No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

This week with Ethicist Randy Cohen, we'll hear from a listener who thought she was doing a good deed, until her co-workers started making fun of her.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Admit it. If you find spare change lying around on the floor at work, you probably pick it up, right? Even pennies can be good luck. But listener Susanne Renault(ph) takes a more rigorous approach. She wrote this week's letter to the Ethicist, Randy Cohen, and we have her on the line now.

Hello, Susan.

Ms. SUSANNE RENAULT (Listener): Hello. Hi, Randy.

Mr. RANDY COHEN (Ethicist): Hello.

ELLIOTT: Susanne, you found a quarter at work and you say it's brought you nothing but trouble since?

Ms. RENAULT: That's correct. I have gotten nothing but ribbing from my colleagues about actually sending out an e-mail trying to return it to its rightful owner.

ELLIOTT: Where do you work?

Ms. RENAULT: I work at a law firm in New York City.

ELLIOTT: And what have people been telling you about that?

Ms. RENAULT: I got so many e-mails in response from people from our branch offices, from people saying if it's silver, it's mine, from people telling me if it has an eagle on the back, it's mine. I didn't get a single serious response. And people have just been at me about this for weeks.

ELLIOTT: I mean you're actually trying to be rather considerate.

Ms. RENAULT: I was trying to. I thought it was the right thing to do.

ELLIOTT: Did you ever find out who dropped the quarter?

Ms. RENAULT: No, I didn't. So actually, it is my quarter now.

Mr. COHEN: Well, I'd like to join in the chorus of people teasing you. Susanne, I'm afraid I'm with them. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive us all. Some of the mocking got at an essential point, it seems to me, that there was no conceivable way this could succeed. Who could identify this? So that your effort was doomed from the beginning.

Also while it's true people reasonably ask, well, what's the cut-off for having to return money? Is it a thousand dollars? Do I have to return that? If I find a hundred dollars, is that too trivial, can I keep that? Well, I think most of us would agree, no.

But I often think, most of us would agree that a quarter is well below that threshold. And the amount of effort you took, not just your own effort, you sent out an e-mail to all of these - I am assuming very well-paid lawyers. The time it took for all of them to read it, the time it took for all of them to respond - you know, it takes a lot of time to prepare...

Ms. RENAULT: Well, actually, I sent it to more than the lawyers. I sent it to all users in order to reach the staff as well, for whom a quarter might be a more significant amount than for the lawyers. And it took me all of about 20 seconds.

Ms. RENAULT: Yeah, but it took - I gather scores of people took some time each to read this, that when you calculate how much effort it took, you have to calculate their effort too. And you know, for them to prepare some high-quality teasing, that takes time. You can't just throw off, you know, minor mockery. These are trained professionals. That you have to calculate all that. And it seems to me what you did was indeed a grotesque waste of effort. There's a phrase that I suspect you know, and it's de minimis non curat lex. Do you know that one?

Ms. RENAULT: Of course I do.

Mr. COHEN: Would you say it for the kids at home who don't? We all haven't gone to law school. And by we I mean me.

Ms. RENAULT: The law has no concern for trifles.

Mr. COHEN: Right. The law does not concern itself with trifles. And I think ethics is the same way. Ethics doesn't demand that we be saintly. It doesn't demand that we be pure. Ethics is an invitation to behave like decent, honorable, reasonable people. And that allows some casual mishaps of daily life. You drop a quarter now and then. You find a quarter now and then. It all balances out. And that's ethically satisfying.

Ms. RENAULT: Okay, well, we can agree to disagree, but can we also agree that any cost has been offset by the entertainment value?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: Oh, I hope that won't show up on your taxes too. I certainly agree with that. It seems to me you've given your colleagues hours of pleasure in teasing you. But I think if you find a quarter, keep the quarter.

Ms. RENAULT: Okay.

ELLIOTT: Or if you're worried about who dropped it, just leave it there. And maybe they will come back and find it or if somebody else will pick up and it will be their ethical dilemma.

Susanne Renault, thanks for writing to the Ethicist.

Ms. RENAULT: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Ethicist Randy Cohen answers your questions every month on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and he also accepts any money you may have found under your desk.

If you'd like your question answered, write to us. Go to our Web site, npr.org, click on Contact Us. Select WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, put the word ethics in the subject line, and please include a phone number where we can reach you.

Randy, thank you very much.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you, Debbie.

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