Carpenters, Coffee Makers and Invisibility

In the senior capstone students at my institution are required to assess the meaning, value and significance of their liberal arts education. During the first few weeks we wrestle with one central question: to what degree does horizontal critical thinking (how do we do X?) need to be framed within vertical critical thinking (is X the right thing to do?).

We begin by reading the Apology and Crito. Then we skim a chapter of Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit, in which she argues for the value of Socratic pedagogy, a method of teaching that forces students to think vertically about the moral dimensions of their choices. We also read Stephen Carter's Integrity and I have students apply his model of integrity to several ethical hypotheticals.

One I call the coffee maker hypothetical (or sometimes the coffee maker/honest carpenter hypothetical). It goes something like this:

While shopping at Target you find a $99 espresso maker that has obviously been mispriced at $39.99. You know this because you have carefully researched this particular brand and model. Are you under any ethical obligation to call this error to the store’s attention before you purchase the machine? Why? Why not?

Almost to a person my students will say that the purchaser in this situation is under no obligation to mention a possible pricing error. When I ask them why, they say the company has to honor its prices, mistake or no mistake.

Then I give them a second hypothetical:

You accept several bids to build a new garage. While reviewing them, you notice that one is a thousand dollars less than the others. Clearly, this carpenter has miscalculated his costs and will lose money on the job. Also, he's a deeply religious man and you know he would build the garage at a loss to honor his word. If you don't call the mistake to his attention, are you acting with integrity? Why? Why not?

Again, students almost always argue that it would be wrong to take advantage of the honest carpenter. They vigorously disagree when I point out that the two situations are identical and call for an identical application of any ethical principle.

“They aren’t the same,” the students protest. “One is an honest carpenter who will be substantially hurt; the other is a large corporation that won’t be hurt that much. Besides, Target probably gouges people all the time.”

It takes a while, but I can usually get students to see that the situations are in fact similar from an ethical standpoint. If we hold that it is wrong to exploit someone’s honest mistake for our selfish benefit, then the behavior of the other party and the amount of money involved are irrelevant. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong in both cases.

I was thinking of this exercise over the weekend.  I read a disturbing article in the New Yorker about a Rutgers freshman who had used his computer and web cam to record his gay roommate having sex.  Then he promoted a “viewing party” to his fellow students. The victim discovered he had been recorded and later committed suicide.  Contrary to some press reports, the sex act was not uploaded to You Tube.  Even so, this tragic series of events led to a national outcry about homophobia and the arrest of the perpetrator, who is being prosecuted for invasion of privacy and hate crimes.

What struck me while reading the article was how typical the kid was. The article included transcripts of his IMs, emails, web chats with pals, etc. He came across as a typically crass, insecure, overly self-conscious and technologically savvy 19-year old. I have dozens like him in my courses every semester. Yes, they make some stupid, adolescent male comments, but most would never do so to someone's face. 

More eye-opening to me (an admitted technophobe and Luddite) was how completely at ease the young man was with cyber-stalking his roommate, tracking his Internet usage and even using his technological prowess to spy on him.  At no time did he or any of his college friends ask, “Should we be doing this this?”  The technology made their invisibility possible and that's all it took to flip the moral safety switch.

I don’t suppose vertical critical thinking is needed more today than it was in Socrates’ day. I do know my students spend a lot more time behind technologically-enabled cloaks of invisibility. Theirs is a coolly-removed spectator generation. Morally they are no better or worse than young people have ever been, but they are at ease with their perceived invisibility.  I also know that they don’t need any more training about how to do this stuff. They already know. We've got some really bright, technologically-adept, horizontal critical thinkers in our classroom.

But about that other form of critical thinking… Well, we’ve got some work to do. Always have, I guess.


Frida said…
isn't character what you are and what you do when you think no one is looking?
(that makes me a coffee slurpin' netflix addict with a compulsion to sweep my wood floors and mutter to myself)

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