I don’t like to poach advice columnist questions unless the columnist makes a mess of the answer. This is an exception, however. It is an ethics question like no other I have ever encountered, the ethics equivalent of Monty Python’s “killer joke.” It is driving me crazy.
The question came to Ariel Kaminer, the writer of the New York Times ethics advice column, “The Ethicist.” Kaminer is typically all over the map, and often makes simple ethics problems more complicated than they are, when she isn’t getting them wrong entirely. “The Ethicist” didn’t get this question wrong entirely, but she did write a long explanation that missed what was really remarkable about the question. The only answer that was absolutely required would have been, “WHAT???”
Here’s the jaw-dropping question, from a student:
“My school charged a dollar for students to bet, or “predict,” which team would win the Super Bowl. It was $1 for one team, and if you won, you would get a candy bar. If you bet $3, you could choose both teams and guarantee your candy bar. Is this legal or even morally right?”
The school (Where is this school?) is not only promoting gambling, it is promoting crooked gambling, or, if you prefer, attempting outright theft. It is encouraging students to spend a dollar on a 50% chance to win something that costs about a dollar! In addition to being a scam, the school is either…
1. …teaching students to be stupid and gullible, or
2. .. intentionally taking advantage of students who are already stupid and gullible,
3. …using this as a diagnostic tool to identify which students are stupid and gullible so that they can be put into special classes, OR
3. …run by people who are themselves too stupid to realize how ridiculous and unfair this “contest” is.
But is it theft or a scam? The structure is obviously ridiculous, and so easily recognizable as such that one can hardly claim that the school is trying to deceive anyone. It is not usually unethical to say, “Hey! Want to waste your money?” since the expected answer is “No.” Is it ethical for a school to ask that question? I don’t know. It is certainly a stupid question to ask.
The student’s question is even stranger, because it asks about a secondary option the school offers that is even more idiotic than the contest itself. The student asks, in effect, “Is it unethical or immoral for the school to make available a truly ridiculous option that no sane student would ever choose, paying three dollars to ensure a win that two dollars will suffice (betting a dollar on both teams) to guarantee, when a win is only worth about one dollar anyway?” If this school is populated by the learning disabled, the brain-injured or the mentally ill, then yes, the school’s offer is unethical and despicable. Otherwise, it is just sad, and sadder still that the questioner has to write the New York Times to analyze it.
Sad, or frightening. The more I think about it, the more this question is driving me mad. A school devises an absurd and mathematically rigged gambling scam that everyone should laugh at. Why? A student takes it so seriously that he writes the New York Times for guidance. Why? And the Times “ethicist” answers with the solemnity of a rabbi! WHY??
What’s happening out there?