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 Luke Severson on
Looking at this topic, the ethical path is always the right move, but why do so many of us jump for the opportunity to go around it. There were many of people that would of brought the attention of the miss but also, so many that wouldn't have. So many factors being the ones that were brought up in the article, financial issues, or whatever it may be that impacts their decision. The biggest one that I am faced with is having the opportunity for free food. Coming from a some-what small town you know many people working at the local shops. A lot of the times it is restaurants, not only do you get faced with the decision of them giving you the discount, but I have realized they almost feel obligated to do so just because they know you. Ethical problems like this are brought to my attention a lot and I wonder if people are letting their outside impacts influence them to go with the unethical way.

Submitted by Brenda Vega on
Honesty should be something that all people value. I do, however, understand that it can be difficult to be honest all of the time. I think I would have spoken up about the phonecard not being scanned because I know it wasn't the intention of the cashier to not scan it nor the intention of my friend to get away with not paying for a $40 phonecard. I know of several people who have gotten away with not paying for items, whether it was an accident or not, and know that they did not go and inform an employee that they did not pay for an item. When a situation like this favors us, we may think that it wasn't our fault to avoid feeling guilty. On the other hand, when a situation does not favor us, we immediately want the situation to be resolved, such as pointing out if an item was accidentally scanned twice. In this case, I think it would be best to speak up and tell the cashier that the phonecard was not scanned, even though the customer was going to be the one benefiting from the cashier's mistake.

Submitted by Jeanette Kempe on
Even if it is not your items that are being rung up, it still reflects on you and your virtues. Even if you have no witnesses to know that you did not say anything, you will know yourself. This can be a slippery slope of "I got away with it once maybe I can do it again" mentality. If you do not speak up your friend may think differently of you as you think differently of them for trying to get away with it. Or the situation can be an honest mistake on both parties and both of them would want you to speak up. Your friend might also be offended for you not to speak up or accuse them of trying to get something free. In the end, no one is hurt when you are honest rather than everyone being hurt.

Submitted by Isaac Paul Lafleur on
I think this article brings up a good point of conversation. While it is relatively easy to identify the ethical thing to do in this situation, there are many real factors that contribute to why people don't make the ethical choice in everyday life. This important distinction is relevant for those making management decisions about say, to stay relevant to the example, controls to implement in a store. While most people would choose to do the ethical thing when they judge the situation and read it at home, there are real factors that influence some to cut corners. While the point I bring up is less about the question of ethicality and more about real life implementation with the results I observe, I think it is an important topic related to this article.

Submitted by Jake Houtakker on
I agree with with Kant on the opinion that honesty is the best policy but I only feel comfortable enforcing it when it involves me. If I were to notice I was accidentally undercharged by a significant amount it would make me feel uncomfortable to not have it fixed because I do not want someone else to get in trouble because of a mistake on my bill. Likewise if I was accidentally over charged I would hope that if the cashier noticed in time they would inform me. Similar to Kant if I saw someone being under charged I would not speak up, I don't feel like it's my responsibility and I do not feel comfortable involving myself in other peoples situations.

Submitted by Kelsey Feldmann on
This post was an interesting topic that I feel most people don't talk about. Most people don't intend on stealing something from a store but may notice that they didn't get charged for an item when they get home and I would assume probably no one is going to go back to fix that mistake. In my many years of being a cashier, I have on accident let some people walk out of the store without actually purchasing and item because it was under the cart and I didn't see it until they started to walk away. With my experiences, I always feel like it is easier to just not say anything and go on with your day because in all honesty who is a few dollars going to hurt? I think with the do it ourselves scanners they are going to be some people who don't scan some items on purpose but those people are probably already the ones throwing items in their pockets or something of the sorts.

Submitted by Emilie Thalacker on
I think that almost everyone would agree that the right thing to do in this situation would be to tell the cashier of the error, but how often does that happen? I think you bring up a good point that we might not tell the cashier of the error, if they undercharged us but if roles were to be reversed and they charged the customer twice, the customer would have spoke up instantly. An issue that I see going on today is with the self checkouts. I believe that this could enable more petty theft and more dishonesty. I think that honesty is something that all humans should value.

Submitted by Josie Hill on
In most cases, yes, honesty is the best policy. Lying or withholding information to your advantage is wrong. In the case of the cashier, the right thing to do is to notify the cashier of the mistake. If you could have "used the $39.99", then maybe you didn't need to purchase it. If I noticed a cashier missed one of my items, I would notify them. However, if I got home, looked at the receipt and noticed one of my items wasn't on there, I probably wouldn't go back to the store and tell them. Is that wrong? Is that stealing? I think it depends. If the cashier missed a $500 TV (not sure how), the right thing to do would be to go back to the store. If it was a $2 chocolate bar, I don't think its wrong to not go back to the store. Personally, the chocolate bar would probably be gone before I got home anyways. Is honesty the best policy? I think the answer to this question is situational, not a clear black and white response.

Submitted by Sean Moser on
I believe honesty is the best policy. Although getting the item unintentionally not paying for it would be nice, its still not the right thing to do. When picking up the item to buy, we are saying we are willing to pay the price. Why should that change at the registrar? It is very interesting to think about how the cashiers attitude can persuade the decision. I think we as humans consciously and unconsciously do this in our everyday lives. However, to do it continuously is not the best practice. To add along to this situation, people justify stiffing the cashier because the business is making a lot of money anyway.

Submitted by Kari Coulter on
My initial answer to this question, “Is Honesty the Best Policy?”, is yes. I personally believe you should be honest always, but that there can be exceptions such as keeping big news a secret or not being allowed to tell someone something for legal reasons. However, when reading this post, I was unsure how I would have reacted had I been the friend that witnessed the error. It is a lot different when it’s not related directly to yourself because I personally wouldn’t feel like it was my job to have to say something since it was my friend buying it and not me. I wouldn’t want my friend to be upset, but at the same time, I would feel the need to say something to the cashier because it is the honest thing to do. At the end of the day, if my friend went there knowing that she was planning on buying the phone card, my friend shouldn’t have a problem paying the money like she was supposed to. She went to the store with the intention to purchase it and not to ‘steal’. If it were me, I would say something regardless of if it made my friend mad. If my friend didn’t want to spend the money, then she could have returned it or decided to not get it. I would feel much better that I said something than if I had let it go and never mentioned it. I would feel a weight on my chest from not telling the truth and wouldn’t want to live with that.