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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 Dylan Wiedner on
Honesty is always the best policy in my mind. I really like when you talk about telling the cashier, but what if your friend gets mad. This to me is something that should set off a red flag in your mind. If your friend gets mad at you for doing the right thing, what kind of friend are they? I often bring this example to the idea of receiving change at a store. If the change is correct, you don't worry, if the change is short, you say something because you feel like you are being taken advantage of, and if the change is extra, you should also say something (presuming you notice right away) because think if it was your business, would you want to be giving out unnecessary money? Doing good has always been something that I have focused on. The nice thing that can come from you doing good to others is that they might do something nice for you in return for just being honest. One thing that I have talked about in some other classes though is to not just do good in hopes of having something done good back towards you. You should just want to be a decent person by nature. In today's world, I think that people often forget about doing the right thing because it may not benefit them, but then they don't realize the good that honesty can do, and what it may mean to others around them.

Submitted by Karina Valdivia on
It is undoubtedly easier to simply away knowing that the product had not been scanned, saving some money, and spending it on something else than it is to tell the cashier that they did not ring it up and see the price you must pay increase. In this instance, I think it would have been a good idea to tell your friend privately- and leave it up to her to decide whether to say something to the cashier or not. As a kid, this happened to me a couple of times and I remember the slight urge I would get from knowing I was walking out of the store with something (often times cheap, fake jewelry or candy) that I did not pay for. It sounds twisted now, but it makes you feel sneaky knowing you got away with it by purposely not saying anything when it happened. Now, I wouldn't dare do such thing. As a business, it is essential that you successfully sell your inventory and earn the profit you deserve. Silly little mistakes like this can eventually lead to a major inventory imbalance which every company strives to avoid. I do think honesty is the best policy, because as the old saying goes "what goes around, eventually comes around".