Found Money

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.

image-photo-money-thrown-in-the-air-april-2016And 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?

Forcing Adherence To The Law

We may be on the verge of a new era in personal choice and personal responsibility:  Ford is getting ready to roll out a new car that simply will not allow you to exceed the speed limit.

From a technology standpoint, the Ford S-Max is an interesting step forward.  The car will come equipped with a camera that will read speed limits posted on roadside signs.  The S-Max will then automatically adjust the amount of fuel to the engine to prevent the car from reaching speeds above that posted limit.  So, rather than using braking action to control speed, the S-Max will use the operation of the engine itself to prevent any lawlessness by the lead-footed driver.

The Ford S-Max is in line with a recent trend to use technology to force adherence to the law, whether it is through electronic ankle bracelets that control where people can and cannot go or proposals for cars that require you to pass a breathalyzer test or to fasten your seat belt before the ignition will engage.  Leave aside the issue of whether requiring complete compliance with the law at all times is always safe and smart — there are circumstances, for example, when exceeding the speed limit to get out of the way of other vehicles in a merging situation is the only prudent course — and consider, instead, what such technological controls do to affect concepts of personal morals and to encourage governmental intrusion into personal choice.

If you have no ability to break certain laws, do you even need to develop a personal code of ethical behavior that will apply to your daily life and help to guide your actions?  If you can’t make the wrong choice, what does the concept of personal choice really mean?  And if we start to accept routine technological controls on our behavior, will government entities be tempted to increase the range of controls, by enacting new laws that regulate behavior and by requiring further technological limitations on our ability to act freely?

The Ford S-Max is a long way from futuristic, sci-fi worlds where computer chips are implanted into human brains to rigorously control behavior, but every journey begins with a single step.  I’m not going to be in the market for an S-Max — if the choice is left up to me.

The Biology Of Conscience

Scientists at Oxford have made a fascinating discovery about the human brain. They have identified an area called the lateral frontal pole that focuses on considering alternative courses of action and comparing them to what we’ve actually done. Even more intriguing, their work shows that there is no similar area in the brains of monkeys.

The study used MRI scanning techniques to map neural pathways within the brain and determine which areas are connected to the ventrolateral frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain involved with language and cognitive flexibility. The studies allowed the scientists to identify the location and function of the lateral frontal pole, a bundle of neurons described as the size and shape of a Brussels sprout.

What really makes us human? One essential characteristic is comparing what we actually did to what we could have done — and then pondering endlessly about what we should have done. The concept of choice, and the identification, evaluation, and comparison of choices by the lateral frontal pole, lies at the root of many of the higher attributes of humans, because the concept of choice and causation leads inevitably to the concept of right and wrong. Philosophy, morals, ethics, and religious beliefs all argue about which choices are right and which are wrong and what considerations should go into how we make those choices. Should we pursue individual pleasure? Should we always try to act in furtherance of the greatest societal good?

These notions are all wrapped up in what we broadly call a conscience — which apparently lurks in the lateral frontal pole. It’s what makes us feel guilty and second-guess ourselves. It’s why Scrooge dreamed of Marley’s ghost. And it’s fascinating that monkeys, which have brains that are generally similar to the human brain, lack the section of the brain that engages in such activity. They apparently can steal a piece of fruit, happily gobble it down, and sleep soundly that night without a second thought or pang of guilt.

The next time you toss and turn at night, unable to sleep because you wonder whether you did the right thing, you can be sure the neurons in your lateral frontal pole are firing and churning away. We’ve got choice, and the lateral frontal pole ensures that we must live with the consequences.

Is Everything For Sale, And If So, Why?

Is everything for sale in America?  Have we reached the point where the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar has become too all-consuming?

An article in MarketWatch, published by The Wall Street Journal, discusses the teaching of Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, author of the recent book What Money Can’t Buy:  The Moral Limits of Markets.  Sandel posits that at some point over the past 30 years America crossed the line from a market economy to a “market society” in which virtually everything, such as naming rights to public buildings, ad space in school cafeterias, and carbon offsets, is for sale to the highest bidder.  A market economy is a tool for organizing activity in the most productive way, but a market society is one in which market values — rather than morals, ethics, religion, or other non-money-oriented concepts or belief systems — intrudes upon and governs our relationships and our behavior generally.

I’m a big fan of capitalism as an economic system.  Human history has proven that it is the most fair and effective way of allowing people to control their own destinies and create wealth, and no other system even comes close.  But Sandel has a point — there are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed.  When capitalism crosses those lines, the effect is corrupting and defeating of any selfless impulses that motivated the activity in the first place.  When public money is used to erect a public building and the structure is named after whichever large corporation or wealthy individual ponies up the most money for the naming rights, it detracts from the important public, communal element of the endeavor.  When a couple decides to have a child but pays a hefty price to a clinic to try to genetically engineer the perfect offspring, what are they really trying to accomplish?

I disagree with Sandel on one fundamental point.  He is quoted in the article as saying:  “We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.”  I don’t buy that — no pun intended.  I think part of the witches’ brew of developments that is leading us down the road to perdition is the notion that the public is never to blame for anything, that we are trapped and buffeted by forces beyond our control.  I think people can make a difference and can act morally and ethically; the thousands of acts of kindness and human decency that occurred after the Boston Marathon bombing, where strangers acted purely out of concern for their fellow man rather than concern for the bottom line, prove it.  Our challenge is to bring more, much more, of that same sense of ethical behavior to the public arena and to our everyday lives.