Monday, July 18, 2005

Ethics Worksheet II

You work in a small very low-tech grocery store in a state which has a bottle and can deposit law (as in Michigan, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New York, Vermont, Hawaii, Iowa, or Oregon). One of your responsibilities is to count up cans and bottles and return people's deposits to them.

In practice, the deposit law serves mainly as a source of income for the homeless people of your state, who go through dumpsters and ditches looking for cans to return.

One day, a man who looks (and smells) homeless comes into the store with a large black garbage bag full of bottles and cans and wants the attendant deposits for these. When asked, he says he does not know how many there are in the bag, so you can't take his word for it. Most of the bag contains beer cans, some of which have been used for chewing tobacco (which has leaked out of the cans and gotten all over the outsides of everything, and the inside of the bag), and the whole bag is incredibly ripe-smelling because it has been out in the sun on a very hot summer day, while the homeless guy was walking it over to your store.

Your store is not obligated to take these, as they are for products you do not sell. Also, you would not have to take these even if they were from your store, because they are dirty and sticky and smelly and covered with tobacco spit, and you are legally allowed to refuse to take back anything that nobody in the store is willing to touch. Your co-workers have previously counseled you to refuse any such bottles and cans as the spirit moves you.

The homeless guy smells like alcohol already, and is presumably only collecting cans in order to get together enough money to buy more. However, if he's as alcoholic as he looks, he may well require the alcohol in order to function, and who are you to judge what he does with his body anyway; if he wants you to take his cans and give him money so he can get drunk again (or continue to be drunk, whatever), what business is it of yours?

There's nothing illegal about what he's asking you to do, and your store is probably the only one which would take them anyway -- other stores are more high-tech and have machines which collect the cans, but the cans in question have to be in fairly pristine condition, or at least not all crunched-up (as a quick glance into the bag reveals that most of the cans inside are). In other words, you are probably the guy's only shot at can redemption within walking distance.

But the cans smell really bad, and are coated with the germs of whoever drank out of them, and spat tobacco into them, and there are enough of them that it's going to mean a pretty substantial amount of time, if you take them.

Do you:

A) accept the cans, smell the smells, enable the alcoholism, and incur the wrinkled noses of your co-workers, or

B) deny the cans, leaving the homeless guy fundless and possibly D.T.-ing, for no good reason beyond your own prissiness about not, literally, wanting to get your hands dirty?

Defend your answers.


stan said...

I would make a quick estimate of how many cans there were and then take them, so I wouldn't have to interact with the cans much. Easiest for me, better for the guy. But am I allowed to do that?

Alternatively, I would tell the guy that he had to go clean off the cans with a hose. If he was or something he would find a way to do this, probably. That would get me off the hook, because it wouldn't be denying him, just "putting the ball back in his court". It would solve the co-worker problem because the co-workers would see that I was trying to train the big to bring us cleaner cans.

Is my second answer morally reprehensible?

Jessi Guilford said...

I considered providing a lowball estimate of the number of cans without actually counting them all, though this would require lying ("I'm just going to take these into the back and weigh them or something") and might amount to stealing (though the cans were probably never his, in the first place, he's still the one who is in position to claim the deposit, and giving back $2.15 for cans worth $3.50 is probably a theft of $1.35. But it would still solve a lot of problems -- if he caught on, he'd stop bringing cans, and if he didn't, the store would make some money off the cans for nothing. If the store claimed them. In order for the store to make money, of course, the cans would still have to be counted, though, which is what we're trying to avoid.

"Go clean the cans and come back" is a good plan, and not morally reprehensible, though I suspect it would only delay, not eliminate, the problem. One can't know how clean he could actually get them, and you could probably only send him away just so many times. Also, he, being homeless, wouldn't have a hose of his own, so he'd be tresspassing (which maybe wouldn't be such a big deal in Iowa, but might get him shot in Vermont), or else he'd use pond, puddle, or river water, which wouldn't really solve the cleanliness problem. Maybe he'd rinse them in a public drinking fountain, like in a park or something?

But it's still a better solution than denying outright or accepting and having to count.

Andrew Cory said...

His choices and possible actions don’t really concern you, my actions do. As such, I’d want to treat each of my customers in as neutral a manner as possible; I routinely sell left behind books without condemning the purchasers...
As far as your specific situation: I’d put on some gloves and wash them as I counted. And I’d refuse to sell alcohol to anyone who was as drunk as you seem to be implying...

Jessi Guilford said...


His future actions are not my responsibility. Fair enough. So the alcoholism, or not, can be completely discounted from the moral calculations.

Treating everyone in as neutral a manner as possible is nice in theory, though if the regular customers bring back clean bottles and cans, then my treatment of them isn't much to go on for someone who's bringing back disgusting bottles and cans. Though equal-treatment might be justification for Stan's plan of asking him to wash them and come back. If everybody else is bringing clean cans, and we want to treat this guy like everybody else, then he should meet us halfway and bring clean cans, unless there's reason to think he's incapable of doing so. At least in theory.

Washing while counting probably wouldn't be practical in most cases because of the time it would take to do. There are already, we're assuming, enough cans that it's substantially inconvenient to deal with them even if they were clean; washing would just add another big chunk of time. And also it's extra work for us, which isn't compensated by extra cash from the recyclers, so the store (and the employee doing the washing) are effectively taking a financial loss. How relevant this is would depend on the kind of business one is operating, I suppose.