Betsy Speicher

Moral Dilemma #1

87 posts in this topic

You have a right to something someone gives you after it has been given to you - but not before.
...you don't have a right to any value that others "give" you...

Could you clarify this for me?

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Or, less crocodiles!  :angry:

Hmmmm, Objectivist crocks. Maybe for those how are thick skinned.

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Why doesn't the proactive transfer of ownership require the proper intent?

Because intent is next to impossible to determine. It is not possible to read someone else's mind.

Unless one is mentally incapacitated or under age, a person is considered responsible for his actions. If I give you something - well, I gave it to you and it is a done deal. If I gave it to you in error, as a responsible human being, I must be prepared to take the consequences and try to be more careful about such things in the future. If the situation is one of those where it is very obvious that an error was involved and you are in a position to return the property without a significant amount of inconvenience on your part, hopefully, you are a moral individual who is does not wish to acquire the unearned by exploiting such circumstances and will do the right thing and give the property back. But I cannot claim any sort of right which would legally compel you to return it to me. My mistakes do not impose any sort of burden or obligation on your part - especially in cases where correcting the mistake would impose a burden on you.

Let's say that you are a student who waits tables to make ends meet and one evening a customer who gave you lots of compliments during his meal leaves you a $100 tip. Such tips are rare but not unheard of. Let's say that, as a result of your sudden, unexpected windfall, you decide to attend a concert that you have really been wanting to go to but were not planning on because the expense would jeopardize your ability to meet your other financial obligations such as rent, tuition, etc. Now, let's say that the day after the concert the customer comes back to tell you that he made a mistake and that he only intended to leave you a $10 tip and that he wants the $90 back. You no longer have that $90 - and the only money that you have is already earmarked for rent and even paying it back in installments would be a huge burden to you because, as a struggling student, your finances are constantly very tight.

In this case, you would not be under any legal obligation to give the money back and I would even go so far as to say that you would not even be under a moral obligation. You cannot be expected to undergo financial hardship in order to correct the other person's mistake. You were being financially responsible in making the decision not to attend the concert. His giving you the $100 changed your financial context and you acted accordingly. To demand that you give the money back would require that you pay the economic burden for the mistake - not the person who made the mistake. Nor were you acting inappropriately by spending the $100 that was given to you. A waiter cannot be expected to place large tips into some sort of escrow account just in case the customers did not really intend to give them. It is entirely proper to operate under the premise that, if a customer leaves you a tip, the tip is there because the customer intended for you to have it. Since you cannot read minds, the only basis that you have to go on is the customer's actions. If those actions turned out to be in error - well, the burden of the error is on the person who made it, not the person who happened to be the unintended beneficiary.

Ownership is not a physical thing. There exists no "ownership" in the object. It only exists in the mind of man as a concept.

I am not sure what any of this has to do with the issue at hand.

At any rate, if you own something, you have the ability to exert direct or indirect control over that which you own - which is a physical thing. Furthermore, the basis of your right of ownership in something is the fact that the person who initially produced it had to exert physical and mental effort to bring it into existence in the first place - plus the fact that, if you bought the item as opposed to receiving it as a gift, you, too, had to exert physical and mental effort in order to produce the values you traded in exchange for it. This makes ownership a very physical thing.

To transfer such a "thing" as property rights, a purposeful action on the part of the giver is required, not a mistake.

Incorrect. Assuming that a person is not insane or underage, all that is required is the action. Whether or not that action is "purposeful" is something that no other human being necessarily has any way of knowing nor has any control over. YOU are responsible for your actions and for what you do with your property. You cannot demand that people read your mind in order to spare you from the consequences of your errors and/or irresponsibility. Go back to my example of the $100 tip.

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You have a right to something someone gives you after it has been given to you - but not before.
...you don't have a right to any value that others "give" you...

Could you clarify this for me?

I am afraid that I don't know how to be more clear than I have already been.

Other people's property belongs to them, not me. I do not have any inherent right to property which does not belong to me and cannot claim any right to demand that other people transfer the ownership of their property over to me. But once somebody does transfer ownership of a piece of property over to me, it now belongs to me and I now have a right to it.

In the above "and I now have a right to it" refers to a legal property right. That is not necessarily the same as saying that the situation is morally right. Moral rights and legal rights are not always the same thing. There are all sorts of actions which are profoundly immoral but which are very much within my rights to engage in.

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What I meant was in one post you said you have a right to things that have been given to you, and in the other you said that you dont have a right to things that have been given to you. These statements are appparently contradictory, but maybe I missed something.

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What I meant was in one post you said you have a right to things that have been given to you, and in the other you said that you dont have a right to things that have been given to you.  These statements are appparently contradictory, but maybe I missed something.

The difference is that one statement was meant to refer to the state of affairs before the item was given while the other was meant to refer to the state of affairs after it was given.

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The difference is that one statement was meant to refer to the state of affairs before the item was given while the other was meant to refer to the state of affairs after it was given.

It did not appear that way at first. Thank you for clarifying.

Because intent is next to impossible...

I would agree intent is next to impossible to determine. I would also agree that people are responsible for their actions. This, however, is ultimately my point:

If the situation is one of those where it is very obvious that an error was involved and you are in a position to return the property without a significant amount of inconvenience on your part, hopefully, you are a moral individual who is does not wish to acquire the unearned by exploiting such circumstances and will do the right thing and give the property back. But I cannot claim any sort of right which would legally compel you to return it to me. [emphasis added]

The question originally posed was:

What would you do? And WHY?

I would make the company aware of their mistake and return the property because it is the morally good action to take, legality notwithstanding.

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Because intent is next to impossible to determine.  It is not possible to read someone else's mind. 

Quite true, yet there is a lot we can reasonably infer about someone else's intentions based on his actions. Relying on that, we take actions like your student who bought the concert tickets.

This issue -- determining what someone really meant to do -- has been analyzed for centuries in the common law and the result has been some rather elegant and sensible answers to the question in various contexts.

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When you had cable TV installed, the technician told you that it would take a few days for the central office to hook up.  Until then, you would get the premium channels (worth $40 a month) for free.  It is four months later, and you are still getting unscrambled premium channels free.

What would you do?  And WHY?

As soon as I realized that I wasn't getting charged past the introductory period, I would call up the company and tell them about it. I want honest relationships between myself and the people I do business with. And good will. I want to deserve to be treated honestly and respectully, and to know that I deserve it. So I do the honest and respectful thing. (Also, if I didn't want the premium channels, I'd cancel them.)

The first time I'd call, I'd do it for those reasons.

If it goes on longer, I might call a second time... although I must say that I get involved in my life and this kind of thing might keep getting forgotten until, say, I'm lying in bed at night, when nobody would answer my call anyway.

And besides, you know how companies sometimes keep you on canned music for a long time. That's no good. I have a life to live.

So why the second call? This time it would not be for honesty and benevolence's sake, but to try to get something done so that I don't wind up with a big hunky bill all at once. And if I got one more bill that didn't charge for the premium channels (even if I wanted them) I might cancel them just to make sure I didn't get a big bill all at once that I'd have to pay off. I hate paying off accumulated bills, and if it wasn't my fault I'd hate it even more!

But once I'd made that effort - and I'd get the name of the person I'd talked to each time and keep a record of the conversations - if I still kept getting the premium service, I'd let the issue drop. If I liked the channels, I'd go ahead and watch them. They're coming into my home, unbidden.

It's not as if I'm using up goods, as far as I understand it. Pictures and sound are coming into my tv set. But that doesn't make the sender any poorer, really - I mean it's not as if they can't sell a particular physical item to a paying customer because a non-paying one has it in her possession.

I've done the honest thing. I've done the benevolent, considerate thing. And I've been put out to do it, because of their error. They need to get some competent employees on the job and stop putting their customer out! And if they

I will then feel secure in my right to refuse to pay any charges after I had cancelled the premium channels, even if I get to enjoy them through their error.

And I will have a light and happy conscience!

Sydney Kendall

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I've done the honest thing.  I've done the benevolent, considerate thing.  And I've been put out to do it, because of their error.  They need to get some competent employees on the job and stop putting their customer out!  And if they

Oops! How'd I miss that?

I meant to say that if they then tried to charge me, I would have the record of conversations and the names of employees I spoke with - and hopefully the company would have a record as well - to show that I had cancelled the channels and had made a good effort to get the problem solved. I can't get soaked for it.

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Stephen,

I have a question concerning the discussion between Freecapitalist and you.

Taking the assumption that:

A.)Morality is based upon the actions of an individual,

And focusing only on the morality of that one individual and the actions that they chose (the benefactor of the "free" cable),

I am curious about what action you think that individual (the individual being the benefactor of the cable-not the man who made the mistake) is taking that could be deemed immoral?

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Stephen,

I have a question concerning the discussion between Freecapitalist and you. 

Taking the assumption that:

A.)Morality is based upon the actions of an individual,

And focusing only on the morality of that one individual and the actions that they chose (the benefactor of the "free" cable),

I am curious about what action you think that individual (the individual being the benefactor of the cable-not the man who made the mistake) is taking that could be deemed immoral?

Utilizing something he has no right to use.

Now, let me ask you a question. For the diamond, would you tell the company that you received the wrong diamond, one worth four times the amount of the one you ordered and paid for?

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Utilizing something he has no right to use.

Now, let me ask you a question. For the diamond, would you tell the company that you received the wrong diamond, one worth four times the amount of the one you ordered and paid for?

This is where I think the two scenarios are different.

How can he have no right to use it, when he was granted the "right" by the company itself? The agreement made by the company and him stated that he could recieve this service for a certain period of time.

The diamonds however are different. By purchasing the first set of diamonds, he made an agreement with the company for that specific set of diamonds. After recieving a different kind of diamond than the one he truly purchased, the moral thing to do in this case is contact the company and discuss the situation. The man would be immoral if he kept them because he did not actually make the trade for these diamonds. This is similar to paying for a $6 item with a $10 bill, and getting a $5 back. That one extra dollar is not yours-you and the trader agreed to $6. Even though it was a mistake, the agreement is two way-and you playing off the error of the person you are trading with is a manipulative action-akin to stealing.

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This is where I think the two scenarios are different.

How can he have no right to use it, when he was granted the "right" by the company itself?  The agreement made by the company and him stated that he could recieve this service for a certain period of time.

That "certain period of time" was "a few days": as stated it was a consequence of getting his account established. But now that short time has gone by, and he is receiving $40 a month worth of premium channels that he knows were not intended for him without payment for their value. In terms of fundamentals, there is no difference between this scenario and that of the diamond.

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That "certain period of time" was "a few days": as stated it was a consequence of getting his account established. But now that short time has gone by, and he is receiving $40 a month worth of premium channels that he knows were not intended for him without payment for their value. In terms of fundamentals, there is no difference between this scenario and that of the diamond.

Would morality then be dependent upon time?

Meaning-after a week had gone by, you would still be moral to not contact the company (though you may begin to wonder as to why it was taking so long to connect).

However, after months have gone by, and after observing the situation in a logical manner (it doesn't take months to turn on cable), the moral action would be to contact the company.

I think I am starting to understand what you mean by your position.

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That "certain period of time" was "a few days": as stated it was a consequence of getting his account established. But now that short time has gone by, and he is receiving $40 a month worth of premium channels that he knows were not intended for him without payment for their value. In terms of fundamentals, there is no difference between this scenario and that of the diamond.

Would morality then be dependent upon time?

I would not put it quite that way, though certainly time is involved. There was an informal understanding that it would take a few days for the account to be set up properly.

Meaning-after a week had gone by, you would still be moral to not contact the company (though you may begin to wonder as to why it was taking so long to connect).

I think it is a matter of reasonable judgment. One week for me would be sufficient to contact the company.

However, after months have gone by, and after observing the situation in a logical manner (it doesn't take months to turn on cable), the moral action would be to contact the company.

Yes, but I would not think it would take "months" to figure out that a mistake has been made.

I think I am starting to understand what you mean by your position.

Good. Now, the next question is ... assuming with all diligence you notified the company more than once of the problem, and yet after months the situation still exists. Would it then be morally proper to use the premium channels?

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Stephen, your comments brought up an interesting question to me:

Suppose that someone mistakenly gives me back too much change. It would be immoral for me to keep a value that I hadn't earned, so I could not in good conscience keep it.

...but does it matter what I do with it? Could I simply drop it on the ground, or am I obliged to acutally return it? Would dropping it count as "disposing" of it (an act only properly done by the owner)? If I am obliged to return it, that doesn't seem right either... how does another person's mistake impose an obligation on me?

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Hmm...I'm going to repost because the quotes were messed up-feel free to delete my other post.

I would not put it quite that way, though certainly time is involved. There was an informal understanding that it would take a few days for the account to be set up properly.

I think it is a matter of reasonable judgment. One week for me would be sufficient to contact the company.

Yes, but I would not think it would take "months" to figure out that a mistake has been made.

I think we have reached an understanding (you just put it better than I)-and I will say that I agree.

Good. Now, the next question is ... assuming with all diligence you notified the company more than once of the problem, and yet after months the situation still exists. Would it then be morally proper to use the premium channels?

I think that the same standards would apply-however this time, you would have to practice self restraint. This means that, though the channels may still exist-you should practice restraint and not view them (In the same way as, though software exists to download music immorally, self restraint pushes one in the direction of moral purchase).

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Stephen, your comments brought up an interesting question to me:

Suppose that someone mistakenly gives me back too much change. It would be immoral for me to keep a value that I hadn't earned, so I could not in good conscience keep it.

...but does it matter what I do with it? Could I simply drop it on the ground, or am I obliged to acutally return it? Would dropping it count as "disposing" of it (an act only properly done by the owner)? If I am obliged to return it, that doesn't seem right either... how does another person's mistake impose an obligation on me?

Permit me, if you will, to turn this around. Let's say that when your receive the change the clerk gives you a wink and tells you he gave you more than was proper because he does not like the owner of the store. Would you ask if that person's act "impose an obligation to me?" The point is, whether the reason you received the extra money was by mistake or by deceitful purpose, that money does not belong to you and it should be returned to its rightful owner.

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Good. Now, the next question is ... assuming with all diligence you notified the company more than once of the problem, and yet after months the situation still exists. Would it then be morally proper to use the premium channels?

I think that the same standards would apply-however this time, you would have to practice self restraint. This means that, though the channels may still exist-you should practice restraint and not view them (In the same way as, though software exists to download music immorally, self restraint pushes one in the direction of moral purchase).

Okay. Then let's say that you really do want to view the premium channels, and you are willing to pay the amount that is required. You have contacted the company and told them that by their error you mistakenly continue to receive the premium channels, but you now want them and ask that the monthly charge be added to your bill. You are now enjoying the premium channels, but when you receive the monthly bill there is no charge for the service. What do you do?

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Okay. Then let's say that you really do want to view the premium channels, and you are willing to pay the amount that is required. You have contacted the company and told them that by their error you mistakenly continue to receive the premium channels, but you now want them and ask that the monthly charge be added to your bill. You are now enjoying the premium channels, but when you receive the monthly bill there is no charge for the service. What do you do?

My first action would be to re-contact the company. I would describe the situation, explain that I desire to pay, and ask them to please bill me twice the next month (one for the month not billed, and one for the next month). If upon the next bill I am still not being charged for the premium channels, then I would leave the company and find business elsewhere. I would not want to work with a company who has given me such grief.

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My first action would be to re-contact the company.  I would describe the situation, explain that I desire to pay, and ask them to please bill me twice the next month (one for the month not billed, and one for the next month).  If upon the next bill I am still not being charged for the premium channels, then I would leave the company and find business elsewhere.  I would not want to work with a company who has given me such grief.

Okay. Then let's say that the cable company is the only available source for premium channels, and you really, really want to be able to watch the shows on those channels. You continue to receive the channels, but despite your best efforts -- contacting the company many times -- they still have not billed you. Would you continue to watch the channels even if their failure to bill went on indefinitely?

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Okay. Then let's say that the cable company is the only available source for premium channels, and you really, really want to be able to watch the shows on those channels. You continue to receive the channels, but despite your best efforts -- contacting the company many times -- they still have not billed you. Would you continue to watch the channels even if their failure to bill went on indefinitely?

Then it comes down to a single decision-which do you value greater? Honesty/Justice, or the Premium Channels. In the end, I would choose my virtues over the premium channels as they have a much higher value than the channels. Of course, I would feel a loss because I greatly enjoyed the channels-and from time to time I would check back in with the company to see if they would be willing to bill me for them. In the mean

time, I would retain my integrity.

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Then it comes down to a single decision-which do you value greater?  Honesty/Justice, or the Premium Channels.  In the end, I would choose my virtues over the premium channels as they have a much higher value than the channels.  Of course, I would feel a loss because I greatly enjoyed the channels-and from time to time I would check back in with the company to see if they would be willing to bill me for them.  In the mean     

time, I would retain my integrity.

I have enjoyed this little back and forth we have had, and I appreciate how each step of the way you are focused on doing the proper thing. But, I suspect that my next response here may surprise you.

Even though we are intent on doing what is right and good, there can come a time when our efforts in that regard become a sacrifice. When you have done everthing reasonably possible, with all due diligence, why should you be made to suffer from someone else's inability to act properly on their own. It is not as if you tapped into the cable system of your neighbor; instead the cable company voluntarily installed the system upon your request. And it is not that you attempted to avoid payment for what your received; in fact, you went out of your way to appraise them that you were not being billed, several different times in several different ways. And it is not as if you would not find another source for the cable channels you want; you discovered that the company is the only source available.

Given all this, I would say that at this point you should not sacrifice yourself and instead sit back and enjoy the cable channels that you wanted so much. You might want to put aside in your bank account the money that the cable company would have otherwise received, just in case some day they get their act together and finally bill you as you have continually asked them to do. (I do not know the law well-enough to know if after a time you could not be back-billed, but just assume whatever the law allows or permits, that you would plan for accordingly.)

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