Seeking advice on a moral dilemma

by [anonymous]1 min read10th May 201131 comments


Personal Blog

I just found 120 Euro (about $172) on the floor in the hallway in a hostel in Berlin. What should I do, and why?


  • It's not inconceivable that the hostel might just take the money if I turn it in.
  • I'll be at this hostel for about two more days.


31 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:47 PM
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Ask around to see if anyone's lost any money, but don't tell them the exact amount. If anyone claims they did, ask how much. If they say $120 Euros, give it to them.

If no one claims it, post something on the bulletin board saying you found some money, and how to get in contact with you if they lost it.

If after a day you still haven't had anyone claim it, turn it in to the hostel and hope for the best.

Alternatively, if no one claims it in a few days, pick a good charity and donate it.

[-][anonymous]10y 3

Why? What is your maxim of action?

Not being a dick.

Some moral dilemmas are actually tough. Unless you're starving, or have some other immediate and extremely-high-utility use for the money you didn't mention, this isn't one of them.

[-][anonymous]10y 21

Your answer is reasonable. I think I found a better one.

I found the money in a small purse. I removed the money, and left a note with my email address in it. I returned the purse to the front desk.

If I get an email, I can get the person the money - through PayPal, meeting at the hostel, or mail. This solution also eliminates the possibility of the hostel taking the money, unless someone from the hostel emails me impersonating the person who lost the money. On the off chance that I don't get an email, I will enjoy it, donate it, or do whatever I would do with my own money.


You could also burn or shred the money to minimize conflict of interest.

Voted up :)

It's a bit disconcerting how a community, priding itself on consequentialist reasoning and rationality, so quickly reverts to using flimsy reasoning to justify the same decision they would have made before adopting such a worldview.

I'm not disagreeing with this decision, of course -- I've corrected bartenders several times when they undercharge me by leaving off a drink, and I've returned to a store to pay for a $50 item they didn't charge me for. (And I've been the recipient of the kindness of a co-worker who found a $100 bill I had dropped but had given up on finding.)

My point is that a lot of discussion here of ethics-as-practiced gives off this vibe of, "Don't worry, we can be moral like non-rationalists, really -- we even leave holes in our otherwise uncompromising reasoning to avoid becoming jerks! ('dicks')"

A few questions for those who have an answer to this dilemma:

  • Do your ethics focus solely on what consequences your actions cause (in the technical sense)?
  • If they do, what is the good consequence of your actions, and what terminal value does it satisfy? Do you pursue that value consistently? (i.e., don't tell me you have "other people getting more money" as a terminal value when you otherwise never pursue that)
  • If they don't, what other factors do you consider, and how does your action satisfy them here?

The proffered justifications here seem to attempt to sidestep these unavoiable questions, and don't attempt to apply the insights discussed and sequence'd here regarding decision theory and ethics.

My answer (rot13): Cre zl rzcunfvf ba npnhfny naq fhowhapgvir zrnaf raqf yvaxf (gung Qerfpure gnyxf nobhg va Tbbq naq Erny, be V qb va zl negvpyr "Zbenyvgl nf Cnesvgvna-Svygrerq Qrpvfvba Gurbel"), V ernfba nf sbyybjf: vs V qvq abg ertneq vg nf bcgvzny gb znxr fbzr rssbeg gb trg gur zbarl onpx gb vgf bjare, arvgure jbhyq bguref ertneq vg nf bcgvzny gb qb gur fnzr sbe zr, jrer gur ebyrf erirefrq. Npgvat onfrq ba gur onfvf bs guvf qlnanzvp zrnaf gung V jvyy svaq zlfrys va n jbeyq jvgu zber fhpu trareny xvaqarff, rira gubhtu fhpu npgvbaf jvyy abg pnhfr orggre pbafrdhraprf sbe zr. Guvf ernfbavat vf cnenyyry gb gur whfgvsvpngvba sbe jul bar fubhyq bar-obk va Arjpbzo'f ceboyrz be cnl va Cnesvg'f Uvgpuuvxre -- V pnaabg cbvag gb n orarsvg gb zlfrys gung V pnhfr, ohg V jbhyq cersre gung V npgrq cre na nytbevguz gung unq gubfr nf na bhgchg.

In this situation, and most commonplace situations, your decision theory still roughly summarizes to "not being a dick".

That not-being-a-dick can be subsumed into a more general acausal decision theory, is much like the way Newtonian physics was subsumed into Einsteinian physics.

Newtonian physics will still give you a mostly correct answer in most commonplace situations for normal human beings. And so will the not-being-a-dick decision theory for the commonplace situation described in the post above. And much like Newtonian equations over Einsteinian ones, it's often easier for human minds to calculate.

I don't think that's what's going on here. The claim that

1) one should act ethically, and that
2) acting ethically includes the vague-but-intuitive class of "not being a dick"

goes against the general trend here of saying that,

a) Morality is non-reductionist or otherwise just a fancy term for preferences [1], and
b) You should only care about the consequences your actions cause.

Summarizing one's justification here as "I don't want to be a dick" is therefore not a simplification[2], but a repudiation of what seems to be "the rationalist answer" here. That's why I said it gave off a vibe of, "but, but, rationalists can be nice too! We'll make an exception for that!"

[1] or whatever the heck EY's point was with his meta-ethics series
[2] though it's defensible as such a simplication for cases where being a dick is immediately visible to others, like I mentioned in another response here

b) You should only care about the consequences your actions cause.

Which gets slightly complicated if you think about the recursive implications.

You're right. It was late, and I considered it such a non-issue that I rushed my reply. Your answer is much better.

The only defense I can give is that "not being a jerk/dick" is very quick for situations where time-pressure may exist, and gives the right answer most of the time. I realize that's not a good defense for a question posted to a forum where the respondents have plenty of time to think.

And I love that you italicized pnhfr even though the formating doesn't carry through at I gather you can read/write in rot13?

I have the Firefox addon leetkey, which allows me to ROT13 in place, so I did see the italics.

Thanks. You're right, the jerk heuristic is good for quick judgment. It's just that there's a difference between being a jerk when no one will know it's you (this scenario) vs. being a jerk when they will (say, camping the passing lane), and the former are more complicated.

And I love that you italicized pnhfr even though the formating doesn't carry through at I gather you can read/write in rot13?

I just wrote it as I would a normal post, with the asterisks, which do carry through, and then pasted the output here -- this site can then format it since it sees the asterisks.

The anti-reductionist kind, the user rating kind, or some other kind?

I choose door number 3.

This (from wiki) seems to be the closest to my working definition:

According to karma, performing positive actions results in a good condition in one's experience, whereas a negative action results in a bad effect.

For instance, mjcurzi asks around to see if anyone lost a wallet. Reactions will most likely be very positive. The result is an increased opportunity for friendships, offerings of help, status hike, etc.


mjcurzi decides to pocket the money but feels slightly guilty about it. The above potential benefits are out of the picture. That seed of guilt might turn into defensiveness that makes mjcurzi less approachable, producing the opposite effect of the first scenario. Or maybe mjcurzi just carries around this nagging feeling which is distracting. Misplaced keys. Tripping over something in the side walk. Snapping at a friend. Not being able to fully enjoy an anticipated enjoyable event. Etc.

Fair enough. I didn't mean to imply you hadn't thought this through, and I figured you'd have such a reasonable answer. It's just that "Karma" is a little vague, and it's usually taken (absent clarification) to mean the first two I listed.

Actually, while I still hold to my below reply, I'd like to add that I find The Prisoner's Dilemma to be the foundational question of morality. The purpose of morality is to persuade/coerce everyone to always cooperate in Prisoner's Dilemma situations (simplification, but that's the essence). If you find money in a shared living space, cooperation = trying to return it, defecting = keeping it. Unless there's extreme justifying circumstances (which you shouldn't trust anyway, we are all running on corrupted hardware, better to let a disinterested 3rd party decide what counts) you should cooperate.

There's (at least) also the question of what structures and processes count as other players in the dilemma, but you did say it was a simplification.

What should I do, and why?

Probably my advice comes too late to do any good, but I'd say: Leave them where they are. Whoever dropped them has a possibility of retracing their steps hoping to find them.

If they don't, their money is as good as lost anyway as it's not individually traceable; so no problem letting it be taken by the cleaning personnel as a bonus for their job of actually maintaining the hostel.

This is my advice as well.

I agree that acausal UDT-like considerations are the way to go, but I would rather live in a society where people donated found money, including money that that I had lost, to charity instead of returning it to its original owner, so I would donate it.

[-][anonymous]10y 4

Ask yourself in what kind of society you want to live if you had lost the 120€. One where people turn your money they find in where the hostel might just take it, or one in which people who are lucky enough to find your money enjoy it without a bad conscience. Then do whichever you chose. I myself would choose the second one since I don't expect to get the money back in the first one.

Donate it to the best charity you can find. It's highly unlikely that the original owner would use it as well.

[-][anonymous]10y -4

Donate it to the SIAI.

Does this advice basically mean "consider it your own, to do with as you would with your own money"?

It rather means "consider it a property of SIAI".

Okay, look, I'm seeking to figure out the reasoning of the statement at a meta-level slightly above "Donate it to the SIAI" and slightly below "consequentialism".

Is it "donate it to the best cause you can donate it to, and since I believe SIAI is that best cause, I'm naming SIAI"? Or is it something like "The friendly artificial intelligence that the SIAI will eventually create has better chances than the hostel management of locating and eventually refunding the original owner of the money, and thus Justice Shall Be Served?"

I'm guessing the former, but it could be a bit more explicitly stated, so we can judge the reasoning behind it.

The question would be better aimed at Armok GoB than me. I only haven't resisted the temptation to make a snarky comment (overall, I am becoming very tired of "donate to SIAI" suggestions in any contexts).

Ya, what prase said.