Is There Such A Thing As (an Ethically) Free Meal?

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Sometimes the difference between right and wrong is very clear; other times, however, it may not be so clear. It is essential for parents  to share and discuss these less obvious areas with their children and teens, in order to actively develop morality together.

Today we take a look at a recent column from The Ethicist, the New York Times’ resident expert on all things related to values. A reader wrote in with a dilemma that begs a discussion of just what “free” means, and whether or not we should stretch that notion.

Here is the situation:

An office provides certain food items free for use by employees in a break room pantry. One industrious worker observes his colleague enjoying a bowl of cereal from this shared cache every morning before beginning work, citing that it gives him more energy and helps him be more productive. The observant and diligent employee wonders if it would be even more efficient for his coworker to take some of the cereal home and eat his breakfast before arriving at work. Thus, he would be able to eat breakfast while not on company time, while still deriving the same energy boost. Is it right for him to take home “his portion” of the freely available food?

Mr. Klosterman, aka The Ethicist, believes that the employee has no right to take home “his” share of the cereal. At the same time, he admits that the logic, while flawed, doesn’t come from a malicious or utterly implausible standpoint. According to Klosterman, the issue boils down to two main points of contention: the difference between perks with obligations, as well as the difference between ownership and shared use.

The office provides the free cereal as a nice bonus to employees, and it creates a benefit for management in the form of added incentive for employees to remain in the office to eat, rather than having to leave the office for food. There is no obligation on the part of the office to provide said food. Thus, stretching the issue beyond simply taking cereal while in the break room, to one in which an employee eats on the company dime in their own homes or anywhere outside of the office, is outside the scope of what the company would likely want to be providing.

The issue of ownership versus shared use, according to The Ethicist, boils down to the fact that the cereal’s presence in the break room makes it a “shared commodity.” He believes that there is an implication that the food’s residence in the break room implies that it is meant to be shared by workers in the office space. He believes someone taking some home, even an individual portion, implies that they “own” part of a commodity meant to be shared.

Is there a difference between ways to share something? Does sharing mean that everyone is entitled to an equal portion, theirs to do with as they please? Or is use based on what someone needs at a given time? Can it mean both of these things in different contexts?

How do you feel about this situation and The Ethicist’s position on the matter? Enjoy discussing it together, and afterwards we would love for you to comment and share your conclusion.

If you got something out of this post, and the opportunity for a discussion of values, you may also want to take a look at some of our past pieces inspired by The Ethicist including:


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