Have you ever felt bad about cutting someone off in traffic? When you take a free sample at the supermarket, do you feel compelled to purchase the product, or at least pretend you will? It’s rare to face the kind of life-defining, Schindler’s List–esque dilemmas that make heroes or criminals. But almost every day, many of us come across some small moral predicament whose consequences seem insignificant but that nonetheless (sometimes surprisingly) get our consciences wagging their fingers. Don’t lie, cheat, steal, or kill is pretty clear—but what if you’re just stealing a stamp from your employer or telling a fib to your nagging spouse? And what if everyone else is doing it, too?
It would be easy to get the opinion of an ethics professor, someone who has spent his or her career weighing history’s philosophical arguments on right and wrong and distilling a coherent view of what it means to be moral. But if ethics boils down to the Golden Rule—do unto others—then perhaps it’s not an academic definition we should be interested in, but the wisdom of the common conscience. If we believe (or hope) that others are acting in the way in which they would like to be treated, then how are they acting, particularly when no one’s looking?
I set out to conduct a (very informal) survey of 23 friends whom I consider ethical people. Offering them anonymity (names have been changed), I asked them to answer honestly some questions about everyday ethics. A few of their responses surprised me.
1. Is it okay to use work supplies or mail for personal purposes?
Yes with Reservations: 9
Most of the “yea” respondents qualified their answers by stressing moderation. “Did I print out personal documents on company paper? Yes,” explained Sarah, Pilates instructor and escapee from the corporate world. “Did I take the company computer home? No.”
Others’ opinions on dipping into the company supply closet were tied to their feelings about their jobs, particularly in terms of whether they felt appreciated or appropriately compensated. “Yes. I get paid $32K a year to work 12-hour days. You owe me that stamp!” expressed a writer friend. Nina, an elementary-school teacher, ’fessed up to taking home toilet paper, after noting how little money she makes.
One respondent, a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., said the culture of the office influences his “borrowing” habits. “When I worked on the Hill, I never used office supplies for personal use. At this job, I do at times.”
However, even respondents who believed it was not okay to use work supplies for personal purposes admitted to moments of weakness. “No,” answered Samantha, who works in retail, “but that doesn’t mean I’m always good about not using an envelope here and there.”