The Cabbie’s Ethics Tale

Back of a cab

A frustrating aspect of my business travel, other than that raw fact that travel itself is inherently frustrating, is that I accumulate a backlog of ethics issues but am often unable to take the time to write about them until I return home, where I am again free of airplane delays, unreliable internet connections, sleepless nights and dimly lit hotel rooms apparently designed for the comfort of Jose Feliciano. The occasional compensation arrives in the form of enlightening conversations with fascinating people.

One of these was a cab driver on my latest trip. We shared the same space on an interminable ride from the airport to the hotel, the last leg of a theoretical ninety minute journey that stretched into 6 horrible hours. He was an educated, articulate, lively minded man whose life story (so far) would make an entertaining, if inherently incredible, movie. An African American son of two wealthy academics, he misbehaved in a ritzy private school and was sent, as punishment, to finish his high school years in an inner city private school. There he encountered drugs, gangs, bullying and racism, and became a strong social conservative. He dropped out of high school, entered the military and ended up in the Special Forces in the Middle East; he returned, graduated from college, went into the financial industry, rose quickly, got rich. He told me that he saw all of the cheating and manipulation in his own company and the industry in general, but did nothing about it (the money was too good, he said). Then came the crash. He lost everything, including his wife and kids, in the carnage. Resolved, he said, to work for justice and ethics, my driver had just graduated from law school and flunked his first try at the bar exam. (So did my dad, who would have liked this guy a lot.)

We got on the topic of the “bystander syndrome” and our duty to intervene and sometimes confront wrongdoers even at some personal risk—-the subject came up in the context of the Brooklyn EMT who has  been cleared of criminal charges arising from her refusal to assist a pregnant woman who had a heart attack (The EMT was on break, you see. I wrote about that terrible incident here. ) My cabdriver was a large, burly man, but he said that every time he intervened to confront a wrong doer in public, he feared that he would be shot. Once, when he stopped a man in a wheelchair from beating the man’s apparent girlfriend, he told me, my cabbie found himself staring down the barrel of a .44. This story, however, had a very different resolution:

He said that he was waiting in the check-out line at a grocery store when a young black man in the next line over began talking loudly, using obscenities every other word. “It was ‘fuck this’ and ‘motherfucking that,’ my cabbie said. “As an African American man, I was embarrassed. This kid was acting out every bad stereotype in the book.” The kid was also bigger than my driver, he said, and had two friends with him, so when the cabbie decided to confront him, it was with some trepidation. “I thought I might get beat up,” he said. “But I walked up to the kid anyway. I told him, ‘Hey, man, what’s the matter with you? Nobody here wants to listen to you spouting four-letter words! This isn’t your living room, it’s a public place. Look at that woman over there.” He said that he pointed to an elderly African American woman in another line, dressed formally, wearing a nice hat. “She might ne my grandmother. Do you think she should have to hear that? Would you talk that trash in spite of your grandmother? You should have some respect for other people, man. I think you owe that woman an apology.”

The cabbie said that the young man stared at him, expressionless, and he readied himself for an ugly confrontation. Then the kid spoke.

“You’re, right. I shouldn’t be talking like that here. I’m really sorry.”

My cab driver then responded, “Don’t apologize to me. Apologize to her”—indicating the elderly woman. The young man stepped out of line and approached the woman. “I want to apologize for talking like that and being disrespectful,” he told her.

“She just looked at him, didn’t say anything,” my cabbie said. “So I got out of line, walked over and said to her, “Well, ma’am, do you accept his apology?”

And she looks at me and says, “Shit no! That dick didn’t mean it! He’s just a rude motherfucking asshole!”

This story has several ethics lessons to teach:

1. Sometimes people just need to be reminded to turn on their ethics alarms.

2. The best way to restore civility in public is to refuse to tolerate incivility, and to let offenders know that it isn’t appropriate.

3. Courage is a necessary activating virtue for ethics. Confronting wrongdoers is admirable, but it has undeniable risks.

4. Do the right thing, do it because it is the right thing, not because you expect any thanks for it. If you expect to be rewarded for being ethical, you’re not going to be ethical for long.

5. When you behave ethically and the consequences are disappointing or even disastrous, remember that this is just moral luck. The fact that your efforts backfired shouldn’t make you reluctant to do the same thing the next time. It was ethical conduct, and will be again.

7 thoughts on “The Cabbie’s Ethics Tale

  1. For some years now (my husband says) I have put my health and/or life at risk because I refuse to be intimidated, abused, or insulted by the morons in this country who don’t know the meaning of the words “civility,” “politeness,” or “kindness.” Sometimes it’s racial (I am clearly an upper middle class white mother); mostly it’s simply a clear misunderstanding of civility and basic generosity to other human beings.

    Example 1 (a nice one): When my son was about 5 we were in the grocery store when a nasty, unhappy woman banged her cart into mine and almost tipped it over. I Immediately apologized to her, even though it wasn’t my fault. My son was puzzled, asked why I did this when it was clear that it was SHE who banged into ME, and I launched into a brief discussion of how other people should be treated. Just because she didn’t understand the meaning of civility didn’t mean I could choose to misunderstand it as well and respond in kind. More interestingly, later in the store, the same, nasty woman met us in a different aisle and she actually smiled and said “Thanks. I’ve just have a rough day.”

    In conversation with my son later, I explained what I thought the meaning of the word “gentleman” was — and that I was determined he would be one when he grew up. It was, I told him, the ability to adjust one’s behavior to where he was and whom he was with… He hears his father curse around the house, e.g., but NEVER will hear him use that language in public. He may express negative feelings toward a person or a colleague but NEVER see that person treated that way in public, It was just as important to me that he understand that this is NOT fakery of any kind — just a simple rule to take to heart so that those around you (by choice or not) are not offended by your behavior or your language. Be kind, be civil, practice the Golden Rule, and on a more selfish level, remember that you can catch more flies with honey than with Raid.

    Example 2 (more theatrical, to say the least): It was 10:00 one rainy night and I had to go out to get milk for my son. I parked my car, went into get milk, and in the pouring rain upon my departure found that a big horrible woman had parked her car in the pick up lane while she did all her shopping. On my way out, in the rain, she was loading her car with about a dozen bags of groceries. I asked her then if she thought it was fair to take the pick-up lane as her personal parking lot, and her response was, “Get out of my way, bitch, before I slap your face.” My response? “Go ahead. I dare you. The manager of the store already has your tag number, and if you touch me I’ll have in you jail so fast that it will be months before you see those three kids again. So come on… I dare you. And by the way, learn your laws… Just threatening me is battery… if you actually do it it’s assault. I owe you nothing. Perhaps you could learn a bit about kind and generous human behavior, but it you want to hit me, do it. Now. Feel like going to jail?” She threw her stuff in her car and zoomed off.

    Example 3: On the way to 7-11 one day, driving behind some IQ80 on a Honda motorcycle…. At every light and at every stop sign, he revved his engine to the highest possible, ear-shattering level — this with a radio on full blast. I rolled down my window, and told him he was annoying everyone on the road and had no right to do so. Surprisingly, we both ended up at the 7-11. He immediately accosted me and said he could do anything he wanted to… It was a free country. I responded that yes, it was a free country and if he had the right to act like an asshole then I had every right to call him on it. The 7-11 went dead silent. He bought his can of beer and left; then a gentle, elderly man came up to me and said “Thank you for your courage. I would have been too afraid to do what you did. We have to stop being afraid and insist that people act like human beings.” I was touched.

    Bottom line on all this: We have to insist on civility. We have to have the chutzpah to call people on the lack of it. And, as I did with my son in the grocery store, we have to TEACH it to our children.

    My screed for the day.

  2. Dear Elizabeth the First. Thank you for taking the time to share these stories. As your husband probably does, I’d urge you to perhaps be a little less brave. Be careful of road rage. You could get yourself shot and THAT would be a tragedy. But thanks and good for you.

  3. It’s nice to have my opinions validated by people with diverse and colorful experiences. I get accused of being insulated in a white conservative bubble here in Wyoming.

  4. Fascinating life, that cabbie’s, and a wonderful uplifting story, his with the uncivil man.

    “Sometimes” nit-picks:

    “2. The best way to restore civility in public is to refuse to tolerate incivility, and to let offenders know that it isn’t appropriate.”

    Generally, probably true, in many if not most day-to-day scenarios involving individual uncivil actors and one-to-one confrontations – but, there are times when the only ethical response to certain incivility is more, and overwhelming, utilitarian incivility. “I reserve the right to use might to make right.”

    “3. Courage is a necessary activating virtue for ethics.”

    Sometimes cowardice is a necessary vice prior to activating courage – relates to “bystander syndrome” and your point #1.

    “5. It was ethical conduct, and will be again.”

    This one troubles me, because given ethics ever evolving, I can’t go in full agreement with it.

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