When you pick up a dollar on the ground, do you feel guilty about it? Is it the same as stealing? Should it be considered stealing? This modern Socratic dialogue explores this issue.
A young man was walking down a suburban street when a car drove by. He glanced over and as it passed, a dollar bill flew out of the window and landed on the pavement. As he knelt down to pick it up, an old man on the other side of the street yelled over, “Hey what are you doing, kid?”
The young man shrugged his shoulders and responded, “Finders keepers.”
The old man hobbled over and glared at the young man, “You’ve got to hand that over to the police station son, that dollar belongs to the person who was in that car.”
“Look old man, it’s just a dollar, relax.”
“Relax, you want me to relax when I see a hooligan like you engaged in the act of thievery!”
“Thievery, what? Don’t tell me you’ve never picked up a dollar before.”
“Never, I swear by Franklin Delano that I’ve never done such a thing, and I’ll tell you why, because it’s wrong boy, it’s wrong!”
“Why is it wrong?”
“Use your brain! Don’t you know anything? You’re a spring chicken, wet behind the ears, green as a sick sailor! But let met ask you, why don’t you think it’s wrong to pick up and keep someone else’s money?
“I told you, because it’s just a dollar.”
“What do you mean it’s just a dollar?”
“I mean that it’s worth so little, that it doesn’t really matter if I pick it up, just like it doesn’t really matter if I pick up a quarter or a penny.
The old man squinted at the young man in bewilderment, as if he had just said the most nonsensical thing in the world, “So you’re saying that if an amount of money is small enough, it doesn’t count as stealing when you pick it up and keep it for yourself?”
“So if the amount is large enough, it would count as stealing, right?
“So, if the driver dropped a million dollars instead of a single dollar, to pick up and keep that million would be stealing?”
“What if the driver dropped 10,000 dollars?”
“That would definitely be stealing.”
“What if he dropped 1,000 dollars?”
“That would still be stealing.”
“What if it were 50 dollars?”
The young man paused this time, “Umm.. still would probably be stealing.”
“Ok, how about 20 dollars?”
“20 dollars is probably where I would draw the line. Picking up 20 dollars or more would be stealing, but anything less would not be.”
“Ok, good sonny, now you’re getting somewhere. You’re arbitrary limit of stealing is 20 dollars, and I’m calling it arbitrary because I’m sure it’s different for different people, some might say their limit is 50 bucks or 100 or even 1000, but I’m going to show you now why having any stealing limit is absurd. Ready to get educated boy?”
The young man chuckled, “Sure old man, educate me.”
“Ok, so picking up 20 dollars is stealing, but picking up 19.99 is not, is that correct?”
“I don’t know, 20 dollars just seems like the amount I would start to feel guilty over if I kept the money.”
The old man showed even more bewilderment, “You’re setting a limit for stealing based on your feelings? Really? Ever thought of using your head? but never mind that, let me ask you this: If the 20 dollars belonged to a millionaire, you wouldn’t feel guilty at all about keeping it, right?
“What if that 20 dollars belonged to someone who was making 100,000 dollars a year?
“I still wouldn’t feel guilty.”
What if that 20 dollars belonged to someone making 50,000 a year?
“Ok, I see where you’re going with this. If the person makes 20,000 dollars a year or less, I would feel bad about taking 20 dollars from him or her.
“Is that before taxes or after?”
“Are you serious old man?”
“Hahaha, I’m just messing with you sport, lighten up a little. You young people are too uptight these days, but anyways I’m disappointed that once again, you have to rely on your feelings to come up with that salary limit. So just to be clear, you would only feel bad about taking 20 dollars from someone if he or she made 20,000 dollars or less a year?”
“So, you feel bad about taking 0.1% of someone’s wealth.
“You did that in your head?”
“Yes, unlike you, I have a brain, it’s really not that difficult, 20 out of 20,000 is the same as 2 out of 2 thousand, which is the same as 1 out of...”
“Ok, spare me the details, what’s your point mister?”
“My point is, if you feel guilty about taking .1% or 1000thof someone’s wealth, then you should also feel guilty if that dollar that you just picked up off the ground belongs to someone who only has a thousand dollars or less.”
“So, do you know that the dollar you hold doesn’t belong to someone who has less than a grand to his or her name?”
“No, I don’t.”
“So why don’t you hand it over to the police station?”
“Come on old man, how many people have less than 1000 bucks?”
“Lots, there are the unemployed, the homeless, children, teenagers, more people than you think. Listen here, you could be depriving a child of a significant portion of his or her wealth.”
The boy paused a little, “Well when you put it that way…
The old man smiled, “You see how your feelings aren’t really helpful here?”
The young man rolled his eyes, “Look if your only argument is that this dollar might belong to a poor person, well, I don’t buy that argument, no pun intended.”
The old man was furious, “Don’t you dare roll your eyes at me! You don’t buy the argument because you don’t understand it. My whole point was to show you that drawing any kind of limit for stealing is useless because the value of money for each person varies based on how much money that person makes. For rich people, that dollar is worth nothing, but for poor people, it’s worth a lot. But let’s push that issue aside and look at another thing you’re not considering. Regardless of how much money a person has, would you physically take a dollar from someone, even a millionaire?”
“Well, no I wouldn’t.”
“Ok, if you wouldn’t directly take money from someone, then why would you indirectly take money from them that they have dropped on the ground? Aren’t they both essentially the same thing, stealing?”
“I don’t see it that way.”
“If you carelessly drop a dollar, or any other small change, you give up your right to that money and it’s okay for someone like me to come along and pick it up. By dropping your dollar, you are giving up your right to keep that dollar.”
The old man stared at him seriously for a few seconds but then burst out laughing, “What an ignoramus, you’re falling into another trap, ahahahaha!”
“Um, I don’t see what’s so funny.”
Catching his breath, the old man responded, “Sorry, your stupidity is hilarious. Observe, based on your argument, if I walk by and a dollar falls out of my pocket, it’s my fault I wasn’t more careful with my money and therefore I no longer have the right to that money, is that correct?
“Well, what if I dropped 5 bucks?”
“Same thing, you would lose the right to that money.”
“What about 10 bucks?
“How about 100 bucks.”
“How about a thousand bucks?”
The young man paused, “Ummm, No, the person who dropped a thousand bucks would not give up his or her right to that money.”
How about 900 bucks.”
“Ok, look, 1000 dollars would be where I would draw the line. Anyone who drops less than a thousand dollars gives up his or her right to that money.”
“Ok, good, so let me recap here, you’re telling that you would feel guilty about picking up any amount of money 20 dollars or more, since that was your stealing limit, but at the same time, you’re saying that a person who drops less than a thousand dollars has relinquished his or her right to that money. How can you have a stealing limit of 20 bucks and a relinquishing limit of 1000? Based on your logic, if someone dropped 500 bucks, he would relinquish his right to that money, but you, as a casual passerby, would feel guilty about picking it up.”
“Ok, ok, my stealing limit and relinquishing limit are both 20 bucks.”
“Good, at least you’re consistent now. Consistent, but still incoherent. Here’s a new issue: How can someone who drops 20 dollars relinquish his right to that piece of paper, but someone who drops 30 dollars still preserve his right to keep that money? Why does the value of the bill affect the person’s right to keep the bill? If a person has the right to his money, then he has just that, a right to his money, no matter what the value of that money is. How do you explain yourself?”
The young man was very frustrated at this point, “LOOK OLD MAN, I DON’T KNOW, OKAY!”
“If you can’t justify your claim, then you shouldn’t hold to it, and you still haven’t successfully shown why taking that dollar off the ground isn’t the same as stealing.”
“FINE! WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO?”
“Turn it in to the police, there’s a station right around the corner, you know what, I’ll save you the trouble, give it here, I’ll take it for you so you can think about the lesson you just learned.”
Exasperated, the young man took the dollar bill, crumpled it up, dropped it into the old man’s hand, and walked away, cursing under his breath.
Smoothing out the dollar bill, the old man held it up into the sunlight, and watched the young man disappear in the distance. He chuckled, pocketed the dollar and said, “What a sucker.”