Monday, May 25, 2009

An Ethical Question

Eva Amsen was reading a book in a student study lounge when she was asked to participate in a survey [Spent - Review]. The question was ....
It was a short questionnaire about what you would do if you were standing in line at the post office for more than 30 minutes, waiting to mail a package, and someone offered to take you to the front of the line in exchange for $3. Would you pay the three dollars or keep waiting?
My answer is different than Eva's so this got me thinking.

See the poll in the left sidebar. What would you answer?

Is there a "right" answer?


  1. I wasn't quite sure of the dilemma, would anyone be able to get to the front with the requisite gift of $3?

    If so, would everyone in line be presumed to have $3?

    Just wondering if the move to the front would be accompanied by protestations of those who either don't have the offer, or don't have the three dollars.

  2. Is there a question about private vs. public healthcare hidden in there?

    (And I don't think I know what I would do about the post office queue. Might depend on how much of a hurry I was in that day; whether everyone else in line would resent me; etc.)

  3. This is interesting. I answered "pay the $3" because, assuming I had the $3 I would consider premium service worth my money because well, my time spent waiting is worth something as well and am quite surprised so far at the responses which are heavily in favour of the refuse the offer.

    For me I think this is though provoking because, being that it is a post office and all, it reminds me very much of questions one could ask about two tier healthcare. Interesting what other peoples responses to this might be.

  4. The honest answer? It depends on whether or not I need to get through the line quickly (time to kill or in a huge rush?) the degree to which I would be inconveniencing the rest of the line, whether or not they would know about my inconveniencing them, whether or not they were strangers, people I liked or disliked in some sense, and of course how much I valued those $3 (e.g. if I needed $4 to mail a package and only had a $5 at the time).

  5. I'm of the mind that the mail is more of a service that falls along the lines of luxury. For instance, some people pay (way) more money to sit in First Class on an airplane. Also, I have the option of paying 3 times the amount of money to make sure my mail arrives to its destination the next day rather than in a week. So I'd say if I have the three dollars and my time is more valuable than $3 per 30 minutes, I'd pay it. However, I can rarely view my time as that valuable and I really don't mind waiting in line. It affords me the luxury of people watching, a passtime I greatly enjoy.

    Overall, I don't view THIS question as overly ethical but I can see the implications if connections are trying to made to things like healthcare or civil/human rights in general. It's not always about who has more money.

  6. If I can pay $3 to get to be next in line, then everyone behind me can pay $3 to be next in line, leaving all of us where we were before, minus $3.

    So, no.

    However I would expect a few 'cheaters' behind me to take the offer. This happens all the time on the highways where lanes are merging.

  7. I think this is a trick question, but unfortunately the poll doesn't allow for written responses (so few of them do...).

    I wouldn't wait for 30min - period. Instead I'd drop by the post office at opening the next day, when no one is there. No waiting in line and I get to keep my $3...

  8. This question reminds me of using the FlashPass system at Six Flags (and similar devices at other parks). There better not be an ethical dilemma here - I don't wanna go back to waiting in lines for hours on end.

  9. What a stupid poll. The correct and most intelligent answer (offer them $1 and try to get it even lower), isn’t even an option.

  10. Not taking this as an alegory or analogy for anything else at all, I said "refuse". My reasoning was a little convoluted and odd, but boils down to I don't actually think my time is worth that much. I've been a graduate student, and will be again soon, and the famous joke (which is funny because it's true) is that it is impossible to waste a graduate student's time because their time is worth nothing. Besides, standing in line at the post office offers a nice break from the more boring and frustrating aspects of my job / thesis.

  11. Eamon Knight says,

    And I don't think I know what I would do about the post office queue. Might depend on ... whether everyone else in line would resent me ....

    Interesting comment. Can you envisage a situation where butting in *wouldn't* cause any resentment?

    What about the 75% of people in line who would refuse the offer? Do you think they'll cheer when you make them wait a bit longer than 30 minutes just because you are selfish enough to value your time more than theirs?

  12. Another factor is who exactly is offering the service: if it's a post office option for premium/VIP/etc service, well, then I probably would. If it's some dodgy person offering me cuts, then probably not.

    But in reality, like Bryan, I would come back later either way. Before visiting the post office, I always look through the window and consider if I want to stand in that line or not :p

  13. I would refuse based on fairness. If however, there was another queue that charged a small percentage premium for faster service (and this was advertised up-front) I might avail myself of that.

    But in this scenario, after refusing I would also ask the manager why the person trying to sell premium service wasn't being used to open a new queue and cut the wait-time down for all.

  14. Yes, there is a right answer. Pay the money if you can afford it and you are not in a great conversation with some one in the line.

  15. Interesting comment. Can you envisage a situation where butting in *wouldn't* cause any resentment?As others have suggested, if it was like a "premium" wicket with fast service (sort of like how you can get a passport faster by paying extra $$). But I really don't know; I find it difficult to think through context-free abstract questions like this.

  16. I wouldn't pay the $3. Pretty much a lot of things I might have said have already been said by Erv, Bryan, Joel and Radix2. But also, I would be pissed if someone else did it to me so it boils down to "don't treat others the way you don't want to be treated". I like Eamon's express lane idea. Then again, I live in a small town and work in a neighboring small town (both around 2000 or so) and can't imagine a line of 30 minutes at the post office, even at lunch time.

  17. The ethical side is pretty obvious -
    the 30 mins you'd gain are paid not
    only by your $3, but by each of the
    say 30 persons previously in front of
    you, at 1 min each. Whether they'd
    actually protest or not is irrelevant,
    really. They'd be robbed by you and
    your "premium service".
    As for "if it was like a "premium"
    wicket with fast service"... Well,
    I've yet to see the "cheap" option
    not degraded when this happens in
    any kind of public service
    (healthcare included).

  18. I would offer the anonymous benefactor $3 to take my place in line and mail my package for me, then go and enjoy a long lunch. Or give $3 to the person behind me to do the same thing.

  19. I don't remember if it mentioned whether everyone else got the same option, but it did implicitly assume that you had the money on you, AND you had already been waiting for a really long time when they offered the deal and were frustrated about it. (It was not an instant choice between line-up or service)