The Ethicist strikes again

Cite this Article
Geoffrey A. Manne, The Ethicist strikes again, Truth on the Market (February 22, 2006),

One of my students brought to my attention this pearl of wisdom from (what appears to be this week’s forthcoming) The Ethicist column in the NYT:

I am a 13-year-old boy. My school has a monthly pizza sale. Parents buy pies from a pizzeria and sell them to us for $1 a slice. I bought a whole pie at the pizzeria and offered slices for $2 to kids at the end of the long line. A school counselor stopped me. She said that I was unethical and was “taking advantage of people.” I thought I was providing a service to people based on the principle that “time is money.” Who is right? Ben Gammage, San Diego

Time may be money, but how much, really, for an eighth grader, who is not paid to attend school? And do we really want all our interactions based on the variable-pricing airline-seat model? Were pizza a necessity of life (as many teenagers regard it) and in short supply, you would have been been guilty of profiteering, as your counselor charged. But there was plenty of pizza, so you didn’t exploit anyone. And pizza does remain a luxury, so nobody was compelled to buy your pricier slices. (Were they? I assume there was no gunplay.) Thus your actions were not unethical, but they were poor social policy — if that’s not too fancy a way to describe undermining a pizza party.

Your counselor’s concern was valid, if poorly expressed. The dollar-a-slice deal made possible a schoolwide pizza party, affordable fun for everyone. Judging by the long line, it’s something people enjoy.

You turned it into a two-tiered system — kids with money don’t wait; kids without money do — shifting it from a we’re-all-in-it-together event to something less communitarian (if more profitable).

The errors here need no pointing out in this forum, I presume. I am glad that he stopped short of condemning the kid outright (unlike the kid’s school counselor), but I’m surprised, given the extent of the truly fundamental flaws in his analysis. Maybe this will turn out to be just a rough draft and the published version will look different. But I doubt it.

This isn’t Randy Cohen’s (he’s the Ethicist) first outing on TOTM. It surely won’t be his last.