The Ethical Dilemma: Pennies From Heaven?

Lots of questions for our advice columnist Joan Reisman-Brill this week! She tackles the ethics of bank errors in your favor and expands on the continuing debate over eating animals.

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Pennies From Heaven: This is not an ethical dilemma for me, but this story sparked some discussion in my humanist group. A local bank accidentally recorded a man’s deposit as $7,000 instead of $700. He immediately went out and spent the money. He was asked to return it but refused, saying he thought it was a gift from god.

Some in our group argued that the man was given the money and did not steal it outright, so he should not be obligated to return it. Some argued that it was clearly a mistake and he knew it was not his money, so he is morally obligated to give it back. I would like to know the humanist perspective on this so I can share the findings with our group.

–It’s Just an Extra Zero

Dear Zero,

The only difference between a humanist and a theist response in this case is that nonbelievers would never profess they assumed the extra bucks were a gift from a supernatural being. I hardly think it would be ethical for a sincere believer to keep the money while a realistic nonbeliever would have to give it back.

It often helps to look at a question from another side. What if the bank had recorded $70 instead of $700? Would that mean that the man was being divinely punished, and should just accept his fate without protest? Can you imagine anyone, no matter how devout, responding like that? Or consider when a cashier gives you change for a $20 bill when you only gave her a ten. Is it right to pocket the money and let her have to make up the difference at the end of her shift, or should you give it back? Conversely, if you gave her a twenty and she only gave you change for ten, you’d certainly demand a recount.

Clearly, this guy knew darn well that the extra zero was an error—he moved faster than a speeding bullet to take the money and run before the bank caught the mistake, which it did an hour later. He didn’t steal the money initially, but he refused to rectify the obvious mistake in his favor. It would be a different story if no one noticed the error until days, weeks or months later—when he really could have made the case that he’d innocently spent it and didn’t have it to return. Then the right thing would be for the bank to give him a lenient repayment plan, or perhaps reduce or forgive the debt because it was their error. But the fact is they contacted him just two hours after the transaction, before he really could have used it for his kid’s college tuition or blown it in Vegas.

Of course, legal and ethical are not the same thing. The man could get a lawyer to look into the legal precedents and regulations for banks that make errors in their clients’ favor. There must be circumstances in which the bank is out of luck and the customer gets to keep the change. And certainly some people feel that banks don’t deserve the same standard of ethical treatment as would a friend who accidentally handed you $7,000 for a $700 debt. But in ethical terms, this guy is just using god as an excuse to appropriate something he knows isn’t rightfully his. Nice try, but it doesn’t fly.



Humanist for Animals: I am a humanist who is vegan for ethical reasons (although I also appreciate the health benefits). I think it’s wrong to eat animals or use them for eggs, milk, clothing, sport or experiments. Most Western religions don’t support my views. The Bible is full of animal sacrifice and feasts where beasts are slaughtered. But I would expect a more evolved worldview such as humanism to take a stand against animal exploitation. Is that happening, and if not, is there some way I can start that ball rolling?

–Thou Shalt Not Kill Animals

Dear Thou,

Sounds like you’d like to insert an E in humanism (i.e., humane-ism). While I expect humanists to support humane treatment of animals, it’s not our place to take a blanket stand on consuming or otherwise using animals. We leave it to religions to tell their followers what they can and can’t eat or wear or enjoy. But before I steer (pun intended) you to PETA,  I’d like to offer some food for thought.

You seem to think there’s no question that your perspective is the ethical and healthful one. Certainly the idea of butchering animals for our meals can be hard to swallow, and many people who give it some thought feel some degree of guilt or unease about how a cow became our hamburger or shoes–but then, surgery can also seem pretty ghastly, but most people try not to think too much about that process either, because they appreciate the benefits.

But let’s play “What would happen if everyone went vegan?” What about people who would not be able to survive without animal products, because other food is scarce where they live, or because of health or economic issues that make it difficult or impossible to get along on a strictly vegan regimen? What about people who would die without a cow or pig heart valve replacement, or medications for which there is no adequate animal-free alternative? What about crucial research studies that can’t be designed to yield useful information without animal testing? What about all the people whose livelihoods depend directly or indirectly on animal-related industries? And what would happen to the world-wide price and availability of beans if McDonald’s started selling billions of soyburgers?

Do you also oppose companion dogs for the blind, horses for recreational riding and police crowd control, beasts of burden that plow fields (to grow vegetables) where machinery is impractical, and house pets that bring joy to their owners and live better than many humans? While Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “I did not become a vegetarian for my health, I did it for the health of the chickens,” I think it was animal expert Temple Grandin who observed that if this thread were followed to its logical conclusion, the only place we’d find domestic animals– such as a few specimens of healthy chickens—would be in zoos (that is, if you wouldn’t also eliminate zoos).

I won’t get into all the health and environmental controversies raging around animal vs. animal-free living, other than to emphasize that they remain controversies that are by no means settled. Check out the recent HNN article by Dr. Ann Childers for more insights.

While there are some places such as Mongolia where people have for centuries thrived on pretty much nothing but meat and dairy (from horses and yaks, hold the vegetables), I haven’t been able to find evidence of any vegan societies predating the 1900s. And when people living where meat and dairy were traditionally scarce have had the opportunity to increase the amount of animal products in their lives, they literally eat it up. Perhaps it’s our human animal instincts.

It’s certainly laudable to opt for a cruelty-free lifestyle for yourself, and it’s definitely ethical to advocate for humane treatment of animals–but not to the point where it hurts people. When it comes to a choice between the health of a chicken and the health of a chicken farmer, humanists have to favor the human.


Bonus Religious Messages with Merchandise: I ordered a book of gardening tips (not Garden of Eden tips) and when I opened the box there was a stack of Jesus literature on top. I never dug my way down to the book—just taped it back up, wrote “Refused: Return to Sender” and dropped it off at the post office. I’m sure I can get a similar product without all that junk, and I don’t want to be supporting some faith-head organization. But was this the best way to handle it?

—No Pay for Pray

Dear Pay,

I used to phone-order a wonderful hand cream from a lady who whipped it up in her kitchen and just praised the lord all over me every time I called to reorder. After I silently boycotted for a while, my family demanded I get more of that cream (it really is the best). I discovered that in the interim she had mastered technology such that now I can order online without going through the well-meaning but nauseating personal blessings.

The problem with both your response and mine, however, is that the merchants have no idea why we rejected them. Yours may think you didn’t like the book, mine may have suspected I found a better cream. A more constructive tactic would be to communicate to these companies that their religious messages are such a turn-off we would rather not do business with them. These people need to recognize that there are customers out there who don’t buy their beliefs and may be offended by their proselytizing. Then they can decide whether to appease us heathens to keep our patronage, or proceed with their mission but without our support.