David M. Brown's Blog

July 19, 2016

The going rate for honesty is one dollar

Filed under: Economics,Ethics,Psychology — davidmbrowndotcom @ 4:48 am

Or at least, that’s the going rate when that’s what I can spare after having paid ten dollars for a soda. What I mean is that I ended up paying two dollars, one for the soda, one for the honesty.

Yesterday afternoon, in exchange for a can of soda, I was dumb enough to hand a ten-dollar bill that I thought was a one-dollar bill to the owner of a small grocery store. After I had zipped out the door and was definitively on my way, he called me back to give me my nine bucks in change. Embarrassing; but I appreciated the honesty. I said so verbally but also with an extra dollar, which pleasantly surprised him. Of course, I’m not trying to suggest that one should receive cash whenever one acts in a principled virtuous way. Nor do I believe that the prospect of gaining nine unearned dollars can either tempt or compensate a person who is honest on principle to suffer the injury to character that must result from stealing even a few dollars. But unexpected bonuses are fun to get and to give; life is short; and life is made out of moments.

Years ago, I did the same dumb thing when paying a pizza delivery guy, realizing my mistake soon after he had left. Reflecting on the incident, I realized that he had noticed my blunder and known that it was a blunder, but had suppressed his surprise as he kept the overpayment. If honesty were automatic, nobody would ever be dishonest. Being honest is not hard, if that’s a principle by which you live—and regardless of the amount of apparently easy-to-get-away-with loot involved. But it’s not automatic.


Read The Flying Saucers Are Very Very Real

Read Omelet: A Tragedy of Bill Shake-a-speare

Read The Case of the Cockamamie Killer


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