What would you do if a cash machine gave you £100 instead of £10? The law states that you should give the excess funds back, but most of us probably wouldn’t. A recent story on the BBC website reported that cash machines in Melbourne, Australia were giving out more money that they were supposed to. This drew quite a crowd, with people forming queues to take advantage of what one witness described as “free money”. But what are the moral implications of taking money from banks, and why would most of us feel like it’s not really stealing.
Simon Rippon of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics thinks that a person who takes money from a malfunctioning cash machine is often judged more leniently than someone else who takes cash that is accidentally left behind by the person in front of them. This is because it’s hard to identify an individual to sympathise with in the case of the backfiring ATM so it is easier for us to be more relaxed. Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine adds that “leading a moral life requires us to be the kind of person who does the right thing without always stopping to work out if we gain or lose by doing so,”
The message here seems to be that stealing is wrong no matter who it is from. If you want to live a moral life, then if you see a cash machine that is giving out free cash, reach for your phone, not to call your friends, but to tell the bank. Just like good old Kant said: It might not make you happy, but it will make you a better person.
Kantian Virtue – Anne Margaret Baxley – Philosophy Compass – Volume 2
Contemporary Virtue Ethics – Karen Stohr – Philosophy Compass – Volume 1