On Returning the Lost

A picture of a wallet.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My regular running routes take me over many miles and through areas that are heavily trafficked—most often by college students. Because of this, I often find lost phones, wallets, IDs and other items. Recently I came across a wallet fat with cash and credit cards. As always, I sought out the owner and returned it. Being a philosopher, I thought I’d write a bit about the ethics of this.

While using found credit card numbers would generally be a bad idea from the practical standpoint, found cash is quite another matter. After all, cash is cash and there is typically nothing to link cash to a specific person. Since money is rather useful, a person who finds a wallet fat with cash would have a good practical reason to simply keep the money and use it herself. One possible exception would be that the reward for returning the lost wallet would exceed the value of the cash in the wallet—but the person who finds it would most likely have no idea if this would be the case or not. So, from a purely practical standpoint, keeping the cash would be a smart choice. A person could even return the credit cards and other items in the wallet, claiming quite plausibly that it was otherwise empty when found. However, what might be a smart choice need not be the right choice.

One argument in favor of returning found items (such as the wallet and all the cash) can be built on the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. More formally, this is moral reasoning involving the method of reversing the situation. Since I would want my lost property returned, I should thus treat others in the same way. Unless, of course, I can justify treating others differently by finding relevant differences that would justify the difference. Alternatively, it could also be justified on utilitarian grounds.  For example, someone who is poor might contend that it would not be wrong to keep money she found in a rich person’s wallet on the grounds that the money would do her much more good than it would do for the rich person: such a small loss would not affect him, such a gain would benefit her significantly.

Since I am reasonably well off and find relatively modest sums of money (hundreds of dollars at most), I have the luxury of not being tempted to keep the money. However, even when I was not at all well off, I still returned whatever I found. Even when I honestly believed that I would put the money to better use than the original owner. This is not due to any fetishes about property, but a matter of ethics.

One of the reasons is my belief that I do have obligations to help others, especially when the cost to me is low relative to the aid rendered. In the case of finding someone’s wallet or phone, I know that the loss would be a significant inconvenience and worry for most people. In the case of a wallet, a person will probably need to replace a driver’s license, credit cards, insurance cards and worry about identity theft. It is easy for me to return the wallet—either by dropping it off with police or contacting the person after finding them via Facebook or some other means. That said, the obvious challenge is justifying my view that I am so obligated. However, I would contend that in such cases, the burden of proof lies on the selfish rather than the altruistic.

Another reason is that I believe that I should not steal. While keeping a lost item is not the same morally as active theft (this could be seen as being a bit analogous to the distinction between killing and letting die), it does seem to be a form of theft. After all, I would be acquiring what does not belong to me by choosing not to return it. Naturally, if I have no means of returning it to the rightful owner (such as finding a quarter in the road), then keeping it would not seem to be theft. Obviously enough, it could be contended that keeping lost property is not theft (even when it could be returned easily), perhaps on the ancient principle of finders keepers, losers weepers. It could also be contended that theft is acceptable—which would be challenging. However, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who claim that theft is acceptable or that keeping lost property when returning it would be quite possible is not theft.

I also return found items for two selfish reasons. The first is that I want to build the sort of world I want to live in—and in that world people return lost items. While my acting the way I want the world to be is a tiny thing, it is more than nothing. Second, I feel a psychological compulsion to return things I find—so I have to do it for peace of mind.


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  1. Your honesty amazes me. I’d keep the cash and return the wallet with the credit cards, family photos, etc, anonymously.

  2. Ah Amos,

    But perhaps an errand boy was sent to return it, dropped it and will now be tainted with the suspicion of theft? Perhaps the credit cards are all maxxed out and the cash in the wallet is all a redundant city worker has left?

    I don’t hold that it is never permissible to steal, but would one want to make oneself a thief in the absence of dire need or any certitude that one’s actions will cause no significant harm?

  3. s. wallerstein (aka amos)

    Hello Jim,

    There are lots of situation I’d have no problem stealing in, for example, from a bank or supermarket, as long as I was fairly sure that no employees were going to be held responsible for the theft. However, given how banks and supermarkets function, they probably hold low-level employees responsible for thefts, possibly as a deliberate measure to deter thieves with my type of mentality.

    I sense that widows earning the minimum wage on their way to pay their monthly rent in cash are very careful not to drop their wallets. Errand boys are probably equally careful. I suppose that I might glance at the wallet to see any signs of the owner being a low-income person, maybe a worn, cheap wallet being a good sign of that.

    Otherwise, I’d keep the cash, without problems of conscience.

  4. Hello Amos,

    The big company buys expensive software, the office worker borrows the CD and installs it on her home computer as it will help her son with his homework, maybe she takes a little of the inexpensive and plentiful office supplies home for him too. The barman working for a big chain of pubs helps himself to a few drinks at the end of a low-paid shift, he goes home and downloads ‘pirate’ ebooks and music he could never afford and whose copyright belongs to wealthy authors/artists and publishing houses.

    It’s all theft. And if one has no real problem with it (and I can’t pretend I do) you can’t turn round and condemn someone on a budget who is a little light-fingered in big supermarkets.

    A study a few years ago found that “relatively obscure, contemporary ethics books of the sort likely to be borrowed mainly by professors and advanced students of philosophy were actually about 50% more likely to be missing [from academic libraries] than non-ethics [philosophy] books” and “that classic (pre-1900) ethics books were about twice as likely to be missing”.


    Perhaps thinking deeply about ethics just helps one rationalise doing the ‘iffy’ things one is so inclined to do and to dress up doing ‘the good’ one does self-servingly as something more than what one just happens to be inclined to do?

    Who knows?

  5. Many years ago I stole a piece of petrified wood from the desk of someone with whom I worked. It was/and is, an excellent example showing the bark in detail and also the annular rings, it was obvious to me that the person who owned this did not have a clue as to what it was, I heard somebody asking him once and it was obvious he had not the slightest idea. I had gained quite a dislike for the possessor of this object and reasoned that he was additionally ignorant, and not a worthy owner of such an interesting fossil. The price value of the object at that time would have been trivial. It was some time before he noticed that the item was missing from his desk but did not seem unduly perturbed. The item is still in my possession but each time I look at it I regret having acquired it in the manner that I did.
    The reason for my recounting this episode is the fact that Mike LaBossiere stated he would have to return found objects for peace of mind amongst other reasons. My own moral code is such that we rarely if ever are faced with the same set of circumstances more than once which to my mind makes generalisation difficult. Better I think it is when faced with the need to make a decision to do what I think is best all round, at that time. This would also include my own desires sometimes we do have to put ourselves first having initially considered whether the outcome of doing that, is what is best all round. The fact that I have a low opinion of a person however does not justify my stealing from them. Additionally I feel if you are given a chance to do a bit of good in this world without much effort you should do so. Thus to return a wallet and its contents to the owner is to my mind a far more satisfactory act then not returning it or removing some of the contents and then returning it anonymously. I would find it difficult to live with that state of affairs for the rest of my life I would acquire a low opinion of myself.
    Amos I am wondering if you found a wallet of a friend would you return it and its monetary content to the friend or would you extract the monetary content, and return it anonymously?

  6. Swally has an interesting point. The very wealthy can afford to return lost money. If a poor person finds a wallet with money, then it is “finders-keepers”. However, returning identification should be imperative for peace of mind. There can be no satisfactory condition for identity destruction.

    I cannot agree with stealing assuming there is a distinction between what is lost and what is stolen. Is the example of the dropped wallet useful to help define the meaning of “lost”? My experience has been that many people are unable or unwilling to distinguish the difference between lost and stolen. They are quickly prepared to interchange the words.

  7. s. wallerstein (aka amos)

    Don Bird:

    Of course I would return a wallet with all the cash in it to a friend.

  8. s. wallerstein (aka amos)


    Most people still pay lip service to the Biblical commandment against stealing. However, the society the Biblical commandment comes from had a lot lower Gini co-efficent than ours.

    Whatever their professed beliefs about theft always being wrong, lots of people admire Robin Hood, one of the few British folk heroes with worldwide acceptance. I would say that many people today (like the office worker and bartender you note) in reality think that whether stealing is wrong depends on who steals from whom. If Robin Hood steals from the rich, it’s fine. If the exploited office worker copies a CD from her office, it’s ok. If the bartender serves his working class friends a drink or so without charging, he’s a good guy.

    I agree. Behind the theory that whether stealing is wrong depends on who steals from whom is the idea that many of us have that the rich (with the exception of a few artists and sports stars) have gotten rich either stealing from or exploiting (a form of stealing) others and that stealing from them thus is not stealing, but righteous redistribution of wealth, informal socialism.

    The same bartender who takes a few drinks without paying or who
    serves his friends without charging will probably never steal from members of his own social class or from the person on the street on general.

    Far from indicating moral confusion, the office worker or the bartender stealing are signs of popular moralism or morality.

    Now as for the university professors who steal books, perhaps they are the only people who will use the books or perhaps they know that any stolen books will be almost immediately replaced. If they steal books which will not be immediately replaced and which other philosophy students or professors need, that is wrong in my book (which I didn’t steal).

  9. Amos,

    I think a lot of people don’t even think of such acts as constituting theft. I don’t condemn the office worker or the bartender. But I should like them to recognise that what they are doing is theft and that they are in no position to condemn somebody else for pilfering from the megastore or hypermarket as I think many of them would do. I think this may be partly evidenced by the adverts against piracy I’ve seen that run on the basis of ‘you wouldn’t steal a cd or dvd from a store…” (though of course in those cases there’s genuine risk of bad consequences).

    The book thefts were tracked at a variety of institutions in the UK and US. At an Ivy League private institution the library will doubtless have no problem replacing a book (I worked fitting security strips into the books at one such college funnily enough) but I should imagine the scenario is rather different at an underfunded state university. I don’t know how it breaks down in that regard.

    A Nietzsche text was pinched from the library at the university I attended in the UK and the chap who was lecturing appealed for its return. I seem to recall he made some quip about how stealing it showed the guilty party had already rejected conventional morality and therefore had no need for it. Funnily enough scanning the paper in question it does mention that in their studies they found that “with the exception of Frege’s ‘Foundations of Arithmetic’, each of the 12 most-missing titles is either an ethics or a Nietzsche book”.

    I wonder if your Nietzsche reading is causally connected to your petty theft in some regard?

  10. Jim Houston,

    It is interesting that the ethics books go missing. I’ve heard some folks claim that ethics is essentially a quest for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

  11. s.wallerstein,

    It is easy to be honest when one is well off enough not to actually need the cash. The true test would be to see if I would return the wallet if I was desperately poor. So poor that the contents of the wallet would make a critical difference in my survival.

  12. s. wallerstein (aka amos)


    I’m going to use “theft” as I do “murder”: just as “murder” does not signify “killing”, but “unjustified killing”, so I will use “theft” to designate “unjustified stealing”, “stealing” being for me a descriptive not a normative term.

    Thus, I do not consider that your office worker or bartender are thieves, although they do steal.

    I don’t see those who steal in supermarkets as thieves either, unless they engage in it in order to resell in substantial quantities.

    Is my reading Nietzsche associated with my attitude towards stealing, you ask? Undoubtedly, like most people I seek authors whose viewpoints confirm what I already believe. I’ve never been a steady Kant reader myself.

  13. Mike,

    “ethics is essentially a quest for a superior moral justification for selfishness”

    Hmm, only for the Ayn Rand types I trust Mike.


    The thought had occurred actually just after I’d posted that a term like ‘theft’ is hardly purely descriptive and requires a fair few ‘background’ assumptions that are part of what you question (I don’t know that ‘steal’ naturally escapes this but am happy to go along with the stipulation).

    One man’s theft is another’s rightful appropriation I guess, though the law obviously doesn’t see it that way.

  14. “ethics is essentially a quest for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

    There is some truth in this. People who have the law on the mind cannot behave themselves.

  15. Amos (wallerstein)’s self-serving estimation of the potential distress caused by the owner’s loss of cash makes me wonder if he would first check for the presence of observers before dirtying his shoes to rescue the drowning child in a muddy pond.

    But Jim Houston’s pious repetition of entertainment industry talking points is almost as appalling. To identify copying information as theft is to impose, without acknowledgement of the alternative, the presumption that information can be owned in the same way as material goods; and to assign such ownership rights to corporations that have successfully lobbied for retroactive copyright extension is to legitimize what I consider an act of legalized theft against both the general public and the heirs of original creative workers.

    Oh, and Don, congratulations on your deeper understanding of the “real significance” of the pretty stone that guy’s dying daughter picked up on their last vacation together.

  16. If corporations can commit theft against the heirs of original creative workers, then one might reasonably presume to say that original creative workers can be stolen from by those individuals who take the fruits of their labours without paying for them.

  17. Yes, Jim, there were two separate points there.

    IF we accept the idea of ownership of information embodied in creative works then it is indeed legitimate to condemn the “theft” of such information, but the extent to which we should do that is not something that should necessarily be taken for granted.

    And also, even if we do accept the principle of such ownership by the creator of the work (for some definite or indefinite term and with right of sale of that ownership to another), there is a separate question of whether the assigned ownership of such information after a sale can be legitimately extended to the benefit of the purchaser beyond the term which was available to the creator – both against the interest of the public who would otherwise have earlier access to that information, and without any recognition on behalf of the seller of the arbitrarily increased value of what had been sold. The entertainment and publishing industries have long been engaged in campaign to enhance the value of their property in a way that I consider less than honest, so I tend to take exception to unqualified repetition of their talking points (even though I do not necessarily advocate unilateral action contra the rights that they have already been granted in law).
    Copying a DVD may be wrong but it is NOT “just like” stealing one.

    My understanding of the words “theft” and “stealing” in both contexts is confounded by the fact that we appear to have no terms to distinguish between illegal and immoral appropriation of property. What is illegal may not be immoral on its own rights (though one may well argue that to commit an illegal act is often immoral purely as a consequence of its being illegal – subject of course to some threshold as to where the obligation to obey the law is overridden by the obligation to resist unjust laws).

  18. Hi Alan,

    You express entirely legitimate concerns about existing copyright laws and I am most sympathetic to your criticisms of the entertainment and publishing industries and your view that the public should have earlier legal and free access to the content of creative works. And I can see why you would take exception to me speaking in such a way that it would seem otherwise.

    Without endorsing copyright laws as they stand, I am inclined to accept the idea of ownership of information embodied in creative works yes. Authors and artists seem entitled to make a living from their labours (and to exercise some control over what is done derivatively for profit from what they create) and I don’t see how this can be accomplished without acknowledging some period of ownership over said information. Do you think I’m actually wrong in this regard (rather than just wrong not to have previously questioned it) and, if so, what alternative arrangements would you envisage?

    I appreciate that you do not necessarily advocate unilateral action contra the rights copy-right holders have already been granted in law. But do you personally have any moral qualms about doing so? I appreciate your concession that copying a DVD may be wrong, but is your intuition that it is actually wrong at least in some circumstances? And if you hold that copying a DVD is (sometimes) wrong, but not “just like” stealing one, is your view that it is a wrong that is different in kind or degree (or both)?

  19. Alan Cooper re: “that guy’s dying daughter picked up on their last vacation together.” O God now I am feeling really bad.
    This discussion reminds me of the Sorites problem a much beloved topic of conversation at University. How much hair can a person loose before he is called bald? How many stones must one have to call them a pile? Where exactly are the boarders of the Sahara Desert. If you look at the spectrum of white light where exactly does Red become Orange? My own viewpoint in this matter is that if you take and keep anything which does not belong to you then you have, notwithstanding the fact that the item may be trivial, committed an act of theft. I am guessing we have all advised our children never to do this irrespective of the number of times we have done it ourselves. I’m sitting here thinking of trying to think the last time I stole something nothing comes readily to mind. I walked out of the University bookshop with a book which I genuinely forgot to pay for. After about five minutes or so I became aware of my omission. I decided it best not to go back and pay in case somebody said “look! They are he is” a judgement might have already been made about me, which may be difficult to oppose. Considering this problem I continually return to Mike’s final statement where he says I feel a psychological compulsion to return things I find—so I have to do it for peace of mind. I note the problem where books of ethics have been removed from university libraries. When I was at University I had occasion many times to consult books on science only to find they were not on the shelf when records indicated that is where they should be. A look around at the tables in the library also failed to uncover these books and as this happened on several occasions I came to the conclusion that they had been removed illegally from the library, no trouble with Ethics though.

  20. Alan Cooper:

    There is quite a difference between the case of a lost wallet and a drowning child. I don’t see the analogy at all.

    Human life seems a bit more important than property rights or than my shoes.

  21. s. wallerstein,
    Re: “Behind the theory that whether stealing is wrong depends on who steals from whom.” Is this your moral theory, or is it developed elsewhere?

    It may be possible morality is not communicated by language. For example, America is composed of a mosaic of hyphenated-citizenry. There are Black-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Polish-Americans, and the list is long. Many of these hyphenated groups will give their first loyalty to their hyphenations, and second to America. Communication of morality exists within their private hyphenated-language. Would you suggest that stealing is permissible outside of the hyphenated group?

  22. Dennis Sceviour:

    I’m sure that the theory that whether stealing is wrong depends on who steals from whom is developed better than I can by many thinkers. In fact, that theory seems commonly held by non-philosophers, for example, fans of Robin Hood.

    I agree with the theory. If a poor person steals from a huge rich corporation, it’s not wrong, while a huge rich corporation ripping off a poor person is wrong.

    Whether stealing is wrong also depends on need. If you need a formula to save your child’s life (or that of any person or even animal), it’s not wrong to steal it, if there’s no other way to get it, whether you are rich or poor.

    I’m sure that there are many more examples.

    As to hyphenated ethnic groups in the U.S., I don’t live in the U.S. and I don’t feel competent to opine about that society (although I sometimes do in an incompetent way).

  23. s. wallerstein,
    There was no intention to single out American hyphenated ethnic groups. It was an example analogous to Hume’s “Of National Characters”. An example of Communist-Chileans would serve as well, although I admit to know nothing about Chilean politics.

    Your moral theory depends on a class society that is deeply divided between rich and poor. There are many such societies now and in history. However, America (apologies for using the example again) has a graduated scale of wealth where there is no clear distinction between rich and poor. Could your theory apply to a society of graduated wealth?

  24. Don: I felt bad the moment I hit ‘Submit’ on that as I knew it was unduly mean in the light of your already expressed regret. Of course I really think that you are almost certainly right that the owner attached little value to the piece, but I just wanted to emphasize the more general fact about acting (in any way) against a person without giving the affected person a chance to challenge our presumptions.
    (And when it comes to books I have guilt of my own to deal with – about borrowings with permission which somehow never got returned.)

  25. Jim: It sounds as if we actually are pretty much on the same page and I am sorry that I “pounced” on you for merely sounding like an industry apologist.

    I think you are right that we need legal provisions to ensure that authors and artists can profit from their work and that providing for some form of “secondary ownership” is probably a necessary part of that. To keep relatively fair treatment of all the competing interests is not easy and I am quite willing to accept the need for compromises (to be worked out in detail mostly by people with more interest and knowledge than I have). But I can’t see *any* reason to allow privatization of what is already in the public domain or to ever allow extension of copyright on works that have already been sold.

    I also think that the law needs to provide strong rights for copying for private non-commercial use. (eg If I buy a painting I should be allowed to practice my own technique by copying it so long as I do not sell or claim independent authorship of the result. And if I buy (as opposed to rent) a DVD I should have the right to make as many copies as I need for private purposes such as backup and format switching.)

    I do feel that there is moral wrong in downloading pirated copies of music, movies, and TV shows, but I think that if one has been granted the privilege of selling access to any kind of (non-private) information then one should also have the obligation to make that access available by a convenient method at a reasonable price.

    And with regard to your final question, I think that the copying of anything is indeed different in kind from the taking of an object because it does not deny the use of that object to its owner. It may reduce some of the economic value of the object but that is qualitatively different from denying its use, and even then in the case of something I have actually bought it is only by selling or giving away a copy that I would be denying to the owner the economic benefit of selling to anyone other than myself.

  26. Dennis Sceviour:

    Here I go opining about the U.S. out of ignorance again, but isn’t the U.S. these days the society of the 99% and the 1%? That is, a society divided between the super-rich and the rest.

    Anyway, your question about a hypothetical society of graduated wealth is a good one, even if it does not apply to contemporary America (and certainly not to contemporary Chile).

    First of all, you’ll notice that I spoke of a poor person stealing from a rich corporation being ok, not from a rich person per se.

    I think that when you physically rob someone or even break into their property, you are committing an unjustified act of violence. Robbing a rich corporation, without violence to any of its employees, is different and ok in my book.

    However, would it be wrong for a poor person to hack Bill Gates’s bank account or that of George Soros, hacking being a non-violent crime? No, I think not.

    Now back to our almost classless society, the one with gradual differences in wealth. The theory that it is not wrong for the poor to rob the rich (under certain conditions, outlined above) comes from the observation that in general (I excepted certain artists and sports stars) do not deserve their wealth, that they have gotten rich either robbing others or exploiting others (a form of robbery) and thus, to rob them is not “theft” (unjustified stealing), but rather redistribution of the wealth. All the societies that I’ve observed are like that. However, in a hypothetical society in which all people cooperated to produce needed goods and in which by chance (it rained more on your land than on mine, for example), some people earned more than others, then there would be no justified reason to steal.

    For example, in Marx’s hypothetical classless society based on the principle “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their need”, there would be no justified reason to steal. I’m not claiming that Marx’s classless society is a viable future (given human nature) and still less that anything resembling it has ever existed.

  27. s. wallerstein, The analogy I was implying was not between denial of property rights and failure to save a life but rather between two instances of putting one’s own interests ahead of those of another.

    The self-serving presumption that the wallet owner can better afford the loss than you can afford to forego the gain amounts to favouring one’s own interests without evidence of any good reason, which I still see as at one end of an (admittedly very long) slippery slope that leads to putting one’s own convenience ahead of the life of a child.

    Of course we are probably all on that slope somewhere, but by dismissing the possibility that the money in that wallet was the last resource available for the purchase of a child’s desperately needed medicine you put yourself much closer to walking by the pond (albeit perhaps with eyes averted so as to be in willful ignorance of the possible presence of a drowning child).

  28. Hi Alan,

    Thanks for the reply.

    I don’t think there’s anything of substance I could disagree with or add.

    It’s probably not helpful to identify copyright infringement with theft no.

    There are all sorts of ways to infringe upon the rights of property owners. I guess, morally speaking, I was thinking of ‘theft’ as the ‘core’ concept and the rest as mere variations on the theme. But the law makes some pretty useful distinctions in that regard and I think I might usefully do the same.

  29. s. wallerstein,

    Re: “isn’t the U.S. these days the society of the 99% and the 1%?”

    America still has a middle class although there are fears of it disappearing, which would be a tragedy. Unless it is the very bottom person, there is no reason for stealing in a society of graduated wealth. To a person who has nothing, another with a few dollars can seem rich. That person can keep the money in the lost wallet as far as I am concerned. However, thank for outlining your theory.

  30. Alan Cooper:

    I don’t see that favoring one’s own interests over those of others is necessarily always wrong. Maybe it’s not saintly. If you genuinely favor the interests of others over your own all or most of the time, I’d call you a “saint”.

    The wallet could belong to a mother who needs the money to buy medicine for her sick child. However, actually, I would suspect that mothers on the way to buy medicine for their children tend not to drop their wallets and that wallets tend to be dropped (and not immediately picked up) by people who are either drunk or drugged.

    I suppose that I would do an informal sociological analysis of the wallet’s contents, not only of the cash, but also of other evidence which might indicate the owner’s socio-economic class. I trust my sociological eye. If the owner seems to come from a social group which needs the money more than I do, I’d return it. I said that above, by the way.

    I also tend to be a member of the poorer half of society (lower middle class), with health problems, with family members with health and money problems and thus, in many cases, I feel that I might put the money to better use than the person who dropped the wallet.

    I also think that I am a reflexive enough person not to slip further down the slope which, as you yourself point out, almost all of us are on some point of. There is a long way down the slope from pocketing cash from a lost wallet to letting a child (or even a dog) drown without taking action.

    Mike LaBossiere’s comment (February 17, 3:08PM) above seems a propos: would you return the wallet with money if you felt that you desperately needed it? If so, my congratulations. Or maybe you’re wealthy enough at present not to be tempted.

    (By the way, what if the wallet contained a hundred thousand dollars and you suspected that it was drug money? Would you take it then? Where would the hundred thousand dollar wallet be situated on your slippery slop’ As I said above, I trust my sociological eye.)

    I’m not going to claim that I myself desperately need the cash, but I sure know family members who do and whom I help financially insofar as I can.

  31. Re S Wallerstein Feb 18th.

    In my opinion stealing at any time whatever the circumstances is wrong. By the same token not stealing is right. However life is not that simple. Often is the case that one is faced with a set of circumstances where we must do what is best. If this entails stealing then it is wrong but the best decision in respect of the state of affairs with which we are faced then a small wrong can perhaps engender a larger right or better outcome. It is probably considered wrong for a commander to send some of his soldiers to what is almost certain death but if doing this saves the rest of the Regiment then something in the nature of a utilitarian decision has been made and a degree of misery has been considerably diminished.
    I remembered this evening that I have stolen a book. When I was at University a friend lent me a book to read on philosophy and shortly after abruptly left the University. I tried to trace him through the University authorities but they either could not or would not divulge his address. Eventually after some time I managed to find his present address. I’m not going to return the book to him because I like it it, stands on my bookshelf and I refer to it from time to time. Second hand, I suppose it is worth I guess £30-£40 no mean amount. So yes I have done a wrong act and would not recommend anybody to follow that example it is a wrong act which in this case I’m sure does not engender a larger right. So what I was saying is if you steal admit it is wrong and advise others that is wrong and recommend that they do not follow your example it seems ridiculous to me to argue that it is wrong to hold up a bank but not wrong to deprive someone of money on the grounds that they have more than oneself or to that one should be content that an anonymous someone has returned their wallet minus the cash therein
    It is said that it is not wrong if a poor person steals from a rich corporation. To claim that it is not stealing or wrong is I think a false justification enabling one to retain one’s self respect one does not really want to be known as a thief or to think of oneself as a thief. The fact that the rich corporation may indulge in certain immorality in their practice does not justify anybody stealing from that corporation. Surely if we start making up out own rules at what amounts to stealing and what doesn’t and what is right and what is wrong it is the path back to social destruction to a Hobbesian view of life as “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
    Speaking of huge rich corporations I was employed by one. Amongst other duties I was responsible for dealing with and investigating other members of the staff who had stolen from the company. Members of the public were often involved as unknowing accomplices. If you like solving problems and mysteries, which I do, this was an excellent job. During the time that I did it I must have heard every excuse going concerning the thefts. Compared to the wealth of the company the amounts stolen were trivial and very often the culprit sometimes for no fault of his or her own, and other times for every fault of his or or her own was what we might describe as poor and sometimes at wits end. I never remember any of them, and they all eventually confessed, sometimes after much cross examination, saying that what they had done was not wrong because the company was virtually undamaged. If it is such a suggestion had been made to me I would have found it necessary to advise them that an attitude that nature will certainly not find favour with the company theft is theft where ever it is done and it is wrong. Occasionally there are extenuating circumstances. Always the culprits were summarily dismissed from the company and I was left clear up the mess. I always felt sorry for the poor wretches whom I interviewed and preferred to see them make a clean break from the company without being prosecuted, although some were.

    I think had I told the management that stealing from a large wealthy corporation was not wrong I may well have been asked to find employment elsewhere.
    During the course of these discussions I been able to identify at least three instances where I have committed theft. Little or no distress I’m sure was experienced by any of the deprived parties but I am quite certain I committed three wrong acts which have not been too difficult to live with.

  32. Don Bird:

    I can see that you are a very scrupulous person.

    However, you and I seem to have very different value systems.

    I see nothing wrong with stealing from a bank if it’s done without violence.

    On the other hand, I could not have in good conscience done the job that you did as in the company tracking down employee theft. It would have gone against my conscience.

    It seems that we are so apart on this issue that the best would be to recognize how far apart we are.

  33. s. wallerstein, I agree that ownership rights are largely matters of social convention and would approve of any amount of asset redistribution from richer to poorer so long as the mechanism is supported by a sufficiently general consensus. But if you feel free to undertake random acts of unilateral theft subject only to your own opinion as to who has greater need of the resource, then how can you argue against others doing likewise?

    So when I get desperate enough for my next fix and convince myself that a hipster who posts comments on philosophy blogsites is clearly more privileged than a druggie like me (you may not be, but my “sociological analysis” tells me that the chances are high enough to justify my presumption), I will pop by at your place to pick up the TV, stereo, computer and whatever else I can fence for a few bucks (all in the middle of the night so “without violence” unless you are so immoral as to interfere with my self-preservation). You may think my analysis flawed and want the opportunity to dispute it, but so far as I can see you have no more right to that than you gave me when you stole my rent money (or put my life at risk by stealing the money I owed to my next level dealer).

    In a society where we all feel as free as you to decide that it’s ok to act both as Robin Hood and his beneficiaries, the only real redistribution will be from poor to poorer as the rich will, as always, have their assets much better protected than those a rung or two lower.

  34. For about five years I brought pens home from work. On the whole, maybe thirty or so. I did this out of habit. I eventually trained myself not to do it. It was clearly a habit of mine. I do not consider what I did wrong. I usually took the pens back, but it occurred to me there are several other examples of compartmentalized habits that I and others consider reasonable even though it is theft.

    I applaud the efforts of people like Mike to return things, as I would, especially wallets. It makes our shared existence better. I once found a >$5000 dollar diamond earring at the bottom of a pool. When I returned it to the woman who was near broken down, she nearly collapsed in disbelief, but I doubt she forgot. I would have not been able to live with myself if I just took it which was easy enough to have done.

    But I also do not think people should go nuts over theft-guilt. If you find an extra bag of Skittles in your grocery bag and the store is 100 kilometers away….just put me in a bowl and enjoy. Some things cost you and society a lot more. Just like a bartender sneaking some drinks after hours…there could may likely be benefits to society for such minor thefts. The bartender will learn more about the drinks he serves to his customers, or it will keep him from becoming depressed about his job, etc.

  35. Alan Cooper:

    You have not been reading very carefully what I say.

    I explain above (February 18 2:16) that I consider breaking into someone’s property to be a form of violence and not justifiable.

    There’s a big difference between keeping the cash from a lost wallet and breaking into someone’s apartment.

  36. Re Swallerstein Feb 19th

    “There’s a big difference between keeping the cash from a lost wallet and breaking into someone’s apartment.”

    I cannot see much difference here in one instance you have broken into someone’s apartment and in the other instance you have in a sense broken into someone’s wallet and removed property to which you are not entitled. I hasten to add that I am not judgemental in this matter, life and other people are far too complicated to make on the spot judgements. Years ago I suspected someone of stealing regularly fairly large amounts of money from their employer who was also my employer. I was in a position to produce documentary evidence concerning these thefts. I was aware of this person’s family background in which there were considerable difficulties and children were involved. I decided that were I to reveal these thefts the amount of misery in life would be considerably increased. The person involved eventually got their life of an even keel and for all I know may well paid back the money he took. He went to retirement with the same organisation who saw him off with the usual celebrations. Concerning my employment as an investigator of those who had already been suspected or apprehended in theft I could never help but feel sorry for these people and did all I could to present to the company a thoroughgoing and truthful report on the circumstances which included most often a sympathetic view of the person in question and the recommendation if applicable, that no prosecution be made. Not so the case with some of my colleagues I was astounded at one who during the course of conversation with me said “I like it when they cry”.
    The theme which I am endeavouring to support here is that stealing is a wrongful act but I am not saying that we should never commit a wrongful act. I can understand someone who finds a wallet with money in it using the money in the nature of a godsend to extricate himself or herself out of a despairing position. On the other hand I’m unable to understand someone who extracts money which they do not need, from a wallet and uses it for their own benefit. I would see this as taking advantage of somebody who has, through no fault of their own, encountered a most worrying state of affairs in their life.
    My wife lost her handbag in London some years ago. She returned home distraught, obviously, but soon cheered up when I told her that I had received a telephone call from somebody who had found the handbag and was sending it back, in its entirety, to us in the post. The handbag contained a considerable amount of money together with many important documents as I remember I sent the gentleman an amount of £25.00 for his trouble and honesty.

  37. Re Swallerstein

    “I see nothing wrong with stealing from a bank if it’s done without violence.”

    If there is nothing wrong with this then are we going to let people do it as and whenever they wish? if they have done no wrong then they cannot be called to account for their actions. Is it not wrong to steal from somebody’e bank account? I have had someone steal from my bank account and the Bank covered the loss.

  38. “stealing at any time whatever the circumstances is wrong… However life is not that simple. Often is the case that one is faced with a set of circumstances where we must do what is best. If this entails stealing then it is wrong but the best decision in respect of the state of affairs with which we are faced then a small wrong can perhaps engender a larger right or better outcome”


    I don’t know that I can quite square ‘stealing is always wrong” with your contention that it might sometimes be the best thing to do. Do you hold that other (utilitarian?) considerations might sometimes trump what morality demands? Or that sometimes, in exceptional circumstances, we are stuck in a case of moral tragedy where all the options involve a moral violation?

    Bracketing the case of the animal, I’m inclined to accept Amos’ claim that “If you need a formula to save your child’s life (or that of any person… it’s not wrong to steal it, if there’s no other way to get it”. In practical terms I imagine you’d endorse the same course of action (and want the same legal outcome?). So what I am curious about is what, in the light of such cases, would motivate you to assert that “stealing at any time whatever the circumstances is wrong” and what you think you commit yourself to by saying it.

  39. “The theme which I am endeavouring to support here is that stealing is a wrongful act but I am not saying that we should never commit a wrongful act.”

    Reading your most recent comments, I guess that is exactly the theme I’m somewhat perplexed by.

  40. I suppose the thinking might be that to steal is to wrong somebody – pretty much by definition – but that an individual act of stealing may not be the wrong thing to do in extreme circumstances. So, sometimes it is ethically right to wrong somebody (to prevent a greater evil). ❓

  41. jim and don: Perhaps your disagreement could be resolved by the understanding that an act can have both good and evil aspects. Some acts are morally empty but the morally interesting ones (about which we are often conflicted) can have both right and wrong in them – and don believes that any act involving theft does have wrong in it (even if it may also have an even greater amount of right). The word “wrongful” is often taken to refer to our judgement of the net overall effect, but that may be wrong of us since the wrong in an act is still there even when “cancelled” for the purpose of decision making by an even greater good.

  42. jim houston,
    Re: “an individual act of stealing may not be the wrong thing to do”

    Perhaps you are referring to Mill’s harm principle. An act is not wrong unless it creates harm. Thus, the taking of money from the lost wallet is not wrong if the wealthy owner suffers no damage. It is little different from picking up a penny on the sidewalk. One person’s litter is another person’s treasure.

    However, it would go too far to suggest that one could rob a bank provided no one is harmed. Would that be a misinterpretation of Mill?

  43. No, s.wallerstein, *you* are the one who has not been reading carefully enough. My point was not to argue that B&E *is* non-violent (though I see that Don has already taken you up on that), but rather to demonstrate (through the adopted persona of the addict whose cash you stole) that the path of having everyone make up their own rules leads to chaos.

    Morality is about shared standards and global effects as much as personal feelings, and although I may not initially “feel bad” about the prospect of meting out vigilante justice or playing Robin Hood on behalf of the poor (me), such immediate feelings need to be tempered by consideration of the larger effects. Failure to do so properly is in fact immoral, and to claim to have done so by means of manifestly self-serving denials and distortions of the obvious facts is also dishonest.

  44. Dennis, I think Mill would say that you should look at the global long-term effect.

    Robbing a bank in such a way as to have relatively negligible effects on everyone might still have a non-negligible global effect when accumulated over millions of affected individuals. Also, even if we ignore that, there are two more substantial possible harms. One is that your success may encourage many others to do likewise so that the harm to each of us now becomes non-negligible, and the other is that it may undermine the sense of trust which (though maybe unjustified) is necessary for the successful (and presumed beneficial) working of our economic system.

    Oddly, it seems that such a bank robbery would be moral only if kept completely secret – with loud proclamations by the robber that it would be both impossible, and even if possible so inconceivably evil as to justify the most horrible punishment.

  45. Alan Cooper,

    Mill never used the phrase “global long-term effect” so it is doubtful that is what he would say. Mill might say:

    “…there are perhaps no contracts or engagements, except those that relate to money or money’s worth, of which one can venture to say that there ought to be no liberty whatever of retractation (Mill, On Liberty).”

    It is a little difficult to follow with the double negatives, but I think it means: Do not breach financial contracts, or don’t rob banks.

  46. Alan Cooper:

    You seem to be accusing me of various sins (self-serving denials, being dishonest, etc.). This is a philosophy blog, not a trial: your accusatory, preachy tone seems out of place while discussing philosophy.

    If your accusing finger court-room tone persists, I’m going to opt out of this conversation.

    Anyway, I agree that morality is about shared standards, and where I live the real existing standard is that any wallet that appears on the sidewalk is going to disappear into someone’s pocket almost instantly. I doubt that most people will even bother to inform the owner about the loss of their ID card and family photos, etc. People will probably claim otherwise, but in reality, “finders keepers” with regards to wallets and other valuables is the shared existing standard. In fact, everyone “playing with a full deck” in this city knows that no one returns the cash in wallets: that’s the rule.

    Maybe things are different where you live.

    So when I pocket the cash and return the credit cards, I’m playing by shared standards and even going the extra mile in terms of being a nice person insofar as I go out of my way to return the credit cards and photos, etc.

    Now does that mean that all of us who pocket cash are on a slippery slope towards chaos and anarchy, as you and others seem to believe?

    No. Life goes on. The same people who pocket wallets will
    help out in auto accidents or aid victims of violent crimes or sick people or share with those who are needy. I see it with my own eyes every day.

    Pocketing the cash is not the first step towards a life of sin or crime nor does a community where most people pocket wallets end up as a failed state or a nightmare out of Hobbes.

  47. s. wallerstein, Your comments about your neighbourhood do suggest a couple of non-self-serving arguments for taking the cash. One is that society may benefit from people having to live with the costs of their oversights and another is that placing too much emphasis on financial property may interfere with putting value on things that matter more. These may be presumptions but they are not self-serving because they are symmetrical in application and don’t place you in the conflict-of-interest position where your assessment of someone else’s need can redound to your own benefit. If you like I will assume that these are your real reasons and that the self-serving crap about presuming that your need exceeds that of the wallet owner was just an overly hurried response.

  48. Hello Alan:

    I’m looking forward to reading your philosophical opinions in the future.

  49. Re:- Jim Houston February 19th.

    I do not have any deep philosophical theory in this matter and what I express is in a sense my own feelings and some sort of linguistic effort to clarify in my own mind how best to regard stealing. If it be agreed that all stealing is wrong then I think it puts all instances of acquiring items for one’s permanent use without the permission of the owner is an act of stealing. Amos has rightly pointed out I note, quite clearly and distinctly as is his wont, that mores differs from one country/culture to another and what is considered common practice in one place, may in another place be considered quite differently. I had completely overlooked this in my initial consideration of this problem. What goes in UK may not go elsewhere and vice versa. I think what happens in this case is a difference of attitude about the same thing, or set of circumstances. I suppose what I’m going to say here is the result of moral upbringing as a result of being exposed all my life to the mores of the United Kingdom. I am generally very suspicious of moral codes as they scarcely seem to me to cover all instances of human behaviour which can possibly occur, every difference makes a difference. In this connection I have been attracted to Virtue ethics as proposed by Aristotle. Very roughly this seems to me to be doing what is the best for oneself and others, given all the circumstances. Out of this as you no doubt know, one becomes a virtuous man a situation of Eudaimonia as Aristotle described it.
    If I satisfy myself that all stealing is wrong or bad or what ever you like, it does not to my mind absolutely prohibit certain acts of stealing. It is quite easy to imagine circumstances in which one may be forced to deprive another person of their own property. I’m sure it is possible to commit a theft for the greater good and it is fairly easy to think of a situation whereby an item is stolen in order to save the life of another party. I think the item remains stolen but this is all but extinguished by the good which has ensued, in fact if it becomes possible to return the stolen item in due course perhaps we should expect this to be done. I am quite sure it is possible to commit a bad act for the greater good.
    There are I think degrees of wrongness and badness we can certainly go from bad to worse then worst. For instance There are degrees of badness, as follows bad, worse, worst. Thus to my mind it would be bad to refuse money to a famished beggar, worse to pretend to put money in his hat but extract some, worst to deprive him of his hat and its contents completely. Pilfering, petty theft from shops other people’s property etc I would call wrong/bad. However there may be extenuating circumstances in which any right minded person can understand that the culprit had little or no option other than to commit the act. If apprehended such people should be treated sympathetically and offered all help it is possible to give in the vast majority of these cases punishment is not applicable. Once again we must be tolerant of the customs and viewpoints of other cultures where they differ slightly from ours. For instance removing cash from a lost wallet is I think viewed with some severity where I live, but I understand that such is not the case elsewhere. So perhaps were I to go and live elsewhere I could well be influenced to change my habits; I’ve always been an advocate of when Rome do as the Romans do.

  50. Don Bird:

    Would most people in the U.K. really return cash from a wallet?
    (Not a rhetorical question)

    I’ve talked to several friends here (Santiago, Chile) of both sexes about the wallet cash issue, and all agree that no one would return the cash.

    I was in London for a few days about 40 years ago as a tourist.
    The level of trust amazed me: for example, the bottles of milk in doorways in the early morning, which in most societies would be immediately grabbed by people passing by. Do they still leave milk in doorways?

    I recall a café inside a museum (I don’t recall which), where I quickly realized that I could drink limitless glasses of wine only paying for one, which I did. Another example of a trusting society.

    On the other hand, they didn’t trust me much. I walked from one cheap hotel to another looking for a room, guidebook in hand, rejected by all, surely because of my long-hair and clothes. Finally, I saw a hotel where several Pakistanis were entering. I immediately sensed that I’d have no problem getting a room there and I did.

  51. Thank you, Jim.

  52. Re S Wallerstein Feb 21st.
    “Would most people in the U.K. really return cash from a wallet?”

    That is an interesting question and I really am unable even to Hazard a guess. The number of people I have asked so far only a few really, have all said that they would return the cash I am guessing that those of the same nationality, ethnicity, and social standing as myself and perhaps age also, would behave similarly to myself. The details that Jim has provided as a result of his usual expertise at research, are very interesting. I am wondering what advice you would give to your children in the event that they find a wallet.
    The days of leaving milk in doorways is long gone, people buy their milk at the same time that they purchase their groceries. I cannot remember the last time I saw milk standing in the doorway but I do suspect that were this to happen it would remain untouched. Incidentally are you aware that we are the only mammal, who continues to drink milk, well all but myself that is I just do not like it. nor do I ever wear socks, a fact which seems to astound some people.
    I remember returning to my office from lunch one day walking up the stairs I found two 5 pound notes lying there. £10 in those days was a fairly substantial amount and I reasoned it could well be the property of possibly a young person who would be extremely financially embarrassed at the loss, so to an adult, although to a less extent. I took the two notes to the personnel Department to explain where they had been found. They told me it would be entered in their lost property records. I mentioned this to a number of my colleagues with whom I worked and got a very mixed reply from them. Overall I would say roughly 50% said they would have done likewise, and the remainder seemed to agree I was a fool. What an interesting world we find ourselves in don’t you think?

  53. The inquiry is concentrating too close on the lost cash rather the general problem of returning the lost wallet. The contents of a wallet have an intrinsic value. There are personal photos, telephone numbers and ID’s. The return of these is probably far more important to an owner than a few bills. After all, the discussion is about a lost wallet and not a lost briefcase with 250,000 bills.

    Some feel satisfied in using a virtue rule to return all lost wallets including cash. That may satisfy an individual philosophy, but it does nothing to prevent the large amounts of credit card and identity theft. People need a reason to return a lost wallet, or at least drop it in a place where it will be returned. A bank night deposit box or post office box would be a good place to put the wallet. I suggest, let the cash in the wallet be a surcharge for the task and incentive to return the remainder of the wallets contents.

  54. Dennis:

    A solomonic solution indeed.

  55. Don Bird:

    You ask what advice would I give my children about finding wallets.

    My son is now 35, but what would I have suggested?

    I think that I was very idealistic when young, not about wallets perhaps, but about socialism, human rights, feminism and about not exploiting anyone, either directly or indirectly, in fact, about not even being indirectly complicit in exploitation.

    I have few regrets (as the song says), but I could not in good conscience demand that my son follow my path, with the risk of not making as much money he might have liked, of having a less comfortable and less socially integrated life than he might have liked and in general, of making life difficult for himself, even in the name of what I continue to believe are good causes.

    So I generally taught him to look out for himself (in the ordinary sense of that phrase) more than I did and to take advantage (in the ordinary sense of that phrase) of his education and social position more than I did, in short, to be less idealistic and socially aware than I was, etc., all within the context of what is legal and what is conventionally accepted in social terms. In that sense, I would have told him to keep the wallet, but return the photos, cards and ID, as Dennis outlines above.

    All that being said, I was never more proud of my son than when he was fired from a fairly comfortable job for standing up for follow workers who were being mistreated, just as I would have done.

  56. alQpr » Blog Archive » Lost and Found - pingback on February 23, 2014 at 3:00 am
  57. We only have about half a dozen sample points so far, but my wife seems intent on running a long term observational study of this matter and in Vancouver BC has had 100% return of the wallet, 50% with cash included and 50% cash removed (including one case where the wallet returned for reward had been in a dropped bike pannier with other items which were never recovered).

    Although the financial benefit of getting the money back is usually quite small (at least in relation to other matters) the sense of faith in one’s fellow humans that results from such an event is quite wonderful – and I am pretty sure that benefits of that sort continue to multiply.

  58. Last year, Reader’s Digest reporters ‘lost’ 12 wallets in 16 cities across the world each with mobile phone contact details, a family photo and the exchange rate equivalent of $50/£30.

    London shared 9th place with Warsaw in the ‘most honest city’ chart with 5 being returned, New York was joint third with Budapest with 8 wallets being returned in each.

    In Mumbai – where 3000 rupees might go quite a long way – 9 were returned.

    Of the 192 wallets dropped, 90 were returned contents intact—47%. The issue of wallets being returned without the cash doesn’t seem to have been covered. The story was covered in a number of places, but the Mail offers a handy breakdown by city if it’s of interest to anyone:


    It is perhaps what the reporters saw happen or were told by returnees that may be more interesting to some, that’s covered in more detail here:


    The Digest ran a similar though much larger test with 1100 wallets back in 2001 of which 44% were apparently picked up never to be seen again. The article will have varied in content slightly depending on the locality. The UK version has been archived here (it reports that 65% were returned by the Brits):


    The breakdown statistics – which examine certain countries such as the US, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina in more detail than others (some countries only having one ‘ten wallet’ test) – seemingly can’t be got that way but somebody seems to have made an honest attempt to type out the US version complete with stats here:


    It seems in Vancouver 7 out 10 wallets were returned if that interests anyone (the same as the one Japanese city tested). The averages for both the US and Canada worked out only just under that it seems.

    Mexico came out worst at 21% – two of those who found and kept them were spotted making the sign of the cross after picking them up and peeking inside. Of course the finding of the exchange rate equivalent of $50 for some poor souls in Mexico might well have amounted to something of a miracle.

    Again the stories might seem more interesting than the statistics. And this certainly rings true:

    “Time and again, the world over, those who looked like they could use $50 often turned it in, while many people who appeared affluent enough took the money and ran.”

  59. I am wondering if Jeremy Stangroom could, in relation to lost wallets or something similar, create one of his social surveys for those using this website which seems to reach far and wide. The results may be skewed in relation to those interested in philosophy and whilst I am not a statistician I would not think that would invalidate any of the results.

  60. S Wallerstein

    I am wondering, were you in a large store around about Christmas time when people were quite probably buying Christmas presents for family and friends, finding a wallet with a comparatively large amount of money therein would you still retain the money, perhaps using it for your own purposes.
    At the risk of appearing tedious I will ask you. (this time it is not Christmas) having found a wallet with a considerable amount of money therein together with a list showing how that money is to be spent, for example food, paying a dental bill, motor car tax license, clothing for a child, flowers and say a box of chocolates; would you in any sense be deterred from returning the wallet, and retaining the money for your own purposes?

  61. Hello Don:

    I said above (February 18, 5:14 PM and elsewhere) that I’d examine the wallet first to see if it belongs to someone in need and if so, return it with all the cash.

  62. Don Bird,
    Could you be more specific in what the social survey would expect to achieve that we do not already know? That is, what is the purpose of the social survey? At best, the result may give a percentage difference between a deontological and a consequentialist choice.

  63. Re S Swallerstein
    “I said above (February 18, 5:14 PM and elsewhere) that I’d examine the wallet first to see if it belongs to someone in need and if so, return it with all the cash.”

    There are degrees of being in need if there is cash in a wallet then the owner obviously needs it. I doubt you would find many people who would say they do not need cash in their wallets it is presumably there for a purpose. Somebody may be extremely rich but still need cash to pay for something which is essential to his or her well-being which is urgently required. Personally I rarely if ever carry cash in my wallet I may have a a few coins in my pockets to pay for car parking and the like but that is about all. I cannot quite understand how you would judge a person’s needs by looking at their wallet. I hope I am not being tiresomely persistent in this matter but it does seem to have caught my imagination. I can see that by examining somebody’s wallet its is pretty obvious that they are not a beggar but I cannot understand how you could ascertain that your need for the money in a wallet is greater than the owner’s need. You may well guess right on many occasions but whatever the case one day someone is going to experience extreme distress concerning the loss of money. Does that possibility never bother you? Perhaps I am misreading you if so I apologise I have not considered the possibility that cash which you take may well be given directly to charity.

  64. Don:

    I have no idea what the sociology of wallets is like in the U.K., but here there are wallets and wallets, from plastic ones imported from China, used by very low-income people to simple, coarse leather ones like mine to very fine leather ones, which generally only those fairly well-off can afford.

    What’s more, the contents of a wallet will tell you quite a bit. For example, there are banks which cater to the wealthy and issue their own credit cards, banks with a mass appeal and credit cards issued by retail chains that only low-income people have. In addition, people’s addresses and even home phone numbers (certain phone numbers correspond to certain sectors of the city, and those sectors are segregated de facto by income) tell me more or less the person’s income level. I could go on detailing how wallets differ according
    to social class, but I don’t see the point.

    Yes, the classy wallet could belong to a magnate who just that day lost almost all their money in the stock exchange and now loses their wallet with their remaining savings inside it, but that’s not very probable, is it?

    I outlined above that I have family members with health problems and so I imagine that I would use any cash windfall to make their life easier rather than give the money to charity.

    You are certainly being persistent, although not tiresome. I still can’t understand why, of all the real moral dilemmas
    presented in contemporary society, this one seems to catch your imagination.

    Actually, I’ve never found a wallet with or without cash, so until this whole discussion arose, I had no idea what I would have done. Maybe your persistence has had the paradoxical effect (from your point of view) of assuring that if I ever find a wallet from someone who seems well-off, I’ll keep the cash.

    As I said above (February 18, 7:15 PM), I find you to be a very scrupulous person, but with a system of values which is very different than mine. It’s a question of what matters to you and what matters to me, not of one of us being right and the other wrong. Lots of people seem to share your values and lots of people seem to share mine (judging from how they behave in the experiments Jim has linked). I realize that what is right and wrong is not a question of how many people do something, but still, it gives us a certain idea of what might be called “moral common sense”.

  65. Well it’s nice to know that the scrap of old plastic that I wrap my cards and cash in will get returned, but I am sorry to hear about what will happen to the ostentatious bit of tooled leather that the guy who I just paid for the gas in my Jag is so proud of (because it was purchased by his girlfriend with the very first week’s pay from her new job as a hospital orderly).

  66. Re: Alan Cooper

    Like yourself I am not in favour of taking money from lost wallets. However assuming that I were very poor and say my wife was in agony with toothache and she had to endure it as I could not afford to pay for the offending tooth to be extracted. I find a wallet with more than sufficient cash therein to pay for my wife’s relief from agony. I think in circumstances of that nature I would extract from the wallet the requisite amount of cash and return the wallet to its owner. This is one of the reasons why my own moral code is somewhat flexible I try to do what is best given the circumstances with which I am confronted and I’m prepared to act in a way which others may say is immoral but which I contend is for the greater good.

  67. Jose finds $50 in a wallet, a quite considerable sum to those in his social class and what the bottom fifth has to live on for a week in his grossly unequal society (Mexico).

    Though Jose’s income is very modest, he’s not in desperate need himself. But he does have family, friends and neighbours in pretty dire situations and he helps them as best he can though he has very little himself beyond what is needed to maintain his own very modest lifestyle.

    Jose has the background assumption that a person in greater or equal need to his or his kin would be very careful not to lose such a sum (especially given that his culture is such that it is unlikely to be returned) but he looks at the wallet and does his best to evaluate whether, despite this, it’s at all probable the stranger might be in a similar boat to him and his.

    On the basis of the fancy wallet, the address, the exclusive dining cards etc, he makes an informed – but, not of course, infallible – determination that very probably it came from somebody who lacks anything like comparable need and, given the gross inequity of the system as Jose sees it, any real desert to the amounts of money they seem to possess.

    Jose thinks that he has greater obligation to help his ‘kin’ eat and get by than he does to ensure strangers get back cash they probably don’t need. So Jose, in accordance with the moral norms of his peers, distributes the money amongst his needy family and friends and goes to the effort of ensuring the original owner gets back what it seems would be of sentimental and real practical and immediate use to them (including the wallet itself).

    Jose admits he’s not entitled to certitude about whether the money is more needed by his ‘kin’ than the stranger, and that somebody could suffer very badly on account of his actions if he gets it wrong.

    But Jose knows his ‘kin’ – to whom he feels he owes special obligations – certainly do need the money, quite badly, and he’s pretty confident (and not without some warrant) that the stranger doesn’t. So he does as he does.

    I don’t think it is so very hard to understand Jose’s actions or so very easy to condemn them.

  68. jim houston February 24, 2014

    I agree with your findings here. The only problem I have this matter is with people who might find a wallet and have no need of cash therein,nor do not do they have any prompting to use it for the benefit of those who are very misfortunate. They decide however that finding is keeping and it is their lucky day for a bit of extra cash in their pockets, for which they have no real need. An action of that nature is to my mind quite unpalatable.

  69. Don,

    Well, such an act does strike me as the act of a rather callous bastard yes.

  70. I found a wallet. Stuffed full of membership cards and a reasonable wad of cash. The police returned it to its owner,, and I was surprised to receive a cheque for MORE than the cash value in the wallet from its grateful owner..some weeks later.

    The next day a the same place I found a large denomination note. I spent that. No hope of finding its owner..

    The key thing really is whether you consider yourself as alienated from an uncaring society or a participating member of it whose fellow man is something of concern to you.

  71. Leo

    The same place???? Do you wonder if someone is testing your honesty?

  72. chris buchanan

    Hi, so I just found a wallet as I walked out of a casino that had about 1,000 dollars in it.. at least 6 hundred dollar bills and several 20’s and 10’s. I had lost all the money I brought myself. I am basically broke have no job, no car, and no house. Why I was in the casino in the first place? Well my friend has been letting me stay with him and he wanted to go with his kids. So I had brought out 150 that I had and left the other 100 I had back with my things. My first impulse was to take the money and give the wallet back. I walked out of the casino and made a quick count of the money. Then I pulled out the id and it belonged to an older woman from Montana. An overwhelming feeling came over me and I thought what kind of consequences could come from me taking this money even though I did need it very much. I walked back into the casino and seen the woman from the id at the counter. I asked if she was from Montana and she said yes. So I returned it with every dollar and item originally in the wallet, and I told her that I was broke and could have used the money but this was the right thing to do. I walked off with no reward looking for my friend. I turned around and seen the woman again and she said let me give you a tip which I said wasn’t necessary she gave me 20 dollars, and I accepted it. When my friend found out soon after he was very upset and used the same basis that I am broke and she is probably very rich. The walley was a snakeskin very nice wallet, and I started to question whether I made a dumb choice. I’d like to continuing thinking that I did do what was best for my life. The money would have helped but what’s to say that I have made a choice that will move me toward success. I guess ill find out? What does everyone think?

  73. Well Chris, If that’s a true story then I commend you for your honesty, and I really do believe that if that is your general pattern of behaviour then eventually it will be noticed and will come back to your advantage.(Spending time in casinos however will probably not.)

  74. s. wallerstein


    You did what almost everyone would consider to be the right thing and you should be proud of that. There’s nothing more self-defeating than feeling guilty about having done the right thing.

    What strikes me, however, is the response of the rich woman. She has a thousand dollars in cash to blow in a casino and she only gives you 20 dollars to reward your generous and extremely scrupulous behavior.

    Maybe that’s why she’s rich: she’s tight with her money.

    If you had found my wallet in a similar circumstance and with a similar sum of money (I’ve never been in a casino in my life, however), I’d have given you at least 200 dollars on the condition that you don’t gamble it in the casino and that you use it to look for work (cell phone bills, transportation expenses, etc.). Afterwards, I’d have felt bad that I hadn’t given you more since you’re a generous person and you need the money more than I do. My response probably shows all too clearly why I’ve never gotten rich nor even tried to get rich.

    Take care of yourself. Alan Cooper is probably right that in the long run your generous and scrupulous behavior will come back to your advantage.

  75. You made the right choice. $1,000 would have been useful for a while, but would run out. A good character is good for your whole life.

  76. Acting in accordance with the way you want the world to be is not a small thing at all. By treating othes the way you would want to be treated, and acting the way that you wish others acted you are doing your part to make the world a better place, and that should not be dismissed as a small thing, because it is huge. Knowing that people like you are out there doing the right thing that gives me faith in the human race, and a comfort in knowing that the world is full of good people, even though the selfish greedy actions of few dominate the news headlines. I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts on the morality of keeping or returning lost items. I found your post inspirational and I plan to see what else you have written.

  77. Daniel:
    “ By treating others the way you would want to be treated, and acting the way that you wish others acted you are doing your part to make the world a better place.” Not if you are for instance, a perverse child molester. There are of course a multitude of other depravities of human nature which one should not seek to endure, nor inflict.

  78. Fredrick Garnes

    If someone returned my wallet they can have the cash in it. with C.C. and Debit cards no one carries large sums. So 100-200 is well worth the work to replace everything.

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