Case study Essay Example

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In her article published in The Sydney Morning Herald last 22 January 2010, Charmian Lawson scored the way some customers behaved in supermarkets. In particular, Lawson was irked at the way some customers fleeced supermarkets by eating food inside even before they have reached the counters to pay for them. She cited as an example a woman who was handing fruits to her little son to be eaten whilst they go around shopping inside the supermarket. Another woman was also spotted scooping out nuts from a display case with her bare hands munching them as she went around shopping. In another instance, she saw a man taking off the stems from hydroponic tomatoes to make them look like ordinary tomatoes and, therefore, be charged for less, as well as a woman removing the stems from bananas for the same reason. In many instances, she purported to witness women in queues to wait for their turns to be served in the counters picking up magazines and replacing them after thumbing through them. This ‘supermarket behaviour’ can be explained using two ethical frameworks from Consequentialism, namely, universal ethical egoism and act utilitarianism. As theories of Consequentialism, they determine the ethical correctness of an act by its results or consequences. Universal ethical egoism subscribes to the idea that all persons should act only to their respective best interest whilst act utilitarianism believes that the ethical extent of an act can be gauged by the extent of benefit it gives to a person and, therefore, the act that brings the greatest good – that is, happiness, pleasure and satisfaction – is the right act (Brown 2002). Using these two frameworks, this essay will evaluate the ethical aspects of each of these so-called supermarket behaviour cited by Lawson in her article.

The Application of Ethics on Supermarket Behaviour

A. Universal Ethical Egoism

The ‘supermarket behaviour’ pointed out by Lawson can be justified from the perspective of Universal Ethical Egoism theory. As a Consequentialist theory, the Universal Ethical Egoism will first gauge the effect of the following acts before judging whether they are good or bad: letting one’s kids eat fruits inside the supermarket without paying, removing unusable parts of bananas, such as stems and stalks, so that they will weigh less, and, therefore, cost less; reading magazines off the racks whilst waiting for turn to be served in the counter without buying them; and, scooping out nuts from display cases and munching on them while doing grocery. Although these actions seem to be wrong and deserve censure – a sentiment echoed by the writer herself – they can be rationalised under the universal ethical egoism.

According to the universal ethical egoism, an act is good if its serves the best interest of the doer (Hinman 2012). This dictum implies self-centrism, which necessarily entails overlooking or ignoring the interests of others. This theory exemplifies the adage ‘to each his own,’ and applying this theory to the present dilemma means that the mother who fed her small son fruits while doing her grocery chores was not wrong, but was right after all. Feeding her sons those fruits directly from the grocery stalls served her many purposes. The first benefit she gained from the act is that it kept her son quiet and preoccupied, allowing her to get on with her grocery chores without much distraction from the little tot. This benefit creates a ripple of other possible gains, such as getting home early, eating supper ready in time and attending to her other household chores. In addition, keeping her son calm came at no cost at all since by the time they reached the counter the little boy would have probably consumed or thrown the fruits out of the trolley.

The same principle likewise applies to the woman who took out the stalks and stems of bananas and the man who removed the stem from the hydroponic tomatoes. For the former, the bananas would certainly cost less without the stems and stalks because their weight would be diminished. For the latter, the tomatoes would look like ordinary tomatoes, which cost less than hydroponic ones. For both of them, their actions were pursued in their best interests and, therefore, were good and ethical, according to the universal ethical egoism. By getting those items for less than their actual values, those two obtained benefits in the form of savings, which they can use to buy more groceries. This same rationale applies also to the woman who took out nuts from the display center and munched them as she went around the grocery as well as the shoppers who read magazines off the racks without buying them. All of them gained something without paying the price.

This rationalisation using the universal ethical egoism would be rendered null, however, had the grocery management called the police and charged the above people with theft. The woman with her child would be arrested, brought to the precinct for investigation and probably, jailed. On top of that, the child would be expected to holler and cry out of discomfort and hunger and she would not be able to finish her shopping, go home and prepare dinner. These experiences would be discomfiting and distressing. Instead of serving her best interest, the act of taking fruits from the grocery stand to give to her child would suddenly become detrimental to her, rather than serving her best interest. The same principle applies to the other persons as well.

B. Act Utilitarianism

The theory of act utilitarianism has similarities to universal ethical egoism in that it judges the morality of an act by its consequences. However, while the latter is focused on the best interest of the individual, act utilitarianism is centred on the value and the measure of an act’s consequence to most of the people. In addition, act utilitarianism advocates less self-centredness than universal ethical egoism. Aside from consequentialism, act utilitarianism, like other forms of utilitarianism, has welfarism as a component. This component refers to the character of an ethical or moral act that raises or enhances the welfare of people and animals. It is the value component of utilitarianism in which individual well-being becomes the most important aspect that must motivate an act and, therefore, anything that does not contribute to such well-being is not material or relevant (West 2008). Like all types of utilitarianism, the value being construed here is one that gives the most happiness to an individual. Utilitarianism perceives happiness as pleasure with the absence of pain (Krantz 2002).

Using this framework to view the actions of individuals cited in the Lawson article should also begin by weighing the consequences of such actions. The action of the woman in the article in taking out fruits from the grocery stands to give feed to her small tot must likewise be judged by looking at the value of its consequences to the woman. The question at this point is whether the consequences of the action brought her more happiness than pain and contributed to her well-being. It can be said that it did bring her happiness because she was able to continue with her grocery without being distracted by a crying child as the latter was preoccupied with eating the fruits given to him courtesy of the grocery fruit section. Such relative peace could be said to be contributory to her well-being as she was free to look into shelves for grocery items she needed. This happiness or well-being was enhanced by the fact that she did not pay for them. On the other hand, the child was not only kept preoccupied and happy, but he was also getting nourishment from the grapes and peach given to him by his mother. The action of the woman in giving fruits to the small boy also could be a good opportunity to train him to like fruits, which are good for the health. His health and well-being naturally also contribute to her own happiness and well-being knowing that the latter is getting nourishment that could keep him away from sickness.

The woman who removed the stem from bananas so she could pay less for them is also made happy by the fact that she could earn savings from the diminished cost of the bananas. In addition, without banana stems her grocery bag would be lighter to carry when she leaves the grocery to the parking lot, if she brought a car with her, or when she goes to the bus station for a ride home. All these are beneficial to the woman and to her well-being and, therefore, according to the act utilitarianism principle, the action of the woman in removing the stalks and stems from bananas was a good act. The same principle should apply to the man who took out the green stalks from hydroponic tomatoes. Having removed should make the tomatoes cheaper, which could contribute to his well-being because of the savings he made as a result.

Women who make reading of magazines off their racks a habit while queuing for their turn to be served at the counters, according to the act utilitarianism principle, are also on the right track. Queuing, especially in long lines, can really be tedious and can be quite strenuous to the legs. Reading from gossip magazines can distract from the tediousness and boredom and ease the ache of standing for a long time. Since it makes women feel better and contribute to their well-being, these acts are sanctioned by the theory of act utilitarianism as ethical and good despite making the magazines look used.

Similarly, the woman who scooped out nuts from the grocery display case munching them merrily as she went on her grocery chores was also justified. The action itself can contribute to her well-being and happiness in at least three ways: she gained savings because she did not pay for them, nuts are high in dietary fiber, protein and potassium, and munching nuts while doing grocery can ease the boredom out of such routine. The highest welfare the act contributed to the woman was the health aspect as dietary fiber is really necessary to clean the intestines. Had she not done what she did and, instead just scoop out what she can afford and pay them in the counter, she will lose part of the money she brought with her that may have been necessary to buy other provisions. Applying the welfarism aspect of act utilitarianism, therefore, suggests that the action of the woman was good and ethical because she was made the better for eating nuts without paying them.

All of the above justifications, however, could be rendered useless if the grocery called the police in each case and charge those people with theft. Being arrested, taken to a police precinct to be questioned and booked cannot be equated in any way with the experience of happiness or the enhancement of well-being. On the contrary, it would bring misery and pain to one’s pride and reputation, in addition to the discomfort of spending time in jail. Having a police record could also close certain doors to individuals because society tends to look at people with police record as untrustworthy and deviants. Employers may not like the idea of hiring someone who has spent time in jail or was charged of a crime involving dishonesty or unreliability. The actions earlier rationalised as ethical in accordance to the theory of act principle now creates a ripple effect that can militate against the well-being and happiness of a person to a greater degree than the pleasure obtained from the act of making savings by not paying. This imbalance created between the pleasure from the act of taking without paying and the resultant shame, discomfort and the taking away of opportunities as a consequence of being perceived as untrustworthy breaches the underlying rationale of act utilitarianism.

Conclusions: Analysis and Implications

As can be seen from the previous discussions, the theories of universal ethical egoism and act utilitarianism seem to be exhibiting flaws when used to explain supermarket behaviour. Acts that these two theories can justify seem to be morally wrong in the light of the fact that they validate wrongs done to other people, such as the grocery management, employees and owners. Hinman (2012) criticised universal ethical egoism on four aspects: consistency, public and private morality, friendship and moral insensitivity. Universal ethical egoism lacks consistency because it preaches self-interest for all without the means of harmonising them (Preston 2007). This becomes problematic when the self-interest of one conflicts with the self-interest of another. In the supermarket behaviour, for example, the self-interest of the woman giving her child fruits from the fruits section of the grocery without paying for them was in conflict with the self-interest of the grocery and its staff. Such an action constituted loss of revenues for the owner that can affect its staff. If such activities become rampant, the grocery may have to let go of some of its staff to cut losses or totally shut down its operations, which means loss of jobs for its employees. The absence of universality of its application reveals an aspect of inconsistency of the theory.

The propensity of universal ethical egoism to put more weight on self-interest than on any other interest opens egoists to conceal their true purpose that motivates them to act. This concealment breaks the principle of openness of ethical theories required to ensure that ethical theories are open to discussion to determine their rationality and logic. In addition, giving more value to one’s self-interest at the expense of the interest of others is not underpinned by any moral grounds, according to Hinman, and at the same time makes it difficult for anyone to strike true friendship with others. This is because one is always conscious of the fact that the other will always pursue his interest even at his own expense. Furthermore, focusing consistently on one’s self-interest necessarily implies being insensitive to the interests of others (Hinman 2012).

The theory of act utilitarianism, on the other hand, carries with the potential of breaching moral and ethical considerations (Feldman 1997). Like universal ethical egoism, its focus on one single thing – the achievement of happiness – above all other things can result in embracing actions that may violate minimally correct behaviour (Pojman & Fieser 2011). In the Lawson article, for example, it may justify the woman giving fruits to her child without her paying for them as good because it serves her self-interest – it keeps the child quiet and preoccupied and well-nourished, – but it violates, at the same time, the law against theft as well as the right of the grocery owner to be paid in full for its products. The theory does not take into consideration the rights of others or the morality of the act of theft. The principle supported by this theory can actually be dangerous because it promotes insensitivity to the rights of others or the morality of the act itself. The concept of happiness for all people is not the same and may be in conflict with the concept that others are holding. In Lawson’s article, for example, a woman was seen scooping nuts with her own hands. To the act utilitarian, this action was right if it made the woman happy, but this would be fatal to others if she is suffering from some form of dreaded disease that can be transmitted by hands. If the woman with the child happened to pass and using the grocery’s scoop got some nuts handled by the first woman and gave them to the child, the result would be disastrous. The bottom line is that although these theories serve some purpose in some areas, they are imperfect and belie universal application.


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Feldman, F 1997, Utilitarianism, hedonism, and desert: essays in moral philosophy, Cambridge University Press

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Lawson, C 2010, ‘It’s not yours until you pay,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, Retrieved 15 May 2014, you-pay-20100121-mo66.html

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McKinnon, B 2012, Ethics: Theory and contemporary issues, Concise Edition, 2nd ed., Boston, MA: Cengage Learning

Pojmanl, L and Fieser, J 2011, Cengage advantage books: Ethics: discovering right and wrong, Cengage Learning

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