COMMENTARY: The Difference Between a Child’s Purse and a Dollar Bill

When Molly found a child’s purse with three quarters inside, she chanted, “Finders keepers, losers weepers.”

But her mom said the right thing to do was to return it to the person who lost it, and they went to the Lost and Found office.

A week later, Molly found a dollar bill on a table. “We’ve got to go to the Lost and Found again,” she said.

This time her mom replied, “That’s not necessary. It’s only a dollar.”

“But Mom,” Molly protested, “you said we have to find the owner.”

Mom was right to reject the “finders keepers” principle, but is there is a moral difference between returning a child’s purse and the dollar bill? I think so.

The value of found property is important ethically and practically. The more it’s worth, the more the loser is likely to suffer from its loss and make efforts to recover it. This imposes a higher duty on the finder.

It’s not just monetary worth that matters. It’s the value the owner attaches to the lost item that’s most important. Thus, the purse with three quarters was probably worth a lot more to the little girl who lost it than the dollar bill was to its owner. Can you imagine how happy she would be to get it back?

What’s at play here is a form of the Golden Rule: If you lost the property, how important would it be to you to get it back? At the core of ethics is caring for others and the willingness to go out of our way to bring pleasure to someone’s life or ease their pain.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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Comments 4

  1. What if it had been $10 or $100? Where does the the value make a difference?
    Wouldn’t it have been better for the Mom to say okay, and then leave it in an envelope at the lost and found with Molly’s name. If not recovered then it would be Molly’s. Mother is teaching a slippery slope, I think.

    1. I totally agree with Loretta. While there may appear to be a difference between a child’s purse with 75 cents vs. a dollar with no purse, the value is determined by the owner and not by the finder or the face value.

      For a person with a low income (or no income at all), that dollar could represent a significant percentage of his worth while $10 or even $100 could be an insignificant value to a wealthy man’s income. Who are we to decide how important that dollar might be to the person that lost it?

      We should be cultivating honesty and accountability in our children.

  2. I agree with Loretta and Cindy – how we respond when finding others’ property, regardless of perceived value, should be consistent and the right thing to do is to try to find the owner and barring that, passing on whatever we chanced upon to do something good for someone else (e.g., donating a found item or contributing found $ to a charitable cause or using it to pass on on a random act of kindness).

  3. Totally agree with Loretta. The principle is the same, and in teaching values to children we should be consistent. And uniform.

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