Scenario 1: You are on your way home from a busy day at work. Strolling along in the summer sun, you find a wallet with $40 and the owner's name and phone number. You promptly call the number and arrange to return the missing wallet and cash. You blush as the owner gushes 'Oh God bless you, you are such a good person, your momma must have raised you well!'. You then you go to the supermarket to reward your good deed for the day with a Twix. The cashier boy is too busy oogling the girl behind you that he hands you $5 in change instead of 5 cents. Being the morally righteous person that you are, you alert him to his mistake.
Does this sound like you? Would you go home smug, perhaps brag about your actions to a friend? Do you think those actions will give you a karmic reward from the heavens /a gold star /a cookie from your sister? Before you get all high on yourself for being an ethically moral person, read on..
Scenario 2: You are on your way to your second shift, strolling along in the summer sun. You have just used your full paycheck to pay your rent and buy diapers and are wondering when you will get enough money for your groceries when you spot the glistening wallet on the corner. You pocket the $40 for your groceries and return the wallet an IDs to a security guard.
Now, does this person's greater need for the $40 justify their 'unethical' behaviour? And if their need does justify it, what happens when we're not talking about money, but about lying, cheating, stealing and - gasp - killing? I can think of scenarios where all these actions can be justified, but I am not going waste time debating whether or not they would be considered 'ethical'.
Let's look at it this way: someone who recently downed an entire birthday cake may not be as tempted to take a bite out of the muffin you left on your desk when you went to the washroom as someone who has not eaten in 4 days. Similarly, someone who has never been homeless, starving or threatened, can't exactly pat themselves on the back for not having stolen, cheated or killed. Since I have never been in those situations, I can honestly say I don't know what I would do if it were me. All I do know is that I should be less quick to judge whoever just ate my muffin!