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How to Make Something Wrong Right or Early Lessons in Ethical Bullshitting

For reasons unknown to me I’ve been thinking recently about my cousin Jeff Hildebrand. I’ve forgotten vast amounts of my life and Jeff and I knew each other a long time ago. Fortunately, the things I do remember fascinate me. So, for the next few weeks it’s story time.

Jeff died of a peripheral primitive neuroectodermal tumor, or pPNET, at the young age of 49.  

My mother’s name was Betty. She had two sisters: Virginia, or Ginny, and Barbara, sometimes called Barb. Betty married Charles Rominger, known as Charlie by all my cousins. Ginny married Fredrick Hildebrand, called Fred or Freddie. Barbara married Douglas Theiler, or Doug or Dougie. I never used aunt and uncle, even as a small child. It was never Aunt Ginny or Uncle Doug. It was always Ginny, Barbara, Fred, and Doug. I’m sure it was the same for my sisters and I’m assuming my cousins simply called my parents Betty and Charlie.

I am the fruitful union between Betty and Charlie. Jeff was the child of Ginny and Fred. The Romingers, Hildebrands, and Theilers were certainly not part of the 1% in those days, so our vacations were often visiting one of the sister’s glans or at times both (as an aside, the Romingers, Hildebrands, and Theilers are still not part of the 1%, or at least if any of the Hildebrands or Theilers are, I haven’t heard about it). As a result, Jeff and I spent a lot of summers together as we grew up. He was a few years older than I, still we were more than cousins, we were friends. I know that Greg, the son of Barbara and Doug, would say the same of Jeff.

I remember one warm summer day when we were staying with the Hildebrands, Jeff and I were confronted with what was probably our first ethical dilemma. I can’t remember how old we were but we were quite young—I mean little guys. Here’s the thing: Jeff and I wanted money, for what I can’t remember. We probably wanted to buy soda or candy bars or both. If that were the case, I would have favored Pepsi and a Three Musketeer or Milky Way bar back then. I have no idea what Jeff’s preferences would have been.

We walked into the kitchen where Ginny was preparing, let’s say, a cup of coffee. We asked her for money and without even asking us why we wanted it she said no. She then cut us off before we could even begin pleading for her to reconsider her decision and walked out of the kitchen. At that moment three things came together.

First, we really wanted the money. I mean we really wanted some money. Second, Ginny had left her purse on the kitchen table. Third, we knew it would be wrong to open Ginny’s purse, find her wallet, and take some money. Our hesitation about taking the money was not based simply on the fear of punishment if we got caught, though punishment there would have been. We also knew at some level that it would be wrong to take the money without permission, though at that age we could never have articulated the ethical arguments, what our specific moral responsibilities were to others nor what the possible impact of the act would have been on our characters. We had no idea what ethical prima facie duties, consequences, and virtues were in play.

We sat at the kitchen table with Ginny’s purse between us and discussed options. I must say, it didn’t take us long to find a solution, probably the only solution, to our dilemma.

We did indeed retrieve Ginny’s wallet from her purse, which I remember was a big black bag more than a small purse. We took one dollar from her wallet, left the kitchen, and walked to the front of the house. We turned right on the sidewalk and walked to the corner of the block. Jeff dropped the dollar on the sidewalk and we began to walk around the entire block at a normal pace. Two things here are vitally important. First, we agreed we had to walk around the entire block, not just down the street a ways and then turn around. Second, it was imperative that we walked at a normal pace. We forbade ourselves from running or even walking fast.

When we had walked completely around the block and had returned to our starting point, we “found” a dollar on the sidewalk—not the dollar, but a dollar. Jeff picked it up and we went to the store. Problem solved.  

 Ethics, while necessary for nurturing a good life, living morally, and resolving ethical dilemmas, is almost always messy work. We can never get out of it completely clean, and it is an illusion to think we can. There is no universal principle, or theoretical abstraction, or even methodological nicety that will keep us completely free from life's conflicts and contradictions. There is nowhere to go to escape ethics. No one can spare us of its difficulties. If we want to participate in life, we cannot avoid getting our hands dirty. And that’s exactly what Jeff and I did. We got our metaphorical hands dirty.

I’m quite confident that if after we had returned to the corner and found the dollar gone, we would have dropped the whole thing. The only way we could justify taking the money was by finding the money. Quite elegant, and I suspect many a financier and politician have reasoned the same. Finding money on the street is not stealing. And through some convoluted mental and moral maneuver we assumed that the act of finding would negate any harm to Ginny. Finding negated stealing which negated doing harm to another, as well as to ourselves. To our very young minds it was a somewhat sophisticated solution.

It’s all bullshit, of course. By bullshit I mean that our decision and act were indifferent to the way things really are. That’s not to say we didn’t care about what was true, but rather that we had come up with a strategy that we believed was true. As Harry G. Frankfurt said in On Bullshit: “[T]he essence of bullshit is not that it is false, but that it is phony.”[1] We played the truth to our benefit. In reality we stole a dollar from Ginny, but by conflating “to steal” and “to find” in our minds, we could put aside how things really were and buy the candy bars.

Of course I’ve often wondered if Ginny left her purse on the kitchen table on purpose, and not as an oversight or because she assumed that we would never steal from her. Now as an adult, I think she left it there on purpose. However, she never questioned us about it, so who knows. If she had, and we had told her what we had done, I suspect she would have found it humorous and perhaps ingenious, before punishing us.

There is one last thing. If you are going to try and game the ethical system there is always a moment when you are morally exposed, and that’s usually at the beginning of the con. The only way we could morally justify taking a dollar out of Ginny’s wallet was by finding the dollar on the sidewalk. The finding cleansed us of immorality. The problem was, of course, we couldn’t find the dollar before we stole it. The timing was not just difficult, it was unavoidable. Our moment of exposure was the actual taking of the dollar out of the wallet. So, when we walked out of the kitchen, to the front of the house, and down to the corner, was the dollar stolen, barrowed, or nonexistent?

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

[1] Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press,  2005, p. 47.

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