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?