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Giving Back the Money

by Bill Meacham on January 1st, 2012

Two people – let’s call them Alice and Bob – recently had similar experiences that illustrate some philosophical points about ethics.

Alice returned an item that she bought on sale and was given credit for the full price. She then told the clerk to give her credit only for the sale price.

Bob ordered some items on line and got a discount because he bought three for the price of two. Then he called back and canceled two of them, but the customer service rep left the discount on the order. Bob thought about it and called back and had them remove the discount.

Admirable honesty, right? But why is it admirable? And why did Alice and Bob return the money? In both cases the sales clerk or service rep thought it was unusual (you could tell by their look or their tone of voice). Perhaps they thought it was stupid, too. Certainly a lot of people would; why not just take the extra money?

Alice returned the money because she did not want to get the clerk in trouble, and it would not be fair to keep the money. She did not think about whether she should do it or how she would feel later. She just did it, because it was right.

Bob returned the money because he knew he would feel bad if he kept it. The knowledge that he had caused harm to someone else would prey on his mind. He would feel ashamed of himself, unworthy, afraid of being punished in some karmic way, or at least of missing out on some karmic benefit. He, too, did not fully work all this out at the time; he just realized he would feel bad.

These actions are admirable by the standards of conventional morality, which says we should all be honest and avoid cheating. But as philosophers we want to examine conventional morality, not just blindly adhere to it. Why should we be honest and avoid cheating?

It is easy enough to make plausible speculations about the origins of morality. Humans evolved a moral sense because it promotes group harmony and cooperation, and humans in groups survive a lot better than humans alone. To be more precise, those humans who exchanged favors cooperatively had more offspring than those who didn’t. Those humans who could sense who was trustworthy and who was not, who was taking more than their share or taking without returning equally, had more offspring than those who didn’t. Consequently, by this time we have developed quite a keen moral sense. Different cultures may channel that moral sense in different ways – in some cultures a person who cuts in line is very much disapproved of, and in other cultures it is just expected that everyone will crowd toward the front – but the underlying tendency to have intuitions about fairness and the desirability of doing good to others are inbred. So it is not surprising that we find Alice and Bob admirable.

That is not a philosophical justification of morality however. It’s only a story about how we came to have the morality we find ourselves with.

To recap briefly what I have written about elsewhere, there are two ways of speaking, and hence thinking, about ethics. The first is the language of right and wrong; the second, the language of goodness and harm. For many reasons I think the language of goodness and harm makes more sense. What is right has to do with conformance to rules or regulations; but philosophers have profound differences of opinion about what the rules are and, more importantly, no agreement about how to find out what they are. What is good, by contrast, has to do with observable benefits. It is easy – or if not easy at least in principle possible – to determine what is beneficial and harmful in any given situation, including to whom and how much. On that basis you can make sound ethical judgements.

In the Rightness paradigm it is easy to see why giving back the money is admirable. It is ethically wrong to take something you are not entitled to, so giving it back is the right thing to do. And it is always admirable to do the right thing.

In the Goodness paradigm it is also easy to see why the choice to give the money back is admirable: it benefits both the merchant and the customer (Alice or Bob), and possibly the sales clerk as well. It is obvious how it benefits the merchant and the sales clerk; the merchant gets more money, and the sales clerk stays out of trouble. It is less obvious how it benefits Alice or Bob. They get less money, which is why people are surprised when they act honestly. But just looking at the money is short-sighted. Looking at how they feel afterwards, proud and not guilty, worthy and not shameful, involves taking a longer and deeper view of what is beneficial. And those feelings of worth or shame last longer and have more prolonged effects than just having more money (particularly the relatively small amounts involved in these examples).

(I am not, by the way, claiming that the choice that Alice and Bob made is morally superior in some absolute sense or even that it was morally superior at the time. Somebody who needed the money more than they did might make a different choice. And that might be OK, because we’ve got to survive physically before we can take care of anything else, including our ongoing psychological state or the welfare of others. I am only claiming that paying attention to our choices and how we make them is a good thing.)

And there is an even deeper effect to consider, beyond the money and beyond the feelings of pride or guilt: the kind of person we become as a result of such choices.

It would be entirely too unwieldy to have to think through all our choices. It is much easier to rely on habit, and in fact we do so most of the time. The effect of the ethically admirable choice is to make it easier to make a similar choice in the future. And we want to make similar choices because they lead to a greater sense of satisfaction and well-being. As Aristotle pointed out, what we are looking for are dispositions to act in a certain way, character traits that reliably lead to happiness or fulfillment.

Most of us can figure out what the right or best thing to do is, but are tempted to do something else, such as taking the money, that may have short-term benefits but long-term disadvantages. Aristotle, ever the classifier, lists three deficient modes of ethical behavior. The worst is the evil person, who pays no attention to what is right or good and acts only to satisfy his or her own immediate desires. Slightly better is the person who lacks mastery, who knows what is right or good but is unable to overcome temptation. Even better is the one who is a master of himself or herself, who knows what is right or good and feels temptation, but overcomes it. Best of all is the one who is not deficient at all, who feels no temptation to do what is not right or good.

I venture to guess that most of us do not fall in the last category; we all feel temptation to aggrandize ourselves at the expense of others at times. The point of the philosophical inquiry is to give ourselves ammunition to overcome the temptation. Having a clear understanding of our ethics ahead of time, before the moral quandary arises, helps us make the better choice when it does.

What we want is a character that is capable of being guided by benevolence. Such benevolence might be good habits or divine inspiration or something in between, but the point is to clear out the mental rubbish, the noise, the internal pressures that tend to lead us astray. Every time we make an ethically good choice we reduce the strength of the temptation to do otherwise.

So the choice to give back the money benefits more than just the parties to the transaction, the merchant, the clerk and us, the customer. It also benefits the selves we will become. And it benefits all those with whom our future selves will come into contact. And all those people will, in turn, benefit us, who may remember then successfully resolving a quandary today.

It seems like a no-brainer. Who would not want to join in such an upward spiral of benevolence? Start now. There is no better time.


Kraut, Richard, “Aristotle’s Ethics” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. On-line publication, URL = as of 29 December 2011.

From → Philosophy

  1. carla riffel permalink

    Enlightened thoughts with which to start the new year. thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and love.

  2. Stephen Fretwell permalink

    Good stuff! I believe that right is right because it is good, the only difference being the degree to which we accept outside or objective input in evaluating goodness. Our own “knowledge of good and evil” is historically untrustworthy, even deadly. We get into the danger ot being a do-gooder. But, counsel from others, older and wiser, and diligent application of tools for deducing consequences, all can get us doing something “right,” more likely to be good, than what we think or feel ourselves.

  3. Scotty permalink

    Hi B! As always, I enjoy reading your work.

    As you know, my main philosophical background is objectivism. From that, I recall statements regarding morality outside the context of other people and only with reference to self. I noticed that there was no mention of the goodness paradigm when only making a decision for oneself that has no effect on others, so I considered this work in the self-only context. I think the goodness paradigm jives well when no people are involved also — actions that are good for me are moral, and actions that harm me are not. The same consideration for long term benefit vs short sightedness also applies. All in all, the goodness paradigm seems like the superior standard regarding self-only morality also.

    Generally speaking, it has always seemed to me like rule (right/wrong) morality is simply a shortcut to goodness morality when goodness morality is difficult to glean. For the young, inexperienced/sheltered, and slow learners who have yet to grasp much beyond short sightedness, rules are certainly important in order to keep those people as functioning members of society. But rather than focus on those sub-groups, the general population seems just as capable of following the goodness paradigm, which has the added benefit of challenging rules when rules are either deficient or no longer applicable due to societal progression or change. But back to Aristotle’s point, those who encounter or fall to temptation remind us that rules are necessary. So even though I think the goodness paradigm is superior in general, I think we are most certain about the morality of a decision when both rule and goodness paradigms agree about the morality of behavior in a given context.

    Happy New Year sir, and keep up the good work!

  4. Here’s my two cents: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. So if the clerk would have got into trouble well that would make me feel lousy about what kind of person I am. So if its just a little cash I’d give it back.

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