I found a ten dollar bill in a shopping center parking lot today, and it reminded me of an essay I wrote a couple years ago called “A Penny Found Is An Ethical Dilemma”. Since it looks like I’ve never published it here, I guess I’ll do so now. Note that keeping the ten dollar bill did not violate the ethics outlined herein.
A Penny Saved Is An Ethical Dilemma
Some Internet denizens have calculated the second-by-second earnings of billionaire Bill Gates and say that, unless he found a Madison on the ground—that is, the obsolete $5,000 bill—he would lose money stooping to pick it up. I’m not a billionaire, and I was raised with a bit of thrift and appreciation for found money, so I still stoop to pick pennies and the occasional flash of silver on the pavement. Each penny, invested wisely, could well buy me a name brand tin of cat food in retirement instead of the less tasty store brand.
Unfortunately, I also put myself through college and earned a degree in philosophy with an emphasis on ethics. Therefore, I cannot simply rely on the adage, “See a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck” nor my own thriftiness as a guide. Instead, I have built a complete system of morals involving the finding and keeping of pennies and other monies in the world at large.
Let’s face it, a bit of money on the sidewalk represents a piece of someone else’s property. A relatively insignificant piece, perhaps, but conceptually as much the property of someone else as an automobile. When someone cannot remember what row he or she parked in at the mall, we cannot simply take his or her car; that’s stealing, and it’s wrong. Pennies, on the other hand, have relatively low value. If we tried to turn found pennies into the local police for someone to claim, they would hold us for psychological evaluation. Besides, a person dropping a quarter while pulling out a cell phone might not miss the money or probably wouldn’t retrace the steps of the day to find it. Ergo, a single coin falls under the moral equivalent of maritime salvage flotsam. Greater denominations or collections of money—the significant thousands of dollars or whatnot—probably merit turning into the police, but negligent owners, for all intents and rationalizations, have abandoned their pennies when dropping them in public places.
But that blanket rule is too facile. As it merely supports the pick-it-up mantra, I needed something more complicated to guide my actions in other cases, to provide explanations for why I pick up coins in some places and not in others. A complex set of rules is a set of rules, not just arbitrary behavior.
For example, coins that I find on the sidewalk or in the street are fair game to fund my retirement, as these public spaces belong to everyone.
However, when I am in a place of business such as a coffee shop or a store, coins found on the furniture or on the floor are not eligible for extraction; these belong to the business owner in my mind, although I do expect that another customer or some underpaid employee will come along and scoop up the money. I did when I was working my way through college in a grocery store, but I didn’t have a degree in philosophy then. Perhaps, because I was an employee and was in the store every day, the store was not a place-of-business but a public-space or at least a common-space (arbitrary distinctions in philosophical tracts are always in italics), this stripping of a penny from the linoleum surface of someone else’s property was morally acceptable.
The parking lots of private business, though, as well as the sidewalks immediately outside and the foyers between the outer doors and inner doors remain public spaces and good sources for the random coins.
Within residential areas, the sidewalk common spaces give way to the well-manicured lawns. Pennies on the sidewalks are fair game, but coins within the lawns themselves are difficult to spot, so they belong to the homeowner. The rare exception to this rule is a coin that lies on the boundary of the sidewalk and the lawn. By “boundary,” of course, I mean “I can see it.” This boundary area could prove troublesome, but for guidance, I turned to the teachings of the masters more knowledgeable than me. I don’t mean Rand, Hume, Aristotle, or Jesus; I defer to the National Football League: “When any part of the ball, legally in possession of a player inbounds, breaks the plane of the opponent’s goal line, provided it is not a touchback.” If there’s a glimmer of concrete or other paving material underneath any edge of the coin in question, visible from any angle, it’s eligible for retrieval. I have only recently clarified this rule when I encountered a coin in such a state last week.
One wouldn’t expect the choice of whether to pick up a penny to require this much consideration nor to bear upon its choice a moral decision. However, most ones don’t have a philosophy degree like I do. While most people would pick up more pennies with lax internal rule systems, they certainly don’t get as much entertainment or food for thought as I do.