Q: My wife and I rent space at a storage facility. We were inside the gate when we saw a woman and her teenage daughter struggling with the entry code they had written on a piece of paper. They asked us to open the gate. I wanted to: There seemed no chance that they were thieves. Plus, they would need a key to get into any rental space. My wife declined and told them to go phone the office. Who was right?
A: I'm with you. Ethics is not mere rule-following. To do the right thing requires a real understanding of the circumstances in which we find ourselves - to gauge risks, to interpret the behavior and assess the motives of other people, to ask: What is going on here? In this, ethics overlaps anthropology. Context matters.
You reasonably conjectured that the woman and her daughter were not dangerous. What evil designs could they have had? Wait until someone shows up and then steal old lawn furniture or summer clothing or whatever domestic detritus that was squirreled away? It is not impossible that this duo had bad intentions, but ordinary befuddlement, forgetting a combination, squinting at one's own illegible scrawl, is a likelier explanation and a good basis for deciding to admit them.
It is also noteworthy that neither you nor your wife mention feeling threatened by this pair - such unease would be worthy of consideration; it is prudent to heed your own sense of danger - only that your wife was a stickler for procedure.
If you had a similar encounter not at a storage center but at the lobby door of your apartment building, then you would be right not to admit the keyless, clueless pair. People up to no good have been known to gain entry in this way and then mug vulnerable tenants or burgle apartments. So your knowledge of the world, not unthinking fidelity to the rules, should guide your actions.
UPDATE: The pair got in later, presumably by calling for the correct pass code. They did nothing criminal, but the husband says they gave him and his wife "a dirty look."
Change in tactics was less than honest
Q: I am an analyst at a consulting firm where, on behalf of a pharmaceutical company, I worked on a telephone survey of veterinarians. At first, none would speak with me. Having recently graduated from a university known for its medical research, I changed my pitch to "Hi! I am a recent graduate of X University doing research on animal illness. Is the doctor in?" This approach got me the responses I needed, but was it ethical?
A: Although you showed admirable restraint by not claiming to be a talking dog, I'm going to rate your ploy resourceful but unethical. (Hence "ploy.") As I am sure you realize, you intentionally, albeit tacitly, duped the veterinarians, inducing them to believe that you were working on a study for X U or doing other dispassionate scientific research. Why else would you bring up your college days and fail to bring up the words "pharmaceutical company" or "marketing"? Having discovered that veterinarians would not participate in this study if they knew who was actually conducting it, you devised a tactic to obscure that fact. It is possible to lie without doing so explicitly. Imagine my saying this last in a thick Texas drawl, as I try to cadge a free beer at my local bar's Texans Drink Free Night - oh, and picture me in a Stetson and cowboy boots, a disturbing sight, I grant you, pardner.
This column originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine. Send questions and comments by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.