I’m sticking to my decision not to blog the WTC site much any more, because
I just find the whole thing far too depressing, and I think the catalogue of
incompetence has been pretty clearly laid out at this point for anybody who’s
interested in what went wrong and when.
But I still read articles on it, including today’s NYT story on the Customs
Service, and others, moving into the Freedom Tower. Near the end comes this:
There may also be a financial incentive, since about $345 million in insurance
proceeds from the destruction of the old Customs building can be used to build
its space in the Freedom Tower. State officials said they did not think that
the money could be transferred elsewhere.
Which raises an ethical issue which has been niggling me for some time now:
If someone pays you the cost of replacing something they broke or damaged,
are you ethically obliged to use that money to replace it?
I’m sure that most of us have found ourselves in this situation at some point.
In the normal course of events, one arrives at "I’m so sorry, I’ll pay
you back". And then you get the money for a new X – but you realise
that you don’t really need the thing that was broken, and you do have a big
credit card bill, and you’ve been meaning to get a new Y for ages… and so
you use the money not for buying a new X, but rather for something else.
Is that OK? One way to arrive at an answer is to see how one would feel were
the roles reversed. There are two ways of looking at it from the donor’s point
- "I gave him $x because I broke his X, and in order to replace his X.
I could have given him a new X instead, rather than the money. But instead
of using the money to replace his broken X, he went and spent it on something
else entirely, and although I like the guy, I’m not the kind of person who’d
just give him a brand-new Y. He took my money, which was given with good intentions
to make him whole, but his intentions weren’t quite so good: it seems he never
intended to buy a new X with the money at all! I didn’t give him money for
a Y, I gave him money for an X, and he should have spent it on an X."
- "I broke his X and at that point was morally obliged to replace it.
I could have given him a new X, but instead I gave him both a bit more freedom
and a bit more work by giving him $x instead. It turns out he was actually
much happier with the $x than he would have been with a new X, since he used
the $x for something else. This is a win-win situation for both of us: I don’t
have to go out and buy an X, while he gets to use my money for something he
wants even more than an X. I’m out $x anyway, so he should put that
money to its best use. That’s the whole point of money: it’s fungible."
The Customs Service’s insurer, it would seem, is taking the first tack. They’re
obliged to pay the Customs Service the cost of rebuilding their offices at Ground
Zero. But if the Customs Service doesn’t rebuild its offices at Ground Zero,
then there’s no obligation.
Personally, I’m much more sympathetic to the second tack If I gave someone
money to replace something and they used it for some other purpose instead,
I would not feel aggrieved, since they clearly needed the money more for Y than
they did for replacing X.
I wonder what neuroeconomics
might have to say about this situation? Here’s Jonathan Cohen, a neuroeconomist
quoted in John Cassidy’s New Yorker article:
“The key idea in neuroeconomics is that there are multiple systems
within the brain. Most of the time, these systems coöperate in decision-making,
but under some circumstances they compete with one another."
It could be that people who take the first tack are reacting on the basis of
an emotional, limbic response, while people who take the second tack are being
more rational. If that’s the case, then one might have to make one’s purchasing
decision on the basis of whether the person paying you the money is more emotional
or rational when it comes to such things. If they’re emotional, then use the
money to replace the damaged item; if they’re rational, then use it for anything
But that, of course, just leaves us with the even bigger problem of second-guessing
the limbic state of our donor. Is there a better way, a more hard-and-fast ethical
principle, which can be applied here?