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“Ethics confuse; absolute ethics confuse absolutely.”


    —The Situational Ethicist


Dear Situational Ethicist,


I recently heard a report on NPR that the bottled water industry in the US is among the most wasteful and destructive industries on the planet. But I’ve gotten so used to bottled water now that I can’t stand drinking from the tap. I recycle the bottles! That counts for something, doesn’t it?


- B.D., Pittsburgh


If you really want to get a sense of the situation, B.D., track down the recent indie doc Tapped, which chronicles the many outrages associated with the bottled water industry in America.


The quick gist: The leading bottled water brands – Dasani, Aquafina – are simply filtered tap water, mined from municipal reservoirs. This water is then transported, processed, packaged and retailed back to the public – with all the attendant energy expenditures – at quadruple digit markups.


Also: Unlike tap water, bottled water is not tested or regulated by any outside agency. Toxins in many plastics have been shown to leak into the water itself. And only about 20 percent of water bottles in the US are recycled.


Considering all this, I urge you to do as I do and only buy bottled water when it is absolutely, unavoidably convenient.


Dear Situational Ethicist,


On a recent visit to San Francisco, I was confronted with an alarming dilemma. The 4:15 Powell St. trolley car was headed down the hill, where five people had been strapped to the tracks by a mad gang of eco-activists. Fortunately, I was standing next to the switch, which would divert the trolley down California street.


Imagine my horror when I saw that there was a single person tied to the California street track! Should I have flipped the switch?


- K.S., San Francisco


Nice try, K.S. The scenario you present here is a variation on the Trolley Problem, a famous thought experiment in ethics.


Strict utilitarianism would assert that you must pull the switch,  sacrificing one life to save five. However, opponents might argue that to take any action would be to participate in the moral wrong initiated by the mad eco-activists. The Trolley Problem has spawned several variations to test theories of moral philosophy, cognitive science and neuroethics.


The answer, of course, is that there is no right answer. Unless the five victims are LeBron James and the starting squad for next year’s Miami Heat. In which case, check out the restaurants in North Beach. Fisherman’s Wharf is too touristy.


Dear Situational Ethicist,


I was watching a televised awards show recently, and afterward, the producers assembled a panel of fashion experts to comment on what all the various celebrities were wearing. I got to thinking – would it be ethical, strictly speaking, to abduct these fashion critics, release them into the wild, then hunt them for sport?


- L.M., Portland


Dear L.M.,


I don’t see why not.


Dear Situational Ethicist,


While I’m generally a supporter of freedom of religion, cultural diversity and so forth. I have to say this issue of the Ground Zero Mosque seems tricky. What is your take?


- J.F. Sebastian, Los Angeles


Glad you asked, J.F.—this is what situational ethics is all about!


As usual, it’s the politicians and the pundits who are doing the most spectacular work in this area. It truly is a sight to behold.


Look closely and you’ll see that those public figures whipping up outrage over the NYC Islamic center aren’t actually interested in propriety or respect or the families of the 9/11 victims. What they’re actually interested in is how much Islamophobia they can whip up and leverage for short-term political gain in the upcoming election season.


Now, there are those who would contend that this issue is less about ethics than political expediency or simple hypocrisy. I couldn’t disagree more – if you’re at all interested in advanced situational ethics, it’s a breathtakingly graceful maneuver.


Observe and marvel at the manner in which these guys condemn the NYC mosque and support the war in Afghanistan at the same time. See, according to the highly developed situational ethics of this crowd, it’s all about winning the hearts and minds of the good Muslim people! Except here in the very heart of America, where their very presence is an insult.


Luckily, this kind of high-wire situational ethics work is only required of those looking to gain political advantage from the controversy. For the average citizen, there is no actual ethical dilemma to confront – it’s very straightforward. In America, all other things being equal, we don’t tell people what they can or can’t do based on their religion.


Next question!


Send your questions to the Situational Ethicist! Coming up: our special Workplace Ethics Edition: Stealing Office Supplies – Cheap and Easy or Convenient and Awesome?


Glenn McDonald writes about popular culture from his home in lovely Chapel Hill, NC. His humor essays have been described as "grammatically consistent" and "remarkably frequent". He is editor of the Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me daily news quiz at NPR.org, and a film critic at the Raleigh News & Observer. He lives virtually at www.glenn-mcdonald.com.


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