Thursday, January 10, 2013

We may speak resentment, but our actions reveal the truth

Awhile back, I wrote about a reader who had found $200 scattered about the parking lot of a bank. She walked into the bank and asked the manager if anyone had called in to report the lost cash. The manager had gotten a call and the reader turned over the money and the manager saw that it was returned to the loser.

My reader was disappointed that the loser never took the time to thank her. A bit down on her luck and $196 overdrawn in her checking account, she began to doubt whether she had done the right thing by returning the money. I, and readers who wrote in after the column ran, assured her that she indeed had, even if the loser failed to acknowledge her efforts.

One reader, however, felt different. "I can say without a doubt that if I found money now, I would not say a thing and would think to myself, 'This is my lucky day!'"

It turns out, he writes, that he had once found a wallet outside of a man's car. He checked a nearby sports bar and learned that the man who belonged to the wallet was there watching Thanksgiving Day football games. "I did not look inside the wallet because I knew if there was a lot of money in it I would have had a really hard time doing the so-called right thing," he writes. So he went inside the bar and asked who drove the car out front. The man identified himself and the bartender looked at the ID in the wallet to confirm it was him.

"He was very thankful and even bought me a drink," my reader writes, "though to this day I regret doing the right thing."

Instead he writes that he should have taken whatever money there was and dropped the wallet where he found it. "He had a nice truck and was taking the day off to watch football and drink while I was working my crappy job, not owning a car, and in debt. He was obviously in a much better financial situation than I was."

The reader would "only feel bad about taking money from someone as poor as I am," though if that person didn't at least say thanks, he'd rethink whether to ever return a found wallet.

When asked about values, I regularly tell people that I can't change a person's values -- whether through a column or a class I might be teaching. What I can do is try to help people sort out what their values are.

While it might be understandable to feel that it's unfair for others to have more than you might have, the values that my reader acted on at the time were to do what he believed was fair. The wallet he found was not his. He knew the owner might be in the nearby bar so, regardless of his resentment over his plot in life, he did the right thing and made the effort to return the wallet to its rightful owner.

His actions speak louder than his words after the fact. Ideally, they will continue to do so if he's faced with a similar situation in the future. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

The title of Jeffrey's column tellingly is "The Right Thing". Without expanding unnecessarily on that subject, the question on today's blog is about doing the right thing in the case of "found money". An answer in Jeffrey's experience tells of a person who once did the "right thing" and now wishes he hadn't! What good does it do for Jeffrey to write an ethics column featuring a clear example of a situation that requires the reader to do the right thing, if readers use situational ethics to justify not doing the right thing?

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

davw said...

The Universe works in mysterious ways-we sometimes do not see the immidiate result of `doing the right thing',but as the old saying goes ,what goes around comes around- most of the time anyway.

Anonymous said...

In both examples items should be returned because they do not belong to the people who found them. In the second example the reader you are assuming many things you cannot possibly know such as not needing the money because the truck outside is a new truck. Maybe they borrowed the truck and are meeting someone to return it. Maybe the money belongs to their elderly mother who cashed out her meager savings and her son is taking the money to her. Maybe he had a hole in his pocket and was unaware of it as opposed to being careless. The point is you return lost items because they do not belong to you not because you assume you deserve a reward or even a thank you.

Can I skim some books from my friend's donation?

A reader we're calling Josh, owns a pickup truck. Josh seems a good enough fellow, indicating that in addition to using his truck as...