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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 Faisal Yasin on
While reading about such situations it is easy to say " yes, one should speak up". But things are always harder when you are in the middle of it. But, the result should be the same whatever the attitude of the cashier was. At the end of the day they are just doing there job and they might be having a bad day. I am 100% sure that one would feel better if they spoke up no matter what the attitude of the cashier was because even if he cashier was purposefully being negative, you would be the better person at the end of the day, this is one way to think about it. On the other hand, you can just insist on honoring your duty of being honest as Kant suggested. Honesty can lead to unexpected results as well. I faced a similar situation where a restaurant didn't bill me for a meal and when I went back to notify them, they ended up leaving it off the bill. Even if it hurts, honesty usually leads to a better place.

Submitted by Ben Schmitz on
While reading this post, it was pretty easy to agree that being honest is definitely the best policy. There were some great ideas and concepts brought up that I think have crossed everyone’s mind at some point in time. I know there has been plenty of times where I have been in a horrible mood or the person on the other end is also having a bad day. Sometimes in these situations it is easy to think about screwing over the other person to gain some sort of benefit or to lift your mood. Even though this may give you some satisfaction, it probably wouldn’t last, and I know that I would feel guilty after the “high” wears off. This mainly goes for shoplifting or not paying for a good/service. There are times when it is okay to not give the full truth to spare someone some pain, but ultimately it is better to be honest. I know for me, I would rather have people around me telling the honest and brutal truth, than to cover it up with some sort of lie. Obviously this is all my opinion, but honesty says a lot about a person.

Submitted by Caiti Schaben on
This post highlights an 'uncomfortable' topic. Most of us would do nothing because it's not entirely our problem. However, because we knew that our friend was essentially stealing the item, if they get stopped, we are actually more guilty than our friend who is unknowingly stealing. We should speak up because we would if we were being charged twice. By bringing the product to the counter, we have already agreed to pay the asking price. Therefore, our friend should have no problem paying it. I find myself regularly watching the cashiers scan my items. Not because I feel they are trying to mess up, but because I am conscious of what I was willing to pay, and want to pay just that.

Submitted by Adrienne Tebbe on
I believe that honesty is the best policy, and I think it's our duty and it's just the right thing to do. I think that when you are honest that, either to help or hurt you, it best in the long run. I feel that when not being honest it always come back around to you in a negative way. Relating back to the article, even though the cashier was rude, I still believe that it's our duty to be honest, no matter the situation. It's an interesting shift when thinking on if being honest will hurt or help you, it always easy to be honest when it's going to help you, but when it's potentially going to hurt, now that's another question and much harder, but I feel we are obligated to do so. I also think that it is done my example, seeing my parents at a store and forgetting to pay for bananas, we always went back and paid for them, even though it might have been an inconvenience to us, but it was honesty and the right thing to do.

Submitted by Maggie Mathiasen on
It seems that this has been an ethical issue for a long time. I remember when I was six years old I went to get my haircut with my mom. At the salon there was this bucket full of miscellaneous items such as lotion, body wash, jewelry, etc. When I was looking through the bucket I found a cute ring that I wanted. Instead of telling my mom that I wanted to buy it, I put it on my finger and left the salon without paying. When my mom found out about this I was forced to walk back into the salon and tell my haircutter that I stole the ring. For me, this was a monumental moment of my childhood in realizing that stealing is not okay. When referring to this situation, I definitely would have said something to the cashier if the phone had not been rung up. In my opinion if you were willing to pay for it upfront, you should say something if they make a mistake. However, you never know what you friend would have done. I would have whispered to my friend that the cashier had not wrong up the phone and let my friend react however they wanted. For most of us this seems simple to say, but we may not know how to react in the moment.

Submitted by Katelyn Kramer on
I agree with Kant on this that no matter what the cashier has done to be rude that you should still be honest at what you do. It is moral standard to be honest and just because someone was rude does not justify for you to not be honest. That would be going against your moral standard. Also, if you are not honest with the cashier and you know that you are not being honest then that falls back on you and it is considered theft. It could come back to you and you could end up in trouble for doing so. Also, everyone has been rude to another person on some level when they are having a bad day etc. This could be you in any situation at your work , and you would not like to be put in that situation, so therefore you should not do it to other people.

Submitted by Luma Yasin on
If there's one thing I believe in, it is that lying about something or hiding the truth never ends well and the truth will always come out at the end. I think the situation here is a little bit complicated as we're taking into consideration if whether you should speak up about something that isn't necessarily directly related to you but to your friend. However, in that situation, I believe the best solution would be telling your friend that the phone card didn't get scanned and then it would be up to her to make the ethical decision of being honest, and you can play a role by saying your point of view which is that they have to tell the cashier about it. At least, that what I would do if I faced a similar situation, hoping my friend would listen to me and make the right decision. Regardless of whether the cashier was rude or not, I do think being honest is the best thing we can do as people. Generally speaking, honesty is difficult, otherwise, we wouldn’t resort to lying. But lying doesn't get anyone anywhere. Even if we might think that sometimes not being honest is best, we will end up regretting it in the long-term.

Submitted by Katie Taylor on
This post definitely got me thinking. While I would like to think that I am an honest person, a situation like this would stump me. On the one hand, it’s not really any of my business to intervene in the transaction, as it didn’t involve me. However not paying for the card is definitely stealing. This brings up a classic ethical dilemma. Do you speak up or do you let it slide? In situations like these talking about the problem is one thing, but having to act on it is another. If I were in this situation I would speak up that the card was missed, even if it was a bit awkward. I tend to be optimistic about other people. I would like to think that everyone in that store is an honest, hardworking employee who is just trying to make a living. Therefore they don’t deserve to be stiffed. So, is honesty the best policy? Personally, I think yes. I believe that our society cannot function without honesty. If everyone is continually lying and stiffing each other, there will be no trust. Without trust, we are unable to work together to get things done. No matter the situation, I agree with Immanuel Kant that honesty is the best policy.

Submitted by Gabbi Hoversten on
I agree with Kant when he insists that honor our duty to be honest. If I was put in this situation, I probably would have said something to the cashier. Even if they were being rude, I believe it is the ethical thing to do. I used to work at a retail store during high school, and there were a few times when I accidentally forgot to scan something or scanned an item twice. In most cases, the customers usually tell me my mistake and I always am glad they informed me on it. However, I know in our society that not everyone believes that we should tell the cashier about their mistake because they honestly don't want to pay for the item, or don't want to hurt the cashier's feelings. We can't control what other people decide to do in this situation, but we can focus on ourselves and try to honor our duty of being honest.

Submitted by Ashley Fisk on
This article is very interesting to read. If you saw someone drop a $20 bill would you tell them? What if it was only a $1? The ethical thing to do is to tell the person no matter how much it is. The blog points out who often in our day to day lives we face ethical dilemma. So often we let our emotions cloud our judgment during situations. He mentions if the cashier was rude you may feel more obligated to stiff the store. So what about tipping for waitresses, how does that work with ethics? If the waitress is rude, does that mean we should tip well anyways? Great article!