Ethical Insights From The Great Butter Tub Debate

Colleague Rushworth Kidder has an enlightening ethics post on his Institute for Global Ethics site. After watching two diners scoop up handfuls of a restaurant’s butter tubs on their way out, Kidder queried friends about whether the conduct was unethical. His question sparked a longer debate than one might expect, and more valuable too. Kidder writes…

“The more they talked, the more I’d realized they weren’t just talking about a roadside restaurant. They were asking deep questions: Was this about morals or merely about manners? When does moral courage become intrusive busybodying? How do you decide which situations require action and involvement rather than simply observation and discussion? Do acts that are minute in scale — like taking one butter tub — become morally significant as the numbers grow? If so, who sets the line beyond which what’s merely odd becomes positively wrong? Most importantly, is ethics about outcomes or about principles?

My friends, in other words, were seeing timeless ethical issues in the tiniest of human incidents. Yes, they were talking about whether you can take butter tubs from a diner. But they were laying the groundwork for addressing the weightiest issues of our time…”

I have not read a more eloquent explanation for why it is important to look at the ethical content of the most trivial acts. They are just fractals, really…raising the same ethical dilemmas and conflicts as far more consequential episodes. but on a smaller scale. If we can decide on the right conduct involving butter tubs, we can figure out how to make the world a better place.

You can read about The Great Butter Tub Debate here.

One thought on “Ethical Insights From The Great Butter Tub Debate

  1. So here’s where I fall on the issue:

    Absent a rule that says how the offered butter is to be used, a patron can use the butter they are offered as they see fit.

    The offerer of butter (the restaurant) manages the flow of butter. They also choose the distribution method.

    If butter is moving too fast, people are scooping it up relentlessly, then the restaurant offers less.

    If the butter is moving too slow, if there are too many requests for more butter, they offer more. This occurs until a balance is achieved.

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