Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Generous ATM

John received quite a pleasant surprise at the ATM last evening. He had punched in $100 to be withdrawn and instead saw stacks of notes pouring out of the ATM. Aghast he collected all the notes and counted them to a staggering $10,000! He peered at the receipt from the ATM and the receipt mentioned an innocent $100 off his account. With the notes stacked neatly, he looked around and saw nobody in the vicinity. He put the notes in his bag and walked away trying to think coherently on what he needed to do. He put the money at home and waited for a few weeks, expecting the bank to call him and get back the money. Weeks flew and John was still buried in doubt as to what he should do with the money. Part of him wanted to go to the bank and tell them of the mistake... but then would it be so wrong if he used it on himself? After all he didn't steal the money, he didn't rob the back... it was given to him! And such a small amount was a drop in the ocean for the bank, but for him it meant a decent home, a decent car, probably a good vacation...things he truly deserved in life and lady luck was kind enough to offer them at last. He thus continued his rationalization... (Source: The Pig that wants to be Eaten, Julian Baggini)

This just seems like an open-shut case! Little kids in kindergarten would tell us what the moral of this story ought to be... honesty. Yet, it is somehow not surprising that many a times we don't adhere so strongly to honesty or morality and we tend to rationalize our qualms with reasons justifying our needs. What if John had received $150 instead of $10,000? That doesn't sound so big a crime... it's probably a hassle to spend $20 to get to the bank to handover the extra $50; $50 is merely one week's worth of grocery, can't the bank afford so much?! Even $10,000 would just be a small trickle in the ocean for the bank (not in today's economy though...). So can we draw a line on the intensity of the crime/greed/dishonesty?

What if John had an ailing parent at the hospital (the classic morality check the hero goes through in cinemas), and he didn't have enough money to save them? What if John himself needed the money for curing some ailment of his? What if he needed the money for dire needs - paying the rent, buying groceries for him and his children? Bring to mind Will Smith, from The Pursuit of Happiness.... having spent a night at a public restroom with his son, wouldn't you beg him to just take the money if he found such an ATM? So can the needs justify the action?

What would I do? If I were in dire need of money, I'm sure to be caught in a dilemma - my survival weighed against plain morality/honesty. But if I rationalized to keep the money, however much it justifies the need, it is a theft nonetheless. Honesty is perhaps the most difficult tenets of morality. Our bias to self-interest plays in heavily in the context of honest/moral decisions and it's a constant struggle to figure out how to do the right thing while still being in the survival race of the fittest, in this large hostile world.


GGadre said...

Nice post :-)
Agree! Honesty is very diffcult to achieve. After all we are humans.

Perception said...

I and my colleague discussed this for quite some time. It was an interesting discussion thanks to you. We debated how John must have perceived this whole thing, for one he doesnt seem to be cheating himself. There still seems to be a morality check thought hanging in his mind, hence he out the money and waited for weeks. There was also another point, if we find a penny fallen on ground, its thought as good luck and picked up, some how that being a real small amount doesnt hit us as stealing, robbing or cheating. Right?

My personal thought if I were John, would be though its not cheating or robbing, this still is not magically created amount. This amount is coming from someone elses account. Maybe its his entire life's earning, or maybe he put this amount aside and saved it for a rainy day. Is it fair to lose it even though its not his mistake? Also I may have been on the receiving side today, what if I am on the losing side tomorrow? What if a month later, I lose all the sum in my account?

I probably will not get any sleep thinking of this and hence will return the money to bank :)

Neeraja said...

Ggadre - Thank you :)

Perception - Thanks! I hope you had a good discussion :). True, we need to rationalize our lapse in morality by arguing away the lack of severity of consequences, as one of the major leverage points. And it's indeed wonderful if all of us had a conscience that tries to be as clear as yours :)

SUMI said...

This reminded me of an incident - I was going to watch a movie with a few friends and the parking garage was full that day and we made several rounds to find a spot. We had our company parking permit and there was a branch of our company in that building. The question came up whether it would be OK to park in the company reserved spots. It was a weekend and moreover a night, and it was unlikely anyone would be at work and all these other cars were creating a congestion and chaos all over the garage while all the company spots were free. But the person driving the car was hesitant. I really didn't mind parking the car there. I didn't see it as a big offense and moreover I was getting very restless in the car. Just as a background, I am quite different from many other employees in other ways, in that, I don't go crazy over freebies, getting free soda or making use of a perk the company offers etc. Moreover I am pretty poor and uninterested in money matters. Not good at salary/benefit negotiations and the like. So in that sense, in general I am not a typical "opportunist". But in this case I was only bothered about the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law. It wouldn't affect anyone if we parked there that night was my reasoning, and it wouldn't be a regular phenomenon either. If I didn't work for that company and didn't have the parking tag on, I'd definitely not even think of parking there... (that's a thing I cannot reason out- even if without a parking tag, if no one was affected, why not park there, just for a moment ignoring the fact that you might get ticketed for it? I don't know. These things are subjective and very difficult to reason sometimes).

One of the friends spoke up when I said we could park there and just get the hell outa that stuffy car for god's sake :-); she said "How does the consequence affect whether something is wrong or right?"

Indeed, a very pertinent question in ethics. But somehow in my mind, I generally automatically view things as "small" or "big", and also view the law and ethics as two different things too. This parking situation fell in the "small" and harmless category. Judging the consequences is a big part of making decisions sometimes, but we cannot do that all the time. For e.g., if you know that it won't affect a person because they're rich, is it OK to steal from them or cheat them and sell something to them at double the price? No, it's not. So I guess definitely these judgments are personal and subjective. But I don't see any rule one can apply to find a "right" or "wrong". There are people like my friend who may blindly classify anything illegal as unethical and never judge anything by their consequences and not do anything that may be questionable. But I do not belong to that category. At the same time, I cannot do something knowing that it's some kinda "cheating", even if I know it will not affect the other person. Another difference between this and doing something against a corporate law is that, in the former case, you know someone is actually affected (emotionally), they're stressed etc. In the latter case I feel less guilty generally because these big corporates are just big fish swimming in the ocean, that are ruthless, and they build these walls of defense in the form of corporate laws to protect themselves. (Of course again, that does not mean I would be OK with people leaking out IP protected info etc. Again, in that case, the problem is much deeper- a man stealing ideas or taking credit for another man's work is just plain loathsome). So anyway, it's all subjective, I reiterate. :)

With regard to the ATM situation, regardless of what my life situation is, I would not take back those 100000 or 1000000 dollars, whatever that was. It's big money. And if the ATM has a bug in it, several people could be affected. How can you be sure that it only spits out extra money and not lesser money than you requested at a later time? It would be different if it gave me an extra 20 dollar bill, I wouldn't have qualms keeping it- yet, I would definitely report it to the bank because you never know the nature of the bug in the software; you cannot reason that it will be a maximum delta of 20$ every time, and even if it is, 20$ per transaction with over a million transactions per year is a lot. Keeping quiet in that situation is like willingly being part of a financial scam. Anyway if the bank goes bankrupt, all customers would suffer, and when the bug becomes known you may be questioned about it too...

Anonymous said...

what if the ATM had spit a 5$ less than asked for would he not spend 20$ to get to the bank to get back his 5$ then why not for honesty.

it was not his money. and it may have been someone else's hard earned one which was saved for some purpose. the bank might not return it to the customer as it was not directly their fault.

he should have returned it right away.why wait for weeks. what if someone else was generously gifted with his money..? would it be ok ever then?

ok if he is in real trouble... and needs the money.. will he be truly peaceful if he used that money which he didn't earn honestly.?

SecondSight said...

Given the scenario described, it seems pretty open and shut- return the money since it isnt his.. the more morally murky situations described in the comments? I'm not so sure.. People's perceptions tend to be highly skewed depending on the apparent 'size' of the event.
(With apologies for all the segues) .. This group of researchers did a similar study, where they put 20 bucks in a college dorm refrigerator, and some packs of Coke cans. Technically,like any common area, both of those should have been off-limits to people they didnt belong to. Practically- the 20 bucks remained untouched, but people had no qualms picking up a can of coke that wasn't theirs.. :)

Neeraja said...

SUMI - Thanks for sharing your incident! It's indeed one of those many instances of everyday life that demand subtle moral decisions. And I agree with you that I see rules/legality to be quite different from ethics, and sometimes people end up doing something unethical/dispassionate because of losing the spirit of the law and following the letter. And yes our view of morality has different shades of gray depending on our social conditioning and personal prejudices. Utilitarianism (weighing the consequences to decide the fairness of our decision) is hailed as an effective moral principle especially in cases where strict moral rules fail... instances in life are not black and white and the contrast of consequences comes in as an effective tie breaker to our moral dilemmas. And I totally agree that John should have returned the money and reported the bug in the ATM... but if only all our minds and conscience were strong even in the face of extreme situations :)

Oorja - I totally agree with your point on our reaction if we were to get less money from the ATM. And it's of course true that the right thing to do is to return the money, and as I said, however much the situation is justified to take the money, it is theft nonetheless.

SecondSight - Thanks for sharing that interesting research result! (And no apologies! I love these tidbits of information you pull out of ur hat! :)). I have another theory on why the coke cans were disappearing - the person who opens the fridge and sees N coke cans is likely to rationalize that the owner might not spot one can missing from N-1 cans (till it comes down to two or one can), whereas the absence of the money would be too glaringly stark to be slipped unnoticed :).