You buy a computer online, selecting an option to pay by mailing a check.  However, you forget to send the check.  When the computer arrives, the invoice says “paid.”  Is it OK to let it ride?  Isn’t this what most people would do?  Besides, if the seller catches the mistake at some point, you can always send a check.

Dilemma 5 in 101 Ethical Dilemmas by Martin Cohen

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

One response »

  1. John Hooker says:

    This is simple, on the face if it. By purchasing the computer, you entered into a sales agreement. Violating a sales agreement, simply to avoid paying, is clearly not generalizable. If everyone did so, it would be impossible to make sales agreements. No one would trust you to keep them. So failing to pay is unethical.

    Maybe most people would fail to pay in your situation, but this only shows that most would behave unethically.

    You might argue that you have more specific reasons for your action. You are declining to pay because (a) you want to keep the money, (b) you forgot to write the check, and (c) the company didn’t notice it. This is generalizable, you might say, because if everyone failed to pay under such circumstances, you would still be able to accomplish your purpose. Few people find themselves in this situation, and if they all followed your example, it would have little effect. So failing to pay for these reasons in generalizable.

    True, but these are not your reasons. You are failing to pay simply because you can get away with it. Suppose you notice, after walking away from a cashier’s window, that you received too much change. Why wouldn’t you keep the change? You would. Or if you wouldn’t, you have no reason for keeping the money in one case and not in the other, and that’s what counts. The generalization test applies to your reasons, which in this case are simply that you want the money and can get away with keeping it. A similar scenario is discussed in the case “A Cashier’s Error” in Video 4 (transcript) under How to analyze.

    Let’s suppose the company catches the mistake and sends you a bill, which you pay. It is ethical to pay it, of course, but your original decision to pay only if asked remains unethical.

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