CVS Line Ethics

Nothing is simple for an ethicist...

Nothing is simple for an ethicist…

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.

60 thoughts on “CVS Line Ethics

  1. Re: CVS Ethics: When you reach the limit of your “good will” by allowing others to check out ahead of you, you might explain by saying something along the lines of, “I would like to allow you to go ahead of me, but I am late for an appointment. I hope you understand I am not being rude.” Were I the person behind you, I would consider you both thoughtful and polite.

    • They have done experiments on line cutting. People will unthinkingly allow nearly any plausible excuse, such as “can I cut, I am running late”. Conversely, few felt insulted when denied with an equally plausible excuse. “I’m sorry, I have got to get home to dinner” is both plausible, and truthful, and in the half-thinking state of most people in a check out line, should be readily accepted.

  2. Well jack, I usually follow the rule of one and done. Help one person in the line and no one else. Human beings will always take advantage of a soft touch or someone holding the door. I doubt they thought about you or your needs at all. You would only factor in their mind if you denied them and not others. A person rarely remembers such small acts of kindess, but gossip is birthed on small slights like denying people a skip in the queue

    • I almost want to consider it a type of reversal of the categorical imperative, whereas Kant’s proposition considers an action from the point of view “if EVERYONE” engaged in this conduct what would the world be like….this situation is from the point of view of “If I engaged in THIS conduct ALL the time” what would the world be like.

      And the answer is, just the same, only in about a couple days, the “good actor” would be either dead from starvation or institutionalized as a nutcase.

      So the answer lies somewhere in between “Do not let people cut ever” and “Let people cut time immemorial”.

      And the answer is discovered, not through some preset rule of thumb or ethical self-programming, but through merely talking with your fellow man, find out their needs and find out if they are willing to acquiesce to your needs, if not, then see if you can reasonably accommodate theirs.

  3. Anything I could say has been covered, so I’ll only add that some higher power (call it God, karma or luck) was more than willing to give you material for you blog in exchange for a laugh.

  4. Jack, your kindness to strangers is far greater than mine. I might say I’m envious, and am inspired to emulate your kindness, in store checkout line situations. But I’m not, and I won’t.

    If I am buying items in a store and have other schedule milestones ahead, or am required or expected to be at certain other places at certain future times, etc., and especially if my basket has many items, I am going to be very stingy about consenting to yield to other customers to let them in line to check out ahead of me, even if they have fewer items or “one-zees.”

    I do yield to other drivers in traffic jams, and faithfully act out the alternating-and-reciprocating principle of “taking turns,” one car at a time, when one lane of traffic is merging with another. My yielding comes with an expectation of similar yielding by others, with additional expectations: that, although in normal circumstances the road design and signs might be clear to all about who has the right of way, all other drivers must appreciate that in the circumstances at hand, the usual rights of way would be an impediment to orderly resolution of the jam; and, that those rights of way must be forfeited selectively and prudently for the sake of attaining a greater good – namely, effective crowd self-management (cooperation, patience, self-sacrifice) to achieve the most efficient, quickest, safest possible relief of the jam.

    Otherwise, I am mostly an asshole about insisting on first-come-first-served, and without any regrets or hesitancy. If a checkout clerk or store manager wants to manage a line of customers by directing someone who is at the counter to stand by while their problem is resolved, while directing a customer in line behind to move forward for checkout, then that is the clerk’s (or store manager’s) prerogative.

  5. I generally will let someone in line when I have a full basket, if they arrive before I unload. One.

    What do you think of those who ask to cut, then let others in and delay you and any behind you? Do you say something? This tends to happen more with public venue lines than supermarket.

  6. The Hillary one looks alright, but the other Clinton and Obama just plain look weird. The Bush one looks realistic to me, possibly catching the tone of his reaction after September 11th, similar to the somber expression on Kennedy’s.

    The Trump one is, however, frumpy and flattering in the least, casting strong doubt about my interpretation of the Bush statue.

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