Sunday, August 31, 2008


Many years ago a reader put a quarter in a newspaper-vending machine to purchase a paper. It wasn't until she closed the lid that she realized that she had accidentally taken two papers.

What was the right thing for her to have done: 1. Put the extra newspaper on top of the vending machine? 2. Put another quarter into the vending machine and either put back the extra newspaper or simply open and close the door? 3. Keep the extra newspaper and chalk it up to good fortune? Or something else?

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Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

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S. said...

I think a distinction needs to be made between a newspaper vending machine -- in which there is a pile of newspapers, and the buyer is responsible for taking out just one copy -- and, say, a snack machine that automatically dispenses an item that's paid for. In the latter case, if the machine itself yields up two bags of potato chips instead of one, plausible cases can be made for just leaving the extra bag behind, or even taking it as a windfall. In this case, unless one newspaper was literally inside the other, no such cases can be made here. There's no "accident," no "good fortune," only negligence. The reader was supposed to have taken one newspaper, but instead took two. Putting in another quarter is the only solution.

(Granted, the reader is then free to hang around the machine and try to sell the extra copy to somebody else.)

Shmuel Ross
Brooklyn, NY

Anonymous said...

A honest mistake deserves to be rectified by putting in extra quarter & placing paper on top of vending machine. Yess!!

Barb Cutler
Orange, CA

Anonymous said...

Leave the extra paper on the machine but then call the newspaper and ask what their policy is. Maybe next time whoever fills the machine will be more careful so people know where one paper ends and another one begins. You have to admit that some papers are getting mighty thin. So it is not necessarily negligence. Carelessness is closer to it.