Ethics Quiz: “The Cabbie and the Jewelry”…Ethics or Pragmatism?

Cable news, the New york press and the blogosphere are singing the praises of Big Apple cabbie Zubiru Jalloh, who, when he discovered that an absent-minded passenger, John James, had left a bag containing about $100,000 worth of jewelry in his back seat (“Doh!”) of his cab, rescued the bag from the next passenger, took it home for safekeeping, and eventually got it back to its rightful owner.

Jalloh, a Sierra Leone immigrant who earns $300 a week working 12-hour shifts in his cab, took the bag home and locked it away, confident, he says, that James would contact him, because he had given the forgetful rider a receipt. James did in fact use the receipt to find the cabbie, and his lost treasure. [Note to self: Stop wadding up cab receipts into little balls and stuffing them in your magic brief case that makes paper disappear.]

“I believe in my religion,” Jalloh, a Muslim, told reporters. “Taking someone else’s property is like eating someone else’s flesh. [Ew!] I can’t do it.” Jalloh initially refused James’ offer of a reward, but when the grateful owner of the jewelry insisted, finally accepted $1000, and the promise of a social engagement in the near future.

Some are less than impressed with the heart-warming incident, however. “Cabbie Does Very Good Thing by Not Stealing $100,000” was how Village Voice blogger Jen Doll introduced the story, sarcastically adding, “What an act of generosity and honor! Because, you know, he really didn’t have to, and some cabbies have even been known to steal from you when you’re still in the car (none that we know, of course).” She relents later and gives Jalloh “three cheers,” but it’s a valid point. Are things so bad that we rejoice when someone does the unequivocally right thing, protects the property of another until the owner tracks it down, and doesn’t try to hide it, keep it, or sell it? Besides, and this is your quiz question:

How do we know ethics had anything to do with what the cabbie did? Was he being ethical, or was he just being pragmatic?

Jalloh seems like a smart man. We can’t know that he didn’t reason, “Boy, I wish I hadn’t given that guy a receipt. He can track me down with it; there is no way I can keep this. Rats.”

Or: “What are the odds that I can fence this much hot jewelry without getting caught? Not good enough, that’s for sure. Better a cabbie for life than a prisoner for life. Oh, well. Maybe he’ll lose the receipt, and if I hold it long enough before I give it to the police, I might get something out of this.”

Or: “I remember what happened to Josh Brolin in “No Country for Old Men” when he tried to get away with a bag of money, and he was hunted down by the creepy guy with the cattle gun who kept flipping coins. Uh-uh. Too risky.

It doesn’t matter. He may have considered other options, but what matters is that the cab driver did the right thing, and James got his property back. Does Jalloh deserve to be praised, even for, as Doll says, “not stealing” the jewelry? Sure he does. Most people could come up with a lot of rationalizations for keeping the bag, like…

  • “This is a bounty from Allah for being a good Muslim!”
  • “That guy obviously is rich and doesn’t need this, or he wouldn’t leave it in the cab. I can put it to good use, helping my sick mother.”
  • “Anyone this careless deserves to lose the jewelry. Let this be a lesson for him!”
  • “Finders keepers, losers weepers.”

The only way to maintain societal standards of right and wrong is to criticize when people do the unethical thing, and recognize and praise when they do right. Temptation is a hurdle for all of us, and by whatever means and thought processes, Zubiru Jalloh got over it. He did the ethical thing, and the smart thing; he shouldn’t be penalized because they were one and the same.

After all, they usually are.


7 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: “The Cabbie and the Jewelry”…Ethics or Pragmatism?

  1. Well, it would be a pretty swell world if everyone did the right thing in cases like these, simply because it never occured to them to do it any other way. But that’s not the world we live in. But, in either type of world, people like Mr. Jalloh should be highly praised: in the world as it is, because he becomes an exempler of the way things should be; and in the better world, because virtue never goes out of style and should be reaffirmed whenever an example of it occurs.

  2. I remember when years ago — when ATMs very pretty new — I tried to withdraw cash and the machine wouldn’t work because a $20 bill was stuck in the machine from the previous user. I walked into the bank — First American, which will date me — and explained my dilemma.

    “You have computer records,” I said, “so you can easily find out who used the ATM before I did. Can you contact him/her and credit his/her account?”

    Astonishingly, the bank clerks were furious with me. Why didn’t I just keep the $20? Because it wasn’t my money.

    Fine. They were annoyed because my honesty CAUSED THEM WORK, and they would rather have had me steal the money than cause them some sort of self-perceived banking “hardship.”

    Praise Jollah? “You betcha,” as Sarah Palin would say. I learned decades ago that institutions, not just people, often don’t do the ethical thing because it’s just too much TROUBLE. (I need not tick off the names of banking/investment/other corporations who do ill for gain; what’s amazing, I suppose, are the number who do ill out of just plain laziness.)

    Shame on our society. And kudos to Jollah.

  3. At the risk of spending your bandwidth too freely, I post this passage from G.K. Chesteron’s “The Honour of Israel Gow,” about a Scottish lord who mistrusted everyone.

    “He swore if he could find one man who took his exact rights he should have all the gold of Glengyle. Having delivered this defiance to humanity he shut himself up, without the smallest expectation of its being answered. One day, however, a deaf and seemingly senseless lad from a distant village brought him a belated telegram; and Glengyle, in his acrid pleasantry, gave him a new farthing. At least he thought he had done so, but when he turned over his change he found the new farthing still there and a sovereign gone. The accident offered him vistas of sneering speculation. Either way, the boy would show the greasy greed of the species. Either he would vanish, a thief stealing a coin; or he would sneak back with it virtuously, a snob seeking a reward. In the middle of that night Lord Glengyle was knocked up out of his bed–for he lived alone–and forced to open the door to the deaf idiot. The idiot brought with him, not the sovereign, but exactly nineteen shillings and eleven-pence three-farthings in change.

    “Then the wild exactitude of this action took hold of the mad lord’s brain like fire. He swore he was Diogenes, that had long sought an honest man, and at last had found one.”

  4. 70s, Tokyo, 2 anecdotes: (1) An American English teacher on his way back from the airport, hungry and exhausted from his flight, stumbles out of his cab in Shinjuku, an area of 1000 restaurants, leaving carryall behind. Cabbie’s WIFE turns up at his school four days later having found the school address in the bag, apologizing for husband having to work and for having taken so long to find the passenger. Refused to leave a name. Refused to take a tip. Besides his passport, the carryall contained about $5,000 in yen, $300 in US dollars, two bottles of very expensive duty free liquor, 2 boxes of Godiva chocolates, and other valuable gift items.

    (2) Checking accounts were rare. Most of one’s salary either stayed in the bank (from which almost ALL bills could be paid, including your local grocer, bakery, etc. and ATM’s – which hadn’t been “invented” in the US yet – were ubiquitous and free) or you took a “pay packet” full of cash — which the teller had warned me was not a good idea because I “might be tempted to spend too much.” Crossing the street from curb to Shibuya station — a matter of five-minutes navigating 4 bus and 6 automobile traffic lanes without stop signs or lights — the pay packet blew out of my hand in a strong wind midway across. And yen went flying across ten lanes of moving vehicles and pedestrians. Suddenly everything came to a standstill; people stooped in the street to pick up the money while the cars and buses waited patiently and the result was passed over to me. (More than one person scolded me for not understanding what banks were for!) Red-faced, I apologized as humbly as my Japanese would bear. Counting the contents of the packet when I got home, I found that I had half again as much as I started out with.

    Okay — there are drawbacks to living in a highly ethical society (though not so much these days since Americanization has altered many customs to the detriment of safety and security) but there are times when I miss being able to take that sort of behavior for granted.

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