My girlfriend and her mom accompanied me on a trip… [As we were sitting in a hotel lobby], I noticed there was 75 cents sitting on the cushion.  I picked up the quarters, and a debate followed on how to behave ethically in this situation.  None of us agreed on what to do.

Obviously, one choice is to pocket the money and spend it as you wish.  But some feel that you should spend it by donating to charity or something selfless.  Another option is to give the money to an authority figure, in this case, a hotel employee, no matter how unlikely it is that they would find the honest rightful owner.  There is also the option of asking the people in the lobby if it is theirs, but again, you’re might be fighting against odds and honesty issues.  Lastly, some people just opt to leave the money, deciding it’s not their money or their problem to resolve.

I’ve since brought this up in conversations with friends, and I am amazed at the varying actions that people say they would take.  What if it was more money?  What if it was on a public sidewalk instead of a hotel?  What if it was in your apartment complex?  How do you tell if someone is being honest with you?  What if you had an idea of whose money is, or even saw them drop it?  What if you were starving?… So there is my dilemma.

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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:

    Yes, people love to argue about this sort of dilemma. The basic principle is that violating property rights, merely for personal gain, is not generalizable. This is because my purpose in taking someone’s property is to make it my property, and if everyone disrespected property, there would be no property or concept of ownership in the first place. People would take whatever they want, including “my” money.

    Taking property means depriving the owner of it (without permission). So the question is whether picking up cash deprives the owner of the cash. If the owner would never find it, then the owner is already deprived. The amount of money makes a difference. Someone who drops a $10,000 roll of bills in a hotel lobby is going to search every place he has been since losing the money and will find it if nobody picks it up. Someone who drops 75 cents in the lobby won’t notice and so wouldn’t find it anyway. So you can keep the 75 cents. The location and circumstances also make a difference. Someone who drops $10 somewhere in the New York City subway system would never find it even if no one picked it up, but someone who drops $10 in a classroom sometime today would find it if nobody picked it up.

    Anglo-Saxon common law is somewhat less strict. You can keep lost property until and unless the owner claims it. Common law also distinguishes lost property (which is unintentionally left in some location) from mislaid property (which is intentionally left but forgotten). If a hotel guest sets his wallet on the check-in counter and forgets it, the wallet belongs to the hotel (until claimed by the guest) even if you find it. Several U.S. states strengthen common law with lost property statutes. They typically say that if you find something worth more than $X, you must turn it over to the police for a certain period, after which you can keep it if unclaimed.

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