I happened to see a customer steal a mobile phone charger from a retail store.  She was not caught because she hurried through the sensors at the door simultaneously with another customer, who was detained by a security guard and released after a personal search.

I followed the thief outside and saw her rushing to her car.  I approached the car to have a few words with her.  However, she had already plugged in her phone charger and was talking excitedly on the phone.  I listened long enough to learn that she was talking to a friend of her son, who told her that her son was on the way to the hospital in an ambulance.   I had no reason to doubt the legitimacy of the conversation.

Would it have been best to report the crime, or show some compassion and keep my mouth shut?

Contributed by Anonymous.

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About John Hooker

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

2 responses »

  1. Paige says:

    I think that you should have reported the shoplifting because stealing is not generalizable behavior. If people did not report theft, then everyone who could get away with stealing would. This would eventually cause prices of items to be higher to compensate for the profit lost on every stolen item. Higher prices would then lead to more people stealing because they are unwilling to pay the higher price. This would create a cycle which would lead to chaos. Even though you felt compassion for the person, it is impractical to hear every story of someone stealing and judge whether the circumstances warrant consequences or not.


  2. John Hooker says:

    I will assume that the thief shoplifted the phone charger because her phone was dead, she was in a panic to learn what happened to her son, and (let’s say) there was a long checkout queue.

    Paige argues that the theft was unethical despite the circumstances, and that you should therefore have reported it. However, it’s not so clear that a bystander always has a duty to report actions even when they are clearly illegal and unethical. The law requires it in some cases, but to my knowledge, not in the case of shoplifting.

    A failure to report shoplifting is generalizable, because shops have theft-prevention mechanisms that don’t rely on customer tips. The issue seems to boil down to a utilitarian calculation. If you witness a murder, you should almost certainly report it, because the murderer could victimize someone else, and an unsolved murder case could result in much expense, agony, and even prosecution of an innocent person. However, if you have no information about the shoplifter, then you might reasonably doubt that the net expected utility of reporting is positive. Reporting could prevent subsequent crimes, but it could also create a life-damaging criminal record for someone who would never steal again. This is not to say that a single theft is OK, or that a one-time thief should not be prosecuted if reported. It is not OK, and it is a prosecutor’s duty to hold offenders accountable. Yet a bystander may have no obligation to report a theft, unless there is some reason to believe the offender would steal again.

    In the present case, you actually have some evidence that the thief probably won’t steal again, which is a reason not to say anything.


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