Elevator Ethics

Randy Cohen surprised me today. “The Ethicist,” in his weekly column in the Times Magazine, responded to a  question from a Chinese citizen whose office building had only one working elevator, resulting in long lines of office workers waiting to catch a lift to distant floors. Cohen’s inquirer asked if it was unethical for him to run up the stairs to a higher floor, and secure a place on the elevator before it arrived on his original floor, one below.

Cohen said he was “cutting in line,” and that it was unethical. Randy may well be right, but I’m not immediately convinced. If you walk up the block in Manhattan to catch a cab before it gets to the mob of people where you were waiting previously, is that unethical? If you walk to an earlier bus stop so you can be sure of getting a seat on the bus, is that “cutting in line”? I have been in crowd waiting for subway trains, and when the train stopped, noticed that there was an open door where no people Sometimes I have been in a set of multiple lines where one is inexplicably longer (teller windows, customs, traffic lanes), so instead of going to the end of it, I go to one of the shorter lines at the wings. Unethical?

Cohen dismisses the questioner’s argument that anyone could do what he did and go to the higher floor as a rationalization. Where’s the rule? What’s the principle? If someone is willing to expend effort and energy to solve a problem that everyone else accepts, is that unethical, or just initiative? If someone in the crowd waiting for the elevator said, “The heck with this…I’m going to the floor above,” I would never think to protest, “That’s cheating!”  It just doesn’t seem like cheating to me.

But maybe Randy is right…he is, after all, THE Ethicist, while I am only “an” ethicist, but one who usually gravitates to the more demanding standard of conduct. This time, Cohen’s the stickler.

Is he right?

9 thoughts on “Elevator Ethics

  1. Pingback: Elevator Ethics « Ethics Alarms « Ethics Find

  2. I think this goes back a ways to when I first commented and had a bit of a sparring match with Jack about the proper use of Tennis Courts. Essentially, I said that if you have a right to use a Tennis Court, you can practice your serve and if a pair of people show up to play a match, they have to wait for you to finish up. Jack didn’t agree and maybe I was wrong, and maybe I wasn’t.

    I think my favorite quote from this site and Jack uses it often: “What you have a right to do, isn’t always right to do.”

    I think that applies to both situations, Tennis Courts and Elevators. It’s a problem that has plagued me for a proper definition and handling ever since that first post. To say it’s a “Gray Area” would be too harsh, but to say there is nothing to consider would be ignorant.

    In reality, both situations require a bit of careful handling and seem to represent some kind of “Ethical Loophole”, though I’m not sure that term 1) exists or 2) can exist seeing that it is probably an oxymoron.

    Both acts completed without others present are ethical and harm no one. However, the presence of others creates “harm” on the level of “inconvenience”. Let’s talk specifically about our Elevator friend.

    CC (Chinese Citizen) arrives at his office building to a long queue at the elevator. He has plenty of time to wait for the elevator and be on time for his shift. A man a few places from the head of the queue has a meeting starting in a few minutes and he’ll barely be able to make it on time as it is.

    CC becomes impatient and walks over to the stairwell and ascends to the 2nd floor and hits the down button. The elevator arrives empty and he enters for a trip to the 1st floor. When he arrives, he remains in the elevator and the crowd shuffles in. The man with the meeting is unable to make this elevator as a direct result of CC’s presence in the elevator.

    Is CC responsible for any ill actions the man may experience for being late? After all, he could not have known the urgency the man needed to be on the elevator. If the meeting was that important, the man would have planned more appropriately, right?
    As a matter of practice, the building management should make the elevator unavailable to the 2nd – 5th floors in the morning. I guarantee those workers are already taking the stairs as it is to avoid the queue. By making the elevator unavailable, this situation would be avoided, or at least make it so that CC would have to work up a sweat to get to the 6th floor and earn a place in the elevator.
    Though oddly enough, I still stand by the Tennis server who doesn’t yield the court to newcomers who want to play a match. Weird.
    So it all comes down to, Be Kind to Others, and try to be the less needy in all situations.

  3. Jack, if someone goes up a flight or two of stairs, catches the elevator, rides it back down, then goes up to whatever floor they were headed for in the first place, they’ve slowed the whole process down by adding an extra stop. Some elevators are none too fast when it comes to opening and closing their doors, and some people none too fast in boarding them as well. What may give an individual an advantage can work to the disadvantage of a group. I may get to my floor faster, but only at the expense of two or three others getting there later. If it’s not unethical, it’s still not a good idea.

  4. I will play Devil’s advocate to Mr. LeVier. If you are really in a hurry, shouldn’t you be the one who goes to the effort of going up a floor or two to make sure you get a spot? Isn’t this like when generator prices go up right after the ice storm and it makes sure that people don’t buy a generator ‘just in case’ they lose power later, but only if they REALLY need one?

    The people who need the elevator the most are the ones who will go up to the highest floor required to ensure they get a spot. Those who can wait, can wait. This argument breaks down when you consider people in wheelchairs, as does the argument for disabling the elevators for floors 2-5.

    • Actually, in my head, I wouldn’t prevent people from getting off on floors 2-5, but I would prevent a “Down Call” from floors 2-5. And with technology the way it is, I’d rig the elevator with an RFID reader and give handicap tenants residing on those floors a card to call the elevator.

      Regarding your first paragraph, as it is, this system is working. People queue up, and if you had an emergency, you could cut the line by going up a flight. But because we are talking about people, the system may become abused. If the elevator arrives on the first floor full of people going up, then the system has broken and some management needs to take place.

      You could even structure it so if you work on the 35th floor, you have a badge that only lets you onto the 35th floor. Floors 2-34 would be off limits to you.

    • You’re right. If you begin making rules that restrict or create proper human patterns, then you know that the behavior you are trying to limit or eliminate is unethical. I should have just said that in the beginning. Cutting in the elevator line is unethical.

  5. Aha! Here’s my chance to show off my ethical theory. Kant would say it’s unethical because of the categorical imperative: If you do it then everybody in the world can do it. That would lead to longer waits for all. Therefore: clearly unethical.

    Bentham votes the same way: You’re happier because you got ahead by pushing others back. Your increased happiness (utility) is offset (exactly) by the total increased unhappiness of those you displaced. Add to that the unhappiness associated with your extra effort, and the world’s total happiness is decreased.

    So Cohen ir right.

    • Yeah, I’m persuaded.

      Did you know you can still visit Jeremy, or his mummy, at the University of London where they must maintain his body and have it attend all board meetings as a condition of his bequest of money and his personal library? He’s in a glass “cage,” seated. I tried to see him when I was in London, and was told he does receive visitors, but that he was in Germany “on holiday.”

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