In our Precepts class today, we discussed sticky ethical situations, places where there was not an easy right or wrong answer.
Let’s say you find a wallet, stuffed with bills. Should you return it to its owner? Most of us would say yes. That’s what I was brought up to do — and I have done it, when the situation has arisen, as it has in my life.
But — consider this scenario set out by Tony Patchell, our priest. Say you’re a med student, who’s putting yourself through school moonlighting as a cab driver. One night you’re flagged down by a loud, ostentatious Texan with two women. They get into the cab, and the Texan spends the entire ride belittling you, putting you down, in some sort of attempt, apparently, to impress his two lady friends. When you arrive at their destination, he pays the fare, and then says, “Here’s your tip,” and flicks a nickel right into your face. After the door slams shut and he disappears around the corner, you look into your rear-view mirror and see that the man has left his very fat wallet lying in the back seat.
Now what do you do? Tony says that his friend took the money, and chucked the wallet into a U.S. mailbox, leaving it to the government to route it back to the Texan. There definitely is a certain feel-good justice to that solution. But was it ethical? Was it warranted?
Does the “right” thing to do change when someone has treated you badly? Or, conversely, when someone has treated you well? (As in, would you help someone cheat because they were really nice to you, or they had done you a favor?)
One student said for her it’s about flow. Were she to find a wallet, she would think: Do I need this money? If so, she would take it. Does a friend of mine need this money? If so, she would give it to the friend. Does the person who lost it need this money? If so, she would return it.
Priest Darlene Cohen reminded us that the Precepts are not absolute rules, but simply guidelines, since Zen is, in its essence, a belief in “nowhere standing.” There are no absolutes. There are no firm answers, things that are always correct, unfailingly dependable. Each situation must be addressed for its own merits, in the moment, and judged accordingly.
Going back to the wallet — I know that I have left my wallet lying on a countertop in a convenience store in the Mission in San Francisco, and gone back 30 minutes later to find it safely stashed underneath the till, with all the bills inside. I do not remember how much money was in the wallet. What has stayed with me is that human connection, the enormous smile on the face of the clerk behind the counter when he greeted me in Spanish, and said, “Senorita, you came back!” In that simple transaction, we built a bridge of trust that was so much more valuable than anything that could have been taken out of my billfold.
So I return the wallets.