Sunday, October 23, 2011

What's not mine is not mine

Several years ago, my best friend went furniture shopping for his tiny studio apartment in Manhattan. He was in the market for a small chest of drawers - well, large enough to store most of the clothes he couldn't fit in the less-than-ample closet, but small enough that he could lug it home five or six blocks from the department store to his walkup.

Having selected the most inexpensive, yet presentable dresser he could find, he picked it out fully assembled, carried it to the checkout stand, and then proceeded to pay. As he reached the exit, the drawers began to open a bit. One of the drawers was loaded with a menagerie of stuffed toy animals.

He'd already paid for the dresser and figured he could high tail it out of the store with no one the wiser. But the temptation was momentary. He returned to the register and informed the clerk. The stuffed animals were removed and my best friend went on his cumbersome way, dresser in tow.

I was reminded of his find after listening to a recent episode of "This American Life," a weekly radio show produced by Chicago Public Media. The story was about a fellow who, after police returned his stolen car (after a surreal ordeal), found the trunk contained a chest full of expensive tools, a big ring of master keys that could open many cars, and other assorted goods the car thieves left behind. It was never reported whether the fellow returned the goods that clearly weren't his and that clearly had been used for illicit purposes.

"Shouldn't he have returned that stuff?" my wife, who was listening to the show with me, asked.

The fellow had already been through quite a bit, having at one point spotted his stolen car being driven by the thieves and tailing them while talking to a 911 operator until the crafty thieves eluded him. (Police caught them later that night.) Surely, he had been through enough and couldn't he construe that the unexpected deposit in his car's trunk made up a bit for his troubles?

Who would be the wiser if he just kept the stuff?

The legality of possessing sets of master keys to other people's cars aside, there's no ethical justification for the victim keeping the goods. Regardless of the fact that the police didn't discover the stolen objects in the car, the right thing would be for the fellow to contact the police and return anything in his car not owned by him.

If character is how we behave when no one is looking, then the "no one would be the wiser" justification holds no weight.

The car owner should return the tools, the keys, and the other contraband and be grateful that unlike some car theft victim,s his vehicle was returned at all - and intact, to boot.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business," is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

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

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


William Jacobson said...


If in your first scenario, your friend spotted the stuffed animals between the register and the door while still on the retailer's property and continued out "with no one the wiser" then not only has he not done the right thing, he has broken the law.

The agreement between your friend and the retailer was for exchange of a chest of drawers for an agreed price. Just as your friend would have a case if that chest were missing a leg, the store has a case if any items are tucked inside.

The intent to steal need only take a moment. At the point that your friend realized he had extra goods and continued, he has stolen them. Imagine if a security tag set off an alarm at the door and on reviewing the tapes see your friend open the drawers, see the animals and continue.

If we want others to be fair with us, we need to be fair with them. And really? Are you willing to sell your character over stuffed animals?!?

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

I would agree with the first comment to the extent that honesty must override any other factor in the examples given.

However, I would not agree that the first example provided anything approaching "dishonesty". It was not the buyer's responsibility to minutely search the item purchased for any hidden "goodies". He may have momentarily had a temptation to "abscond" with the hidden items, but he reported the situation and should be given credit for that. And certainly, the temptation that went through the buyer's mind can in no way be considered "illegal". Thank goodness we do not have a police state that would look for reasons to consider a momentary lapse in thinking, but one which was not acted on, as truly illegal. Who among us has not been momentarily tempted to do something wrong or illegal, but it is our character and honesty that causes us to continue our honest life and not give in to take illegal path. Those among us who give in to temptation are the dishonest ones and who look for reasons to make an excuse for their lack of character.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Anonymous said...

The stuffed animals are a little odd. Many people would not even want them and the question of how and why were they there comes up. Were they some odd promo gift??? I do not think there is a clear ethical answer here.

The tools in your car which was stolen is not the same. If some punk stole your car and left things there, tough turkey for him. What if he left an AK-47 or a vial of Zyklon B. The police are not going to return them and the owner has just gone through a lot of trouble to get his car back. I would not even give this a moment's thought.

Alan O

William Jacobson said...


My comment was that IF he had noticed the animals after paying and STILL continued out he would have committed a crime. It is specifically the combination of the requisite mental state and the action that constitutes the crime. No, in this scenario where he returned to the register after noticing them, no crime was committed but then again, that wasn't Jeffrey's question either.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA