Last week as I prepared to fill my tank at a gas station I noticed the pump price for regular was mistakenly set a full $1.00 below the advertised price ($2.49 instead of $3.49 per gallon).
The two other grades of gas at my island were set accurately, and I didn’t bother to check the regular price at the other islands. I started pumping not knowing for sure which price I would get, but when the pump hit one gallon with the “amount of sale” figures whizzing past at around $2.49 I knew what I had.
My first thought was, I know this isn’t right. I looked at the station but doors and windows appeared closed and I didn’t see anyone moving about. The station often runs as self-service with no attendant, but it seemed too early for that and some indoor lights were on. Was I going to accept this windfall or try to report the error?
I’m afraid this is not a tale of human victory but of defeat. The pump clicked to a stop at 9.5 gallons, netting me $9.50 in ‘stolen’ gasoline. I hung up the hose and drove away.
I was annoyed at my performance, but my conscience didn’t bring me to the stage of remorse (true remorse would have effected payment in full for the loot).
However, the next day I was badly ‘shook up’ when I stopped for a traffic light across from the station on my way to the grocery store and noticed all four islands jammed with cars and people pumping gas like crazy.
The light changed and I continued on to the store with a dawning sense of the seriousness of my small, ill-gotten gain. Viewed in the light of its true potential for evil I saw that my act made me complicit in a situation in which the station manager might now be losing hundreds of dollars per hour.
I don’t know for a fact that the error was still ‘in progress’ – gas stations can be busy places any day of the week. But I knew I didn’t like the idea of turning anybody in for doing what I had done the day before. So my own act had wiped out all of my moral high ground in this particular case.
Isn’t this the way of things, when we go astray?
I had honestly failed to estimate this potential for evil consequences the day before, and I was still unsure it was actual, but just seeing this potentially costly situation for the station was enough to show me the injustice of my act and the paltry exchange I had made for my honor (a ‘mess of pottage’ at less than ten bucks!).
There is a famous ethical perspective which holds that my moral failure was absolute in this case even if I were the only one who had realized an unjust gain – if, say the station had discovered the pump error the moment I had driven off the day before. by this perspective moral guilt is different from legal guilt, in that moral seriousness is determined not in the unjust act itself nor in the consequences of the act, but in the very moment of my unjust decision, before the consequences of my acts are realized (even if they are never realized).
In fact, this event has so many elements of the moral problem in it that it merits publication even though I am embarrassed to admit it as my problem.
As yet I haven’t coughed up the $9.50. My bad, but if I did make amends I wouldn’t publish that fact here, because I believe that seeking human praise for amendment of ways is a moral-religious problem in itself.
The only thing that would change my mind would be if a reader were to suggest my recalcitrance proved I had lost my authority to judge of moral issues altogether. Oh, the humanity!