Friday, May 30, 2008

Ethical Dilemma: Broken Glasses

I was walking down 38th Street in Manhattan last week, on my way to lunch. As I walked by two men in their mid-20s, the one nearest me dropped something on the sidewalk. When I heard the clatter, I turned around and saw that it was his glasses.

"Oops, I'm sorry, did I do that?" I asked as he walked by me. He didn't reply, he just gave me a blank stare. I hadn't felt anything when I passed him, but maybe the rolled up magazine I was holding had brushed his hand and knocked the glasses out of it -- I don't know.

He turned into a storefront and his friend kept walking. So did I. But then I heard an "excuse me" a minute or two later. It was the guy who dropped his glasses. "They're broken," he seethed, breathing menacingly through his nose and tightening up his mouth.

Sure enough, there was a nasty series of cracks on one lens. "What can I do?" I offered.

"You can get me a new pair of glasses!" he said. Neither of us knew of any glasses store nearby. We went back and forth about what was fair, but I was ready to follow him to a store to see what would happen. Was I obligated to buy him a new lens? Could the cracked lens be repaired for cheaper? I didn't know, but I thought trying to help was the right thing to do.

He told me how much he appreciated my initial apology, but he was frustrated and seemed to want something from me that he couldn't quite articulate. This got frustrating for me. "Why the hell were you holding your glasses anyway?" I demanded. "They should be on your head!"

Finally, it started to look like what he really wanted was for me to give him $40 or $50 in cash so we could both walk away. I wasn't about to do that. I insisted we find a glasses store together, and told him that this would mean I was giving up my lunch hour and my lunch money for the next week or two.

At this point, he shook my hand and said something incoherent about what I ought to do the next time this happens. He walked away and I was left standing there confused. I went and ate my lunch.

But what should I do the next time? Was it even my fault? Did I open myself up to this whole thing by apologizing in the first place?

When I got to my lunch, I felt terribly guilty and thought I should have just gone to the cash machine and helped the guy out. When I got back to my office, two co-workers thought I was crazy for thinking I should pay anything.

So what would you do? Let's say it's a cup of warm (not hot) coffee spilling on a stranger's white shirt accidentally. Do you offer money for a cleaning bill? What are the rules for random accidents in the city?



Blogger The Masticator said...

I was surprised that most of the people I asked about this dilemma took it as an adversarial situation in which I was under threat by an unreasonable man. I was commended by a number of New Yorkers for "handling a difficult siuation well." They saw the broken glasses as the price of carrying them (and not wearing them) and a risk one takes in the Big City.

One friend (so far) offered counterpoint. He says, in part:

"If you look at it from the point of view of a neutral outside observer, (i.e., the position of "the law"), then there is no pure responsibility of one person to another, but there is an implied responsibility for the sake of civic harmony – one's need for glasses repair again outweighs your need for lunch. However, it's enforceable only by the standards of shame and public censure. In the absence of fault, no one can force you to help another. However, a person most likely will help another in that circumstance. He'll help up to the limits of his conscience, or more realistically, what he thinks he can get away with, and ultimately live with. His likeliness to help is probably related to the degree of closeness and kinship he feels for the person – and I'm sure all sorts of psych studies have been done associating kinship with ethnicity, race, age, gender, etc."

He compares the situation to "a basic primate stand-off where the fault and responsibility for fixing it seem to be resolved more by a mutual dance of who is willing to push the other one harder. In an urban environment, where you are likely to never see the person again, it's easier to duck responsibility, even if you're aware you have it, by walking away. Which brings me back to the original proposition, that the passer by is responsible somewhat for aiding his fellow, regardless of fault, mitigated by his conscience's sense of what he can get away with."

3:33 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

sounds like a scam to me

10:10 AM  
Blogger The Masticator said...

A scam? I wondered that the whole time. In the end, I don't think it actually was. It might make a good one though.

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's a scam. It happened to me tonight across from Century 21 on Church. Did I bump into him? Did he bump into me? It happens fast. Glasses fall. I say, "You okay?" He says "Yeah." I walk away, then..."I'm sorry but you broke my glasses." He says they are $145 bucks. At first, I offered him ten bucks because maybe I bumped, I thought. Then he was like, that's not enough and goes, "so what are you going to do now?" I gave him my business card and tell him to call me when he fixes the lens and I'll reimburse him when I see the bill. My guess is, he won't be calling.

11:36 PM  

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