Sunday, May 17, 2009


There's a terrific scene in "Superman: The Movie" (1978) in which Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve), looking for a place to change into his Superman costume, runs to a telephone booth ... and stops short, confronted by a pay phone on an open pedestal, rather than the once-ubiquitous telephone booth.

These days, thanks to the proliferation of cell telephones, he'd be hard pressed even to find the open-air variety of pay telephone. Pay telephones do still exist, however, even if most of us can't remember the last time we used one.

One of my colleagues, however, had a pay-telephone encounter a couple of years ago that still perplexes him ethically.

Stopping to use a sidewalk telephone in Long Beach, N.Y., he put in his quarter. No dial tone resulted, however, nor did he hear his quarter drop. He had encountered that now-seldom-seen monster, the quarter-eating telephone.

He was about to walk away when he realized that he could actually see the edge of his quarter inside the coin slot. Using a nail file, he found that he could hook the quarter and drag it back out of the slot.

Again he started to walk away, but then he noticed that another quarter had moved into the space previously occupied by his.

It would be equally easy to remove it, using the same technique, but he wasn't sure whether it would be the right thing to do.

On the one hand, he had already retrieved his own quarter and the other quarter clearly wasn't his.

On the other hand, it wasn't the telephone company's either, since it had been given to the company in exchange for a service that hadn't been provided. It belonged to some previous frustrated would-be caller whom my colleague had no way of contacting. Should the telephone company be rewarded for its poor maintenance of the pay telephone? It seemed to him that this was more or less like finding the money on the street, in which case finders keepers.

My colleague chose the second option and extracted the second quarter, whereupon a third quarter appeared. Applying the same logic he extracted that one, and a fourth appeared. He ended up with $2.25 in quarters beyond his own initial one.

Feeling uncomfortable with the situation, he reports, he gave them to some people running a church bake sale at a table down the street. He realizes, however, that simply giving the money to a charitable cause doesn't change the rights or wrongs of taking the coins in the first place.

"If I was ethically entitled to them, I can do whatever I want with them," he writes. "If I wasn't ethically entitled to them, then they aren't mine to give away."

He's right ... in his second observation. The quarters weren't his to give away. The right thing would have been to take the one that was his and then walk away.

My colleague did leave a note on the telephone, warning future potential users not to risk their quarters. If he felt empathy for the telephone company -- yeah, right -- he might also have called in, from a telephone that didn't eat his quarter, to report that the first telephone was on the blink.

As for taking the coins, it isn't the right thing because of the effort involved in extracting them. If he'd found the quarters resting atop the telephone, he might reasonably have pocketed them. "I found some quarters inside a pay phone" isn't the same thing. And, as he says, it doesn't matter whether he used the money to buy a Jaguar or to restore a blind orphan's sight -- it's irrelevant to the ethical question.

Small frustrations often cause us to do things that we know are not quite right. Does this mean that my colleague is not to be trusted? Hardly. I don't for a minute suspect that his pay-telephone episode suggests that he will drive away in someone else's sports car simply because he happens to see the keys in the ignition.

In this one small pay-telephone exchange, however, the right thing eluded him.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Charlie Seng said...

Too much thinking here! My God, we are not talking about the national mint here, just a quarter of a dollar, which was (in the exampla) taken from the user unfairly (though not intentionally) and retrieved ingeniously. At that point, the example becomes shear silliness for it to go further. Of course, if in getting back your own quarter you see a way to get more than your own quarter back, you have clearly stepped over the line, not only in ethics, but in silliness, in that in tempting ethics by going after the quarter that isn't yours, you not only break that covenant, but you overstep common sense - for the sake of getting a measely quarter that doesn't belong to you, you do an ethically wrong thing and for what? There comes a time when your own ethical conscience must stop you from doing that which you know you should not do.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Bill Jacobson said...

Its very clear cut here, Jeffrey. It is not right and therefor ethical to take anything beyond your own lost property. So no, retrieve your quarter and go.

From a legal perspective, the 'finder' has greater title to the lost property to all but the person who lost it but good luck explaining that to the officer who spots you fishing change out of the phone.

Call it an easy ethics test. Retrieve your quarter. Leave the rest and perhaps you'll be better prepared for the bigger ethical questions when they come,

Anonymous said...

I enjoy your column and find it to be an interesting and thought-provoking change from the norm. I read it in the Columbus (OH) Dispatch newspaper.

Hmmm... I usually agree with you; however, I have to disagree on two of your columns.

First, a few weeks ago you wrote about people getting free refills while sharing a single purchased cup. I have to ask you, if the restaurant had provided the man with one plate to serve himself at an all-you-can-eat buffet would it be OK for his wife to share the food? I believe you would definitely answer NO. The same applies to the drinks which are in essence a beverage buffet. Although sharing does not go against the letter of the law, it goes against the spirit of the buyer-seller relationship. BTW, because of abuses like this, don't costs rise for everyone?

Second, in the column today you chastised a colleague about taking change he found in a telephone. I disagree with your answer for several reasons:
• The coins were stuck and therefore the phone wasn't working. Once they were cleared out, the phone then probably worked, so he performed a public service. I doubt that his note would have lasted long on the sidewalk so he helped future customers who would have lost their money.
• The money technically did not belong to the phone company because they did not render service for the money that was paid.
• The persons who lost the money would not be returning to reclaim their coins and there was no way to track them down.
• The next person who came along was going to take the coins with no qualms, so doing a charitable act with them was the best possible solution to a bad situation.

Finally, here is a subject for your column. Here in Columbus there is a children's museum where you can buy a family membership. I know several people who list not just their children but also the names of cousins, etc and the children of friends in their membership so that these children get free admittance. I've politely declined invitations to participate in this because I feel that the "family" membership means immediate family such as one's own children or grandchildren. Adding any other children is taking advantage of this non-profit (and hard-pressed for money) organization. I know you will be against adding non-family members of course, but at what point does "family" begin and end in this agreement? Another "spirit of the law" question, I guess.

Thank you for your insight every week!

Marideth Leonard
Westerville, Ohio

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Seglin,

You never addressed the important point of what happens to the quarters if your colleague does not take them. According to your colleague and I agree, they were not the property of the phone company. In fact, because the phone company had not maintained the pay-phone as it should have, I believe your colleague was morally obligated to take the coins. Certainly donating them was a good thing to do. You are way off base here.

Susan Tabacca