but in the seller. To survive, stores must provide incentives for people to shop there: helpful staff, quick repairs, great service, free pony rides for the kids. Otherwise, they can’t vie with on-line outlets that have advantages of their own: low overhead, no sales tax, huge inventory. It’s that edge that lets a savvy outfit like Amazon losewhat is it?–a billion dollars a minute?
WITH CERTAIN RESERVATIONS
Last night, my wife and I went to a popular local restaurant, where we were told there’d be a 1 1/2- to 2-hour wait, so we found a spot at the bar. Twenty minutes later, they told us our table was ready. After seating us, the captain said, “Enjoy your dinner, Mr. Towns.” We’d been given someone else’s table. Not wanting to return to the bar for another hour, I chose not to correct his error. Was I wrong?
Anthony Leto, Libertyville, Illinois
You were wrong, partly because you jumped the line (even without knowing it), but mostly because poor Mr. Towns is probably still at the bar. The captain believes they’ve seated him; he must be getting awfully hungry. You should have told the captain that you’d like to keep your seats, but he should attend to poor starving Mr. Towns. All you would have risked is your table; losing it, while regrettable, would have only been fair.
Politics and Shopping
When my pal ordered a Coors at lunch the other day, I read him the riot act: “You can’t drink that; they’re treacherous righ-wing fanatics.” He countered that an evil of McCarthyism was denying someone a livelihood because of his beliefs. Maybe he had a point. If it was wrong for Jack Warner to fire a movie actor for being a Red, isn’t it equally wrong to shun Coors for its nonbrewery politics?
Each of us is free to follow the dictates of conscience in the beer aisle, but the question gets more complicated when you move beyond an individual act to a boycott with economic consequences. In your case, the big guy-little guy argument obtains. Your action may have the form of a boycott, but unallied with any organized movement, it’s really just a way to display your anti-Coors sentiments. And unless I underestimate your beer-drinking capacity, you’ll have no effect on the company you disparage: The ineffectualness of your protest becomes its justification. Jack Warner, on the other hand, was powerful enough to throw people out of work and wreck their lives–and to set a standard for the rest of the industry.
But what if your actions were part of an effective organized movement (such as that against Domino’s, the perfect pizza not to eat with that beer you’re not drinking)? Donna Lieberman, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, approaches the question differently. “You boycott Coors,” she says, “because they use their profits for political activities you despise. Jack Warner blacklisted writers not for anything they did, but simply for having unpopular ideas.” No one believed Zero Mostel was a threat to public safety. So you’d be wrong to organize a boycott of a company just because you didn’t like the boss’s thoughts. But when he uses your beer money to put those thoughts into action by supporting causes you oppose, you have every right to find another brand.
There is an alternative that obviates your Coors conundrum. Each day for much of his life, former Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai drank his own urine, so he always knew the political implications of his beverage. He lived to be ninety-nine.
GERMAN CAR EMBARGO
Because of our national and religious background (English and Jewish) my family does not purchase German automobiles due to the sorry wartime history of BMW, Mercedes, and Porsche. Having said that, I really like the BMW Z3. Can I make an ethical case for buying a used one because no additional dollars will flow to BMW?
Stephen E. Wimbourne, Chicago
If you decided to drop your embargo, you might make a persuasive case. Few, if any, people at those companies were adults during the war; most of the current employees weren’t even alive then. However, if you choose to maintain your embargo, your used-car argument is unpersuasive. The point of such an action is not merely to deprive a company of profits. It can be a refusal to show forgiveness, even symbolically, for the enormities a company perpetrated. And it is a statement made not just to the company but to the world at large. As such, it can be a means of pressing a company and, in turn, a nation, to confront the past. And it could be argued that such efforts are partly behind the extensive reparations Germans have paid to Israel and to individual Jews.
Sorry, I’m afraid that BMW has driven you to rationalization.
It seems unethical for Wal-Mart, which does sell guns, to refuse to sell Preven, a morning-after contraceptive. Would I be right to protest Wal-Mart’s policy? After all, my bookstore doesn’t carry every book.
Ann Molliver Ruben, Miami Lakes, Florida
Many factors influence how a store selects its merchandise; some good, some not so good. Few would object when, due to lack of demand, a pastry shop declines to sell mint’n’bacon doughnuts. And there are times when ideological criteria are reasonable. Laissez Faire Books sells works with a right-wing slant; Revolution Books stocks its shelves from the left.
But our health care system only works if pharmacists distribute the medication doctors prescribe, not veto intimate medical decisions. A bookstore that doesn’t stock your book will still order it, and there are few books one can’t wait a week to read. But Preven must be taken quickly–ideally within twelve hours of unprotected sex, seventy-two hours at the absolute latest. (That’s why Washington State now permits women to get Preven directly from their pharmacist, without visiting a doctor first, and Britain is considering making it an over-the-counter drug.) The largest retail chain in the world, Wal-Mart is often the only or one of a very few pharmacies in town. A bookstore’s values might inconvenience a customer; a drugstore’s can put her in peril.
That is, if values comes into it. “This decision had nothing to do with our morality,” says Jessica Moser, a Wal-Mart spokesperson. “We look at many factors, including customer demand, what we already stock, and the expected sales of a product.” And Wal-Mart does fill prescriptions for birth control pills, which can also be prescribed as emergency contraception.
But the company has a history of letting pressure groups dictate its inventory. Wal-Mart refuses to carry stickered music, though much of it goes Top Forty; they don’t carry adult videos, yet surely we Americans have a hardy appetite for pornography.
While Wal-Mart did once sell handguns, says Ms. Mosher, they now do so only in their stores in Alaska. And recently Wal-Mart has responded to its critics. In a policy change praised by Planned Parenthood, Wall-Mart ordered its pharmacists either to fill all prescriptions or to refer the customer to a pharmacy that will. This is a real improvement but still far from ideal. While Wal-Mart certainly has the right to decide if they want to operate a pharmacy, once they choose to do so, they have an ethical obligation to fill any legal prescription. It does them no credit to stand between a woman and her doctor’s advice. And as this book goes to press the chain still refuses to carry Preven, so protest anyway. America is a free market, not just of doughnuts but of ideas.