Dear Ethicist, Part 2

A quick update on Found Money.

I thought it was interesting how about half of the folks who commented felt the money should be given away — to themselves (in jest) or to charity. (Total: 4 people)

Three people said I should try to make some effort to give it back.

Halves are counted in all of those, as some said I should try to give it back and if it comes back to me it's still not mine, it's charity's.

One person noted I should give half of it to the person I sold the money to. Comments here and on Live Journal here.

What's interesting about those options presented was the "how to spend the money" was not my ethical dilemma. It was whether I should — and how much effort should be made to — give it back, or attempt to give it back. Scott came the closest to what my heart was saying:

My $0.02 is that the refund includes an expectation that the item has
been or will be returned. Since the item wasn't returned, there's an
ethical requirement to attempt to return the refund. However, the real
question lies in what amount of effort is required of you in attempting
this return since there was an error on their part. If a good-faith
effort to contact the seller and get the refund back to them fails due
to inadequacies on their side, (not Paypal's since they're not the
seller) then you've done your part and the refund is yours.

That's pretty much how I see it. In reading that thought I decided that there's a karmic thing attached to all of this, and whether or not you believe that the universe rights that which is wrong … eventually … I tend to hold on to that belief.

I cite the story I've mentioned once or twice before. I went to sell some old CDs at a local used-record shop in the Village a bunch of years ago. I was given a slip for $25 in cash; I brought it to the register, they gave me $75. I kind of recognized that I'd been handed more than $25 right away, but kept silent and left for dinner with a friend a few doors down. Once there, we realized just how much of an account error there had been. And I thought that above and beyond even karma, I didn't want some poor schmuck to get fired because I was greedy. I took the money back after dinner, handing it over to the evening manager Greta — half thinking she'd say "oh, you're such an honest person, keep it."

She didn't.

This is not to point to what a great ethical person I am. But I do believe that we have to behave in ways — small and large — that allow us to look at ourselves and be happy with our behavior. There's a lyric from a song which, in part, I particularly like, which goes: "When you look in the mirror at the end of a hard day/
And you know in your heart you have not lied" — and I think of that from time to time. That's not a judgment call, it's just how I think. My own self-esteem is worth more than $50; it's worth more than the rebate I just got sent.

That said, I was kind of pissed not to get some kind of pat on the back for doing the right thing, even if I did feel good about doing it.


Over the next several weeks, and months, and even years I would occasionally take more CDs in for sale. I wasn't making much money doing temp work, and this was often a way to skate into the black rather than the red for the week. But this store didn't just take any CDs; they carefully looked over what you brought and sent you home with the dross if they didn't want it. So I hadn't had much success there yet.

Yet so long as Greta was doing CD sales — which, so long as I came in during the early evening she was — after the money return I always had every one of my CDs paid for. I think in the long run, I ended up with far more cash than the $75 I would have taken home in the short run.

Yeah, that sounds like a goofy parable, but it's completely true. Greta eventually left, and I stopped taking CDs in because I was finally making okay money and … well, there was Amazon by then. But the lesson has stuck with me.

So, I emailed back the people who sent me the refund today and asked if there had been an account error. I told them I hadn't applied for the refund.

I'll let you know how fast they decide they want their money back.

And thanks to everyone who chimed in to the discussion. It made things very interesting!


  1. snoringKatZ on 11/24/07 at 7:11 pm

    Since I’ve walked in on the middle of the story, I’ll just make it about me.  😉

    I worked in a bank a good while ago and have a bit of experience with errors and what happens when money goes away because of it.  I went through a drive-up and the teller gave me about $150 more than I wanted but my slip said I only got the $20 for which I asked.

    I looked at it.  Counted it.  Counted it again.  Looked at the slip again.  Then I sent it back in to her, saying I think there was a mistake and I have too much money.  I could have driven away and she would have never known who she handed that money to and she would likely have been fired on the spot.

    She didn’t even thank me.  And that pissed me off.  Because I was a teller and if I had made that error and someone had saved my job, I would have been a groveling mess.  Maybe she hated her job and wanted to get fired?  I don’t really know.  I do know I could not have lived with myself if I had taken the money home and had my way with it.

    So good on ya for listening to your innards and being able to live peaceably with them.

  2. mikecap on 11/24/07 at 8:03 pm

    My response of giving it to charity came with an implied “Don’t give it back.”  It’s their mistake, not yours.  I used to feel differently when it came to stuff like this, and that I had to be completely equitable when it came to transaction errors.  But now I can’t think of any good reason to redo a transaction just because it happens to work out in one’s favor.  I can think of ways to do good things with extra money though, and that to me is a much higher karma payout than balancing someone else’s books for them.

  3. LeendaDLL on 11/24/07 at 9:15 pm

    I had a variation on this happen to me recently. Through several email exchanges, and turning them on to a new product idea (which they launched just 2 days ago) I ended up making friends with women working for a local clothing website – including plans to have me work for them at local shows and going to their new location (not far from me) to meet them.

    Knowing of my interest in shoes for strip classes, they forwarded a link to their wholesale catalog and offered to special order anything I wanted. I found a nice pair of boots for $129. The offered to sell them to me for $60. I eagerly accepted. When the boots arrived, they were running a shoe clearance sale and I was charged only $15.95. I contacted them and exchanged MANY messages requesting to have the billing corrected. They said it was intentional, because they liked me. I replied that I appreciated the offer but didn’t want anyone to get in trouble (I really believe it was a mistake) and was still willing to pay the difference.

    I never heard from them again. No more personal messages at all. I can’t help feeling I was right, that it was a mistake and someone got in trouble for it. While I certainly appreciate the amazing deal they gave me on the shoes, I’d rather have maintained the friendships.

  4. Armchair News on 11/24/07 at 10:15 pm

    Hmm, I don’t know. I guess I just feel like if the money fell into my lap it’s tainted unless I clear it. I know I could go and give it away to worthy causes, but it was more about making sure the money was really mine.

    Then again, maybe I’ve watched too many “money in a sack” movies, where folks who take the money invariably come to bad ends (re: nearly any of Danny Boyle’s films; “A Simple Plan”)!

  5. Armchair News on 11/24/07 at 10:17 pm

    She definitely should have at least told you “thanks.” Then again, maybe she was so mortified she just couldn’t say anything!

    Either way, the money would have been nice to have but I think you absolutely did the right thing.

    I wonder if folks have different opinions on how this should all work if the person mistakenly handing over the money is an individual, a small business, or a big corporation. I think I might; at the same time a principle is a principle, right?

  6. Armchair News on 11/24/07 at 10:18 pm

    Truly, you did your due diligence. Not much more you could have done. And if someone did get in trouble, in this case, you gave them something even more valuable: a lesson in business practices!

  7. mikecap on 11/24/07 at 10:59 pm

    If the money’s in your bank account, it’s “yours” until it passes into someone else’s hands, as all money invariably does.  I believe in fairness and being equitable, but these days I’m starting to feel like there’s a bigger picture.

    I spend a percentage of every day (some days it’s small, some days it’s big) thinking about the excesses of my life and the embarrassment of wealth I have had all my years, and how I’m currently living at the peak of it.  Most people in the world have a standard of living far below anything I’ve ever experienced.  This entire ethical question is about a luxury on a scale that multitudes of people alive in the world today can barely comprehend.  The dilemma would not exist for any of them; if they were suddenly given enough money to feed their family for most of a year or buy valuable medicines, they would not worry about whether the money given to them was truly theirs.

    Which is why I would have used the money to better their lives.  For us it’s an accounting mistake and an ethical conundrum, for them it could be life changing.  It really bothers me to think that the wealth of developed nations has reached a point where it is actually possible to completely eliminate poverty from the world… yet this nation is lining the pockets of military-industrial corporations with a trillion dollars of Iraq war, leaving nothing but a stain of blood and oil in the sand after all is said and done, and a world much worse off than where we started.  We could immunize every child in the world for 0.05% of what has been spent on the Iraq war and effectively eliminate preventable diseases.  I think the cost also translates into roughly one day of the war… so we don’t fight the war for just one day, and eliminate preventable disease from all children.

    Sorry… this reply has gone way beyond the scope of the original post now.  But this is how my mind works when I start thinking about things like this.