The Ethics Scoreboard was my first ethics website. It began operation in February of 2004, and became an archive on November 1, 2009, when Ethics Alarms took its place. For many years now—frankly, I’ve lost count—it has been unavailable on the Web because of an incompetent hosting service that took my money, took it down, and doesn’t permit any direct customer service contact. Last time I checked, the domain was unclaimed. I stopped looking for the Scoreboard because it depressed me, and I had hit a dead end in my efforts to get it back up.
Well, it’s back up, and I have no idea why or how. What a happy 2021 surprise! I suspect the original webmaster, my old friend Lauren Larson, is responsible, but if so, she never told me: I don’t even know how long the site has been live again. I learned about the resurrection from a wonderful man whom I met through the Scoreboard, Alek O. Komarnitsky, who sends out a holiday letter. This year, he wrote, “I am still on the Ethics Scoreboard!” and sure enough, there at the link was the last article I wrote about Alek.
There is a lot of material on the Scoreboard, some of which I am very proud of, and I thought it was all lost in cyberspace. For me, this is like finding a treasure trove of old family photographs in the attic. Thank you Lauren, thank you Alek, thank you incompetent hosting service, thank you whoever it was that did this! I will eventually get to the bottom of the mystery, but for now, I’m afraid to pinch myself to see if it’s a dream.
In celebration of the Return of the Prodigal Website, I now present one of the Scoreboard’s last posts, “The Bank of America Teller and the Thumbless Customer.”
Welcome back, Ethics Scoreboard! I really missed you.
The Bank of America Teller and the Thumbless Customer
You may have heard the story: a branch of the Bank of America in Tampa refused to cash a check for Hillsborough County public works employee Steve Valdez, because the bank required a thumbprint from non-account holders, and Valdez has no arms. No arms, no hands; no hands, no thumbs; no thumbs, no prints; no prints, no cash.
“Sorry sir; its bank policy!”
The various news accounts of this classic tale of bureaucratic idiocy concentrated on the fact that the bank was violating the American with Disabilities Act. Voila! This is how law obscures ethics. Would the banks actions have been any more reasonable, fair, caring, kind and responsible if there was no law? Why should anyone with a brain, a heart and a sense of humanity require a law to look at a man with no arms and decide, Gee, I guess the thumbprint requirement doesn’t apply in this case. This isn’t a legal matter. Its an ethics question, and a really easy one, because the Golden Rule was invented for situations like this. If you were in the place of the thumbless man, Mr. Teller, what would you want someone in your position to do?
Nobodys suggesting that the Bank of America should have suspended its policy out of pity or sympathy. This isnt a bleeding heart argument: Oh, the poor guy: he cant hitch-hike or signal to a gladiator that he wants him to kill his opponent. Ill cash his check to be a nice guy. It has nothing to do with being nice. It has to do with recognizing when a policy is absurd in application, unjustly causing inconvenience and humiliation to another human being. Consider these dilemmas:
- An attendant at a movie theater allows a patron to leave briefly to deal with an emergency. He returns to get back into the movie theater and join his family, but has somehow misplaced his ticket. Should the attendant, who recognizes him, refuse to let him enter?
- A driver enters a parking garage, then has to leave a few seconds later because of a medical problem. Should the parking attendant insist that he still pay the full-day minimum fee? (This one got an attendant shot by Steve Buscemi in Fargo, youll recall.)
- A woman, obviously ill, staggers into a restaurant and begs to use the rest room. The establishment has a patrons only policy for its use. Should it refuse her?
- A student finds a knife in the hallway of a school, and immediately hands it over to the teacher. The school has a strict no tolerance policy on weapons, and the student is technically in possession of the knife: policy dictated that he not touch it, but alert an administrator. The teacher is certain that the student did not own the knife. Should the student be punished?
- An adult dwarf on the Olympic riding team wants to buy a ticket on the carnival horse back ride to be with his child, but he doesn’t come up to the height mark on the sign designed to screen out young children. Should the operator tell him he cant ride?
Answers to the above: No way, Certainly not, Never, No, and Dont be silly! Policies cant be perfect. Human beings have an ethical obligation not to stick to them when they result in outrageous consequences to others, and there is no counterbalancing benefit to be gained by doing so, other than not varying from the policy.
The teller should have asked for sufficient identification to satisfy himself that Valdez has a valid check. Valdez had it: he had his driver’s license with an address matching his wife’s on the check. Thats what the would have wanted, reasonably, if he was the one with no arms. And there was absolutely no reason not to bend the rules. The ADA wasn’t necessary to solve this. People need to know when to consider the impact of their conduct on others when there are no laws involved.
Any individual, and any bank, that needs a law to remind them not to insist on a thumbprint from a man with no thumbs is ethically impaired, and has no common sense. And having no common sense is a much greater handicap than having no thumbs.