Ethics (and other liabilities)

That's a great title, and I have to admit up front that I didn't make it up; it comes from a little book I have here of the same name - a collection of columns written for Esquire magazine some years back by Harry Stein. (It's an entertaining little volume, and if you have any interest at all in the topic, I can recommend it ...)

I think that most of us don't give the topic of ethics much thought in our daily lives. When we are young, we drink in a certain set of values, both from direct teaching/instruction by our parents and teachers, and via general osmosis from our peers and the society around us, and that's probably pretty much it.

Most of the situations we run across will fall clearly on one side of the line or the other. Should I do this? Is this OK? The answer is usually obvious. "Of course it's OK," or perhaps "No, I don't think that will be such a good idea ..."

But I had an experience the other day that I have to admit gave me some pause. Now I'm not asking for your advice here, because I do know which way my decision is going to fall, but it might be interesting to toss this one out for other people to ponder!

In a building directly behind us here in Asakusa is a very funky antique shop, one with a special focus. All the goods they carry originate in the Taisho or early Showa periods, and it is run by a man and his wife who basically try to 'live' in that era, having foresworn modern clothing, wearing nothing that was made post-war. She is always in kimono, and he wears the most 'stylish' clothing from that period. He even commutes to the shop on a massive antique black bicycle (which actually is a perfect mate of one of my own early bicycles!), and he certainly turns heads when he rides by.

Among their customers are a number of people who have an affectation for that same time period, and once a month the shop hosts a small 'House Party' - a kind of Open House to which anybody is invited, with the proviso that they dress appropriately. I attended the other day (in my normal clothes!) at their invitation, as they wanted to introduce me to their clients. I enjoyed chatting with the attendees, and also strolling around looking over some of the antiques on display.

On one shelf I came across a small metal object that I thought at first was a paperweight, and indeed it was labelled as such (in Japanese) 'Brass paperweight'. It was priced at 4,000 yen (about US$35 at present.) But when I picked it up to look more closely and rubbed off a bit of the grime on it, I saw that there were letters and numbers embossed into the top surface, among which was an S in a circle, followed by the numbers 999.999 Next to this was the name of a bank in London, and the weight, 1 kilogram.

Well, given that description you of course know what this is - not a paperweight, but a bar of pure silver (normal Sterling Silver is .925 I believe). I didn't know the current price of a kilogram of pure silver off the top of my head, but I was thinking to myself that it had to be something quite a long way north of 4,000 yen.

But just then the owner called 'Time gentlemen, please ...' and people gathered for the farewells, so I put the bar back in place, and left along with everybody else. So the ethical question is there on that shelf for us to consider. If this were just some other antique shop into which I had wandered, I would not hesitate for a second. Buy it, and laugh all the way to the bank. If the owner of such a place doesn't know the value of what he is selling, that's his lookout.

But this man is my neighbour, and becoming a friend. I will be living next to him for many years to come, and good relations are vital in such a tight little community as we have here on this street. Instead of buying the bar and pocketing the money, I should show him what it is, and 'pocket' the goodwill.

At least that's where my thinking is leading at the moment. But I have to confess that when I looked up the price of pure silver a few minutes ago, I realized that this is going to be pretty expensive goodwill!


Comments on this story ...

Posted by: Dave

There's an entry on the Ginzaline blog that features the shop … But there's no need to hurry, because one way or another, by the time you read this, that 'paperweight' is going to be gone!

Posted by: Marc Kahn

Hi Dave,

Your goodwill gesture is going to be more expensive than you think! In the precious metals market today, antique poured silver bullion bars are looked on as collectibles and worth considerably more than their melt value. The presence of a serial number (as implied by your description above) makes it even more valuable to a collector.

The store owner's pricing of 4,000 yen implies that he bought it for no more than 2,000 yen and probably less than that. So, if you were to buy it for his asking price, which one of you would be considered a "predator"?

Your ethical dilemma is a compelling one. However, in your position, I would be inclined to purchase this paperweight and put it to good use in my office as a... paperweight.

Best regards,

Posted by: Franz Rogar

I know what I'd do, regardless being a neighbor or an unknown seller 'cause (not as *extreme* as your but) I've been there: a book store of old people selling what they got from village to village.

They had a wonderful illuminated manuscript pages (obviously not complete and damaged by time) selling it as scrapping paper.

When I showed them what it was truly, I, personally, felt right.

I was lucky and they gifted me with the book I was going to buy (a nice book of 5th edition of "Lost Paradise" by Milton with all the prints and bound in leather) as they refuse to take my money.

Life is hard enough. No need to sit on fellow afflicted.

Posted by: Steve

Hi Dave,

I've got another one for you. You are walking down the street and discover a pile of neatly folded $20 bills. What do you do?

It has happened to me more than once, and now I know exactly what to do.


Posted by: Jakub Makalowski

He does seem at least like a fairly interesting man, looking at the article. I think that his former interest in metal and punk music is not too surprising as he is still sticking to non-mainstream styles, it just changed with age as it often does. I'll have to remember to stop by his shop one day.
Checking the silver prices by the way, a bit of a difference, yes. I was surprised how much of a leap there is between silver and gold though. Gold seems to even be more expensive than platinum currently.

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