Mini-problems: The case of the lost notebook

I am fond of using mini-problems in ethics classes--tiny little every day questions of not very great significance.  The point of discussing them is that they don't arouse any distracting emotionality, and people don't "identify" with particular solutions (like they do when it comes to matters like abortion and gay marriage).  So you can have a dispassionate, exploratory discussion.  What's more, I think it's actually good for us to take such problems seriously, when they come up in real life. After all, it's not every day that a really serious, earth-shattering moral problem lands in our laps.  We need to prepare for the day when doing the right thing is going to matter a lot. 

So much for the preamble.  Here's a mini-problem I ran into recently--  My daughter desperately needed a sketchbook to do a quick assignment for her art class.  She'd been counting on using last year's sketchbook, but couldn't find it.  It was 9:30 pm, and we thought Target was our best bet, but it closed at 10.  We raced to Target and found one sketchbook in the art supplies section, but it looked a bit damaged.  We could find no other, so took it to the cash register. The cashier could find no price-tag, so sold it to us for a dollar.  When we got home, my daughter discovered the notebook had notes on the first few pages. It was actually someone's lost notebook, not Target merchandise.   If she returned it the next day, she'd have nothing to bring to art class, and she was sure she'd be penalized. If she kept it, the student would never recover his lost notebook. There was no phone number in the book, but there was a name.  What would have been the right thing to do?


Alan Cooper said...

I agree that the appropriateness of appropriating found items is an interesting source of ethical dilemmas.

If finding the lost book had led you to miss another opportunity to buy one then the act of losing it would have caused you some cost -which the one who lost it may have had some obligation to mitigate, but in the situation described it seems that there was no other missed opportunity so it's just as if you found the lost book on the street. (I don't consider the fact that you paid the store for it to be relevant as that cost to you was negligible and could easily be reversed.)

I think the obligation to not appropriate a found item depends on the difficulty of returning it (either to the owner or to the place where it was lost), combined with it's possible value to the owner. The value of the book to the owner is hard to estimate here but I do think is relevant. It would depend on the amount of work already in it and on whether it had a nice enough binding to have had sentimental value (as a gift perhaps).

If it was a simple cheap staple-bound notebook then I could see stealing some blank pages from the middle and perhaps even borrowing the cover before reconstructing it later for return to the owner.

But were there really no other options? (eg use loose paper for this assignment and subsequently insert it into a new notebook, or into the old one if you ever find it).

It's not the same situation, but a related dilemma that I find interesting is if you find a nice item on the street without identification and not of sufficient economic value to be handled by the police. If it is nice enough then the owner might return to look for it but if you leave it someone else might steal it. I think children have difficulty with this as they think "Someone else might steal it without even thinking and since I am thinking that makes me better than them and so more deserving. So I should steal it myself in order to avoid rewarding an even less deserving thief."

Wayne said...

I think I would return it for a couple of reasons....

First, in the very unlikely scenario that someone realizes that they've lost it, and lost it at Target, that is the place that they would look for it. Your daughter being inconvenienced because she doesn't have a notebook isn't really a pertinent concern I think. If convenience were a pertinent moral concern, then we would have all sorts of reasons for us not to be moral.

But on top of that, I think there was another minor moral wrong here. Target is profiting on the sale of something that it did not own. I would hope that sellers in the marketplace would not try to sell items that a customer just happens to find inside their store, but rather try to find its rightful owner. The alternative is that the store's lost and found section becomes their new discount merchandise area.

Jean Kazez said...

I've come around to thinking you really just can't legitimately buy something that belongs to someone already. So yeah, the right thing to do would have been to return the notebook. I can sleep OK, though, just because (1) it's a very small matter, and because (2) at the time of purchase we didn't know it belonged to someone already and (3) yesterday we did go back to find out if anyone was looking for a notebook (no!).