Have you ever felt bad about cutting someone off in traffic? When you take a free sample at the supermarket, do you feel compelled to purchase the product, or at least pretend you will? It’s rare to face the kind of life-defining, Schindler’s List–esque dilemmas that make heroes or criminals. But almost every day, many of us come across some small moral predicament whose consequences seem insignificant but that nonetheless (sometimes surprisingly) get our consciences wagging their fingers. Don’t lie, cheat, steal, or kill is pretty clear—but what if you’re just stealing a stamp from your employer or telling a fib to your nagging spouse? And what if everyone else is doing it, too?
It would be easy to get the opinion of an ethics professor, someone who has spent his or her career weighing history’s philosophical arguments on right and wrong and distilling a coherent view of what it means to be moral. But if ethics boils down to the Golden Rule—do unto others—then perhaps it’s not an academic definition we should be interested in, but the wisdom of the common conscience. If we believe (or hope) that others are acting in the way in which they would like to be treated, then how are they acting, particularly when no one’s looking?
I set out to conduct a (very informal) survey of twenty-three friends whom I consider ethical people. Offering them anonymity (names have been changed), I asked them to answer honestly some questions about everyday ethics. A few of their responses surprised me.
1) Is it okay to use work supplies or mail for personal purposes?
Yes with Reservations: 9
Most of the “yea” respondents qualified their answers by stressing moderation. “Did I print out personal documents on company paper? Yes,” explained Sarah, Pilates instructor and escapee from the corporate world. “Did I take the company computer home? No.”
Others’ opinions on dipping into the company supply closet were tied to their feelings about their jobs, particularly in terms of whether they felt appreciated or appropriately compensated. “Yes. I get paid $32K a year to work twelve-hour days. You owe me that stamp!” expressed a writer friend. Nina, an elementary-school teacher, ’fessed up to taking home toilet paper, after noting how little money she makes.
One respondent, a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., said the culture of the office influences his “borrowing” habits. “When I worked on the Hill, I never used office supplies for personal use. At this job, I do at times.”
However, even respondents who believed it was not okay to use work supplies for personal purposes admitted to moments of weakness. “No,” answered Samantha, who works in retail, “but that doesn’t mean I’m always good about not using an envelope here and there.”
2) You find $20 on a bus seat. Do you ask around to see if anyone dropped it?
Yes with Reservations: 1
The consensus on this seemed pretty clear, although the reasoning behind it varied, from “what goes around comes around” to “people who have to take the bus need their twenty dollars—I know, I’ve been one” to “especially if other people are looking.” The hope, however, was almost always to end up with the “free money.”
But two respondents seemed hesitant to spend it on themselves. One even related how she once found a $20 bill on the street and put it on the windshield of the closest car. “I would rather another person have to make the decision on spending it or not,” she wrote.
For the two friends who said they wouldn’t try to find the money’s rightful owner, the reasoning stemmed from a mistrust in others’ ethics. “No, they will lie and take it,” one female, who works in the nonprofit sector, stated bluntly.
3) Your partner has left his/her email open on your shared computer. Is it okay to take a look at the inbox? What about at a specific email?
Yes with Reservations: 3
Yes with Reservations: 2
It was interesting that the number of people who answered “yes” or even “yes with reservations” dropped by half when it came to reading specific emails, versus just browsing their partner’s inbox. Several people mentioned passing glances but seemed uncomfortable with closer examination or regretted having done it in the past.
Others were more black and white. Said my writer friend, “Definitely not cool to open an email. Even if the subject line is ‘REMEMBER HOW GREAT IT WAS CHEATING ON YOUR BOYFRIEND LAST NIGHT??’” Another male grad student agreed: “Good way to find a ticket on the one-way train to Dumpville.”
People who were married were more likely to respond with a “yes” than those who were not married. One respondent, recently divorced, said yes, although she’d want to establish an understanding about such things first. Her take has changed with experience, though. “My answer probably would have been different two years ago!” she wrote.
4) The clerk at the grocery store gives you too much change. Do you tell her?
Yes with Reservations: 3
Wouldn’t Notice (I Never Count My Change): 1
People who answered “yes” on this one often expressed that they wouldn’t want the clerk to lose her job or have the difference taken out of her paycheck. The ones who said “no” weren’t as sympathetic with the employee. “I’ve made a mistake at work before and cost the company money; why shouldn’t they have the same responsibility to do their job correctly?” explained Sarah. Others qualified their “yes” by mentioning the amount they were overcompensated and whether they had already left the store.
5) Is it okay to stretch the truth on your taxes? For example, a home office that also acts as a playroom, or a business trip that mixed in pleasure?
Yes with Reservations: 4
Not Sure (I Don’t Do My Own Taxes): 4
No Answer (Big Brother Is Watching): 1
The overwhelming feeling from the “yes” crowd here seemed to be “damn The Man.” One artist’s rep said, “Yes, considering how much the government stretches the truth on where that money goes.” His contempt was not unique. Those who said “no” or expressed reservations seemed motivated mostly by fear of being audited, rather than by a sense of morality. One respondent noted that she felt it was acceptable for her, but not for those in higher tax brackets: “I’d be [mad] if Bill Gates claims his yacht for business purposes.”
6) Is it okay to take a free sample of something, even though you know you won’t buy it?
Unequivocally, the answer was “yes.” “Are there actually people out there who feel guilty after taking something that was given to them free of charge? Please tell me they’re not reproducing,” said one respondent.
7) Your hairdresser, doctor, or dentist is fully booked for two weeks. Is it okay to see someone else?
Yes with Reservations: 5
This one was clear-cut: the individual’s needs came before professional loyalty. Any reservations stemmed from personal preference, rather than from ethical obligation, and had to do with the inconvenience of locating a new provider or a lack of trust in the untested. While one respondent did stress the importance of supporting businesses you frequent, a doctor also put things into perspective: “If [someone is] booked solidly for two weeks, then it won’t hurt [him or her],” she said.
8) The food at a restaurant is less than stellar. Do you let it affect your tip for the waitress?
Yes with Reservations: 1
Another apparent no-brainer. Most people said no. Caroline, an event coordinator and restaurant alum, adamantly explained, “No. She did not cook it. The tip does not go to the kitchen at all. However, I would politely let the server know that the food was not wonderful.”
9) You wear a new shirt once and decide you don’t like it. Is it okay to return it—even though it’s been worn?
Yes with Reservations: 4
Surprisingly, this was the most divisive question in the survey. Some of the answers: “Depends on where I got it”; “That’s what consignment is for”; “I’ve done this before, but always feel really bad about it”; “You try it on, you buy it, you own it.” Two friends who have worked in a clothing store responded with a resounding “no,” while another said, “We know this happens. As long as the shirt is clean, it’s fine. Clothes in stores have been tried on by dozens of people before being bought.” It seems a definitive answer is still up in the air.
10) You’re about to serve food to guests at a dinner party, and you drop a serving or two on the floor. It’s salvageable, and no one sees. Do you still serve it?
Yes with Reservations: 7
Great minds must have thought alike on this question, because two respondents answered with “God made dirt, and dirt don’t hurt”; two said it was all right if you ate it yourself; and two claimed the five-second rule. Those who answered “gross” will likely press me for the names of those who said yes, but, in an effort to be ethical, my lips are sealed.
Updated March 8, 2011