Cool, Fun, and Unethical

It’s hard to write ethics commentary without eventually sounding like a humorless curmudgeon. I swear that there was a time in my life when my innate appreciation of mischief and poetic justice was far more prominently situated in my frontal lobe than my attention to ethical matters. In those years (ah, they seem like so many lifetimes ago!) I would have gleefully accepted the joys of TV-B-Gone, the new $20 gadget that allows one to turn off any television that annoys, and ethical considerations would have never entered into it. But I would have been wrong then, and anyone who uses TV-B-Gone is wrong now.

You’d never think so, reading the enthusiastic newspaper columns about the little TV zapper written by TV-B-Gone enthusiasts. Those loud televisions at airports and bars! Those irritating TVs in hospital waiting rooms! The neighbor’s son who has MTV blaring after mid-night! Over and out, with just the push of a button. Coool! Sweeet!

Mitch Altman, the inventor of TV-B-Gone, has been quoted as saying that he only uses the device to turn off televisions in public places when nobody seems to be watching them anyway. He and his creation’s adherents seem to regard use of the remote zapper as a kind of public service.

It isn’t. The use of TV-B-Gone is unilateral self-interested conduct, taking dominion over something that one has no right to control, restricting the choices of others, and doing so surreptitiously and in a cowardly fashion. An airport television isn’t a “public television”…it is owned and operated by the airport. The airport, or the airline running the gate area with the TV (it matters not which) has determined that travelers would appreciate a television, and that is their choice. Maybe it is a mistaken choice, and maybe the TV-B-Gone owner disagrees, but that does not justify the happy zapper taking vigilante action and turning off the airport’s television on his own volition. He finds the TV annoying? Fine: complain. If enough people complain, the TV will be removed. Or leave the area. He has no right to use a device to turn off the TV. As for Mitch Altman’s rationalization that “nobody seems to be watching it”…what about the people that come along after you? How do you know that they wouldn’t want to watch the television? You don’t…and, apparently, you don’t care. They don’t matter; only you matter. That’s unethical conduct, my friend.

Let’s move our TV-B-Gone enthusiast to a restaurant/bar. The bar TV is too loud, and, so says Mr. Altman, nobody seems to be watching it. Quiz: which of the following is an unethical response for the potential zapper?

  1. Ask the bartender to turn down the volume, or turn off the TV.
  2. Stride up to the TV, and turn it off himself, if the bartender refuses to do so.
  3. Secretly turn off the TV using the secret remote.
  4. Ask to be moved to another table.

Is this really a tough question? 3.) is no different from 2.), except that it adds yellow—belliedness to rudeness. Both responses are unethical, but 2.) is better, because it is honest and open.

Technology sometimes allows us to realize our fantasies. There is a natural rush of excitement when one realizes that what once would have required magic can now be accomplished electronically, and that excitement has a tendency to drive out ethical analysis. It’s so cool to be able to zap off other people’s televisions when they annoy us, that we forget that it isn’t our right to do it. There are other fantasies just waiting for the technology to take them from daydream to reality: remote bombardment of smelly strangers with anti-perspirant; sudden laryngitis for loud talkers at movies; radio silence for booming automobile sound systems; instant sleep for cranky babies on airplanes; sudden, paralyzing nausea for drunken louts at football games. Some of these may be right around the corner; who knows what Mr. Altman is cooking up in his workshop? Boy, it would be cool to do these things. And fun.

And wrong. TV-B-Gone is cool and unethical. 


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