News & Views‌

Is honesty the best policy?

October 31, 2019 - 8:00am
David Surdam
Self check out machine

I recently went shopping with a friend. She went to a variety store and put several items in her basket.

At the checkout, she started conversing with the cashier. The cashier rang up most of the items but hadn’t rung up a phone card (retail value $39.99). I was wondering whether the cashier forgot to do so, because she was distracted by the conversation. I hasten to add that my friend was not purposely trying to distract the cashier.

What would be my ethical duty, if the cashier neglected to ring up the phone card? Should I have informed her: “Pardon me, but I think you forgot to ring up the phone card.”

This seems pretty straightforward. I should speak up. After all, if the cashier had rung up the phone card twice, I would have pointed out her error. Simple reciprocity demands that if we demand a correction for errors that go against us, we should demand a correction for errors that benefit us.

Suppose my friend did not notice that the cashier had failed to charge her for the phone card. I should not assume that her ethical standards coincide with mine. Perhaps my friend would feel gratified that I informed the cashier. Your friend might be miffed that I informed the cashier. “I could have used the $39.99,” she might retort. Your parents would probably tell you, “You don’t need that kind of friend.”

Consider, instead, that the cashier had been rude to us, and we decided to retaliate by not reporting the error. At times in our interactions with people, our response may be affected by the other person’s attitude or actions toward us. “The cashier was a real jerk; I’ll stiff her.” Of course, one flaw with this line of thinking is that the cashier may not ever realize you’ve retaliated (thereby reducing the satisfaction you might derive). Her cash register will balance, and the inventory miscount may be attributed to shoplifters (although most stores require cashiers to electronically set the value on the card).

You may have noticed that some stores are replacing almost all of the cashiers with scanners. Stores are hoping to reduce costs. Given the nature of retail, reducing cashiers may result in lower retail prices (or at least reduce the need to raise prices). Some customers enjoy scanning their items...when the machine work correctly. All too often, the scanners have some sort of glitch, and the customer must wait for a service person to remedy the problem. Other customers dislike scanning their items and find themselves tempted to skip scanning some items. Some customers may not like bagging their merchandise. They may rationalize this as some sort of payback for perceived inconvenience or reduction in service. Even if you operate on the dubious morality of an "eye for eye," the store did not initiate any injury by installing the scanner. Consumers may be holding an attitude of entitlement with regard to previous standards of service, but this just does not justify theft.

Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative would likely assert that it is never ethical to stiff the cashier or the store. Ethical practice is not predicated upon what the other party does. Even if the cashier acted rudely or inconvenienced you, Kant would insist that we honor our duty to be honest.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.


Headshot of David Surdam

David Surdam

Professor of Economics

University of Northern Iowa


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Submitted by Baron West on
Like mentioned above "Kant would insist that we honor our duty to be honest". I do believe that it is our duty to be honest people and to correct people when need be, in a pleasant manner. I like to consider myself an honest man and when certain situations arise I try to put myself in other people's shoes and ask myself what I would like someone to do if that were me. It is like the Golden Rule treat others the way you want to be treated. Even if the cashier were rude and unpleasant we don't know their life so who are we to judge them. For the most part I believe that honesty is the best policy even if it means hurting someone or getting someone in trouble. Now, I say all of this thinking that if I were the man in this story that I would make sure the cashier checked the item through but I do have to think whether I would speak up or not. I like to think that I would even though it is something as little as this but you just never know until you are actually faced with a decision.

Submitted by Allison Ries on
Is honesty the best policy? This seems like a straight-forward answer, but for so many this can be more complicated than it first presents. This situation is a little more complicated because as the friend standing aside and watching do I feel like it is my duty to say something, I'm not sure. Some might expect the customer to speak up and make sure it gets scanned, but others may feel it is the duty of anyone witnessing what's happening to speak up. I think at the end of the day I would feel the need to speak up and make sure everything got scanned. Even if the cashier was rude, I think it is everyone's best interest to be honest. This is much harder said than done though, depending on the situation.

Submitted by Ami on
This was a very interesting post! It was a great read and it really made me think about this issue in more depth. I have been in similar situations multiple times, and dealt with the difficult task of making this decision. Recently, when clocking out of work, my manager made a mistake. It said that I owed the restaurant $42, but she misread it and thought that the restaurant owed ME $42, so handed me the money. I double checked the receipt and corrected her mistake. I definitely could have used the money, but I would not have gotten any sleep for the rest of my life.

Submitted by Taylor Quiring on
I am in agreement with Kant for this particular situation regarding honesty. Perhaps part of the reason I agree with "honesty being the best policy" is how my parents raised me, to always do the right thing. Most of us have had similar situations to the article above, where the cashier forgets to scan something, or they give you too much change back. A few years back, I was shopping at Best Buy. When the cashier gave my change back, I realized she actually gave me more money as "change" than I gave her for purchasing my items all together. This was clearly a mistake. I followed the simple reciprocity and made her aware of this, because I knew it was the right thing to do and I would have asked for correct change if she shorted me.

Submitted by Matt Johnson on
This is a great situation to put yourself in. There are many ways to go about figuring out the ethical decision. I believe that there definitely needs to be something said or done to make an ethical decision for yourself, but I believe that it is up to the friend to make their own decisions. With that being said, I do not think that you should say anything to the cashier, but let your friend know that there was a mistake made so that it is up to them to make their own ethical decision. I believe at this point you have done everything that you can do because realistically it is not your situation to jump in on. From the perspective of the cashier, everyone makes mistakes and obviously, you'd want someone to speak up, but again you would think that the person that was purchasing the would make the ethical choice to point it out.

Submitted by Hunter Dark on
I agree with this article that people should be honest in all situations. Many people will say something if it is rung up twice, but very few will say that it was not rung up at all. I think that is one of the hardest parts about being honest. It can be hard to be honest in every situation. When we are in certain situations, we make excuses for why we are acting dishonestly. Perhaps that $40 could have bought groceries for the week that you desperately need. Honesty and ethics are some of the hardest things to master. Everyone has situations where they do believe they are honest people. However later the same day perhaps they steal a phone card. Some people choose not to be honest in certain situations as well. A big one for married men is "honey, do I look fat in this dress?". Of course I want to be honest in every situation, but I also would like to sleep in my bed tonight, rather than on the couch. We pick and choose our honest moments, but maybe that is a culture we should move away from.

Submitted by Fallyn Grubic on
I think it's important to be honest. If you already planned on buying the phone card, it's not like you are going to lose out on correcting the cashier. Ultimately $40 doesn't seem worth it because I would feel too guilty. Even if the cashier was rude and you stiffed her, the only benefit would be that you get to keep $40 for being dishonest while the cashier's drawer would still balance and the retaliation would have no direct effect on her. Kind of like the cliché philosophy of "two wrongs don't make a right." In this case that would be true. I think it's also worth noting that if we expect errors at our detriment to be corrected, then we should correct errors that detriment others, because really the "benefit" to us comes at the cost of being dishonest and that's not a good feeling.

Submitted by Nate McNamara on
I am all for being honest and being ethical. Honestly, if that were me I would have neglected to mention that the phone hadn't been rung up. By doing this, I save 40 dollars. I hold no bad feeling towards the store or cashier, I just think the feeling of saving 40 dollars is better than being honest and reminding the cashier to ring up the phone. While I realize this is wrong, I am just being honest. I think most people would not remind the cashier. Being ethical is easy enough and great but when it comes to saving/making money without consequences people will choose the "non-ethical" way.

Submitted by Alex on
I think it is easy to say that yes, honesty is the best policy. As for this example, as the friend just watching it happen, I don't know if I would feel comfortable informing the cashier she missed something. I would be afraid my friend would be angry at me even though she was planning on buying the product in the first place. In my own personally life I always try to be honest and correct information if it is wrong, so if I were the one checking out I would like to believe I would inform the cashier that she had missed an item. I feel like from a young age this notion of "honesty is the best policy" has been engrained in our mines so I would like to believe that others feel this way as well. It's a much happier world to live in when we choose to believe that people aren't inherently bad.

Submitted by Austin McConnell on
I believe that Kant is right and that honesty is the best policy. It may be the way I was raised, but whenever I am at a store, restaurant, or retail store, if somehow something does not get rung up, I will be truthful about it and let the cashier know. Nowadays, there are so many people out there that will try to save as much money as they can. If that means they sneak something past the cashier or do not let them know they did not ring something up, they will do it. Sometimes a person and cashier do not catch an item was not scanned, which is something you cannot do much about. While others might think it is okay to go ahead and save that $40, I am on the other end of the spectrum and would let the cashier know what they did not scan.