ARRRGH! Outrageous Ethics Malpractice By “The Ethicist”!!!!

Well, you did it again, made my head explode. But now I have a place to keep my keys...

Well, you did it again, made my head explode. But now I have a place to keep my keys…

It’s time for Chuck Klosterman, the New York Times’ designated amateur who now handles “The Ethicist” advice column, to hang it up, and let some randomly chosen unemployed New Yorker take a shot at the job. Since assuming his post, Chuck has had good moments and bad, but this botch is embarrassing, and signature significance—no one who isn’t a bona fide Ethics Dunce could make such a terrible call.

Get this: Klosterman was asked whether surreptitiously taking cuttings from plants owned by a shopping center was unethical:

“…While walking through our local shopping center, we noticed a particular plant that we both liked and decided to get it for our patio….My wife thought she could grow it from cuttings, so we went back and took about three or four cuttings from one of the many plants that were scattered around the shopping center. The plant was not hurt or damaged in any manner or form, but my gut instinct told me that this was wrong. Was it?”

Does this question really need asking? Apparently, because the fraud masquerading as an ethicist at the Times thinks it’s a “thorny” question (Chuck likes puns…maybe the column should be called “The Punster”) about an “unethical act that has a positive impact.” ( Helpful hint to Chuck: the issue is stealing.Klosterman then embarked on a rationalization orgy:

 “…The plant you wanted to clone was not for sale and did not disappear from its place of origin. To accuse you of “stealing” seems a little overamplified; the nature of this act actually seems closer to mild vandalism (although if your wife is truly as skilled a gardener as you imply, there would have been no significant trauma to the plant). If this variety were rare and supervaluable, it could be argued that the cloning reduced its value, although I doubt this was the case if you found them scattered all over a mall. These plants come from the earth, so there is no infringement on creative powers. (I suppose it’s possible your plant is some kind of unique man-made hybrid, but — here again — a shopping center is not exactly Biosphere 2.) Plants have a positive impact on the environment and social aesthetics, and your ultimate goal was to create more of them….”

I’m going to take a break to scream now. OK, back to (yuck) Chuck:

“So here is my analysis: you technically stole, you technically committed vandalism and you should have asked the shopping center’s permission before trying this unethical act. In a black-and-white universe, your gut instinct was correct. But if I were to place unethical acts on an ascending continuum of 1 to 100, I’d give you and your wife a 4. Maybe a 3.”

Here was the take of my friend and colleague Ethics Bob, who scooped me on this one. Bob has had a busy year, and his commentary has been sparse lately;   it’s good to have him back on the case. He writes in part (read his whole post here) …

“The Ethicist is sliding down a slippery slope. Is an act that rates 4/100 on an unethics scale OK? How about a five? Perhaps he would settle for an unethics score of 49/100 as acceptable: that would say it’s OK to steal (or lie or cheat?) if the offense isn’t more than halfway to total lack of integrity. Slippery slopes are hard to negotiate. Clarity of principles makes for easier decision making. When it comes to stealing I’d recommend my formula over The Ethicist’s. It’s one of my unenforceables: What’s not mine is not mine.

Bingo, Bob, and I would also add this:

There are certain aspects of ethical analysis that someone claiming to be an ethics expert is obligated to understand and know how to use. Chuck, an ethics poseur, uses balancing, or utilitarianism, as his primary tool almost every time. There is more to ethics than balancing outcomes, however, and this situation is a perfect example. How would the principle of reciprocity, as in the Golden Rule, apply to the query? Well, Chuck, would you want a guest taking samples from your property without asking your permission to do so? I doubt it. It’s not up to the couple, or you, to unilaterally tell the owner of plants that someone cutting pieces off of them is harmless. If I’m the shopping center’s owner, the harm is this: they are my plants, and I don’t want people tampering with them without my knowledge or permission. Don’t tell me there’s no “harm”…the harm is that I don’t like it, and that’s enough.

Has “The Ethicist” ever heard of Philosopher Immanuel Kant and the ethical principles of absolutism? Kant posited the Rule of Universality, which held that before one could conclude that a variety of conduct was right and good, one had to believe that it would always be right—in other words, if everybody really did do it, the world would be hunky-dory. Obviously, a principle that anyone and everyone could secretly take a piece of a plant without asking permission to grow their own would fail. Everyone taking a tiny piece would eventually result in smaller and smaller plants, and eventually no plants at all. Shopping centers would stop having plants, making the malls even more unattractive than they already are. Fewer people would come to shop. Businesses would fail; people would lose their jobs. Multiply Chuck’s “4 or 3” by thousands of vigilante plant-cloners, and it isn’t so trivial any more.

A competent analysis of any ethics problem requires consideration of the problem from several angles, with reference to all the potential ethical violations involved. To anyone with an ounce of common sense, this one can be accurately dispensed with on a simple gut call: it feels wrong, because it is wrong, but here are some of the ethical values this conduct breaches:

  • Fairness…because the couple unilaterally altered the property of another without permission, placing their objectives above the rights of another.
  • Respect...because doing this is disrespectful.
  • Honesty in Communications and Candor…because it was done in secret.
  • Honesty in Deed…because taking the property of another, however small, is theft.
  • Justice…because it is also unjust.
  • Responsibility…because it sets a precedent for conduct that would be significantly harmful if everybody did it.
  • Citizenship…because the conduct violates the law.

I’m sure Chuck Klosterman is a nice man. He writes well, there are probably lots of jobs he could do for the Times.

This answer convinces me that being “The Ethicist” isn’t one of them.


Pointer: Ethics Bob

Facts: New York Times.

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

38 thoughts on “ARRRGH! Outrageous Ethics Malpractice By “The Ethicist”!!!!

  1. Agreed that this is pure theft. But, what if — instead of stealing plant cuttings — the couple decided to recharge their cell phones in outlets found under a mall bench next to the plant? Somehow, that is socially acceptable even though that results in irreplaceable theft to the mall — the plant will most certainly grow back, resulting in no actual loss.

    • Even if there’s no long term loss with the plant, there is short term loss. It’s not okay to borrow money out of till.

      Outlets are a more interesting situation. I tend to say that in a polished environment (like a mall) if an outlet is covered, it’s intended to be private, if it’s uncovered, it’s intended to be public.

      • Unless there is a caddy that says “recharge your cell phones here” (like at airports), I think it’s theft. I think we rationalize that it’s okay because everyone has a cell phone and we’re likely at that store to buy a product anyway so what’s the harm? If cutting the plant is bad, then recharging the cell phone has to be at least as bad.

        • At a store seems very different from by the bench at a mall. I don’t thnk I’d even think of charging at a store. If I did, I’d ask an associate.

          Airports was actually my basis for the idea. Prior to their being prettied up charging stations, there were intermittent outlets. There seemed to be tacit approval that they be used before the outlets were built into seats.

          • I’d submit that Beth is probably right. The intermittent outlets found at malls and airports were designed in for use of facility maintenance and cleaning crews.

            The use of outlets without permission does constitute theft (however minor, still theft). Even when going to a friend’s house, where familiarity and comfort and obvious openness exist, everyone I know asks permission to charge their phones just as if they ask to get a drink from the fridge.

            However, based on the unspoken and wide scale adoption of, what we could term the ‘free outlet trend’, I would submit then that there might be an obligation for the facility in question to clearly indicate if outlets are or are not available for free usage.

            Not that they ought to have to do such, because people ought to respect private property outright, but simply because the ‘free outlet trend’ has become so commonplace.

            And, as you mention, airports have simply given up the fight, determining it would probably be more financially costly and bad for public relations to fight the theft than it is to just allow it, endorse it, and simply mark up the price of their services to cover for the loss.

              • No, when un-confronted theft becomes so commonplace that people observing the behavior assume it is permitted by the owners, then those people go about unintentionally stealing.

                The owners are obligated to confront the issue and stop the theft. If they knowingly allow it, then they are giving permission. If they unknowingly allow, then unfortunately they are victims of a mass trend that probably can’t be practicably stopped.

                They can always choose to go the route of the airlines an specifically endorse it, therefore making it not theft, but an amenity, an recoup the loss by marlin up other services.

                It isn’t fair, but it is a pretty good solution to fighting it, as fighting it would probably be more costly than just allowing it and recovering the loss elsewhere. Make it an amenity to shopping and you may gain a margin more shoppers who may purchase enough items with a marginally increase mark-up that they do in essence pay for the electricity they used.

                It sucks. It isn’t fair to the people who don’t use the electricity. But it’s better than expecting every single company to have to mark up their products to pay for excessive court fees to prosecute something stealin pennies of electricity.

                • And until society decides to reassert the eroding sanctity of private property and begin raising its children with the mindset of “if it isn’t yours then it isn’t yours”, you’ll see more if this.

        • It’s a good question. I never thought about it. I’m inclined to go with tgt that an open, available outlet in a public place like a mall or airport says “use me” a lot more than a plant says “cut me.” I’ve never seen anyone surreptitiously use the outlets, nor have I heard of anyone being told to stop. If the custom has evolved that shoppers assume the outlets are for public use and no malls have placed signs or other notice to the contrary—and the covers are always available, I’d think use is presumed to be granted.

          • This, too, feels like an evasion.

            After all, you’ve probably never seen anyone surreptitiously take plant cuttings, nor ever seen a sign that says “this plant is not for cutting!”

            The electrical power must be paid for by someone. By this reasoning, usage of power outlets is equally bad as the cutting of plants.

            • No, I think there’s a difference. You don’t have to disturb the integrity of the outlet to use it, just like a water faucet suggests use. I agree that absent tradition, and owner waiver (by knowing non-enforcement) it’s theft, but unlike the cutting, there isn’t the motive to steal, so there is no mens rea. That’s my point about hiding it—nobody would try to hide plugging in to mall outlet. They would assume it was OK. Obviously the couple knew it wasn’t OK, or they would have asked permission–and the answer would have been “ARE YOU KIDDING??? YOU WANT TO CUT MY PLANTS”???

              • You can take a small cutting of a plant and 99% of the public wouldn’t even notice that the original plant looks different. It’s just not common which is why it somehow seems worse than stealing electricity. Maybe you only stole 25 cents worth of power — probably the same cost as a roll of toilet paper in the public stall. But stealing the roll of toilet paper is just as wrong as taking the power. Everyone charges their cell phones in public now — it’s just impossible to enforce which is why stores and restaurants let it go. Widespread theft doesn’t make it ethical.

              • I don’t think the difference is as significant as you suggest. For one thing, using the surreptitious nature of the cutting as evidence of its wrongness is problematic because it raises the question, “What if they didn’t know it wasn’t okay?” You assume that someone who uses an outlet and someone who takes a cutting both engage in the same behavior – not asking permission – but do so for opposite reasons. The former because they assume it’s all right, the latter because they know it’s wrong. It seems perfectly plausible that someone might assume that it was all right to take a cutting of a plant as long as they didn’t permanently damage it. The letter writer obviously didn’t think so, but maybe his wife did. Maybe he was the only one who was taking pains to keep it secret. If the wife was on her own and she took the cuttings openly without being challenged on it, would it be less wrong?

                Incidentally, I can easily imagine this happening. If she really is just clipping leaves and leaving the plant in place and undisturbed, I think it’s just as likely as not that the mall owner wouldn’t care. I don’t know why you assume the response to a request for permission would be in all capital letters with copious question marks. From some it might be. Others might be taken aback by the fact that someone had even bothered to ask before doing it. If the mall owner just happened to be willing to look the other way, in the same way that he’s willing to look the other way on outlet use, does that make it less wrong?

                The question still stands as to how much tradition has to be established before someone is justified in doing something that would have been wrong if they were the first to perform the action. Incidentally, I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen anyone charging a mobile device at a mall. If I went to a mall tomorrow and did so, would it be wrong of me, but not of someone who had witnessed others doing it many times before?

                • I think what creates the distinction is that the free outlet trend is far more socially prevalent compared to a ‘free clippings trend’. Because it is far more prevalent, with no repercussions, it is safer for any individual to assume it is permitted.

                  I don’t think you can honestly say that there is a mass movement to take plant clippings to the scale of outlet usage.

                  That difference is what allows Jack to finish out the logical interpretation that the couple who took the clipping did so assuming it was wrong and therefore not asking permission. Anyone using an outlet does so assuming it’s ok, therefore not asking permission.

                  Your whole second paragraph is just trying to justify their behavior through hypotheticals that would only prove to be exceptions to the rule, not the rule itself.

                  • What the hell are you talking about, Tex? Who said I was “trying to justify their behavior”? I’m trying to illustrate that your and Jack’s distinction between taking a plant cutting and using an outlet is a false distinction.

                    Each of your points is already answered by the comment you’re replying to. To reiterate: ethics aren’t typically determined by the relative level of social acceptance, nor are they determined by how much or little shame a person feels in performing the action.

                    Both of these ideas put you on a severely slippery slope. How many people have to commit an ethical violation before the trend has enough social prevalence to make it no longer unethical? I don’t think being able to safely assume that something is permitted changes anything if that assumption is incorrect. You’re basically saying that it’s okay because people aren’t thinking it through. Well, why does there need to be social trend to prevent you from thinking it through? You can assume that something is permitted on the basis of no evidence, and then perform that action with impunity. How much evidence do you have to have before your disinclination to hide your actions shifts from being evidence of shamelessness to being evidence of a “safe assumption”?

                    • Slippery Slope
                      What matters are judgements based on reasonability of assumptions. If a large number of people are using the property of an establishment, and the establishment is not stopping them, then it is reasonable for a passerby to ASSUME that the use of the property is permitted.

                      Usage of outlets in establishments, such as airports as TGT mentioned, makes the trend seem fairly tolerated by those establishments and therefore permitted. In those instances, you often see the owner’s simply endorsing the behavior and recuperating the loss elsewhere. Permission given makes the action no longer theft.

                      Usage of outlets in malls, I feel is less prevalent, and likely to be right or wrong on a situational basis.

                      If an establishment knows that the behavior is going on, tolerates it for awhile and doesn’t do anything to stop it, then the establishment essentially has given permission until it takes action to stop the behavior.

                      Clipping a branch off of a plant? Far distance down the mass movement continuum to warrant a REASONABLE assumption of permission.

                      I don’t think the slippery slope is as steep as you think. It wouldn’t give rise for anyone to steal anything and play dumb with the excuse “well, I didn’t know I couldn’t take that!”

                      Jack asserted that the owner of the plant would be incredulous by the request to take a clipping because it IS REASONABLE to start one’s assumptions in a default setting of: Do not mess with other people’s property because they don’t want it messed with.

                      That is a reasonable default setting because it leads to no harm.

                      Your hypothetical response by the plant owner of not caring if someone took a clipping without permission is an exception to that rule.

                      Also, your hypothetical response by the plant owner of being confused why anyone would bother asking for permission is also an exception to that rule.

                      You listed both exceptional hypotheticals as ways that the behavior would be less wrong.

                      That’s a justification.

                      Of course, the proper answer is, if you want something, you have to ask, because the rule requires the reasonable assumption that an owner wouldn’t want people stealing or vandalizing their property.


                      You’ll note in pretty much all my other commentary here, I consider the un-expressly-permitted use of electrical outlets to be stealing. But that it is tempered by the notion that the owners, fully knowledgable of the behavior and doing nothing, are giving an implicit permission. When the trend becomes so socially prevalent, there is an onus on the owners to indicate whether or not such behavior is permitted in their establishments.

  2. I saw this interaction between mother and daughter in a park area several days ago. The little girl appeared to be about four and was very interested in a large grouping of flowering petunias.

    Little girl: Pretty flowers!

    Mother: Yes, they are pretty. Look. Don’t touch. We want everyone to be able to enjoy the pretty flowers.

    Little girl: (Irritated) I’m NOT touching!

    The little girl sat and looked at the flowers for quite some time but she never touched the flowers although it would have been very easy for her to reach out and pick a pretty flower to keep for herself. Even this four year old knew to keep her hands off what was not hers.

  3. I always told our kids that if it doesn’t belong to you and you don’t have permission and you take it that is stealing. Even if everyone else is doing it. Even if no one ever says you can’t do it. It’s better to have an absolute standard for things that you can apply an absolute standard to. Shades of grey can get you in deep quickly.

    I’m not very tech savvy and sometimes my comments appear as wyo sis and sometimes as wyogranny. Both are the same person…me.

  4. How is this different from copying a DVD in a store instead of buying it? What about ripping a CD at a used record store? Maybe Klosterman participates in these activities as well. Instead of buying a plant, they stole enough of it to grow a copy and that is OK?

    • Your challenge is actually answered by Klosterman when he points out that the particular plants they took cuttings from weren’t for sale and that the species probably wasn’t anyone’s property. That may not make the act of taking the cutting ethical, but it does make it materially different from pirating.

      • I didn’t know they weren’t for sale. I had some students try this once for a leaf collection project and they were arrested for vandalism.

  5. I heard Randy Cohen, the first Ethicist columnist, speak once, and he said that the worst thing about writing the column was how boring it was to tell people, over and over, that they couldn’t steal. Maybe Klosterman just got bored.

  6. You ask permission.

    That’s it.

    It can be inconvenient trying to find out whose permission you have to ask, but you’re obliged to do so. It can be even more inconvenient if permission is refused, and even moderately annoying when others who didn’t ask are doing it without anyone objecting, but so what?

    You get to look in the mirror in the morning, and know that whatever your own faults and failings, the ethical lapses that are inevitable just from being human, you avoided this one.

    I’ve said before, I’d be a lawyer’s nightmare as a client. I’d refuse any plea bargain, no matter how favourable, that was dishonest.

  7. I consider this theft, no question. Asking permission would be fine, but if ten take a ‘little’ clipping the flower is dead. If they wanted the plant that bad, I’m sure there is a greenhouse or the mall’s landscaper who can tell them where to get it. Take a pic or two with their cell to get help. Some plants are new breeds and expensive, too.

    Even if they can’t find who to ask I’m sure there’s a small greenhouse that is knowledgeable and would love their few dollar purchase and support small and local business. If they went to an orchard to take a peck of peaches, that’s thefy, even if the tree was not harmed and can grow more next year.. worse because a peach is pupposed to separate, but the stem is needed to survive the season or winter.

    • Indeed. Very much related to the Tragedy of the Commons. Only the plants, as well as the hypothetical ‘free outlets’ scenario being discussed aren’t ‘the commons’ but private property. Making it worse.

  8. Theft as defined by Florida statute is to permanently or temporarily deprive an owner of their property. Taking a cutting from a plant did not deprive the owner of their plant. The plant still functions as intended. Unethical is the IRS denying conservative groups tax exempt status because of their ideology, or tracking our internet habits to eventually use against us if the need arises to prosecute us, violating our 4th amendment rights.

    • You denied your own definition, Chris. The statute doesn’t say depriving the owner of the “function” of the property. A piece was taken; that piece was property. It was theft, if minor, under the law you cite.

      And the IRS has nothing to do with the topic.

    • Although Jack’s demonstration and TGT’s analogy show the mistake in that interpretation, let’s stipulate that your interpretation of the Florida statute is accurate:

      The act committed by the couple would still be an act of vandalism described by florida’s statute on criminal mischief.

      But even ignoring that, lets say you are completely accurate that the law doesn’t describe this act as theft, it still is a violation of someone’s private property and therefore unethical.

      Saying, “well it isn’t illegal so it must be ethical” is a rationalization.

  9. Just because you want something doesn’t mean you are entitled to have it.
    If you’re willing to steal in order to have something you want then that speaks volumes about you.

  10. Okay, I hope this posts right after Finlay’s comment. Did what I do a couple of years ago constitute theft?

    I was at a plant-selling place, and put selected plants that were in the usual plastic, recyclable pots into my cart, intending to buy them, which I did.

    While browsing the narrow aisles, I passed by some plants in large pots that evidently had been handled or brushed against roughly, which resulted in small parts of the plants being broken off and fallen to the ground. The parts were just lying there, neglected, shriveling, and either getting walked on and rolled over by carts, or scuffed to the side. I recognized a couple of the parts as possibly salvageable, if given simple “TLC.” The parts were of a type of plant (coleus), the parts of which sprout roots easily when their broken ends are immersed in water for a few days. I picked up at least a couple of the parts, maybe three or more, thinking “Yippee, free plants maybe!”

    When I checked out, I paid for all the plants in my cart that were in pots. I said nothing about the broken parts, but I did not hide them, either. I just put the parts amidst the foliage of the other plants I was paying for. The cashier said nothing, and I am guessing probably did not notice the broken parts.

    I took those parts home, rooted them, and in time, ended up with some nice additional plants in my gardens that I did not buy.

    Did I steal? If I had thought I was stealing at the time, I would not have touched the parts. I still think today that I was just being thrifty, resourceful. I will admit to the temptation, every year, to do what the thieves did with the plants at the mall. But I don’t do that. Am I any better than those thieves?

    • You hid the parts though…

      I Donno. Check precedent:

      I went to eat at the hospital with my wife the other day. We have good rapport with the kitchen staff and carry on with them when we eat. This particular day we barely made it in to the cafeteria as they were closing. We learned that the food we were getting was literally being dumped in the trash right after we scooped it. I quipped that we should be able to eat it for free since its beig tossed anyway. The answer from our kitchen friends was, “sorry it doesn’t work that way”. Of course we knew better.

      Then there are certain ancient cultures that will remain nameless that had a tradition of ‘gleaning’. Whatever fell drug harvest and was not bundled and an stores but remained on the ground, was available to be picked up and used by anyone. Of corse, that system was expressly meant as a form of assistance to those who didn’t have enough to eat and may not be analogous to your scenario.

      I respect your opinions and character on pretty much all topics, but I’m afraid by the strictest interpretations, what you did may have been thievery.

      • You ask.

        I said nothing about the broken parts, but I did not hide them, either. I just put the parts amidst the foliage of the other plants I was paying for. The cashier said nothing, and I am guessing probably did not notice the broken parts.

        In which case you draw their attention to it, explain the situation, and ask.

        I’ve done something similar. The response has always been to allow it, sometimes with a quizzical look at me for making a fuss about trivia.

        But then, checkout staff here probably have more authority than in the US. No need to check with supervisors, or supervisors’ supervisors.

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