How to determine the ethics of a situation


I’m no ethicist. Or rather, I’m no different in my qualifications than anyone else to make these kind of judgments.

Chuck Klosterman, who at some point while I wasn’t looking became the writer of the New York Times The Ethicist column, has this to say on who is qualified:

The wonderful thing about the Ethicist position is that no one is truly qualified and everyone is partly qualified. The experience of living, the experience of considering life’s problems, the ongoing experience of trying to place an objective reality into an inherently subjective world — these are as close to “credentials” as I possess.

Does anyone else find it ironic that his official graphic is in black and white?
Does anyone else find it ironic that his official The Ethicist graphic is in black and white?

I generally agree with this sentiment. I believe that anyone has the ability to determine if something is “right” (and when I say “right” in this way, I mean approximately the same thing as ethical). There may be people who have more experience considering things than others, and like any mental muscle, might have more ability to navigate nuance. But that is the same as someone who is more in shape, or a better guitar player.

Your guess is literally as good as mine. That probably doesn’t help you though.

Coins, or a quandary in a wheelbarrow

A few years ago, it was possible to buy dollar coins from the US Mint for face value with a points-earning credit card, then bring your wheelbarrow to your bank, deposit the coins in your account, and then use that money to pay off your credit card, earning you tons of miles in the process. “Minting” them, if you will.

This amazingly went on for a few years, until the deal got popularized and eventually shut down.

There was nothing saying that you couldn’t do this, so it was totally above-board. But was this “right?” Moreover, how would someone determine this? How do any of us know whether a given action or non-action is “right” or “wrong?” Is there such a distinction?

Of course, it’s much too glib to talk about whether something is uniformly right or wrong. Things get more complicated, especially when you talk about whether something is “fine for others, but not for me.” I personally feel that way about the US Mint coin trick. I don’t necessarily think you should be reprimanded if you took advantage of it, but I personally wouldn’t do it.

Nor would I take advantage of one of the current similar schemes, where you buy gift cards with a credit card, turn those gift cards into money orders, and then deposit them back in to your account, all for a few dollars in fees.

Now why would I say that something is fine for you but not for me? Perhaps that is because of the limits of judgment. I can only say what I think is a good idea and what is not. But since we are all qualified to be ethicists, my judgment stops at your door. And vice versa.

Amtrak, or a pre-tax quandary

All this feels hopelessly muddled. How can we know anything?

I had the resolution brought home to me when researching pre-tax commuter benefits, of all things. A pre-tax commuter benefit, for those who don’t know, is a way to pay for commuter benefits (bus, train) with pre-tax money, usually through your employer. This nets you about a 30-40% savings on the retail price, which is awesome, a great way to encourage not driving to work.

You can even use this service to buy tickets on Amtrak. Due to the vagaries and limitations of the system, it looked like you could buy any ticket on Amtrak. I was curious; could I buy, say, a ticket from Portland to San Francisco and pay for it with pretax money? Amtrak is expensive (or rather, other modes of travel are artificially under-priced) so this could make Amtrak travel affordable!

And yet. I hesitated, knowing that there is a difference between the letter of a law and the spirit. This was clearly not in the intentions of the architects of the benefit. And moreover, when you get something at a discount, isn’t someone else paying for your discount in some way?

I looked on Flyertalk, that encyclopedia of all things travel-related, and found a discussion on just this topic. After the usual back and forth in the discussion, I found what to me is the final call on not only this issue, but pretty much any other issue where you are wondering, “is this right?

If you have to ask, then usually the answer’s no.

Endlessly rising quandary

With all of us about equally qualified to be ethicists, our guts contain all the answers we need, so we are in the position to be able to make our decisions based on the best information we have. If we know what’s right, we can act on it. The onus remains on us not only to trust our gut, but also to develop it. And then act on it.

There is a tendency to think only about what we can get away with. But let’s not let that cloud our judgment from what is “right,” a skill that we all possess, if only we have enough desire, skill, and practice, to listen to ourselves.

But enough about me: How do you handle ethical quandaries?


  1. saulofhearts

    My litmus test: if your money-making scheme doesn’t offer a tangible benefit to anyone, and is literally just “converting” one type of money into another, it’s probably suspect.

    • Mike

      That test works for me! “Tangible benefit” meaning to someone other than oneself, obviously.

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