Remember back on the playground, when you lost a favorite knickknack and later saw another kid playing with it? “Finders keepers, losers weepers!” the finder chanted, and that was the end of it, for how could you challenge such a time-honored saying? It is not surprising that children would resort to this defense, but how can it be that so many adults seem never to have grown out of believing it?
Why does it make the local news when somebody finds and returns a full wallet? Returning a lost object shouldn’t be unusual; it should be part of the basic social contract binding every person in a civilized society. But if it were truly expected, it wouldn’t be news, and we wouldn’t hear about it.
In a 2002 study, Professor Mark West of the University of Michigan Law School “lost” 20 wallets in New York City, each containing $20. Only six (that is, 30%) were returned intact by their finders. West reported that in a survey conducted by Money magazine in 1994, 21% of 18-to-34-year-olds said that they would keep a found wallet that contained $1,000. In contrast, 17 of 20 lost wallets were returned in Tokyo, Japan, where West repeated his experiment. (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=316119)
Major world religions consider returning lost objects to be an ethical obligation. Under Massachusetts law, a found object must be reported to the police and returned to its owner if claimed, and similar laws exist throughout the world. Why do so many people in our society feel comfortable ignoring this nearly universal ethical and legal precept?
Have we turned from, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” to, “Do unto others whatever you can get away with”? From, “Do the right thing,” to, “Don’t get caught”? How else can we explain not just the disturbing statistics on returning lost objects, but also WorldCom, Enron, Ivan Boesky, and the other scandals that have come to light in recent years? Or how about the fact that over 20% of American taxpayers have lied at least once on their tax forms?
It’s not just about money, either. The next time you’re on an open highway, drive at the speed limit and watch how many drivers pass you by. Why do most drivers ignore speed limits? Why do drivers complain about “speed traps” as if it’s somehow wrong for the police to issue citations to drivers who violate the law?
“If everybody jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” is the clichéd response of every parent to every teenager. And yet, “Everybody does it, so why shouldn’t I?” is the rationalization of choice for today’s misbehaving adults. Why return a lost wallet when only a “sucker” would? Why drive the speed limit when nobody else does?
For our own sake, and for the sake of our children, we must do better.