On Thursday, drivers on U.S. Route 31 in Grand Haven, Michigan confronted one of those moral dilemmas that ethicists love to discuss. A fellow driver somehow forgot that he left a cash box containing $30,000 on the bumper of his car. As he drove on the highway, the box fell off the bumper and opened on impact with the pavement, and the thousands of dollars in cash spilled onto the road and into the air.
And thus, the ethical thought experiment met reality: if you were driving one of the following cars and saw the money on the road — where you were out in the open, surrounded by total strangers, where no cameras would see your conduct and no criminal consequences were likely to attach to what you did next — what would you do?
In this instance, other drivers immediately started stopping, scooping up the money, and driving off — conduct that, incidentally, caused a traffic tie-up on Route 31. Of the $30,000 in the cash box, only $2,500 was immediately recovered and returned to the owner. Since Thursday, police have appealed for drivers who pocketed the loot to probe their consciences and turn in the money. Only some have done so. Two teenagers turned in $630, which would sure seem like a lot of money to a kid, and one woman turned in nearly $3,900. The police commended them for their honesty. However, most of the money remains unrecovered.
Over the years, I’ve found wallets and car keys and credit cards and other valuable items, and I’ve always returned them immediately because I’d like to think other people would do the same with an item I misplaced. But before I hurt my shoulder patting myself on the back, I also recognize that I haven’t been in desperate need of money on those occasions, either. If you were at the end of your financial rope and suddenly saw hundred dollar bills on the Route 31 asphalt, would you do the honest thing — or would you think that your prayers had been answered and drive off with fistfuls of money without a second thought?