Art Carden  

An Ethical Quandary: Should I Have Taken Frank's Coffee?

A Crime Beyond Denunciation... Rising Male Non-Employment: Su...

I'm sharing a room with Frank Stephenson of Berry College at the Southern Economic Association meeting in Tampa. Our room has a coffeemaker that makes one cup at a time. Yesterday morning, Frank made a cup of coffee, then I made one while Frank was shaving. While my cup was brewing, I thought "I could just drink the cup Frank made and have the present satisfaction of coffee right now, and then he could enjoy the coffee I'm brewing when he finishes shaving."

I didn't do that, and I waited for my own cup of coffee to finish brewing. It just felt wrong to take Frank's coffee even though the coffees were essentially perfect substitutes and I was pretty sure Frank wouldn't have cared (I wouldn't have had he done it, and he confirmed that he wouldn't have cared when I mentioned it to him as we walked to the elevator).

Like I said, the coffees were perfect substitutes, I was pretty sure Frank wouldn't care, and if I were in his position I wouldn't have cared, either. So why was my instinct to say "it would be wrong to take Frank's coffee"? Was my instinct correct?

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CATEGORIES: moral reasoning

COMMENTS (23 to date)
David N writes:

In general, coffee is best immediately after brewing. You would have created a better outcome for both Frank and yourself by taking his coffee.

Kevin L writes:

David N would be right for most people, but I don't think it's overly-cautious to consider that Frank may have wanted his coffee slightly cooler - hence why he left it to go shave. We never can anticipate all the nuances of others' preferences, so it's best to err on the side of not giving offense.

NL7 writes:

Some people place a premium on personal space, a premium which may rise after spending a night in the same hotel room as someone other than a spouse or close family member. In such a case, we could expect someone to value 'their' cup of coffee, brewed in a way they dictated and controlled, rather than essentially sharing coffee duties. I'm not such a person, but I know several people who have a pronounced personal space preference.

Also, without speaking to Frank's motives, plenty of people would claim that they would not be bothered by the coffee switch while secretly holding a little discomfort about it. It's just not polite to admit it and it's undesirable to be seen as aloof and persnickety. Both the truly laidback and the polite uptight might claim to be okay with it. More stringent rules of etiquette generally rely on assuming potential discomfort, rather than forcing others to complain.

Also, the hotel room coffee is almost uniformly horrible in my experience, especially when labeled 'gourmet' or 'fancy.' Just an observation.

Paul B writes:

If we had perfect information and could conclude that Frank would not have minded, the world would have gotten slightly better as your personal happiness would have increased without diminishing Frank's happiness. However, siding with Kevin, I'd say that much of what our mothers called "good manners," exist solely because we don't, and can't, have perfect information. Economically speaking, you should have taken the coffee but as a member of civil society, you did the right thing.

Brian writes:

I'd say it's the wrong thing to do without checking with him first. It is wrong to presume you know someone else's preferences if they haven't given some indication of what their preference is. It's easy to think "he CERTAINLY wants the fresher, hotter coffee," but do you really know this to be true? Of course not.

I'd say this is also a (much) smaller scale version of why government action is often wrong. There's no way the government can know everyone's preferences (nor does it even try, in general) and therefore runs a high risk of not maximizing everyone's utility, which I would call ethically wrong.

Shane L writes:

Also it might feel a little uncomfortable to know that the coffee you're drinking is in a cup handled by someone else, not a fresh, flawless cup that you picked, straight from the wash. It's a very small thing but perhaps you felt an appreciation of this tiny sense of dissonance your friend might have experienced on realising that his cup of coffee disappeared while he is drinking your cup.

In any case it's an interesting thought, I'd have done the same as you!

Hazel Meade writes:

Great question. It's easy to see both sides and it illuminates a fundamental quandry between economic efficiency and individual rights.

In this case, taking the coffee would (seemingly) improve the efficiency of the outcome. On the other hand, it would be a violation of his "property right" to the cup of coffee he made.

In other words, is it ok to violate a property right if it achieves an more pareto optimal outcome?

The answers also illuminate that there is more behind the property right than just legalisms. Respect for personal space and incomplete information leads to social norms that function similar to a property right, but are clearly molded around other people's emotional reactions. To what extent are "manners" and social norms in civil society related to the moral function of rights which have become enshrined in law?

Lauren writes:

Hi, Art.

I think you had the instinct you had because you empathized with him because of your own experiences--and in particular, your experiences regarding risk and relief from surprises via having habits and routines.

Many people take steps personally to reduce risk, unexpected variability, or surprising disruptions. When you are on the road, travel itself is full of surprises, and so is every minute while you are away. So much goes wrong, from the trivial to the substantive, and so much is out of your control! How better to fortify oneself for the novelty ahead than to have your morning routine go without incident? Morning routines are not the only example of ways we reduce risk and stress via creating conditions for regularity. The routes we drive to work or even the order in which we grab our car keys and laptop before heading out the door, the ways we store food in our refrigerators or load dishes in the dishwasher, the ways we organize our desks or arrange our books on our shelves, the system we use to throw clothes casually into nighttime piles to distinguish re-usable shirts from dirty ones, etc. might all look inefficient to onlookers, but are part of time-saving and stress-relieving risk reduction routines that are highly personalized.

I think you instinctively respected the possibility that your roomie was doing risk reduction.

And he in turn might have been trying to not interfere with your risk-reduction routines.

Courtesy toward others for personal risk reduction patterns and habits about which we may not have full information is, I think, a universal part of interpersonal etiquette. Neither is efficiency ever achieved if one acts solely on one's own information. Etiquette and instinct are very much about winding our ways through those non-market, information-personal situations to achieve a jostling/higgling-of-the-market solution.

jc writes:

Yes, you were probably right.

In the absence of formally specified rules, e.g., laws regarding property rights, we fall back towards governance via informal institutions. (They're often dominant anyway.)

For most folks in your shoes, I'm guessing that this means U.S. manners-based norms and/or norms based on precedence and action: "I made it out of stuff that wasn't yours, therefore it belongs to me more than to you".

Just because both parties are judged by you (or even by both, after the fact) to be better off does not mean it's 'right' for you to do what you think is proper w/o giving the other party a say in the matter.

The mere fact that we can debate whether it's right or wrong w/ respect to a small matter like this - when both parties probably would have been better off to boot, and the 'aggrieved' party not terribly upset even if he judged himself to be worse off - probably suggests a bit of temperance and reflection when it comes to deciding whether to take choice away from others when it comes to their lives/selves/families/property, just because you think they'd be better off (even if you're right).

jc writes:

Btw, this is also probably a case where the 'decider' would bend over backwards and go to great lengths to make it up to other party, if the other party disagreed to even the slightest degree...even if the decider's assessment of both getting a better outcome (hotter, fresher coffee, w/ less wait) had been correct.

This predicted response assumes, of course, that the other party wouldn't have been such a jerk when expressing discontent that your 'fight back' instinct kicked in.

Often, when it comes to more important matters that affect most/all of us, the 'deciders' could really care less what others think. (And they then label dissenters as jerks and/or stupid. Some go as far as secretly enjoying their ability to make you do what they want. Some of us are bullies as opposed to merely benevolent, presumptive souls that are just trying to help by giving us all hotter coffee.)

Seth writes:

Human interaction is a trial-and-error discovery process. I think you were in uncharted waters, since sharing a room with a colleague isn't a common practice.

So, you defaulted to your sense of propriety, felt out the situation and would act differently next time based on your discovery.

RohanV writes:

I would say that it is a case of imperfect information. Since the coffee is made by two different people, you cannot be perfectly sure that the cup you made is a perfect substitute for the cup Frank made. Who knows, maybe Frank decided to make his coffee slightly differently this morning?

Change the scenario such that you were making coffee for both people. You start by deciding you'll make Frank's cup first. After making Frank's cup, you see he's still busy, so you take the cup for yourself and make another cup for Frank.

I would think that most people would say the above scenario is perfectly fine, in contrast to the orginal scenario. Since the same person made both cups, the coffee is interchangeable.

Daublin writes:

Frank might be dispute whether they are really perfect substitutes.

More broadly, there's a concept of property guiding your intuition here. The first coffee is owned by Frank and he's the one that gets to decide about its disposition. If you have a case to make about how you can mutually benefit, you have to clear it with the owner of the property involved.

DougT writes:

Why is asking Frank's permission not an option?

Maximum Liberty writes:

I agree with @jc and many other commenters.

I think that the proto-rule that becomes formalized as property was operating more than a property rule was. The proto-rule is "don't mess with other people's stuff." That's a rule that precedes formal property in the sense that caveman will hit you with his stick if you mess with his stuff. So will a two-year-old.

On a more refined level, the coffee in question was in a gray area. Would Frank think it was his stuff? If so, prudence says assume it is his stuff until he shows otherwise. That way, he won't hit you with his stick. As many other commenters state or imply, Frank might have surprised you with a very strong preference for the coffee he made.

In a larger setting (the coffee machine in the faculty lounge), you might have hung around the coffee maker until Frank reappeared, so that you could lay claim to it if it became clear that Frank had abandoned it or made it as a gesture of goodwill to the next person in line.


Andrew M writes:

In normal circumstances it might not matter, but should the coffee maker break down while brewing the second cup (and after you've drunk a substantial amount of the first cup) you would have effectively stolen Frank's coffee. Without knowing with 100% certainty that the second cup will brew successfully it is probably better to do as you actually did.

MingoV writes:

An invented quandary: Frank was a few feet away, so you should have asked him about the coffee.

Andrew_FL writes:

I don't think they are perfect substitutes, unless the temperature of the coffee doesn't matter, or if it does, that he was going to be finished quickly enough that it wouldn't matter.

Gene H writes:

Two economists stay in a hotel room. They wake up in the morning and there is a bill on the floor near the door. Neither of them pick it up... :)

Hazel Meade writes:


What kind of bill?
A dollar bill?
A bill of sale?
A legislative bill?
A bill of attainder?

Art Carden writes:

Thank you all for excellent comments. After discussing it, we agreed that...

1. Frank wouldn't have cared either way.

2. He actually does like to let his coffee cool off a bit, so I would've probably interfered with his most reasonable expectations.

I think everyone's right in that it helps us understand why norms evolve. In this case, the "don't take Frank's coffee" norm evolves precisely because we don't have perfect information.

As for whether I could've just asked him, he was using an electric razor, so I'd have had to raise my voice a bit. Clearly an insurmountable obstacle, no?

dve writes:

I am bemused that this is perceived as an ethical problem. Cf this to the issue of compelling persons and/or corporations to provide funding for abortifacients. The latter beggars the former.

Be that as it may: I say take Frank's coffee and make him a new, fresher, hotter cup. Better than Pareto optimality: both gain, no one worse off.

Babinich writes:
Like I said, the coffees were perfect substitutes, I was pretty sure Frank wouldn't care, and if I were in his position I wouldn't have cared, either. So why was my instinct to say "it would be wrong to take Frank's coffee"? Was my instinct correct?

Your instinct was correct. Why?

Because determining what is and is not a perfect substitute can likely be clouded by the desires of that person.

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