Sunday, June 11, 2006


Everybody makes mistakes. The question is, to what extent are others entitled to benefit from them?

A friend recently told P.K. of La Crosse, Wisc., that he had purchased a wide-screen television at a discount-electronics outlet. Its price was$999, but the checkout clerk accidentally rang up $399. P.K.'s friend noticed the mistake right away, but "feeling quite lucky" he paid the $399, went home and hooked up the television.

Several hours later the store manager called, apologized for the mistake and asked P.K.'s friend to stop by to rectify the situation. His response, P.K. says, was essentially, "too bad."

"The girl at the checkout rang up $399," his friend told the manager,"and I paid what was asked. Sue me, if you'd like, and good luck trying toget the money."

P.K. says that his friend was quite proud of himself when it turned out that, as he had correctly figured, the store chose not to spend the time and money to pursue the matter.

The incident raises the question of how we should handle issues that cross ethical boundaries but may not actually be illegal, or how important it is to do the right thing when we're not likely to get caught.

P.K. wonders if his friend's behavior is any different from cutting a few corners on a tax form because everybody does it, not stopping back at the supermarket if you get too much change or even getting a free soda out of a machine because it's broken.

His sense of equivalence is indeed justified. Accepting a television set that you know was rung up for $600 less than the correct price may be different in degree from keeping a bottle of cola that should have cost you$1.25, but the intent is no different. You've accepted something that you know isn't rightly yours for the price you ended up paying.

In the case of the television set, the right thing for P.K.'s friend to have done is obvious: Having noticed the mistake while he was still in the store, he should have asked the cashier to doublecheck the price of the television and ring it up again.

The ethical situation is the same with the vending-machine cola, but it's more challenging to make good than it is in the case of P.K.'s friend and the television set. For one thing, most likely there's no one around to whom you can report the problem or to whom you can return the free soda. Plus, it is all but impossible that the owner of the machine will be able to track down the individual who has walked off with a free drink, the way the store manager did with P.K.'s friend, offering him a second opportunity -- an opportunity that he again rejected -- to do the right thing.

The right thing to do in such cases is to call the vending-machine operator -- there's usually a telephone number posted on the machine -- to report that the machine is broken. When you make the call, ask the vendor what to do with the free soda you've received. Chances are that, since you called in the problem in the first place, the vendor will tell you to keep it.

"Character," writes Robert Coles in "The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination" (The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral... ), "is how you behave when no one is looking."

That's true regardless of the value of the item questionably received and regardless of the likelihood of your getting caught.


Anonymous said...

The guideline in this case - behave as if you were being watched - is certainly correct, but I would add another one. That "golden rule" that we were all taught, still applies. P.K.'s friend is dishonest, and since his own benefit is all that apparently matters to him, he would surely scream the loudest if he were the one being cheated out of $600. Fortunately, there's another rule in effect - the rule of karma - promising that his turn will come. As a public school teacher, I have the opportunity to tell my students that quizzes and tests aren't just what you take on paper. Every day they're presented to you in the form of moral choices. P.K.'s friend failed - big time.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that the guy who paid $300 for a $900 TV was morally wrong, and in my opinion no better than a common thief, someone who takes a coke from a broken machine might be considered in a different light, and not painted with the same "no one is watching" brush.

I always point out incorrectly charged items. I always return change when I am overpaid. I even tend to ask if the mints are free before taking one in a basket on a counter display that seems obviously to be for customer use. But if I am buying a coke from a machine and it gives me both the coke and the money back, I may or may not take it free. Here's why.

Often, the machine which is being overly generous is outside a closed store in the middle of the night. There is no one to report this to, and if I leave the coke or the money, someone else will just take it before morning. I could return to the store the next day, but the store might be out of the way for me, requiring more gas to go back than the coke cost. Where is the balance between the cost to make something right and the amount owed? If I had taken the coke from the machine knowing that it was broken and wouldn't take my money, I would have a duty to return and pay the money. But if the machine is broken, through no fault of mine, and there is no one handy to report the problem to, and returning to report the problem and pay for the coke will cost me time and money, do I owe that effort?

Personally, I balance it out among all of the times I've put money in one of those machines, had my money eaten, and received nothing. About 80% of the time, when reporting THAT particular problem, the employee will say that the machines can't be opened and that they do not return lost money. (On the other hand, probably 80% would also look at you like you had two heads if you offered them the money from the free coke, and about half would tell you to keep it because they had no way of accounting for it anyway.)

So am I morally degenerate?

Love your column,
Renee Storey
Reader of the Columbus Dispatch

Jeffrey L. Seglin said...

Renee Storey,

No, you're not a moral degenerate for recognizing how difficult it would be to return a free soda from a machine. You point out that you'd clearly correct the wrongly charged $900 television set. The question I find most interesting in all of this is where the line is at which most people would decide that they must make the correction. It seems to be somewhere between $1.25 and $900 for you, but I'm curious if you've thought about whether there's a certain value that would make you uncomfortable with keeping the goods. Or does it have as much to do with how possible it is to return the money?

Anonymous said...

I think it has much more to do with how much trouble returning the money would be and how much money it is. For instance, if Kroger's undercharged me by $20.00, I'd go back and correct it right then even if I was in a
hurry, unless it was a matter of leaving a child without a ride or being late for a hard-to-get appointment, and then I'd come back as soon as possible. But if they undercharged me by $1.50, and I was already in the car and my frozen stuff was melting, I'd just deal with it next time I was
there, since I'm a regular customer.

Part of it is probably how much I feel it's my fault (for not paying
attention, distracting the clerk, etc.) and part of it is how much the store is inconveniencing me. So as a rule, I'll always pay it back, but not necessarily in a timely manor.

Come to think of it, I don't think I feel guilty about the coke at all. The fact that machines regularly steal money seems to make it an even trade.

Renee Storey

Anonymous said...

doing "the right thing" is not always doing what an external rule dictates-- sometimes we must live by OUR rules. we WILL ppunish ourselves when we transgress our rules-- and sometimes The Universe", it seems, does so as well.

I had a mentor who taught "when the Universe gives you something, accept it." So I would have taken the free coke with simple gratitude. I probably still would. (Except tat I don't drink Coke or use vending machines!)

The TV is a different dilemma. That $600.00 may have come out of the employee's pocket. Or he may have been fired for the error. That I would not be willing to do.

Character could as easily be described as looking at the consequences of our actions-- even if no one else sees them.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar situation. The clerk in a membership store, (BJ's) forgot to include a microwave oven among the many items of a large purchase. Checking the receipt at home, we realized the ommission. We immediately called the store and returned a few days later to pay the balance.
However I made two requests from the manager, the second of which my mother disapproved of. (Always check with your mother!)

No.1 - A promise that the clerk would not be penalized in any way.

No. 2 A free annual membership to the store.

The manager immediately agreed to both requests. Needless to say that I would have paid for the microwave oven even if he had refused.

Anonymous said...

Everyone knows......

Profit = Selling Price - Buying Price

If a trader is ethical they will keep the

Profit = Fair effort to make the trade possible

If everyone is ethical how do people get rich?

Ok, now how about charity by billionaires, if they are charitable in the first place will be able to accumulate too much wealth?