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Everyday Philosophy: The quickest way to test your moral character

The “Shopping Cart Litmus Test” is a popular meme about morality. What does it really reveal about one’s character?
A diptych image: left side shows a row of shopping carts lined up, right side depicts a single shopping cart abandoned in a puddle, serving as a litmus test for societal behavior.
Credit: Donald Giannatti / Erik Mclean / Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • Welcome to Everyday Philosophy, the column where I use insights from the history of philosophy to help you navigate the daily dilemmas of modern life. 
  • This week, we look at the popular ethical question of the Shopping Cart Litmus Test
  • To dig into the idea, we call upon Plato’s Republic and 20th century sociology.

“Is the popular “Shopping Cart Litmus Test” a measure of a person’s worth?”

– Greg, US

This question made me feel like a bad philosopher. I had to Google the shopping cart litmus test, and when I did so, I discovered it’s all over the philosophy-leaning internet. It’s a modern morality meme. The test is about whether a person returns the shopping cart to its stack after a customer is finished with it. As the original, anonymous poster put it, “Returning the shopping cart is an easy, convenient task and one which we all recognize as the correct, appropriate thing to do… It is not illegal to abandon your shopping cart; no one will punish you for not returning the shopping cart. You must return the shopping cart because it is the right thing to do. Because it is correct.”

There are two ways we could go with this. The first is to consider the right and wrong of performative or observed moral behaviors. The assumption here is “no one will punish you,” and possibly no one is even watching, so does that add merit to the action or not? But I think I’ll consider the spirit in which the original dilemma was posted. Because the original poster claimed that “the shopping cart is what determines whether a person is a good or bad member of society.”

That wording of the post made me instantly think of Plato’s Republic, and we’re due a tour of the Athenian polymath’s work. I will compare Plato with Emile Durkheim’s ideas of socialization and the pedagogical construction of the self and wonder if we are all just the products of our society.

Plato: Live to the pull of the golden cord

The philosophical question that lies at the heart of the shopping cart test is whether a person has some kind of internal moral compass. And, if they have it, how strong is that compass? Whether you call it conscience, moral law, superego, or inner voice, the point is the same: we all have something inside of us that wants us to do the right thing. In Plato’s Republic, the metaphor was a puppet and its strings. According to Plato, we are all just “puppets of the gods,” and the strings that pull us around are our various impulsions, needs, desires, and cravings inside us. But not all the strings are the same.

The ”iron cords” are our more basic emotions and drives — things like pleasure, pain, fear, and lust. The “golden cord,” though, is our logismos, or self-mastery. It’s the glittering and magical thread inside each of us pulling our actions towards the good. For Plato, a good citizen is one who is the master of self-mastery. They have the same inner struggles and conflicts everyone has, but they are pulled by the golden cord. It’s equally easy and lazy for us all to abandon the shopping cart. We are equally pulled by the iron cord of lazy pleasure. But goodness comes in another way.

Plato’s puppet theory echoes his more popular chariot theory and fits in with his wider concept of a “good society.” Plato talks at length about how different parts of society have to fulfill their different, unique roles as best as they can in order for society to thrive. But, whether you’re a soldier, priest, merchant, or monarch, you will need the same universal virtue: logismos. Live by the pull of the golden cord.

Durkheim: The product of society

In his Republic, Plato made a big deal about the importance of education. We need to educate citizens about right and wrong. We need to model and encourage virtue. This idea of pedagogically constructing individuals was key to much of 20th-century sociology.

Durkheim was one of the first modern thinkers to call attention to how important the socialization stage is to any child’s development. A child is born as a moral blank slate; they do not know right and wrong but need to be induced into a society’s version of right and wrong. Our schools, curriculums, and education systems need to turn an “individual” into a “moral” being. Philosophers like Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault agreed with Durkheim and pointed out the more sinister, insidious effect of this “socialization.” One person’s “education” is another’s “brainwashing,” and there’s a thin line between teaching and indoctrination.

Let’s imagine a person who does not return the shopping cart. They throw their cart aside with the nonchalant flick of an ingrate with somewhere to be. Under Durkheim and Foucault’s view, how far can we blame that individual, and how far should we blame the sociological structure that gave rise to their behavior? Or, put another way, when did laziness, selfishness, and carelessness become acceptable behaviors? At some point in our hypothetical ingrate’s upbringing, they were not given the right virtues. They were not taught the right norms. Their golden cord was insufficiently polished.

More than just one person

Of course, the major shortcoming of the Shopping Cart Litmus Test is that one microbehavior cannot write off an entire human being. One moment of neglect or inconsideration does not make someone a bad egg. It’s possible, and likely, for someone to leave behind their shopping cart to also be a loving parent, supportive neighbor, and generous friend.

But I do think there’s something to this. Personally, I would come down more on Durkheim’s side (which isn’t that oppositional to Plato’s) and argue that the shopping cart litmus test tells us more about a community or a society than it does about any one individual. At the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the world was taken with how some Japanese supporters stayed behind after the game to help clean up. It was a simple act that seemed to make a general statement about an entire society. Likewise, with shopping carts. If you go to some countries, you might see shopping carts scattered all over the parking lot. In my own country, it’s not uncommon to find them in canals or overturned in a playground. In other places, though, you might see clean rows of well-stacked and promptly returned shopping trolleys. Humans are the same, everywhere, so why are their actions so different?

So, Greg, I’m going to agree with the Shopping Cart Test, but I’m going to argue it does more than tell you about an individual person’s moral compass. It tells you about the moral compass of an entire community.