Another Moral Quandary

Posted: May 9, 2009 in Ethics and Morality

The main character in Steinbeck’s novel, “The Winter of Our Discontent”, shows how one can justify one’s actions without regard to their ethical, moral, or legal strictures. The following is another set of actions that flirts with the illegal, if not unethical, actions that emanate from the same person.

The person I am writing about has twice returned money to a bank that was given to him from that bank’s machine. In both cases this s. o. b. could have just taken the money and the only consequences might have been the person who made the mistake could have lost his/her job. Our hero didn’t think about that unintended consequence when he made the decision to take the money into the bank and give it to the person at the teller’s window, in the first instance, and information desk in the second. All that was going through his mind at the moment of decision was “it is the right thing to do”. Never mind that banks weren’t his favorite institutions: what, with their excessive overdraft charges. A pretty good case has been made that banks recover way too much by making these charges. The actual cost of the overdraft to the bank is minimal. It has the practical effect of deterring the practice of intentionally withdrawing more than what’s in an account to cover expenses because the actual cost to the bank, and by charging the customer, is so minute that it could even be less than the prevailing interest rate on loans. This widespread could lead to a frenzy of “robbing Peter (the bank) to pay Paul (in some cases, the bank).

Which brings me to the ethical standard that our hero breached when he occasionally “kited” a check by depositing it into one of his banks’ machines – knowing it wouldn’t clear the other bank before the next day – and withdrawing the cash to spend for a day because he knew he would have the funds to cover the check the next day. Was he costing either bank anything by doing this? The answer to that is, “no, because the money isn’t transferred from bank #2 to bank #1 until the next day whether the money was in bank #2 on the day the check was deposited or not.” There is no loss to anyone and the perpetrator gains the use of the money for a day. Don’t banks do this kind of thing regularly? Of course they do. Of course if it becomes too widespread it becomes a problem to the economic system. But on a small scale it is absolutely of no cost to anyone.

This is a case of moral relativism over absolutism that can ham-string personal financial decisions. I didn’t mention that the perpetrator stood to save money by having this money available to him the last day of a sale for something he needed to enhance his sleep. That sleep was important to his job performance that goes to safety. Does moral absolutism trump relativism when such a laudable goal is the reason for the ethical lapse?

Now, let’s consider the roll of politics in all of this. If there is the appearance of a lack of ethics in a practice, don’t do it. It can be the end of a political career. And, to the extent that there are similarities between political and private positions, it could affect the end of any career. Nobody has ever said that employers are any more logical in their decisions than the electorate. I’ve actually known of two people who lost their jobs because of a practice that didn’t cost his employer anything: selling products that were going to be discarded whether they were sold by the employee or not.

Moral absolutism can be harmful when applied to inhibit practices that can have a beneficial effect. Another example of this is research that requires embryonic stem-cell destruction. If the cells aren’t used for research that could save or improve lives they will be discarded! Isn’t that a wasteful implementation of the concept of moral absolutism? Now, that the pope has been relegated to the lot of fallible people I make the case that there is no absolute moral authority. Anyone who says that God is the person that determines what’s moral and what’s not is speaking foolishness; considering how “God” is a different person when defined by different people. So, I make the case that moral absolutism is an oxymoron, is it not?


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