On Ethics and Character

What if you found a wallet stuffed with credit cards and $60 in cash – would you return the wallet to its owner? In a random poll conducted by DOSE Magazine , 58% of Canadians polled said they would keep it and 42% would return it. Does the poll accurately reflect the a person’s sense of righteousness or ethical bearing? Is keeping the wallet tantamount to theft, making the finder liable to the law for not turning in an item that is not his? What can you say about the rule of finders keepers, losers weepers? Is it fair game ? The 42% figure sounds improbable but a cousin of mine who lost her wallet on three occasions was fortunate enough to recover the item on all counts. She lost her wallet in the University of Toronto library, the subway station and the video store and in all cases, people called her house to give instructions on how to retrieve her wallet. Finding a lost wallet these days is deemed a long shot if not utterly bleak and the line between lost and found rests with the ethics or moral values of the finder. My cousin was incredibly lucky.

The recent convictions of corruption in the federal government had provoked the educators to revisit the reinstatement of the much criticized character education program, with plans of making it compulsory curriculum in its elementary schools. Risking the criticism of imposing their view of morality on children, a more serious question to the educators would be – can ethics be taught ? I remember when I was in grade school back in R.P. we had a subject called GMRC (Good Manners and Right Conduct). It was subject that dealt with the do’s and don’ts and I can say with certainty that the subject never had any influential effect on the student’s character development. Would a classroom curriculum on ethics be effective?

Here’s an excerpt from Albert Einstein’s short essay, :Why Socialism

Quote “Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being. As a solitary being, he attempts to protect his own existence and that of those who are closest to him, to satisfy his personal desires, and to develop his innate abilities. As a social being, he seeks to gain the recognition and affection of his fellow human beings, to share in their pleasures, to comfort them in their sorrows, and to improve their conditions of life. Only the existence of these varied, frequently conflicting strivings accounts for the special character of a man, and their specific combination determines the extent to which an individual can achieve an inner equilibrium and can contribute to the well-being of society. It is quite possible that the relative strength of these two drives is, in the main, fixed by inheritance. But the personality that finally emerges is largely formed by the environment in which a man happens to find himself during his development, by the structure of the society in which he grows up, by the tradition of that society, and by its appraisal of particular types of behavior. The abstract concept “society” means to the individual human being the sum total of his direct and indirect relations to his contemporaries and to all the people of earlier generations. The individual is able to think, feel, strive, and work by himself; but he depends so much upon society — in his physical, intellectual, and emotional existence — that it is impossible to think of him, or to understand him, outside the framework of society. It is “society” which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought; his life is made possible through the labor and the accomplishments of the many millions past and present who are all hidden behind the small word “society.” Unquote

Einstein’s suggestion that “ the physical, intellectual and emotional existence ; the forms of thought and most of the contents of thought” of a person are provided by society means that his character and ethical behavior are likewise molded, influenced and changed by his society. In this regard, the prevailing ethical conduct of people within a country is largely an expression of societal ethics and not the individual ethics of people. As in the case of R.P., many Pinoys discern right from wrong individually but fail miserably in the playing field .The reason is because corruption is a societal menace, so deeply entrenched and institutionalized that overwhelms the individual to the point of instant resignation. It is futile to expect a president on a single term of 6 years to rid of a corruption. A societal transformation cannot happen overnight. It may take decades or even centuries to extinguish the curse and set things right. Incidentally, it was also Einstein who said – “ the significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking we were at when we created them”. It also looks like sheer will to change might not be enough.

Note : photo courtesy of DOSE Magazine


27 Responses

  1. Interesting survey. But it’s possible that the respondent answered “Keep the wallet” because he didn’t want to go through the hassle of finding the owner for only $60 and a credit card which can be easily replaced. Had the question involved a greater amount of money and other important cards aside from the credit card, perhaps the survey could have obtained a different split of answers with more saying “Return the wallet”.

  2. Abaniko – THe hassle of returning is real but this wasn’t to be a factor in the survey. it was basically a test of ethics, whether the person was willing to return the wallet or not.

    In my cousin’s case for example, a message in her voice mail said that her wallet was with the library. In the second case a caller left a message saying that the wallet was in the Dundas subway ticket counter. The third case was the video rental store calling her directly.

  3. We Chinese have a saying that goes something like “In order to change society, you must start with the children”. We won’t expect much from our present crop of leaders, or even the next generation who will eventually replace them. The hope lies in our children… or their children.

  4. Sngl – makes sense. It really depends on the future generations to carry the banner. But at the rate RP’s population increases, the situation is bleak, when the overwhelming pressure to support a huge population base cancels out the modest financial gains the country achieves. People have been looking at the population problem in a sort of tongue in cheek fashion but the problem is real and could bust the country wide open.

  5. i’d return the wallet (or make the owner get it from me to avoid the hassle abaniko has pointed out) if i found one. just think, what if it happened to you? it would be really great if you got it back. i believe that good deeds don’t go unrewarded. it may not be instantly but eventually it will be.

  6. The problem of overpopulation could easily be licked had the Catholic church and its meddling priests minded their own business.

  7. I won’t keep the wallet. Probably not contact the owner directly but surrender it to the police or the lost and found.

    In my opinion, ethics and character is not taught, but rather modeled. And it starts at home. Usually children act depending on how their parents act.

  8. Ric – the golden rule definitely works and it’s sort of the foundation of ethics. I would return the wallet if I found it. Here in Canada it would not be a problem. I’d just go the the post office and mail it using the address on the driver’s license. I would probably spend 3 bucks for the hassle but that’s OK. I hope somebody would do it in case it happens to me!

  9. Singl – it is distressing to see the country go down the drain because someone simply don’t want to give people the freedom of choice with respect to birth control.


  10. Niceheart – ethics is definitely first learned at home. The child picks up the foundation of his ethics from his parents the moment he begins to reason and then gradually gets influenced by friends and society as he grows.

  11. i would return the wallet to lost and found minus the 60 bucks. thats my reward for returning all his ids and credit cards. He he he.

  12. What I’ve done in the past in NYC is drop the found wallet in the nearest mailbox. The postal employees will then contact the rightful owner.

    As for the Philippine system of government, as they say in America, you cannot have good government without good people. And good people most often foster solid integrity.

  13. Great to know that they do that in NYC Senor Enrique. Saves the trouble of mailing it to the owner. That’s some public service out there.

    Its really hard to dispute the theory that good people make good government. Over the years that I have lived in North America, I found that other than the issue of whether people are good or bad, there’s such a thing as spirit of citizenship, something that bonds all people together to work together for the common good of all. I am not sure where this “societal character” came from but I think it originated from the pioneering spirit of the founding fathers. The purpose why they came from all parts of Europe was to build a new world for their children and they did and the future generations who were born auttomatically carried on the legacy of nation building as if it was coded in their genes.

    Contrast this with Pinoys who were born out of conquest, told what to think and do by their colonizers for centuries and then onde day, lo and behold were left for fend for themselves!

  14. It is safe to say that a lot of our bad habits such as the Manana or procrastination and the art of corruption (especially in the government) are legacies handed down by the Spanish colonizers.

  15. Sngl – not only RP but Latin American countries have inherited the same traits. Other than the water people drank, there must have been something common that caused them to behave this way!

  16. Yeah, I read a study somewhere that every country that was colonized by Spain turned out nuts, including dear old RP. And those that were colonized by the Brits were left with an efficient civil service.

    Wish this country was colonized by the Brits… Maybe things would have been different.

  17. “i would return the wallet to lost and found minus the 60 bucks.”

    keeper_john, that is just downright mean. What if that wallet belonged to some liberal and that was his/her last $60? How the hell is he/she going to buy a bag of pot? Think of the children!

    “What I’ve done in the past in NYC is drop the found wallet in the nearest mailbox. The postal employees will then contact the rightful owner.”

    Senor Enrique, you sound like a good man. Anyone who would trust a NYC postal employee to return a wallet, with money inside, to the rightful owner must have a heart of gold.

    I remember a story about a year ago……. some guy found a brick of money (size of 3 or 4 shoe boxes) stretch wrapped and just laying on the ground. The amount was $250,000 and the guy actually carried the money to a police station (I believe it was a police station) and returned it. Somehow the money fell off an armored truck. The bank rewarded the guy. He received about $5 or 10 thousand. He’s lucky someone on the street didn’t kill him and take that money. Obviously he wasn’t in NY or LA J

  18. The wallet may still find its way back to the owner.. minus the 60 bucks! I will consider myself lucky to get my wallet and my id’s back minus the money. The hassle of getting your drivers license, health card, train pass would cost you waaay more time and money. Forget about ATM and credit cards – they could be reported lost and can be replaced anytime.

  19. This reminds me of the time I lost my wallet to those @#$#@ pickpockets….

  20. Usually, situations like this is very difficult to hypopthesize upon a poll survey. In my mind, until you experience it firsthand there’s really no knowing if for example you’d be willing to return 60 dollars in cash or about 3000 pesos. In Canada, this might be a negligible amount but in the Philippines, this amounts to almost a month’s salary of a menial worker. Einstein is right, a man’s ethics is very subjective, according to environment and culture.

  21. Major Tom, in theory, if people posses the same ethics, the economic condition of the person must not matter – they all should react the same way. But you are also right in that an empty stomach will compel a person to lower his ethical bar. However, when we look at the overall picture in RP, there is a general feeling that the most unethical people appear to be the wealthy and the previleged who are in govt, the way they plunder the country’s coffers. Now we wonder why, inspite of a full stomach, they have that strange compusion to steal and cheat.

  22. That compulsion I think is that age-old norm that “need is satiable,..but wants and desires are insatiable”. I believe that in our society, the propensity for vanity and self-aggrandizement is so patent that discipline and self-regulation is at the minimum. We all want that glossy car, that high mansion, fat bank accounts and expensive vacations to Bahamas. This want is all over the popular media we have,..as we are bombarded by come-ons to buy this and buy that. They want more even if they had to commit stealing and in this country, the risk of being caught seems to be nil, that those who are in power steal without any hesitation at all.

  23. There are greedy Americans as there are greedy Pinoys but why the total breakdown of controls on our part? Perplexing indeed.

  24. for me, ethics can be taught through deeds and actions. it doesnt need to be taught like some school subject. it needs to be seen so others will follow. in my kids’ school, there is a subject they call Values which they taught as useless – the teacher is plain lazy and what does that teaches them?

    i wouldnt keep the wallet. if that happens to me, i would want it returned – ‘do unto others what you want others do unto you’, so i will return it. as to keeping it and that as tantamount to being a theft, i beg to disagree. i’d like to give the benefit of the doubt that there is one considerable reason why a person would do keep the wallet.

  25. Well said.. The misery of the person who lost the wallet must not be cast upon the finder. Keeping it is not tantamount to stealing however, the finder’s conscience determines whether he keeps or returns it – and it here where ethics comes into play.

  26. Keep the darn $60 bucks. If I lost my wallet [again] and there was some cash in it, I wouldn’t expect to recover the money. The true hassle is the i.d. recovery. I’ve lost my wallet on numerous occasions – what a debacle!

  27. Irrealis – better tie your wallet onto your purse. You can’t afford to lose in anymore!

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