Monday, April 5, 2021

The Ethicist: Warning Signs


Dear Ethicist: How seriously should I take a warning? “No Parking” means different things in different places. “No Expectorating” signs are a thing of the past. What about those red “No Standing Anytime” signs? If you took them literally you might sit down in the street in lieu of being towed away. There are all kinds of euphemisms. “No Peeing on the Toilet Seat” is usually conveyed by the words “we aim to please, will you aim too, please?” Many planes display strict admonitions about smoking in the bathroom or tampering with a smoke detector, such as “smoking in the bathroom is strictly prohibited and punishable by up to one year in prison and a $500 fine.” You probably haven’t seen any “No Sodomy” signs outside motels in Michigan, Massachusetts, Mississippi and other states where oral sex is still against the law. Then there's “Occupancy by More Than l00 persons is Dangerous and Unlawful. “Cash only” is tantamount to “no credit cards.” Littering is a victimless crime as is eating. Does this mean you should hide a bag of M&Ms when you go to see movie at the Anthology Film Archives which forbids viewers from bringing food into the theater? Should you really not dump your garbage in public receptacles when you’re visiting a town that has no sanitation department? Is it wrong to put your head down on the table in a public library? What about that old favorite, "No Loitering?" Even though there are no signs, is it wrong to fall asleep and snore loudly during a boring lecture on urban architecture? Should you observe the “No Stripping” signs in a gentleman’s club by not tipping the dancers?


Warning Signs



Dear Warning Signs: Your question really concerns "literal interpretations." Originalism can be applied to signage as well as the constitution. No one is going to arrest you for bringing M&Ms into the Anthology Film Archives, though you may very well be stopped at the Regal, if you bring in your own M&Ms, for which you paid $1 rather than the $3.50 the theater is likely to charge. Ratcheting up the price of common items like water, candy and popcorn are the way movie chains make their money. If you insist on smoking in the bathroom of an airplane, or even worse disabling the smoke detector,  there's a good chance you're going to serve some time once you arrive at your destination. 

Read Francis Levy on Muck Rack

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