Have an ethical quandary? Beliefnet's wise and insightful ethicist will sort it out for you. Just ask.

Dear Joseph,
When I ride the train to work, I often find that the ticket I've paid for isn't collected, which leaves me free to use the ticket at a later date. I realize that using a ticket more than once is a form of stealing. A hard-and-fast rule would seem to be, don't use the ticket again and be done with it. But when I talked about it with my significant other, she pointed out that:
  • The trains in our area, through ineptitude or accidents, waste a significant portion of our time, so we're simply "getting our own back."
  • The excruciatingly high taxes we pay more than make up for any revenue lost by the transit authority.
  • If they really wanted our tickets, they'd collect them, and we're not responsible for their lack of responsibility.
I'd never dream of stealing from a person standing in front of me, but I often wonder if it's even possible to act in an immoral way toward an entity that exists only as a construct of the imagination, and whose corporate actions are sometimes unethical (for example, oil companies or lumber companies that hurt the environment). What are your thoughts on the matter?

Dear Ambivalent,
Your significant other argues that it's OK to cheat the transit authority because it has wasted your time on other occasions and you're getting your "own back." If so, why restrict such cheating to instances when the conductor accidentally fails to take your ticket? Why not just steal one? (Indeed, there have been widely publicized instances in New York City of people stealing Metrocards for use on the subway system.) Your partner is rationalizing, which, when you think about it, simply means using reason to justify what's wrong.

I'd offer a similar answer in response to her annoyance about the high taxes you're paying--an annoyance that I share but that doesn't justify stealing. In addition, cheating the transit authority seems like a pretty indirect and petty way to register such annoyance.

As for the transit authority's irresponsibility in not checking your tickets, the company might indeed have irresponsible employees. Does that mean you should take advantage of their irresponsibility? What does that say about your character?

More significantly, once you conclude that some cheating is right, where will it stop? What happens at the supermarket when a clerk accidentally gives you $10 more in change than you deserve? Will you reason to yourself: "She was irresponsible and that was her mistake, and I'm not responsible for her lack of responsibility"? Many people do keep the change, yet their hypocrisy is revealed if they don't stay silent when they're given too little change. Would you want to have such a person as your business partner?

To address your comment about lumber companies that pollute the environment: If you believe that they're morally wrong to do so, you should refuse to use their products. That would be a principled stand. But saying that because you find their behavior to be immoral on one issue, you'll cheat them on another, again sounds suspiciously like a rationalization.

Also, you describe the transit authority as "an entity that exists only as a construct of the imagination." But the transit authority, and all companies, even huge ones, are very real. They have shareholders and employees. If enough people cheat these companies, they'll go bankrupt, and the shareholders will lose the value of their investments, and the employees will lose their jobs. So much for the argument that you "would never dream of stealing from a person standing in front of me."

Finally, if someday you and your significant other have children, what do you want to teach them: "Hey, look how lucky we are. The conductor forgot to collect our tickets. Now we get to go again for free." Or alternatively: "The conductor made a mistake and forgot to take our tickets. Let's tell him, because it's not fair to take advantage of his mistake." I have a strong suspicion that parents who follow the latter course will raise finer children.

Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including "The Book of Jewish Values," just out from Bell Tower/Crown.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus