Sam’s live-in partner Leslie has a taste for expensive gadgets, such as a toaster that burns today’s weather report on each slice (but ruins the toast), or a solar-powered outdoor fountain (that stopped working the first day).  An unsolicited catalog arrives in the mail, addressed to Leslie.  Seeing that it is chock-full of similarly expensive contraptions, Sam quietly get rids of it before Leslie gets home.  Is this OK?

Dilemma 6 in 101 Ethical Dilemmas by Martin Cohen.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

One response »

  1. John Hooker says:

    Rationalistic Western ethics works best when regulating conduct in society at large. It offers less guidance for intimate relationships. That’s not to say ethics isn’t important in relationships, but viewing partners as autonomous rational agents, as is the habit of Western ethics, doesn’t capture much of what is going on between them. (See Confucian ethics for a richer treatment of domestic relations.)

    Nonetheless, let’s see how far we can get by applying ethical reasoning to this dilemma. It is deceptive for Sam to throw away mail addressed to Leslie. To deceive people is to cause them to believe something you know is false. By quietly discarding the catalog, Sam causes Leslie to believe falsely that no gadget catalog arrived that day. Deception is normally ungeneralizable, and therefore unethical, because it wouldn’t work if everyone did it.

    Discarding the catalog would not be deceptive if Sam and Leslie had a general practice of throwing out junk mail, but we will suppose they don’t.

    The dilemma is complicated, however, because Sam has a special reason for discarding the catalog: Leslie’s fondness for useless gadgets. To make the point clearer, suppose that Leslie is recovering from a gambling addiction. It seems OK for Sam to discard a casino ad without Leslie’s knowledge, to avoid the temptation it would present. Why is it OK? Not because the end justifies the means. Throwing out the ad results in greater utility, but utilitarian arguments apply only to choices that pass the other ethical tests (such as generalizability).

    Maybe discarding the ad is OK because it becomes generalizable when we regard Leslie’s condition as one of the reasons for doing it. However, this seems doubtful. If people always hid information that could exacerbate an illness, people who are ill would always suspect this. In particular, Leslie would assume that Sam is regularly throwing out material that relates to gambling. Throwing it out would not cause Leslie to believe that no ad arrived.

    Yet perhaps it’s not Sam’s purpose to cause Leslie to believe this. He only wants to remove the temptation. Similarly, perhaps it need not be Sam’s purpose to cause Leslie to believe that no gadget catalog arrived. As far as he is concerned, Leslie can assume that a catalog arrives every day, and Sam throws it out. He only wants to remove the direct temptation created by the catalog. Then throwing it out becomes generalizable.

    However, if this is really his purpose, Sam must be willing to tell Leslie, “By the way, I always throw out gadget catalogs.” I’m not sure Sam is willing to do this. If not, he has an ethical problem.

    Maybe Leslie “would forgive” Sam if Leslie learned what he is doing, and maybe this makes Sam’s subterfuge OK. Here we get into complexities that Western ethics handles poorly. The two partners are not really autonomous individuals with respect to each other, as presupposed by rationalistic ethics. To at least a small degree, they are the same being, and Sam is acting “as Leslie” when he throws out the catalog. Perhaps this is why it may be OK for Sam to take this prerogative, and Leslie would “forgive” him for doing so.

    Relationships require more guidance than ethics alone provides. But ethics was never intended to solve all of life’s dilemmas. It only addresses how people living in a society can get along with each other.

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