March 9, 2006
The Minor Ethicist

pinhead_ethicist.jpgAm I tricking my houseplants by providing them with constant sunlight even in the winter? In nature, they wouldn’t get that much light. Should I provide them with less light part of the year? R.J., Chicago

This is an interesting conundrum, and I admire your not wanting to lie to plants. But when it comes to ethics, we as sentient beings must consider what benefits the majority without hurting the individual. As the more powerful party in the human/plant relationship, you are responsible for looking out for the plant’s well being without deception or manipulation. I say leave it in the sun, even in cold weather, but explain to it that this is an artificial arrangement and that in a state of nature, it would probably be dead. Providing winter sun isn't 'lying' per se, but it is giving your plants an unfair advantage over other plants: explaining that goes a long way towards correcting that disparity. Plus, everyone knows talking to plants helps them grow.

A colleague recently complimented me by saying “Hey, nice new jacket.” I thanked him even though the jacket isn’t new: I've had it since college. Was I in the wrong?


Ethical people strive to be as honest as possible. In this case, you lied. Sure, it was a lie of omission, but you knew that your jacket was old and yet you took the conditional compliment ("nice new jacket") without explanation. I recommend you send your colleague a note—or, since we’re in the digital era, an email—apologizing for the deception. Your jacket may be nice, but it's not new. Your colleague should know that fact. Who knows, your colleague may still like your jacket, and you just may be able to save whatever working relationship you have with him.

At the end of my ATM transactions, the machine displays a screen that says “Would you like me to print a receipt?” I often select ‘no,’ even though some small part of me does, in fact, want a receipt. Should I select ‘yes,’ even if I don’t completely want a receipt?


Everyone knows the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald quote about keeping two ideas in one's mind at the same time without going crazy. While this may come in handy in many situations, it’s impossible to convey two ideas to a machine like an ATM. I say take the receipt even if you’re not 100% sure you want it: you can always use it to throw away your gum or write down a phone number.

A few years ago, a former employer made me go in front of the United Nations and lie about a supposed enemy nation's weapons of mass destruction. At the time, I rationalized that what I was doing was part of my job. Besides, even though the country I was talking about didn't have any WMDs, most people would agree that it was a pretty bad country. But now that I've had some time to reflect on it, I feel like I made a terrible mistake. A lot of people may have gotten hurt because of my testimony (it was pretty compelling: I had props and aerial photographs), and subsequent actions have cost my company untlold billions of dollars. I want to tell the truth, but I'm still on good terms with my former boss and colleagues and I do want a good recommendation for when I'm ready to re-enter the job market. How can I clear the air and my conscience?


Anonymous, you call that question minor ethics? That's beneath even me. Flip a coin and decide what to do you for yourself.
No ethical quandary is too small for the Minor Ethicist. Send queries to [email protected], and include a photo if you're hot.

Posted in a Desperate fashion.

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