You probably heard the story. About three weeks ago in Manhattan, ad executive Merrie Harris was approached by a homeless man who asked her for some spare change. Harris told the man, Jay Valentine, that she had no change, but offered to lend him her American Express Platinum Card if he would promise to return it. Valentine assured her he was trustworthy, and, incredibly, Harris gave him the card. He returned the card a short time later after a modest shipping spree that added twenty-five dollars to her bill. The New York media sang the praises of both Harris and Valentine, dubbing Harris “the Amex Angel” and calling the episode “a shining act of generosity, trust and honesty.”
I almost designated Wilson an Ethics Hero at the time, but something stopped me. I have been considering the implications of the strange story ever since. It may have been that shining act, but I’m not convinced it was even ethical. Is that possible? How can an act of generosity, trust, and kindness not be ethical?
Recently, New York magazine weighed in on the episode, with a cold splash of reality:
“Is this a heartwarming story? Yes. Should you start lending your credit card to anybody who asks? Heck naw! This is New York City — rich people will rob you blind if you show a moment’s weakness. No matter how many hero stories the tabloids will tell you, here are some immutable truths of New York: Giving credit cards to strangers is a bad idea.”
It was a bad idea. When I first heard the story, I was reminded of a favorite movie quote from the classic Western “Silverado,” when Paden, played by Kevin Kline, explains his philosophy involving trust. He (actually screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan) says,
“I figure you should approach life like everybody’s your friend or nobody is. Don’t make much difference.”
In the movie, Kline is delivering this nugget of wisdom after some strangers he imprudently trusted took his horse, provisions, clothes and gun and left him in a desert to die. His theory sounds good, but a theory that has results like these is fatally flawed. Ethics has a practical purpose, and that is to reach a cultural consensus of how human beings should treat each other in order to make society and civilization better over the long and short-term. Conduct that is going to have a bad result more often than not is not truly ethical. It is, in fact, irresponsible, not to mention stupid. Impulsively trusting a gang of unfamiliar cowboys in the Old West, for example, was stupid.
Admittedly, Harris’s act may not have been either as trusting or as stupid as it seemed. Some cynics suspect that if Valentine hadn’t returned, she would have reported her Amex card stolen. Then she would not have had to pay for any charges that resulted from her impulsive generosity. This would have been a fraud on American Express, making company foot the bill for Harris’s risky stunt. I have been trying to get someone at Amex to answer this question for me: If a member calls American Express and says, “Hi: I just loaned my Platinum Card to a homeless man, and I just saw him run into Tiffany’s with a bunch of his friends…I’d like to report the card as stolen”, what would be the official response? So far, no luck. My guess is that the member will have to discover the priceless joys of MasterCard, because she wouldn’t be getting another American Express card any time soon.
Let’s avoid the impulse to be cynical, however, and take the episode at face value. Was it a shining example of ethical conduct at its best, or not? Here are some considerations in the analysis.
1. Are open-ended loans of credit cards, or even gifts of $25, to street beggars a standard we would want to see become the norm? Clearly not: if begging becomes this profitable, cities would become as choked with beggars as Calcutta. Working and living in them would be unbearable,and fewer people would seek work.
2. Harris was lucky. Valentine bought some pricey cigarettes, deodorant, body wash, and Vitaminwater; not the wisest or most frugal choices (How about, say, food? Or a book on finding work in Manhattan?), but it could have been a lot worse, and not just financially. What if he bought drugs and overdosed? What if he bought rotgut liquor—a not unlikely scenario—and drank himself to death? What if he bought a gun and went on a rampage, or a knife and stabbed a Muslim to death with it? The only thing that allowed Harris’s act to be celebrated rather than deplored was moral luck. She easily could have been creating a catalyst for tragedy. Did this even occur to her? It doesn’t seem so.
3. Why didn’t Harris give Valentine a spending limit? She would have done that with her child, presumably, or an employee: it is the prudent, sensible thing to do. That would have reduced the virtue of the act, you say, making it less trusting? Nonsense. Foolishness, recklessness and lack of prudence don’t contribute anything to ethical conduct; they diminish it.
4. Wasn’t Harris unwittingly tempting a man in dire straits to commit a crime? If Valentine had taken the Amex Card and gone hog-wild with it, as many homeless people would, he could have been charged with a crime. That would have significantly worsened his already unfortunate condition. Placing significant temptation within the grasp of people in desperation (and if one is begging on the street without being desperate, that’s unethical too) is not necessarily kindness, and might even constitute cruelty.
5. Did Valentine have any other obligations to his benefactor other than making modest purchases and returning the card? The last time I picked up a hitch-hiker, I drove him to his destination and he thanked me profusely. Then he said, “I’m grateful that you helped me, and the only way I can repay you is with some advice. Don’t pick up any more hitch-hikers! Sooner or later, you’ll get robbed or killed.” It would have been thoughtful if Valentine had offered similar advice about handing out one’s credit card to strangers.
I know this is going to make some people unhappy, but the ethics verdict on the heartwarming Harris-Valentine saga is that it isn’t ethical after all. A generous act that everyone agrees is going to backfire more often than not and a grandstanding gamble that will be paid for by a third party if it does wrong, that places its beneficiary and third parties at risk, and that could never be adopted as approved, recommended, or standards societal behavior is too irresponsible to be judged ethical. Trust is no virtue until it is paired with trustworthiness, and a homeless man, no matter how reassuring his demeanor, is not trustworthy.
It pains me to say it, but Merrie Harris is not an Ethics Hero after all. She is an Ethics Dunce, just an unusually nice and kind one.