Today, I was sent to the local CVS with an unusually long list. The store was almost empty, and only one clerk was checking out purchases. I had a full cart: paper goods, drinks, over the counter drugs, items on sale, all sorts of stuff.
One shopper was ahead of me in line, and just as she had paid, I noticed an older man standing nearby holding a single tube of ointment. “Go ahead, “I said. “Thanks,” he replied. For some reason the man’s transaction took an absurdly long time: he was chatting with the clerk, and wanted cash back, and he had some coupons. Just as he was done, an elderly woman holding two small cans of cat food walked up and raised her eyebrows at me.
“Sure, be my guest,” I said, smiling, but not really feeling the smile. I had run out with dinner waiting, and I wasn’t planning on my mission taking this long. Just as I motioned her ahead, another woman, younger than the cat lady, stepped up to me holding a bag of cough drops and a box of Nyquil. “Could I possibly go ahead too? My husband is so miserable!”
“Sure, no problem,” I said, not smiling this time.
And I wondered: what ethical principle would stop this from going on forever? From a Golden Rule perspective, every customer with a single item had a claim to my place in line. How could I suddenly treat, say, the fifth hopeful patron holding an aspirin bottle or a jar of antacids any differently than I had just treated someone else? When the next person who wanted me to save them a lot of time by deferring my large purchase was black, or Hispanic, or Muslim, should I factor into my decision of whether to let them go ahead too the fact that they might think I was biased against them if I finally exercised my right to go on to checkout myself ? After all, they might have seen me wave on three white customers—why not them?
At what point did one of these single item customers have an obligation to me? If they saw me be a good guy and let others go ahead, were they taking advantage of my considerate nature?
I once held the door open for a stranger at a restaurant, and about ten more people went in after her, as I stood there. The only one who said thank-you was the first.
I’d be interested in your thoughts.