Are You an Asshole for Ordering Food in a Blizzard? We Asked an Ethicist
“You're the Nucky Thompson of ordering food.”
As I walked to the train from the office, a man in a red overcoat on a bike had come to a stop on Bedford Ave. in Brooklyn. It became clear that his jacket and the bag he carried both had the Seamless logo emblazoned across them. The snow and the wind had finally broken his will or perhaps only his ability to ride his bike, and so he hauled it on the sidewalk. As I passed and descended to the G train, he seemed to be contemplating whether to go on.
It was impossible for me not to think that whoever put this man in this position was kind of an asshole.
The snow is coming down, the wind is blowing, but you're hungry. You're really hungry. You know that dinner is—for you—just a few clicks away, but you also know that the reality of the situation on the other side means that your food is going to be carried to you by, likely, someone making minimum wage or less, through a blizzard that has been described several times as "historic."
Mayor de Blasio told you not to, but you really want to.
So the question is: Is it ethical to order Seamless during a blizzard?
Feeling unqualified to make such a statement on my own, I started calling random professors, all of whom were out of the office. So then I called Jon Heaps.
Heaps and I were fellow philosophy majors back in Chicago, but our graduation in 2008 coincided with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and our shiny new BAs of Philosophy didn't allow us to become CEOs and titans of industry as they would have in years past. I, instead, turned to the lucrative world of professional blogging, while Heaps returned to academia, studying philosophy and theology at Boston College and now Marquette. I descended to the sin and prurient world of internet journalism; Heaps stayed above board and was nearly a doctor.
He is so ethical that he called me back right away, a good sign.
I explained that New York was in the grips of a blizzard, something of which the rest of the country was already acutely aware, because New York is in fact full of people who descended to the sin and prurient world of internet journalism, and concluded that everyone else cares what the weather is like in New York. They are a hungry, tired lot. I asked Heaps if calling in that pad thai strike was unethical in someway.
Heaps, game for it, started with Emmanuel Kant. Forgive me for being fast and loose here, but in the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." Basically, if everyone did what you did, would everything be okay?
"You can say, 'Okay, so I'm stuck indoors but I'd love some falafel or whatever. And I know that there's a ban, but we can make an exception for me, because I worked really hard today, and there's nothing in my fridge and I can't go out, and I need to eat something. So really for me, we can make an exception," Heaps said. "But if you universalize that maxim, you're in this incoherent position where there's either a travel ban or everyone's sending their Seamless guy out on an electric bike into a blizzarding New York."
I've often found Kant's universal maxim to be only partially useful, since, if everyone flushed their toilets at the same time, there would be mass, sewer chaos. If everyone went to hug my dog, she'd be crushed.
"That is the problem with universalizing the maxim," Heaps said. "Do you have the absurdity built in, in so far as you're trying to make a claim about everyone, always everywhere? It does kind of break down eventually."
Plus, there's a problem of universalizing something for everyone based only on my own experience: I mean, I'm pretty able-bodied, but someone who is homebound in some way probably could feel better about slightly imperiling someone, if there's less peril to themselves.
Heaps hadn't really run into whether you can calculate the amount of net peril that your actions cause, but had other thoughts.
"I wonder about the other question: do you, perhaps, imperil the delivery driver, but with some compensation," he said. "Presumably you're going to tip, they're not going home for the night yet, so they get that hourly wage. It's the question people ask about sex workers in Thailand. Do you shut down the trafficking and sex working and risk shoving all these people into even deeper poverty and degradation?"
That could be a confusing comparison, or an instructive one. A lot of delivery guys are immigrants of every stage of documented status, which is how they end up with a job that pays poorly, but for the tips. There is some incentive for them to stay at work and get those tips, because the law allows them to be paid an even lower rate than people in non-tipping sectors. If we all gave up on ordering food, would their jobs disappear?
The thing is that you can't really universalize this scenario without including "blizzard" in there. We're talking about blizzard-specific conditions. So we moved on to John Locke.
"Then you have the other angle: the Lockian kind of social contract approach," Heaps said, "which is: 'Look, if he decides that it's worth it to him to be on an electric bike in a blizzard for a six dollar tip, then as the owner, possessor, and operator of his property—his being and his electric bike—and you're willing to pay the market rate, and you have an agreement, then no sovereign government should get in the way."
There's a bit of a rub here, because after 11 PM New York City has a travel ban coming down, that de Blasio explained includes delivery drivers. You would be asking people to break the law for you. I asked Heaps how ethical that was.
"I was going to somewhat snarkily respond—in the long tradition of educated white people quoting Dr. King—I was going to say that 'an unjust law is no law at all,'" Heaps said.
It's hard to picture someone calling this law unjust, or saying that it needs to be broken for the sake of justice, at least tonight. There are avenues of redress.
"Maybe there's a stringent libertarian view that would maintain that the law is impeding commerce, and is therefore unjust. I wouldn't subscribe to that personally, but it is an ethical view that is out there," he said.
"But employing someone else to break the law for you," he continued. "You wonder, at what point does that become a criminal enterprise? How is that distinguishable from organized crime, where you're not committing a crime, but you're creating an economic circumstance where someone else can and you're enjoying the spoils of their ill-gotten labor?"
I warmed immediately to this idea of becoming some sort of mafia don, just by ordering pizza.
"I think that's where I'm going with this. You're the Nucky Thompson of ordering food," Heaps said. "I'm going to go ahead and say that, ethically, as long as the law is a just law, it's probably not cool to pay someone to break the law for you."
Well, Locke is a little murky, but Kant seems against Seamless. I asked Heaps if we could try virtue ethics, like from Aristotle.
"The question there is: what would a savvy New Yorker do?" Heaps said. "For Aristotle, really what it boils down is: the virtuous man is the knowledgeable, experienced, social elite. So I think you can ask yourself the question: What would the savvy New Yorker do? There's a reality that the virtue ethics can kind of boil down to 'Well, how do we do things around here?'"
New York of course has both sides of it: On the one hand, people like to tell other people that they should've been prepared, but on the other hand, there's a mentality of whatever you can get away with, you should try to get away with.
"If you've got anybody who grew up on the Upper West Side, give them a call and ask them what they'd do, and habituate yourself to acting likewise," Heaps said.
So, naturally I texted up Alex Pasternack, Motherboard's editor-at-large. He grew up on the Upper West Side, and seems sort of savvy. He was available anyway. I asked him if it was okay to order food during a blizzard. His responses are in the gray.
So, there you go. Prepare your whiskey, and dig in, but with the knowledge that you're well on your way to running a criminal enterprise.