At a Whole Foods in New York City, a woman attempted to steal some food and was detained by supermarket security officers. Three police officers on the scene, however, chipped in and paid for the food she had been seen slipping into her shopping bag.
Naturally the heartwarming scene was captured in a photo, showing the woman’s tears of gratitude. Their deed, as well as the woman breaking into tears, was captured in a photo that was shot by a customer who described himself as heartened by the unexpected gesture. “It was a nice moment for, you know, people, it was compassionate and the woman obviously was really grateful,” the amateur photographer said.
The police department approves, I guess. NYPD Chief Terence Monahan tweeted, “Cops like Lt. Sojo and Officers Cuevas and Rivera of the Strategic Response Group are the kind-hearted cops who quietly do good deeds for New Yorkers in need.”
Is this the new department policy then? When officers decide that a thief is in genuine need, they will now pay for the merchandise stolen? I may have rolled out of bed bitter and jaded, but this seems like the “Awww!” Factor, where sentimentally appealing conduct is mistaken for ethical conduct. From the Ethics Alarms glossary:
The “Awww!” Factor: The “Awww!” Factor occurs when particular conduct seems loving, caring and nice, but is in fact unethical in one or more respects. Such conduct creates such a positive emotion-based sentimental response that valid ethical analysis becomes difficult or impossible. It is frequently accompanied by the rationalization known as “The Saint’s Excuse,” which endorses unethical conduct that is the result of good intentions.
The police rewarded the woman for getting caught stealing food. Their job is law enforcement, not deciding when breaking the law should be ignored. What happens if she does the same thing again? What happens when other hungry, financially struggling shoppers steal food? Why shouldn’t they expect police to treat them in the same generous, compassionate manner?
Does it matter whether these free groceries-winning shoplifters were stealing basic staples or strip steaks? Was she stealing the food for herself or her children? Did she have a job? Would it have mattered? Did the officers ask? If they did, then they were setting criteria for the new “police will pay for your stolen groceries” program.
If another shopper was stealing food at the same time and came up to the officers demanding that they pay her bill too, what would they have done? Would it matter if the shopper-thief was young, white, or male? I don’t know how it is in New York City, but in my neighborhood, Whole Foods is not the cheapest place to shop for groceries by a long shot.
If the grocery store owner or staff wanted to give the woman a break, I would give them a break, and conclude that if they want to send the message that shoplifters are not only welcome but rewarded, fine. They can deal with that dilemma of their own making. The police, however, are agents of the city and its government. Either their actions are consistent with their duties and municipal policy, or they aren’t.
The cops’ conduct violates two out of the three basic ethics systems. Sure, it’s consistent with the Golden Rule, but the Golden Rule is notoriously useless in evaluating law enforcement. Kant’s Rule of Universality dings the practice of the police paying for what a shoplifter lifts instantly. Could this be a universal standard? No; surely not. Utilitarianism also rejects the gesture. Random kindness has to fail the balancing test when fairness, equity, duty and the public good are in the scales on the other side.
I fear that this episode is not a random anomaly, but the sign of something more dangerous, a creeping ethics blindness promoted by various compassion demagogues. Oh, you’re breaking U.S. immigration laws because you want a “better life”? Come on in, then, and welcome to free education for your kids, social programs, a drivers’ license and general applause for your pluck! Oh, you have borrowed more to go to college than you can pay back? Well, you deserve to have those debts paid by everyone else. As for those who paid back their loans, they don’t need any help, do they?
Every news source reporting on the story (that I have seen) emphasized the compassion and kindness of the officers, who are being hailed as “heroes.” That, I maintain, is because most journalists and their editors aren’t that bright, and have the ethics analytical skill of the average New York mayor.
Substituting “Awww!” and emotion for laws, standards and integrity is the slippery slope to chaos. Or am I just a warped, frustrated old ethicist, to paraphrase George Bailey?