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No one knows more about life's ethical dilemmas than Randy Cohen. After spending over a decade answering readers' questions for the New York Times Magazine column The Ethicist, Cohen has[…]

Is it ethical to profit from someone else’s innocent error? Former New York Times columnist Randy Cohen answers the first in a series of Big Think readers’ ethical questions.

Randy Cohen: Here’s the essential point, it’s not right to profit from someone else’s innocent error.  And I your own life, if you drop your wallet on the street, you expect people to return it with the cash in it.  Your innocent error ought not be… I’m sorry, someone’s innocent error ought not be… someone’s innocent is not meant to be a profit-making opportunity, that we have a kind of civic duty to… we have a kind of civic duty to play our part.  To return the lost property, to point out when the door to the bank has been left ajar not to simply exploit it.  I wouldn’t want to live in that kind of world. 

So in this case, you can exploit an innocent error even Time Warner’s, you know.  It’s hard… Time Warner, there are few pairs of initials that elicit less sympathy than TW.  Once we stopped having an “A” on the end of that, all hope was gone.  And yet, even though you may have harsh feelings about a person or an entity, you don’t sacrifice your moral values when you’re dealing with them.  That is good conduct doesn’t just flow to people you regard as good people.  You have a set of ethical principles that you apply to all people in all circumstances. 

So in this case it means, Time Warner has made an innocent error by leaving your cable packages…

Time Warner has made an innocent error by leaving you with the deluxe cable package even though you are paying for; I believe they regard as the cheap-skate package.  I think that’s how it’s designated on my bill.  You have to let them know. 

Now the second question becomes, well how hard do you have to try to let them know?  And you certainly don’t have to make it your life’s work to inform someone when they’ve made this kind of error.  So, one phone call, yes, absolutely.  Two phone calls, yeah, I’d say so.  That meets my standard.  After that, I would send them a letter, as much to protect yourself… as much to protect yourself should you receive a bill two years from now for 24 months of deluxe cable service to inform them.  But once you’ve made a good faith reasonable effort, and I realize these are ambiguous terms, to inform them about their error then they’re on their own.  You do not have to make it your life’s work to correct Time Warner’s sloppiness. 

There’s one other thing I wanted to add.  Oh, you’re suggestion that they might have intentionally left you with a more elaborate service than you paying for, I love that.  It assumes that they have a **** and complex business model that I doubt very seriously if they do.  That often when it seems that complex thinking is what informs other people’s behavior, no.  Incompetence is generally informs other people’s behavior and certainly mine.  That human history is much more amenable to that explanation.  Evil or inept; inept wins most of the time.  **** never evil, but inept often wins. 

And so, although I like this rationalization, and if it were compelling, it’s the one I’d use when someone intentionally left their car keys in their Porsche.  They meant me to take it. 

Question:  Great.  Can you just give another example of how, I don’t know, even particularly as kind of the way that business transactions happen today, where there’s less human being face-to-face kind of **** that all the time there could be clerical errors of this sort.  That this goes well beyond a cable company.  And sort of most areas of… you know, ordering books from Amazon.  Or whatever. 

Randy Cohen:  Sure.  The more impersonal our transactions become, the more we’re doing business online or compelled to navigate some appalling phone tree, the less inclined we are to treat the other person in the transaction as if it were in fact another person.  It becomes a faceless entity that doesn’t encourage generosity of spirit on my part.  The other fact too is that, billing errors almost invariable are to our disadvantage.  They certainly are at the supermarket.  And it’s so stunning, one feels so blessed, one feels so Leprechaun pot of goldie to find a billing error in our favor that the temptation to take advantage of it is pretty potent.  But don’t yield to it. 

When you get the wrong change at the supermarket, you really do have to say, “Oh, you’ve given me too much money.”  And the other aspect to this is, these exchanges… these moral exchanges have to be symmetrical.  That if you wouldn’t want someone to tell you that they have overcharged you then you have to tell them that they’ve undercharged you.  Ethics must have parity.  Ethics must have symmetry.  For an ethical proposition to be compelling, it must seem fair, no matter which seat you are in.