Dr Matthew Beard

Ethics Centre: Can I pay what I want at the checkout?

Approx Reading Time-10In a new series with The Ethics Centre, we take a look at your questions. First up, who am I hurting with my fudging at the self-checkout?

 


Navigating our agency and knowing we’ve made correct decisions is a real doozy for some of the more introspective minds out there. “Should I have tipped more?”, “Did I handle this situation correctly?”, “Am I becoming too much like Larry David?”.

Thankfully, The Big Smoke has teamed up with The Ethics Centre in order to provide answers to all of your most pressing ethical dilemmas. Today, Mark, 23, wants to know whether a bit of a white lie at the self-service checkout constitutes theft or not.

Read on, and have your say below. (Anonymously of course!)

Australia has a love/hate relationship with the big supermarkets and also a growing fear of robots taking over our jobs. So when the major supermarkets put self-help checkouts, many of my friends started to weigh premium products on the scale but say they were a potato or carrots. It meant we could buy a tray of lamb chops for the price of a bag of carrots! I would feel bad about this if it were any other store or situation but since they are saving money on customer service and staff I don’t think it’s so bad. Is it theft?
— Mark, 23

Dr Matthew Beard – The Ethics Centre:

Sorry Mark, this is definitely theft. You and your friends are taking things that don’t belong to them (because they haven’t paid the price for them), which is the definition of theft.

It seems to me that what you really want to know is whether this kind of theft is ethically justified or not. You’ve rationalised your actions by making the supermarkets out as the bad guys, which makes you and your mates the heroes in a kind of Robin Hood way, but you should probably think twice before you end up more like the Sheriff of Nottingham – believing yourself to be entitled to things you’re not.

First, there’s nothing intrinsically unethical about a company saving money and cutting costs. If every company who made a decision to save money was therefore “fair game” for theft, our economy would be going to hell in a handbasket. We shouldn’t get upset about cost saving measures unless they’re done in a way that mistreats people.

So, are self-help checkouts mistreating people? According to a Coles spokesperson, they haven’t cut staff members due to assisted checkouts and they’ve increased the speed with which you can get in and out of the store. So do you have any evidence for believing the automatic counters are bad? If not, you can see where this is going, right?

Ethicists like me tend to distinguish between “reasons” and “rationalisations”. We use reasons to find evidence, weigh arguments and critically assess our options before we make a decision. Rationalisations occur after we’ve already made a decision and want to justify our action to ourselves or others. They often mask unconscious bias or self-interested motivations. You need to ask whether you have good reasons for stealing or whether you’re just rationalising what you’ve done.

A business ethicist named Joseph Heath calls rationalisations like yours “techniques of neutralisation” – they happen when someone denies that the rules which would usually apply in a similar situation apply to them in their situation. The denial neutralises the sense of personal responsibility.

Sound familiar? “I would feel bad about this if it were any other store or situation but…”

Unless you’ve got better reasons than the ones you’ve provided here, it sounds like your thieving is nothing more than opportunism masquerading as morality. Start paying for your lamb chops, Mark.

Have your own dilemma? Get in touch with Ethi-call, The Ethics Centre’s free national helpline, and book a call with their counsellors to help you think it through’

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One Comment;

  1. Karen Joyce said:

    Even assuming that supermarkets are “bad guys”, it seems imprudent to steal from “bad guys”. We might find ourselves living out a replay from No Country For Old Men. I think Cormac McCarthy’s book shows depth of insight into those situations, despite the grim narrative. There is a quote from this book with direct relevance to the ethical question under discussion here. “Good people don’t need much policing.”

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