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The Utilitarian Ethicist Part Two

By Kevin Guilfoile


I am hoping you can solve this sticky wicket because I wrote in to Mr. Blue at Salon and instead of giving me an answer I could actually use, he told me about how he and Mrs. Blue had tickets to "Aida".

I'm a writer, but right now I work in an office putting labels on file folders and putting the file folders in order. This takes about three hours to do a day and I'm left with the remaining hours to work on my writing and prepare and send out manuscripts. Doing this uses up a lot of office supplies, and recently I've started using the postage machine as well, which really adds up after awhile. Even though I'm woefully underpaid for my work, I'm feeling guilty for this quasi-theft. Of course, this company makes billions of dollars and probably doesn't notice a few extra, purloined paperclips. I'm thinking about including the company in the acknowledgements to my first book. Do you think that's sufficient? --May Barker


Dear May,

Are you at all surprised that Mr. Blue was unable to help you with a serious ethical dilemma? Exactly what are his qualifications? Folk humorist? Pragmatist? Public radiofs rube in residence? Bah! You might as well go to a TV writer for help.

As for "Aida," don't get me started on Elton John's post-Bernie Taupin oeuvre. Mr. Blue would have been better off turning the sound down on "Cleopatra" and dropping the old diamond phonograph needle on "Madman Across the Water".

To your question, forget about putting your employer in the acknowledgements of your book. It's a less than worthless gesture. Instead, perform the following thought experiment: In the past several years, underpaid, delusional and disgruntled workers have been responsible for a tragic outbreak of deadly office violence across this country. In hindsight, don't you think their employers would have happily traded a few dollars worth of number 10 envelopes and pre-paid postage in return for peace in the workplace?

Now, is it fair that you, a thoughtful person, a writer, one of the noblest among us, must obey the "rules" regarding office theft while the criminally insane are permitted to treat the supply room like their own little butler's pantry? It is your obligation to steal from your employer, if only as a check against the ongoing surrender by corporate America to the retroactive extortionist tactics of homicidal lunatics.

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I've got one for you, Mr. Ethicist. I am supposed to have dinner with my grandparents on Sunday. It has been a month or so since I spoke to them, and they are getting on in years. However, the season premiere of The Practice is on the tube, and I can't bear to miss it. If I do go to dinner with them, I'll just glower. What do I do? -- Shu


Dear Shu,

I'm sure there are plenty of novices in the field of Philosophy, who are, at this instant, wondering aloud at their monitors, "Why don't you just tape The Practice and watch it later?" The reason we require sophisticated advice columns like this one is that ethical answers are rarely as simple as they first appear to be. Take your situation, for instance. Never mind the possibility that, like me, you may have recently disconnected your VCR in order to make room for a new Toshiba 5-DVD changer, and the armoire-style entertainment center has no room for the archaic half-inch tape player, even with the Direct TV box wedged in on its side and the TiVo apparatus balanced awkwardly on top. The answer to this question makes such practical circumstances irrelevant.

That's just as well for you since this reply is coming many months after the premiere of The Practice. Like the queries made of Ann Landers, who is only now getting around to answering questions mailed to her during the Bicentennial year, the inquiries I receive are usually not from people asking advice, but rather, people seeking justification. On that score, I think I can help.

In situations such as this, the actual circumstances tend to be deceiving, which is why I like to employ a device called "the hypothetical." Letfs say that on the afternoon of the day in question, a child falls down a well in the yard just behind yours. Because he is trapped so far down, and the October wind is howling like a wounded pachyderm, you can't hear his desperate cries for help. Under these horrifying and tragic circumstances, would you still watch your favorite program? Of course you would. You would enjoy an hour of David E. Kelley's signature oddball dramedy, and the neighbor child would die of starvation or exposure, whichever gets him first.

Now, would you say that the selfish gratification these grandparents receive from your reluctant presence at Sunday dinner is more important than the precious life of an innocent child, just because you're aware of one circumstance and not the other? Of course not. No sane person would. But thatfs exactly the position youfd be taking if you denied yourself the pleasure of watching The Practice in order to spend a few tedious hours with gammy and gampy. The next time you're at their house, no doubt getting something heavy out of the attic, tape this column on their icebox door and see if they aren't more considerate of your needs in the future.

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CONFIDENTIAL TO jill4@rhbnc.ac.uk

I am in receipt of 37 emails from you (including four just today) and have decided to answer all of your queries at once (and only once, so pay attention). Whether or not the Utilitarian Ethicist likes "hot, horny teens" is none of your concern. This column exists to help people, not to satisfy some perverted curiosity by providing you stories about whether or not and in what manner I like to "get off". This is not to say I have no tales of erotic adventure to tell. I hold a prestigious chair at the third-best University in America, after all. My Intro to Humanism class is filled with lithe, attractive females of the barely-legal variety who will provide me any number of unspeakable pleasures just for the opportunity to lay entwined with a genius in his hours of unguarded leisure. Like other great men -- Presidents, spiritual leaders and the like -- it is the perquisite of an individual of my stature to accept the advances of these young ladies as gifts and favors which need not be returned in kind. My adventures are guilt-free but, sadly for you, private in nature. You and the rest of the world will have to wait for the posthumous publication of my tell-all memoirs.

This essay originally appeared on the website dezmin.com.

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