Good Old American Morality


Good Old American Morality

The Ethicist

By RANDY COHEN – The New York Times

…My wife parked in a public garage and lost her parking ticket. Had we gone to the cashier without it, we would have paid $24 instead of $12 for the four hours we parked. I found another ticket on the garage floor.
There was no way to identify its owner. By using it we would pay $4 for an hour’s parking. I suppose the ethical thing would have been to pay the $24. We didn’t. Are we bad people? — JOHN in SEATTLE

You’re no worse than any other petty cheat. You used a ticket-fiddle to avoid paying what the rules said you owed. I understand your reluctance to pay $24 when, had you been billed for your actual parking, you’d have owed only $12, but I’m an understanding person. (I can even understand why someone might finagle his taxes, what with money being so useful for buying things — attractive things, tasty things. I have a gift for empathy.) One way to avoid what you see as the excessive charge and still walk in the sun: work your little found-ticket scheme and hand $4 to the cashier, then, when you get home, mail the garage the additional $8 you owe.

While your conduct was unfortunate, you could argue that the garage unethically imposes too hefty a penalty on people who innocently lose a ticket, no doubt to deter scammers who would claim they parked for only 10 seconds but lost the ticket. The garage should devise a system that does not treat the many honest bunglers like the few parking charlatans (perhaps by electronically recording license plates when cars enter and exit). There’s no reason to believe that the garage is deliberately being unethical. But persistent incompetence can have the effect of willful iniquity….Randy


Ethics are funny things – Things like this nag at you and revolve around in your mind late at night until you just can’t take it anymore and end up writing the New York Times for absolution. Now a priest in confession, I believe, would offer absolution, but not because the mean old garage was “imposing too high a penalty” but because God understands that we are weak and make mistakes. The fault is the sinners’, not the sins’.

Good old Randy the Ethicist has a solution – License Plate Recognition. Hey, good idea Randy. Let’s see – probably $100K to install, 15K a year to maintain, plus a high level staffer on site to run it and be able to search when there is a problem like John’s above. Who is going to pay for that? Is Randy going to be pleased to add a few bucks to his parking fee so John and Co can have a clear conscience? I doubt it.

The truth is, John and his wife are cheats. They saw a way to “scam” the system, and did. Most people would, right? Not really – I think they would only if they live within 50 miles of an ocean – Like John.

To repeat the story – stop now if I have told it before – You go to an all night market, at 11 PM, to get some milk. The attendant is in the back. What do you do? You can take the milk, wait, or leave the money on the counter. None of us would consider option one.

However if you are in a parking garage and you are ready to leave and the gate is up and you owe $5 and there is no one there, what do you do? You leave and forget about it.

When I tell the story in New York, LA, San Francisco, Houston, Miami, or Seattle, people laugh. They know they would “hit the gas.”

However when I tell the story in Salt Lake City, or Kansas City, or even Dallas, or Toledo, a strange thing usually happens – someone will raise their hand and say “Don’t they have those envelopes and a box where you can leave the money?”

Note that Randy, living in New York City, quickly moved to try to justify John’s faults. Blame the sin, not the sinner.

John and his Wife must have moved to Seattle from Pocatello and the 50 mile infection hadn’t really sat in yet. He did feel guilty. The Main Stream Media call it flyover country and political candidates make fun of its residents. I call it good old American morality.


John Van Horn

John Van Horn

3 Responses

  1. If John had paid the $24 for losing his ticket and not the $4 for the ticket he found, the parking garage would have made $48 for a $16 dollar service, $12 extra from John and a whopping $20 from the other ticket loser is a nice $36 bonus. As the owner of the ticket that John found now has to pay $24, John should, if he feels guilty, donate his $8 windfall to charity or put it in the collection plate at church when he goes to pray for the souls of garage owners who would lose no sleep for the unfortunate ticket losers.

  2. This kind of commentary sounds like something Sarah Palin would write–that middle America has a corner on the ethics and morality markets–she said last week “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation,”).

  3. Unfortunately, John, my experience is that I am correct. You live within 50 miles of the ocean (I do.) I know for a fact that people look at things differently here than in Flyover country. Sorry, its the way it is. Get over it.

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