The Ethical Obie
I have been stealing quarters from my roommate’s desk to do laundry. There have been times in the past when I asked him if he could lend me a few quarters and he said it was okay, and there are times when he is not around to ask so I just take it. I always pay him back, though, and the times I cannot ask him, I don’t think he notices. Plus, he borrows my stuff sometimes without asking, too, so I feel like we are even. Am I doing anything wrong?
-Crusty and Quarterless
You probably feel that in refunding your roommate’s change you are free from wrong doing. But ask yourself — why are you giving him change back? You are doing it because you know that taking it was wrong to begin with.
You seem to be worried much more about yourself and your actions, but you must understand that you are affecting others with these actions. Randy Cohen (my inspiration) said, “It is only ethics when other people are involved,” and while a few quarters may not seem like they will impact anyone’s life too much, you have crossed the line from morality into ethics. Choosing to do your laundry or not is something that (until your clothes really start to smell) only affects you. When you do decide to do your laundry at your roommate’s expense, it affects him, too. During that time when you are out sorting socks, your roommate may need to make an important call home on a payphone, or have a killer case of the munchies and need a quarter for the vending machine.
It seems so easy — and we do it often — to justify our actions with the “eye for an eye” argument; he steals from me so I can steal for him. I can respond with a quotation that gets thrown around almost as much: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” — or brought to this argument — “A quarter for clean socks makes the whole world not able to get a Snickers from the vending machine.” Your roommate’s actions irk you; do you really think that the answer is to irk back?
If this has not convinced you, think of what you will say when your roommate does notice that you have been “borrowing” change. How would he feel? Pretty hurt probably, and very distrustful. Don’t forget, this person only sleeps a few feet away from you.
You should find an answer that doesn’t include surreptitiously dropping a couple quarters on your roommate’s desk when he goes to the bathroom. Consider starting a “Spare Change Pot” that you both deposit those extra jangling coins into. Then, at any time — without a sliver of guilt — you can take from that pot with the knowledge that you will contribute again later. Leaving an I.O.U. is always a good idea, and it builds trust, too. Your roommate knows what a great cause his money has gone to and will look forward to a cleaner, fresher you.
The Ethical Obie
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