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Funny money or self-respect?

You discover you’ve been passed a counterfeit $20 bill. You stuff it into your jacket and forget about it. One day, you’re jogging far from home when your cellphone rings. Your spouse has been rushed to hospital. You need a taxi fast but have no wallet. Do you use the fake bill?

By Ruth McQuirter Scott and Ken Gallinger

Author's photo
Ruth McQuirter Scott is an educator and member of Port Nelson United in Burlington, Ont.

My spouse is being rushed to hospital and every fibre of my being says I must get there now!

I have no money — except for that fake $20 bill stuffed away. How furious I had been when I discovered it was counterfeit. What right did someone have to steal that money from me? But now it may be a ticket to get me to the hospital, where I desperately need to be. A taxi is approaching, and I’m sure the driver will be unable to spot the fake bill as I jump out of the cab. Maybe the world is fair after all.

So why do I feel guilty in the midst of my panic? Doesn’t my great need justify this small act of dishonesty?

No, that small voice tells me, it does not. I am both lying and stealing if I pass this counterfeit bill. When I enter the taxi and ask to be taken to the hospital, I am engaging the driver’s services. He or she has every right to assume I will pay for the trip. In handing over the fake $20, I am breaking that contract and stealing.

I do not have the right to impose my needs on this unsuspecting stranger any more than the forger did on me.

I am also revealing my lack of faith in the basic decency of others. I am assuming that if I honestly explain my predicament to the driver, I’ll be ordered out of the cab. Why not take a chance on compassion?

Furthermore, I can offer to take the driver’s contact information and commit to paying the fare the next day. Or I can provide “collateral” worth at least $20 — my watch, perhaps — and retrieve it when I pay the driver. In that way, the only one at risk of losing is me.

It’s a risk I need to take. My self-respect is worth more than a $20 cab fare.

Of course not! The bill is counterfeit, so it might as well be a grocery list. And how could the fact that my beloved is on her way to hospital justify stiffing a cabbie?

This is a variant of the old “Is it okay to rob a store when your children are starving?” conundrum we argued about in high school. The premise behind the perceived dilemma is that actions that are inherently wrong can be justified if the beneficiaries are so vulnerable they can’t take care of themselves. But the truth is, there’s really no dilemma here at all.

This kind of situation is sometimes seen as a version of the “just war” argument — i.e., that it’s okay to go to war and kill people if by doing so you improve the lot of enough other people. In Afghanistan, for example, it can be (and is) argued that it’s okay to kill a few Taliban if, in the process, we bring a better life to Afghan women and children. But the difference is that it’s the Taliban who are causing the suffering, and therefore (the argument goes) it is reasonable for them to pay a price for the evil they do. But there is no sense in which this cabbie is responsible for my wife’s suffering — he’s a “non-combatant” in every sense of the word.

Besides, there’s a better solution. I’m not that good a runner, so I’m not that far from home. I’m going to be pretty useless at the hospital without my wallet. So yes, I’ll grab the cab, get him to take me home, run in, grab my wallet, go to the hospital and pay for the cab. My wife’s treatment won’t suffer for the extra 10 minutes that will take. I’ll have a buck to buy her a coffee when she’s feeling better. My conscience will be clear. And nobody gets stiffed.

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