The Blurry Line Between Right and Wrong

January 15, 2009 BY danariely

An interesting story out of the BBC: one priest, Father Tim Jones, recently gave an incredibly provocative sermon where he offered controversial advice–to shoplift. His argument is basically that those who are less fortunate may often turn to illegal means: they can rob, they can become prostitutes, etc… Jones is arguing that of these “evils,” shoplifting, especially from large corporations, has the least impact on society, and thus, somehow, is the least immoral. Of course from a psychological standpoint this is our intuition. It is easy to do harm to large corporations because we think that we are spreading our damage out evenly among more individuals, and, moreover, those individuals are faceless people wearing suits. However, giving this more thought, we can also sense that if we were to allow this to happen as a society (or be more forgiving of poor people who steal from big corporations to get by), we could very quickly slip into a system of mutual distrust. Before you know it, we will all be having to have our bags checked at entrances and exits, with costs going up for everyone. On the whole, this might leave fewer people with jobs, and the cycle could continue to spiral out of control. As we know, many of the biggest financial blunders of the recent years had to do with tiny misjudgments that added up to larger and more catastrophic costs, with the resulting mutual distrust freezing credit and badly hurting the economy. One thing we must beware of is the allure of thinking that our tiny, seemingly inconsequential decisions won’t matter much in the long run. As history and research have shown us, it’s the little decisions that we gloss over that end up hurting us most in the end.