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.
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