NYTimes' Ethicist on a Dining Hall Dilemma: "Sneak" Is Your Answer

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Our guest Randy Cohen, who writes "The Ethicist" column for the New York Times Magazine, took some questions from listeners about their moral quandaries (listen to the full show here). One caller, Tommy from Washington D.C., raised an all-too-common moral dilemma faced by college students at meal time.

TOMMY: In college, we had this dining card. And at the university, you prepaid for the dining card. It wasn’t subsidized by the university. I actually made money off the dining program. Now with the card, you got a swipe for each meal. Each swipe entitled you to a certain number of items at one of the dining halls. So occasionally, I wouldn’t get all the items that I was entitled to. And over the course of the semester, I was probably behind on the number of items I should’ve gotten, but then on other occasions if I wanted extra stuff, I would just go ahead and sneak extra stuff, like cookies or extra drinks. I had a friend that said that that was wrong because I was stealing because the sign at the dining hall actually said you’re definitely not allowed to do that. But I thought that I was entitled because by the end of the semester, I never even got the number of items that I was entitled to if I had used each swipe to the maximum. How do you feel about this?

HOST BETSY STARK:  Randy, hungry college students everywhere want your know your answer to that.

RANDY COHEN: I feel if you’re using the verb “sneak” in your question, you probably know the answer. It may be an unfortunate meal plan, but it is the meal plan you’re participating in and if your treats are not transferable from one meal to the next, so be it. You’re bound by those rules. The reason the meal plan is priced the way it is, is they’re assuming not everyone is going to take the maximum amount they can take in every meal. I can, of course, conceive of a meal plan where you just get what you want at every meal and you would have to price it accordingly. But that’s not the plan, unfortunately, you have.  And yeah, you agreed to it, you’re stuck by it.

What do you think? Was Randy right?

-On Point staff intern Britt Hansen compiled this report.