My response has always been to do what I could to find out the name of the wallet's owner and then return it. The response from the rightful owner has ranged from appearing chagrined to have to meet me at a nearby subway station (where I'd found the wallet) to recoup her rightful belongings, to a gentleman who sent my family a gift certificate to a buffet at a Chinese restaurant after he received his wallet in the mail.
Does how people respond dictate whether we should do the right thing? Should it?
Things had not been going particularly well for a reader from Southern California. She had been unemployed for quite a while. Finances were tight and she'd overdrawn her checking account by $196.
As she pulled her car into the bank's parking lot, she found a space that was directly adjacent to the ATM. There, scattered in the space right next to her car were 10 $20 bills. The $200 could not have come at a better time, she figured, so she tucked them in her pocketbook and drove home.
The next day, however, she grew concerned for the person who might have lost the money. She went to the bank and asked its manager if someone had reported any money missing.
"Luckily," she writes, "they had gotten a call." The customer had described exactly how much and where the money had been lost.
At the manager's request, my reader left her name and number with the bank. With her permission, the manager was going to forward the money to the customer along with a note containing the name and number of the woman who had found it and returned it to the bank.
"I didn't return the money expecting anything," my reader writes. "But a thank you would have been nice. The woman never even called to say 'thank you.'"
My reader grew angry over the lack of an acknowledgment for her good deed.
"Especially given my own financial dire straits," she writes, "I was seriously regretting my decision to give the money back."
Returning found cash can be trickier than returning a lost wallet, since cash rarely has any identifying characteristics on it. Still, my reader went out of her way to see if she could get it to its right owner.
Sure, she could have used the cash herself and no one would have been the wiser. But she knew that the money's owner might be agonizing over the loss. Clearly, the owner was concerned and notified the bank.
My reader did the right thing by trying to find the rightful owner of the money. The owner was wrong not to express her thanks.
A small courtesy to acknowledge an act of kindness would have gone a long way toward reaffirming my reader's faith in people's goodness. She can rest easy knowing that her own act is a reflection of the quality of her character.
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.