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Everyday Ethics


subwaymapmidtownsmall.gifWelcome to Part I of our exciting new series, Underground Ethics. As the name implies, we’ll be talking about things that take place far below the day-lit realm, things dark and ugly, seamy and salacious, perhaps unholy.

Yes, that’s right. The New York City Subway System.

I realize 99% of humanity doesn’t have direct experience with New York’s MTA. (It just feels that way when you’re trying to board the 6 train at 8:30 AM.) All I can say to those who’ve never had the pleasure is… congratulations. Words like “sticky,” “stinky,” “sweaty,” “contagious,” “dangerous,” “overcrowded,” “rat-infested” and “poorly lit” barely begin to scratch the surface of this malodorous, mismanaged, bedraggled, Hieronymous-Boschian system that gets us five-borough-dwellers where we need to go (most of the time). It is, at best, a necessary evil, and at worst a nightmare of truly epic proportions.

However, it is also a unique opportunity to observe the full spectrum of human behavior, from the utterly reprehensible to the astonishingly heroic. Sometimes, you’ll see both on the same commute–even the same subway car. One man may hold the door for you–at great risk to his own life and limb. Another will grope your derierre without a moment’s hesitation or shame. There’ve been mornings when I’ve witnessed six people competing to rise and offer a pregnant woman their seat, and others when a group of rowdy teens have pushed an old man out of the way to get to that same seat.

Great fodder for an ethics blogger, to be sure. And hopefully, an interesting journey for readers of the blog as well. Even if you can’t relate to the perils of rush hour commuting in NYC, I’m sure there’s an analogous situation where you live, whether it’s two-hour traffic backups in suburban Houston or road-rage on the LA freeways. When we gotta get where we’re going, we really show who we are.

So here, in Part I, I’d like to begin by sharing a lesson the subway has taught me about my own ethics. Herewith: How the Emergency Gate Shames Me… 

Lesson 1) My personal code of ethics is, shall we say, more “flexible” than “absolute.”

Each morning, as I approach the IRT line, the dilemma looms larger and larger. The Subway Emergency Exit. Meant, as is so clearly blazoned on its push-bar, to be used only in cases of, you know… emergency. Should you dare to make it your egress, it will shrill loudly–nay, I daresay deafeningly–piercing the eardrums of all those around you. The sound echoes off the dingy station tiles, lingers unendingly in the air, pisses off the riders on the platform, wears out the alarms, and drives the beleaguered station agent just that tiny bit closer to a lethal meltdown.

So why the f*&k does everyone and his brother think it’s OK to use it instead of the turnstiles?

My inner ethics snob says, “I would never do such a thing. I will always use the turnstiles, even if the gate is already open and there is a stream of people holding it open, even if I personally don’t have to touch the gate to hold it open, but may simply pass through it as part of the river of humanity. I will not use it even if I’m being pulled along helplessly by said river of humanity, nor will I use it even if the tide of commuters using the turnstiles to enter when I’m trying to exit is so great I’d have to wait hours to fight my way out. Not even if the turnstiles are covered in frat-boy vomit, damn it! The gate says it’s for emergencies, the alarm is annoying, and I don’t want to be one of those people who promotes that kind of behavior. Not. Gonna. Do. It.”

And yet, dear readers, I doubt I could count the number of times I have violated that oh-so-unbreachable code of honor. And for what reasons? None others than those very shameful ones above.

      1. The line for the turnstiles was too long, and I was lazy.
      2. It was closer.
      3. It was already open.
      4. I was pissed at myself for worrying about the whole issue, so I did it to be a rebel.
What strikes me about all this is just how my supposedly unassailable internal value system is actually subject to change without notice, how it adjusts to circumstances on the go. I make snap decisions to meet my convenience, often aware peripherally of the personal ethical violations I am committing, sometimes too busy to even pay attention. It amazes me how expedience takes precedence over values at times like these, and perhaps can explain some of the other behaviors I see on the fly.
I’ve grown to dread the daily sight of that emergency gate. It’s become a hulking, rusty, shrieking symbol for me: Will I cross the portal into ethical laxity today, or go out of my way to do the right thing?
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