Sunday, March 20, 2016

Does donating to charity make a bad act good?

Does giving away ill-gotten gains to charity erase the unethical act involved in acquiring those gains? B.A., a reader from Columbus, Ohio, wonders if she can forgive herself for her actions at her local grocery story.

As B.A. was finishing up her grocery shopping, she decided to use the self-checkout counter. When she began to scan her items for checkout, she noticed that two $20 bills were sitting in the cash return slot of the register. The customer before her had apparently forgotten to take her change.

"I pocketed the money," writes B.A., who admits she made no effort to see if the person who had checked out before her was still within sight. She justified her action by reminding herself of the "finders, keepers, losers, weepers," refrain.

Before she left the store, however, B.A. writes that she noticed a young, distraught woman walking back and forth near the register. B.A. was pretty certain that she was the customer who had left the money behind.

With the two $20 bills in her pocket, B.A. had the opportunity to ask the woman if she had forgotten her change. She even could have asked the distraught woman how much she'd left behind as a way of trying to verify that the money was indeed hers.

"And still I kept the $40," she writes. "I figured it was a lesson learned that she would never forget."

Later, B.A. writes that she realized "the unethical and immoral position of her action." So she donated the $40 to charity.

"My guilt is all too palpable," she writes. "Hopefully, confession is good for the soul and I can forgive myself while not forgetting."

Giving the money to charity might have helped the charity out by fattening its coffers a bit, but the action doesn't diminish the fact that B.A. kept what wasn't hers. An honest shopper might have turned the cash into the store manager. Many readers might roll their eyes over such honesty arguing that if B.A. didn't know whose change it was then it was no more wrong to keep it than it would be to keep extra change dispensed mistakenly by a vending machine. The right thing would have been to turn in the cash to the store's manager.

But B.A. did have a good idea who the money belonged to, so she can't use the excuse that returning the money to the store wouldn't have resulted in getting it to its rightful owner anyway. Without hesitation, she should have asked the distraught woman if she was OK and then to ask her how much she had lost once she disclosed her issue. If the amounts matched, the right thing would have been to return the money.

Giving the money to a charity may have eased B.A.'s guilty conscious, but the contribution doesn't change that when given the opportunity to what was right, she chose to do wrong. The guilt she feels now may help to keep her from engaging in similar acts in the future. But nothing she does, short of the improbable task of now returning the cash to its rightful owner, will make a wrong act right. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

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

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jeff, you are Totally correct.
It is not always easy to do the "right thing" at the spur of the moment, and sometimes we live with guilt forever. So be it.
We all do things we regret. From theft, intentional damage, lying, infidelity, etc. In most cases , there is no way to backtrack and the guilt (whatever it might be) cannot be erased.
It would be nice if there was, but only a lesson learned comes a little close.
Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.