Flashback: “Ethics Test at McDonald’s”

Background: The McDonald’s beating and video story reminded me of another ethics essay arising out of a McDonald’s incident, one that I was personally involved in. This post first appeared on The Ethics Scoreboard in 2006, and reading it again, I realized it was one of the first times that I used the ethics alarms imagery that became the basis for this blog. The incident that inspired the essay still troubles me. I wish I could blame McDonald’s for the callousness that my 2006 experience and last week’s incident in Maryland exposed, but unfortunately, our problem relates to the Golden Rule, not the Golden Arches. Here is “Ethics Test at McDonald’s”:

Life gives ethics tests like pop quizzes. You often get no warning, and if you’re thinking about something else, you might not even realize the test is going on.

I found myself in the midst of a large scale test in an unlikely place: a busy neighborhood McDonald’s in Arlington, Virginia. The establishment is mostly notable for its recently-broken two-year streak of never getting a single one of my family’s orders right. On Sunday mornings it typically attracts a great many Virginians of all sizes, ages, nationalities and socio-economic categories who are seeking a breakfast that is cheap, or fast, or both.

I had been dispatched to this dreaded McDonald’s by my wife to pick up breakfast for my son and his sleep-over guest. I was standing in a long and excruciatingly slow line (as usual, the crack employee taking orders was as unfamiliar with her employers’ menu as she was with the language being used to reference it) when I noticed that a senior citizen in the center of the place with a full tray of food was in distress.

The very elderly man was having great difficulty getting to the drink area, as he could barely walk. He evidently needed a cane to move but couldn’t use it (it was hanging on his arm) because his hands were filled with a tray, and he was shuffling very shakily and slowly toward his destination. He seemed to be on the verge of taking a bad fall and spilling everything as dozens of people swept past him on all sides; it was also obvious that he was also frightened. Yet as obvious as this was, nobody stopped to help him or asked if he needed help. Nobody even seemed to see him, though he presented a very painful spectacle. A McDonald’s employee actually brushed past him on the way to filling the napkin dispensers, nearly knocking him over.

I wasn’t the most likely candidate to assist him. He was quite a distance away from me with many other customers moving between us; not only that, but I was finally about to be served, and stepping out of line ensured another long wait and an increase in the ever-present possibility that I might finally snap and start strangling inept McDonald’s employees. But after a minute or so of watching the poor man, I realized that nobody else was going to do anything, at least in time to prevent an accident. I stepped out of line, walked over to him and asked if I could carry his tray to his table. “Oh, thank you so much!” he said with obvious relief. Sweat was pouring down his face. I told him I would get some cream and sugar for his coffee and take it to him so he could sit down.

The incident was as revealing as it was disturbing. The McDonald’s was filled with kids, teenagers, Democrats, Republicans, local home-owners, at least one policeman, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and many other elderly citizens. Surely the vast majority of them are basically good people, as most people are. Almost all of them have opinions concerning the “right thing to do” about abortion, Iraq, gay marriage, tax policy, illegal immigration and dozens of other subjects. Nevertheless, when they saw a fellow human being struggling and in need of assistance, it never occurred to any of them to take responsibility, do their duty as fellow human beings, and help him.

It is not as if I jumped to his assistance immediately; far from it. I assumed that it would be only a matter of a few seconds before several people would be vying to come to his rescue, and was stunned that nobody did. I almost waited too long, in fact: he looked as if he was about to fall or drop his tray by the time I broke out of line.

As with the forty Mount Everest climbers who left a collapsed climber in the snow to die a few months ago, everyone in the McDonald’s, including me, was thinking about something other than ethics on that Sunday morning. So pressing was the need to get the fast food and get on with the day that no alarms—those ethics alarms that tell us that its time to do something to keep a stranger from harm and make an effort to help another human being simply because he needs it and we are there—went off in anyone’s head. I had an advantage the other MacDonald’s customers didn’t. I teach ethics every day, and I write about ethics; this keeps my alarms are in unusually good working order, because I have to use them all the time, not just in my life, but in my work. I have no idea what my response to the elderly man’s plight would have been if I was simply practicing law, or running a conventional business. It is quite possible that I would have paid no attention to him either.

And that’s scary.

Keeping our ethics alarms sensitive and working is a challenge for everyone, and I think it is also a duty. Some remarkable people, like Ethics Hero Don Bedwell, the Cleveland businessman who donated his kidney to a waitress he barely knew after he found out that she needed a transplant, just naturally feel ethical obligations that normal people do not. I have no doubt that Don Bedwell would have beaten me to the old man’s side if he had been ordering an Egg McMuffin. The rest of us need a little more preparation for life’s ethics tests, so at least we notice when one is going on.

The fact is that we are being presented with ethics tests all the time, and we aren’t even aware of some of them. Perhaps the best way to keep our ethics alarms in working order is to proactively look for those tests, and not wait for them to grab our attention. By that time, we may have already flunked.

5 thoughts on “Flashback: “Ethics Test at McDonald’s”

  1. That’s well put, Jack. The best of us have this tendancy to look the other way when “we’re just too busy to be bothered”. We rationalize it by telling ourselves that someone else will take care of it. The trouble is, all those “someone elses” are telling themselves the same thing. Someone has to take the initiative. The fact that this event of your’s happened on a Sunday morning- when people should be particularly attuned to their fellow man- makes this even more distressing.

  2. I wonder if it is not that the ethics alarms of some of the other patrons were ignored but that they were never triggered in the first place. In today’s atomized, objective driven society, it is easy to “tune out” those around us, so that we do not notice those who are in need.

  3. It is a shame that people don’t take the initiative, through blindness or lack of motivation. I do suspect, however, that if the old man had asked for help, there would have been very few who would have turned him down. I can’t really comment neutrally on this topic as I am always on the lookout for people who need help, but that come more out of perspective I have from my faith (Christian).

  4. The quality of life and security for the citizens has been largely restored and we are a large part of why that has happened.

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