Is Honesty for Chumps?

| Tue Feb. 15, 2011 8:28 AM EST

It was those last few days before payday, a time when my bank balance dwindles to pathetic figures like $13.26 or $26.70. And guess what I find lying on the street? A wallet. Not just any wallet, a monogrammed leather wallet belonging to a partner of a multinational, corporate law firm, with CASH STILL IN IT. There's also an American Express gold card and a Bank of America debit card. Woo hoo, right?

Not so fast. I couldn't take the money, and certainly not the cards. I would feel too guilty. This didn't make sense to me. In the world of incomes, he's a fat polar bear and I'm a runt seal with a deformed flipper. It's not like a fifty-something lawyer who lives right on the park would miss $52, but it's a lot of money to me. It would be sticking it to The Man (I think to myself) to take the cash. I'll give him the rest of his wallet (driver's license, work ID card, credit cards) back. Even then, I couldn't put the bills in my own wallet. Why the hell not?

Part of why I couldn't take the cash, though I was sorely tempted, is it would violate my sense of fairness. It's his money, not mine. Scientists have found an instinct for equality in humans. Even dogs and monkeys understand fairness, and get upset when its balance tips. There's debate over whether human fairness is innate or learned behavior, but a study published in Science magazine last March (PDF) indicated the latter. It found that people in larger, integrated societies are more likely to require fairness and more likely to punish people acting selfishly than smaller societies. 

As large societies evolved, the authors say, they took the standards of honesty expected from family members and transposed them onto strangers. How else could we trust a stranger to drive us safely or take our money and give us food in return? Punishment of people who didn't act fairly increased along with population size, as did social standing of those who behaved selflessly. It's no coincidence that world religions co-evolved along with these standards. Religion is a pretty good way of making someone your "brother," either by sharing the same heavenly father or by promoting/rewarding selfless behavior.

Now, this is all very well and good, but it's very abstract when you've got $52 of a corporate lawyer's money in your hot little hands. What wasn't abstract were the two friends who were with me when I found the wallet. Even if I had insisted on keeping the cash, their disapproval of that action would have inflicted an emotional or societal penalty on me. In addition, I do see myself as an honest person, and that self-image would have been tarnished if I took the money. So, with some regret, I called the lawyer and asked him to come get his wallet, cash and all.

Seems the lawyer had some sense of societal fairness himself. When he came to reclaim the wallet at the cafe where I was eating, he offered to pay for my meal. The bill wasn't $52, but it still felt fair.

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