Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Question of Ethics...

When I was 12 or so, I went out with my brother to get a newspaper from one of those newspaper machines on the street. I needed it for a school homework assignment and my mother couldn't afford to have the paper delivered. At the time I believe the paper was 25 cents. So my brother drives me to a nearby 7-Eleven or Dairymart or something like that and I buy a paper from the machine. Well, for some reason I thought, "hmmm, there's nothing to stop me from taking 2 papers," so I took 2. You see the newspaper machines were designed on the honor system, put a quarter in and take 1 paper out, even though you could, technically, take all of the papers out. I didn't need 2 papers, but they were there and so I took 2. My mother asked why I had 2 papers and I told her, "because I could. Did you know when you put your quarter in, all the papers are just there for you to take?" She was aghast. She could not believe her own child would do such a thing. "Our society runs in a civilized way because of the premise that we will all behave honorably; following the rules, paying for goods and services, etc." She drove me back to the machine and made me put another quarter in. I'm not sure why I could not return the paper but I do remember paying the second quarter.

Here's my ethics question for today: A large company, very profitable, makes an error in your favor. An item you have purchased but exchanged (because the first one didn't work properly) is credited as a return not as an exchange. Do you tell the company?

For me the answer was, of course, yes. But as I was telling this company they'd made an error (about which they were very confused, by the way), I could not help feeling that this company owed me something for being honest. I was, after all, saving them this loss of a sale (the item was not an inexpensive one). I wanted compensation for my doing the right thing because a little bit of me felt foolish for even bringing it to the company's attention. There is a good chance this would have gone unnoticed on their end, I would have, could have, gotten the item for free. In the end the company gave me what amounted to about $50 off the item. I was glad for this, felt better having gotten something, but still felt there should have been more. After all I did the right thing AND I spent 40 minutes of my life straightening out the situation for THEM. I found myself saying that I felt the company should "do the right thing" by compensating me for the time I had now spent straightening out their mess. I feel certain I'd have gotten nothing if I had not said that, they'd have just fixed their error that I brought to their attention. But did I even deserve compensation? Maybe, since I did have to spend the time to help them fix their error, but shouldn't I have just done it because it was the right thing to do?

This is where I think the strongest argument for Corporations not being people comes. I don't think Corporations do anything they are not forced to do by the law. I was reading an agreement I had to sign with my Credit Card Company and there are many lines that say that they can change anything at their discretion as long as the law allows it, which to me reads, "We can take advantage of you as long as the law does not prevent us from doing so."

In today's world I felt like a little bit of a schmuck for not just letting the company make their mistake and reap the benefits on my end. But I could hear my mother and her words of "Civilized Society." And she's right. I feel better when I am driving on the roads with people following the Traffic Laws, and I feel better out in the world in general when it feels like people will do the right thing. I don't feel like that's the norm, though, and that perhaps or civility is crumbling a bit. Videos of people beating other people to get the item on the sale rack... But I can feel better knowing that I did the right thing and I set the right example for my kids. It's not a dog-eat-dog world out there... or at least it doesn't have to be.

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