“Pay What You Can” Ethics

A question in an advice column asked if it was unethical to pay nothing for a product or service that was priced at “pay what you can.” It reminded me of an ongoing disagreement I had with the board of my theater company regarding holding a “pay-what you can” performance in each production’s run. Many of the other Greater Washington theaters were employing the tactic, and one of the main arguments  for our theater doing the same was “Everybody does it.” You know what I think of THAT logic.

There was an altruistic, community spirited argument, of course: provide an opportunity for people who couldn’t afford typical theater prices. That sounds good, but in practice the theory was more ideology than reality. When we tried the gimmick, almost all of the attendees were people who regarded it as a chance to pay less than they usually did, as in “almost nothing.” People who don’t go to theater mostly aren’t interested in theater. Our prices were under 30 bucks a ticket, far less than many of our competitors, and children were admitted free, another concession to the needs of theater-loving families with limited budgets. Again, almost nobody took advantage of that benefit.

My objections to “pay-what-you-can”: Continue reading

The Girl Scouts Face Corruption By A Rich, Cruel, Horrible Person


Fortunately, they knew what to do.

Last May the Girl Scouts made news when they announced a new policy of acceptance for transgender girls.  The policy was reasonable and case-by-case based, but the policy is secondary to the story. What matters is that the organization adopted it as consistent with its mission.

Last month, a $100,000 donor sent the Queen Anne offices of the Girl Scouts of Western Washington a note demanding that the chapter “guarantee that our gift will not be used to support transgender girls. If you can’t, please return the money.” The $100,000 was about 25% of the group’s yearly fundraising goal, and would have been used to send about a 500 indigent girls to camp.

Council CEO Megan Ferland returned the donation, telling the donor “Girl Scouts is for every girl. And every girl should have the opportunity to be a Girl Scout if she wants to.” Of course she did. A non-profit organization cannot put a price tag on its mission and its integrity. This would be like St. Jude’s Hospital accepting a huge donation in exchange for allowing a black child to die of cancer. It would be like a a women’s college’s board of directors cutting a profitable deal with an outsider to close the school down, just to pick a wild hypothetical out of the air. It is the equivalent of treason, selling out one’s nation, or taking money to betray a family or a friend who trusts you. Continue reading

“Would You Rather”: An Ethics-Horror-Health Care-Dinner Party In Hell Movie You May Have Missed

“Would You Rather” is an odd 2012 film that sets up a film-long set of unlikely ethical dilemmas for its characters to solve. Desperate to save her dying brother with expensive medical treatment she can’t afford, the heroine (played by Brittany Snow) finds herself at a dinner party with seven other desperate strangers, hosted by a wacko family of millionaires who will help one of them after the others have been “eliminated” during the course of the evening. As what is described as a game progresses, each contestant is put through escalating rounds of risk, pain and torture in which they must make various Sophie’s Choices, such as…

  • Would you rather administer a painful shock to yourself with high-voltage electricity, or the person next to you? What if that person has been weakened by a previous shock? What if she is in a wheelchair?

Comment of the Day: “The Cabbie and the Jewelry”

Prodigal Commenter Penn re-entered the ethics fray with two anecdotes about ethics and Japanese culture in reaction to the Ethics Alarms quiz, “The Cabbie and the Jewelry.” This was the second COTD to be inspired by that story of the ethical—or pragmatic—cabbie who rescued $100,000 worth of jewelry left in his cab by a careless fare.

Here is Penn’s “Comment of the Day”:

“70s, Tokyo, 2 anecdotes: Continue reading

Comment of the Day: Ethics Quiz: “The Cabbie and the Jewelry”…Ethics or Pragmatism?

Karl Penny puts the perfect topping on this post, about the praise being heaped on the NYC cabbie who returned $100,000 in jewels to an absent-minded fare, when he could have made a dash for the Bahamas. I obviously couldn’t say it better myself, because I didn’t.

Here is Karl, a long-time and cherished reader, on Ethics Quiz: “The Cabbie and the Jewelry”…Ethics or Pragmatism?

“Well, it would be a pretty swell world if everyone did the right thing in cases like these, simply because it never occurred to them to do it any other way.  But that’s not the world we live in.  But, in either type of world, people like Mr. Jalloh should be highly praised:  in the world as it is, because he becomes an exemplar of the way things should be; and in the better world, because virtue never goes out of style and should be reaffirmed whenever an example of it occurs.”

Ethics Quiz: “The Cabbie and the Jewelry”…Ethics or Pragmatism?

Cable news, the New york press and the blogosphere are singing the praises of Big Apple cabbie Zubiru Jalloh, who, when he discovered that an absent-minded passenger, John James, had left a bag containing about $100,000 worth of jewelry in his back seat (“Doh!”) of his cab, rescued the bag from the next passenger, took it home for safekeeping, and eventually got it back to its rightful owner. Continue reading

Ethics Dunce or Hero? The Paradox of “The Amex Angel”

You probably heard the story. About three weeks ago in Manhattan,  ad executive Merrie Harris was approached by a homeless man who asked her for some spare change. Harris told the man, Jay Valentine, that she had no change, but offered to lend him her American Express Platinum Card if he would promise to return it. Valentine assured her he was trustworthy, and, incredibly, Harris gave him the card. He returned the card a short time later after a modest shipping spree that added twenty-five dollars to her bill. The New York media sang the praises of both Harris and Valentine, dubbing Harris “the Amex Angel” and calling the episode “a shining act of generosity, trust and honesty.”

I almost designated Wilson an Ethics Hero at the time, but something stopped me. I have been considering the implications of the strange story ever since. It may have been that shining act, but I’m not convinced it was even ethical. Is that possible? How can an act of generosity, trust, and kindness not be ethical?  Continue reading