This week I led the first of two in-class Ethics Bowl sessions in a fourth and fifth grade class. The sessions involve analyzing one of the cases written for the Middle School Ethics Bowl this year. The case, “The Mischarging Mishap,” describes the dilemma Evan faces when he realizes that he has been mistakenly undercharged $50 by the small family-owned business at which he shops. He needs the money, but he wonders what will happen at the store when the mistake is discovered. Will the cashier have to pay the money? How will the store make up the lost revenue?

The students spent some time thinking about the issue and then we had a lively 45-minute conversation about it. Many of the students said that he should return the $50 to the store, primarily because it is a small local business and is already struggling. We talked about whether it would make a difference if the store was a large chain instead, and most of the students seemed to think it would. As one student said, “Fifty dollars is not very much money at all to a store like Target.” But another student disagreed, saying that it wouldn’t make a difference because the money still doesn’t belong to Evan. “It might be less important to the store if it was a huge chain, but the size of the store doesn’t change the fact that it’s not his money.”

We then talked about whether, if Evan keeps the money, that counts as stealing. Many students did not think so. “If he went into the store and took the money,” one student said, “that would be stealing. But the money came to him accidentally. So it isn’t stealing.” Another student voiced a different view. “It wasn’t stealing when he took the money home from the store, because he didn’t know he had the $50. But when he gets home and realizes it, and then decides to keep the money, that’s stealing. He knows it isn’t his money.”

“I think timing has a lot to do with whether it is stealing or not,” said a third student. “If when he was at the store he was asked to confirm the amount, and he did knowing it wasn’t right, that would be stealing. But when he gets home and realizes he has more money than he should, that’s not stealing. Or maybe it still is, but it seems less wrong than when he’s at the store.” I have discussed this case now with several groups, including college students and adults, and this was a perspective I had not heard before. As was the view of another student, who noted that Evan has to consider the inconvenience to himself of returning to the store to give the money back, pointing out that it wasn’t Evan’s mistake and, given that he might not have a car and might not have the time to go back to the store, the cost to himself is an important factor to consider in deciding whether to return the money.

On student articulated the view that Evan should think about “the greater good” and try to weigh the potential harm to himself (letting go of the money, the inconvenience, and not being able to use the funds for other pressing needs) against the possible harm to the store and the people who work there. And another student suggested that even if Evan decides it’s okay to keep the money, the guilt he would feel about keeping something that didn’t belong to him might lead to him deciding this was the wrong decision after all.

Next week we will have a mini Ethics Bowl event, in which two teams of five students each will give presentations about the case, engage in an open dialogue with one another, and respond to judges’ questions. The judges will include some of the other students in the class. The initial discussion itself was so inspiring that I can’t wait to see what next week will bring!

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