On my first day back at school, my roommate and I were walking down Commonwealth Avenue when we came across a Louis Vuitton wallet lying on the sidewalk. We groped through it inquisitively and found more than $400.
We had stumbled on a virtual goldmine and an ethical landmine.
I stood slightly dumbfounded in the middle of the sidewalk, waiting a while to see if anyone came by to get it. After about five minutes of that, we moved to Plan B: Take the wallet and try and find the person later on.
Over the next few days, we had no real luck finding the owner, who we deduced was a wealthy Thai girl based on her name. There was no identification, besides her four credit cards, and she was not listed on the Boston University directory. We didn’t trust the cops enough to just hand the wallet to them, so we eventually began asking around for advice from our friends. The responses were varied:
A couple of my friends said we should buy an ounce of weed and have a huge blunt session. Some said we should give it to charity, others said we should keep it. Maybe throw a rager, or convert it all to singles and go to a strip club.
These were all plausible ideas, and tempting in their own right, but there were other aspects we needed to consider.’
We had heard that the rule for found money is that after three weeks, if the owner hasn’t made a claim, it is up for grabs. With this lingering in the back of our minds, we sat on the cash, making half-hearted attempts to return it. Yes, we could have called the credit card companies, but we just didn’t.
The first and most pressing issue at hand was the long arm of Karma. We couldn’t just take the money, split it and spend it willy nilly. I knew that the forces of nature would come back to haunt me, and I didn’t want any dark omens lurking over my conscience. We decided that if after the three weeks no one had collected the money, we would keep it but would also give at least $100 to charity.
Then brilliance struck. We resolved to use a substantial proportion of the money to host a party. We would charge $5 at the door, and all the profits would go to a charity. This way, people would feel morally obliged to pay up and when they awoke the next day feeling substantially worse about themselves both physically and morally, they would still find solace in their charitable act the night before. It was a harmonious amalgamation of hedonism and altruism.
The three weeks came, and we threw the party. It went off well; no one puked, people paid and the cops didn’t show up. We raised $100 for Horizons for Homeless Children, and our tainted ethics had been substantially cleansed. We kept the capital in what we called the ‘party fund,’ with the hope that we could do the same thing in the future.
My roommate and I split the remaining money, but even today ‘-‘- one month after the party ‘-‘- I still have moral qualms about the whole thing. Did our guilt-fueled motives for the party overshadow our altruistic overtones? Had we really done a good thing by generating profits and donating them to charity? Or should we have just been adamant about finding the girl and returning the money? Perhaps she was just going to use that cash to go on a spending spree on Newbury Street anyways, or maybe she needed it to pay for her sick grandmother’s brain surgery.
The more I thought about it, the more complex the question became. When I asked others what they would have done in my situation, many said they would have kept the money without asking questions. They figured anyone stupid enough to lose a Louis V. wallet with $400 in it deserved to be inadvertently robbed.
Others chastised me as a crook for not having given it back. I even got labeled as a poor man’s Robin Hood, having pretended to steal from the rich and give to the poor, while in actuality I was cashing out big.
We can never really tell what people would do when placed in the same situation. In such instances actions and words fall short of each other. Sure you can say that you’d return the money in full, or that you’d give it all to charity, but how many struggling college students would really pass up having an extra four hund-o in their pocket? Many would consider that just plain stupid.
Perhaps I am just a fraudulent pessimist, but in a competitive money-driven world like ours, moral ideals such as altruism are a rare breed. Modern ethics are not objective standards, but rather subjective choices malleable to circumstance.
Diptesh Soni, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, is a weekly columnist for The Daily Free Press. He can be reached at [email protected]