Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Elevator Ethics

The old joke is, "A salesman tells an American that he has a new invention that will do half his work for him. The American replies, 'Great. Give me two.'" This sentiment comes to mind when I watch people and elevators.

Elevators are wonderful things. As a kid, they are incredible, magical little rooms where you get to push a button that lights up and without moving end up somewhere completely different. While there is surely nothing inherently wrong with taking the elevator, I've always been fascinated by people who will wait for long periods of time for the elevator to arrive in order to go one floor -- especially down. Limiting the discussion to able-bodied adults not carrying anything heavy, is there something morally problematic in relying on the elevator for short trips that you could perfectly easily do yourself? If so, on what grounds?

I suppose that you could argue it from a virtue ethics approach that this sort of sloth seems to be a vice. Maybe it is just residue from the Protestant work ethic, but the unwillingness to accept the slight discomfort from doing this minimal amount of work does appear to display a weakness of character.

From a deontological or duty-based view, there certainly is no absolute moral prohibition against elevators, but we would have a duty to promote our bodily health. Refusing to walk up or down a single flight of stairs is indicative of the ethical problems of the unhealthy American lifestyle that puts convenience before vigor.

A utilitarian could argue that while there is a slight gain in pleasure from not having to take the steps, ultimately the lack of health and the pollution from the energy needed for the unnecessary trip are harms that outweigh any benefits. When you look at the world that would be left when taking the stairs as opposed to the elevator, the better world lies in the stairwell. For this reason, we should walk rather than ride.

Another option is that taking the elevator is not morally problematic at all, but those who do take the stairs should be lauded for going above and beyond their duty for their willingness to do the little things.

Or maybe this is not a moral issue at all. There's nothing wrong with being lazy. We've got the capabilities, why not use them? so, today's questions are:

1) Is an ethical concern at all in unnecessary elevator use?
2) On what grounds?
3) If so, how many floors get you off the hook? Surely, we can't expect people to have to walk ten flights. How few floors up and how few floors down makes the elevator unnecessary from a moral point of view?