How Do We Make Ethical Decisions? An Essay
Actions Speak Louder Than Words  

Ethics is About What You Do When No One is Looking

Should You Keep Extra Money From an ATM?

A good philosophy to live by is stated as follows: “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching." This partial quote from Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), an American author and philosopher, instructs us to act in ways that are ethical even if we don’t think anyone knows about it. In other words, we shouldn’t act ethically because of some payoff. We do it because we are motivated by inherent goodness. We do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not for any extrinsic benefit. 

ATM Machine

I like to use real or imagined examples to teach college students about ethics and pick examples they can relate to. Here’s one such example. Let’s assume you attempted to withdraw $75 from your account at an ATM Machine. The machine returned $750. What would you do? For some of us, when the ATM machine spits out more cash than we are entitled to it feels like the slot machines in Las Vegas paid off even when we had no matches. It’s the feeling of a great pay day, although we did nothing to deserve it. We might say: Wow, this never happens to me. In an article by Dana McMahan, he quotes Mike Liberman, a former neuroscientist, who likens it to the release of dopamine, which accelerates our heart rate and gives us a rush. It kicks in when we confront a scenario like unexpected money. Cash-atm-money.0


Accepting money that doesn’t belong to you is a form of theft. It’s dishonest. It’s no different than if a teller gave you more money than you were entitled to when you cashed a check at the bank. In this case, the bank in all likelihood will figure it out when they audit the teller’s cash draw against the transactions for the day. As for the ATM payout, it may take longer but the bank probably will figure it out especially if more than one person receives extra cash.


Some might rationalize that they didn’t do anything wrong; it was the bank’s mistake. Others might rationalize that they don’t expect to be caught. Still, criminal charges can be imposed on a person who takes money that doesn’t belong to them. A court could order the person to repay the money and then a felony is on their record. Given it’s more likely than not the bank will figure it out, the potential for prosecution and harms to others who might be shortchanged outweigh the benefits of holding on to and using the extra cash. One caveat is it is difficult, to say the least, to measure harms and benefits as two different people might reach different conclusions about the net benefits of alternative actions.


The categorical imperative asks us to consider whether our intended action is one that we would want to be universalized: an action that everyone should take if they were faced with a similar situation. Some might say that the bank is a faceless entity and won’t miss the money so keeping the extra cash is acceptable. But, how can that be? If everyone kept the extra money then an occasion might arise where money is taken out of our account erroneously or we don’t get credit for the full amount of a deposit. Ethically, we may be motivated by getting as much money as we can to spend on personal items, gifts to others, travel, etc., but the way in which we accumulate the cash is a matter of right and wrong. Simply put, the ends of getting as rich as possible do not justify the means of achieving our goal when it requires that we keep money that is not rightfully ours. The means are what’s most important.


Giving each person what they deserve means to treat others the same unless there is a rational (ethical) reason to do otherwise. There is no basis to keep the extra money from a justice point of view. We did nothing to earn it; don’t deserve it; and it’s possible our actions harm another person who might lose the same amount depending on how the transaction was posted.

Real Life Examples

The following describes two actual situations, one where the person kept money that didn’t belong to him and the other where the excess was returned to the bank. Think about what might have motivated each party.

Ashton Edwards and CNN Wire reported that on March 19, 2017, a Georgia teen who spent $30,000 in his bank account that didn’t belong to him earned a 10-year sentence. A teller had deposited a check from a client with the same last name into the teen’s account; he spent most of the funds on a BMW. It’s quite apparent that the teen acted out of self-interest without regard to how his actions might affect others. Oftentimes, unethical behavior occurs because of a short-term perspective that fails to see the longer-term consequences on one’s actions.

Of course, there are honest people who will return money that doesn’t belong to them. In an article by Krystal Steinmetz on October 9, 2016, it is reported a single mother of two in Delaware stopped by an ATM to withdraw $60 out of her checking account and the machine started spitting out extra cash – an additional $320 in $20 bills. She chased down the vehicle that was in line in front of her to see if the money belonged to the driver. It didn’t. Unable to reach anyone at the bank branch because it was a Sunday, she held on to the money until the following day, when she went to the bank and returned the extra cash.

In an interview with the local newspaper, the women said: “Somebody deposited that money. It could have been their paycheck. I’m a single mother of two, $380 to me is a lot. I was concerned about the person who is losing it.” Here, the woman appeared to have a clear view of right and wrong and acted immediately to correct the situation. Her actions were driven by empathy for others. She didn’t seem to have to think about it – it was instinctive. She did the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons, or acted virtuously.

Building Self-Esteem

Returning the money should make us feel good about ourselves. We are motivated by altruism not self-interest.  We did something praiseworthy. It builds our self-esteem, an important part of achieving a higher purpose in life.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 30, 2018. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.