Sunday, October 05, 2008


Many years ago my reader Janet Lohrman realized that she had accidentally taken two newspapers from a vending machine after paying for one. She decided to put another quarter into the machine in order to replace the extra paper.

Not all readers agreed with Lohrman's solution. In an informal survey on my column's blog, few advocated keeping the extra paper but many didn't think it necessary to spend another quarter to remedy the error.

Putting the extra newspaper on top of the vending machine was the choice of 50 percent of the respondents, with only 36 percent saying that they would do as Lohrman did and deposit another quarter. Of those who considered it wrong, 14 percent nonetheless admitted that they would chalk it up to good fortune and keep the extra newspaper.

That prospect vexes Shmuel Ross, of Brooklyn, N.Y.

"The reader was supposed to have taken one newspaper," Ross writes, "but instead took two. There's no `accident,' no `good fortune,' only negligence. Putting in another quarter is the only solution."

Barb Cutler of Orange, Calif., doesn't see it as negligence, but believes that an "honest mistake deserves to be rectified by either putting in an extra quarter or placing the paper on top of the vending machine."

Finally Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C., recalls walking by a newspaper box, years ago, when a woman who was removing a paper from it smiled and asked him if he would like one too, as long as the box was open. Clutts declined, but still wonders if she thought it a moral act to rip off a corporate giant to help a total stranger.

He didn't see it that way, he adds, "but I certainly wasn't going to get on her case about it."

Check out other opinions here, or post your own by clicking on "Comments" or "Post a comment" below.

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 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.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

Regarding "free newspapers, two stories come to mind.

In the 1920's, a kid got a job hawking newpapers to trolley car commuters in L.A.

Since he knew the trolley schedule, he'd sell papers, and spot the guy without correct change. He'd give the guy a paper, collect the money, and take his time fishing in his pockets for change, just long enough for the trolley to pull away. Eventually a few of his customers caught onto him.

He later became a prominent Architect in Orange County.

My story is similar. As one of several bellhops in a prominent hotel, earning mostly tips, we noticed the stack of newpapers that arrived each morning. They were free for the hotel patrons.

One day I decided to set an ashtray on top of the pile, and salted it with a few quarters.

One of the busboys' tasks were to keep the ashtrays clean. By the end of the day, of us usually had an extra $10 in our pockets.

Definitely not ethical.

Anonymous said...

"Clutts declined, but still wonders if she thought it a moral act to rip off a corporate giant to help a total stranger."

But she wasn't ripping off a corporate giant, she was ripping off a small businessman (or businesswoman). The newspaper sells the papers and the rights to fill certain machines to independent contractors, who make their profit from the small difference between what they're charged and what they sell the papers for.

So people who steal from the machines aren't stealing from the newspaper company - they've already got their money. Instead, they're stealing from someone who gets up at 2 or 3 in the morning every day to pick up the papers, then drive them around to the various machines and load them up, who sometimes make not much more than minimum wage.

It's not sticking it to The Man, it's sticking it to Some Guy Who's Just Trying To Make A Living.