A long time ago, I was walking with two other medical students across town to a restaurant. I was doing the sort of thing I did when I walked: I sort of knocked against things with the side of my hand. I would give a little sideways punch to a lamppost or a railing or a tree.  I did this without thinking. I don’t know why. Probably for the same reason I doodled when I was in class. I always had to be doing a couple of things at the same time.

On this occasion I was giving little punches to parking meters. Suddenly, one particular parking meter burst open when I hit it. Hundreds of dimes spilled out into the street. Keep in mind, a dime was worth more in those days. As a kid growing up in Manhattan, I could buy a milkshake for a dime.  So, all this money was lying at our feet. What should I have done next?  Morally speaking. Over the years I have asked people, and these are some of their thoughts:

  1. Since the money really belonged to the city, I should gather it all up and send it to some city office.
  2. I should walk away and leave the money in the street since it did not belong to me, and I should not profit from my criminal act. (I objected to that characterization. A criminal act requires criminal intent, and I had none.)
  3. I should gather up the money and give it to charity.
  4. I should keep the money. Why not? If I did not pick up the money, someone else, no more deserving than I, would.
  5. I should pick up the dimes and feed them into another meter? (This was a possibility that had not occurred to me until someone mentioned it.)
  6. I should give the money to the first bum I came across. (Since there were no bums immediately in sight, I might have had to carry all these dimes for a while before finding one. This was another possibility that had not occurred to me until someone suggested it.)
  7. I should turn the dimes in to the nearest police station. (This suggestion was made by a young woman of strong character who disapproved of a number of things, including jay-walking.)

What I did:  After watching the dimes erupt from the parking meter, I immediately looked around in case there was a policeman nearby. (My absence of criminal intent might not be immediately obvious.) I also wanted to see if anyone else was watching. There was nobody on the block except my two friends, who were gleefully scooping up the dimes. After a few moments of guilty hesitation, I, too, started picking up the money, looking around every few moments. After we gathered up all the dimes we could find, we continued walking calmly in the direction of the restaurant. I kept the money—fifty-two dimes. It did not seem to occur to the others to do anything else with their share.

Let’s think about the other possibilities suggested by the other people.

  1. Try to imagine my going around City Hall trying to return five dollars and twenty cents. The clerks would have thought I was crazy. It would have taken me hours to find the appropriate agency. Not possible, and not worth the time wasted if it were possible.
  2. I don’t think walking away and leaving the money in the street would have been morally superior to keeping it myself, especially since it would only have meant that my two friends would have ended up five dollars and twenty cents richer.
  3. Giving the money to charity? I never really considered this possibility. Since the money rightfully belonged to New York City, giving it to a charity did not seem to me to be an ethical act.
  4. Keeping the money was what I did, but I sort of felt bad about it. Also, I wondered if somebody, looking out of a window, perhaps, might have seen what I did. I thought I might get into trouble.
  5. Feeding another meter would have been time-consuming; and I know I would have been ridiculed by my friends.
  6. Same objection as number 3.
  7. Assuming I could get a policeman to take me seriously, he would have kept the money.

Had the situation been a little different, I would have behaved differently. Had there been a policeman watching me, I would have immediately explained to him what happened. Had there been a policeman a block away, I would have walked away down the street as quickly as possible. Had there been other people around, I probably would not have been in a rush to escape, but I doubt if I would have picked up the money even if my friends were doing so. On the other hand, if one of the bystanders started picking up the dimes, I probably would have joined in. Had there been five hundred dollars instead of five dollars and twenty cents, I think I would have made an attempt to return the money to the city, somehow. Maybe. I can imagine intending to do that but ending up keeping it. If it were five thousand dollars lying there in the street, I would have asked a lawyer to accompany me to a police station where I could have a witness to my giving it up, in case it went unclaimed. If it were that much money lying in a ditch, at nighttime, with absolutely no one around, I think I might have considered keeping it. Unless I read in the newspapers the next day that some person had lost that much money at that place. Then I’m sure I would have returned it.

A funny thing—two funny things—happened after dinner. My friend, Todd, made a phone call at a pay phone. He came back smiling, and holding a quarter aloft. The telephone had returned a quarter to him by mistake. We all laughed. No one thought of somehow returning the money to the phone company. When we left the restaurant, I realized the cashier had given me too much change. It was an extra dollar. I was a block away when I discovered it. We all went back to the restaurant to return the money. No one suggested my keeping it. Had we been five blocks away, I would not have turned back. Had we been five blocks away, and had the amount of money been ten dollars, I would have turned back.

 I call these decisions small ethical questions.  It may not be hard to decide what is “right” and “wrong,” but what people actually do depends on whether they are dealing with a person who is sitting in front of them or whether the money has come from a large impersonal institution.

Small ethical questions are posed to newspaper “ethicists” all the time. “Should I turn in my friend at work who has stolen paper clips from the company?”  The proper answer is always: “It depends.” It depends on how many paper clips were involved. A box? A truckload? How good a friend? Was it a small family company or a big company like A.T. and T.? Was the friend already in trouble? Could the friend be persuaded to return the paper clips if they were a truckload? I always read these questions and I never read the answers. Who cares? Who are these people who send in these questions? These matters are trivial.

There are two other kinds of ethical questions that are not trivial:

  1. The ethical questions which are posed by institutions such as churches. A common thread is to regard certain actions as “unethical” simply because they are novel, that is, not “natural.”
  2. Real ethical questions that usually take the form of: “If we allow these behaviors to take place, what will the effect be on other people?”

I will say something later on about these other ethical questions. (c) Fredric Neuman  Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog

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