First let me preface that I have searched this network of Exchanges, and do not see an Ethics Exchange; this is the closest I could find.

One evening this week after work, I was grocery shopping. As I exited an aisle in the produce department, there - clearly visible to all - was a $20 dollar bill, folded neatly lengthwise and lying flat on the floor. Involuntary motor skills took over and I discreetly, but quickly went over to pick it up. Then the ethical part of my persona stopped to look around at my fellow shoppers, waiting for someone to claim it because they had just now realized it wasn't in their pocket.

I only lingered for about 5 seconds, and continued shopping. The last pang of guilt came when my usual cashier made a note that she should check the bill since I always paid by card.

As the bill was so clearly in the open, and how it contrasted the tile it was unmistakably money. To this day I feel this must have been a social experiment.

I have found money on the sidewalk before where there were far fewer people around. I have even found money on the floor in malls before. The difference between the mall and this grocery store incident was that the grocery store was quiet, and there was a sense of intimacy between me and my fellow shoppers (compared to the mall, anyway, where it feels like herds of cattle being driven).

So what's appropriate here? I am sure the right answer is to 'consider yourself lucky and move along.' But part of me feels it was wrong.

  • Hi, welcome to Philosophy SE. This site understands philosophy (and ethics) in a more academic sense, so we do not review matters of personal ethics here. Most of what you describe has more to do with reflexes and feelings than with ethics anyway, and the grocery/mall distinction is purely psychological as well. So Psychology SE might be able to do more with this. – Conifold Dec 5 '19 at 0:13
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    Give $20 to a charity for the poor now and it will all be OK. – user68014 Dec 5 '19 at 13:26

Welcome Jason P Salinger

Prima facie the first and most readily defensible moral principle or ethical datum here is that the lost money should be returned to the owner in a kind of restorative justice. This is very clear in a case where e.g. someone just ahead has dropped a $50 bill. I pick up the money, catch up the person, explain the situation, and hand over the money. If this is not the prima facie right thing to do, I'd like to know why.

In most or many situations, howver, the probability of reuniting the owner with their money is slight to neglibible as when in a crowded street I note a bill on the sidewalk. There is just no indication whose money it is. This is the type of situation with which I take the question to be (mainly) concerned.

I don't readily see a Kantian maxim to rely on: money as an institution would hadrdly fail if everyone were always to picked and keep the money they found. Money-finding is marginal to the social institution of money, unlike (say) promise-breaking to promise-keeping. For this reason I can't see that keeping the money would involve a contradiction in conception or in the will.

Utilitarianism complicates the picture. If an act or a type of action produces the best consequences by certain critieria (but which ?) then it is not at all clear what is 'ethically appropriate' when one cannot return the money to its owner - or indeed even if one can. (Giving the miser back his money.) I make no case for selfishness but it is not universally true that the best consequeneces are produced by giving the money to charity - say the local hobo - rather than keeping it oneself. In the two examples below, I do not keep then money.

I offer two rules of thumb which others can refine or replace:

(1) If the amount of money found is sigificant, say if I find a discarded case in my garden and it contained $1 million, then I ought to contract the authorities. The probability of reuniting the money with its owner is high and I can here realistically serve restorative justice.

(2) If the amount is small - a dime or a dollar - I think there is a rule implicit in ordinary moral thinking that I have no moral obligations in the matter - a sort of ethical parallel to de minimis non curat lex ('the law is not concerned with the trivial'). When I last found a coin in the street I put it in the local charity-box. The coin was practically of no value to me ('Buddy, I don't need your dime', excuse the variation) but collectively with other contributions it would be of value to a charity.

Is $50 'significant'? We're presented with a kind of ethical sorites here. If $1 million is significant and a dime isn't, how to decide the significance of $50 ?

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  • All excellent food for thought. Given my present example, I would say it falls into the latter of your rules of thumb. I like to believe as I said I gave others a chance to look towards this area and come claim it. As far as your call to charity (along with another here), I feel my nature is one of being charitable; while I do not seek external agencies to donate, I am giving with those I come into contact. e.g. those in the service industry. – Jason P Sallinger Dec 6 '19 at 17:23
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    Thank you for your comment. Your question about keeping money we find is a familiar topic in ordinary moral thinking but seldom breaks the surface into philosophy. I hesitated to answer it and did so tenatively but I'm extremely glad you posed the question. Best - Geoff – Geoffrey Thomas Dec 6 '19 at 19:43

You could ask, "did someone drop this (money)?" If no one says yes, and you consider that to have been a concerted effort, you could argue that you are morally justified in taking the money.

Alternatively, you could give the money to the authorities (e.g. lost and found, an administrative office, or the police), saying who you are and where you found it.

I have actually done the latter, and I think the authorities did the right thing -- contact and give me the money once no one claimed it after a reasonable period of time.

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It may be possible that your feeling of guilt was induced by the consideration that your behaviour was being observed, as you say, by social scientists. This would explain on some level the basis of morality. Because your fear of being captured by others as doing something prescribed socially as 'wrong' the induced feeling of guilt works as a mechanism to avoid any further punishment or ostracization by your peers. Deep down you want the 20 dollars. But anticipating capture you experience guilt. The acknowledgement of your peers that you feel guilt results in less punishment or ostracization. In conclusion, guilt is a mechanism that preserves how people look at you as a moral agent. However, the guilt you experience is nothing more than a fear of being caught. You do not experience guilt because you feel you have wronged someone.

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