Legitimate Larceny?

Is it okay to cheat in order to settle accounts?

Q. A store in my neighborhood is always ripping me off: overcharging, giving poor merchandise, and so on. Sometimes I feel that the only way of settling accounts is for me to play this same game — for instance by pocketing a few almonds, or taking a bunch of extra shopping bags. Is this a proper response?

A. Your question illustrates that there are many reasons people engage in questionable behavior. Often we assume that the main motivation for bad morals in the marketplace is plain old-fashioned greed. Yet very often the materialistic dimension in business ethics is relatively minor compared to the human element.

We can learn this from the unique way the Torah describes the prohibition on charging excessive prices, prices far beyond what is accepted for comparable merchandise in other stores. The verse tells us: “And when you sell something to your fellow or buy from the hand of your fellow, do not oppress each one his brother” (Leviticus 25:14). The word used for this transgression is “onaah,” which doesn’t mean stealing or cheating, but rather oppression or distress. The focus here is not on the monetary aspect but on the human aspect.

A simple example should convince us that very often this is indeed the dominant problem in overcharging. Imagine that you come home and discover there is a dollar missing from your wallet. You probably wouldn’t be overly troubled over such a small amount. Even if you manage to remember where you lost it, you probably wouldn’t make an excessive effort to recover it. After all, your time is worth something too.

Now imagine that you come home from the store and discover that you were overcharged one dollar for some item. They charged you two dollars for a pack of gum! Perhaps you are certain that the mistake was intentional. If you’re like many people, you will indignantly march back to the store and demand that they correct the mistake. If asked about this seeming paradox, most people will answer honestly and straightforwardly: it’s the principle. A person can’t bear to be wronged.

Our inner sense of justice is so strong that if we feel that we don’t get a fair hearing from the store owner, many of us are tempted to set things right by making an “offsetting” crime against the store, as if two wrongs make a right.

This kind of unethical behavior can be particularly difficult to overcome. If a person is tempted to act unethically because of a tendency to acquisitiveness, he can usually keep it in check by reminding himself that he would do better to listen to the dictates of his conscience. But when even our conscience convinces us that stealing is ethical, what will keep our behavior under control?

The key to overcoming this kind of temptation is not to master our greed but rather to master our emotions. We need to ask ourselves if we really want to be subjugated to our base emotions like anger and vengefulness. Even if our behavior could be justified, is a handful of almonds worth the feeling that we have lowered ourselves to exactly the level of behavior which we are condemning?

It is interesting to note that the prohibition on overcharging in the Torah is not only worded in a surprising way, as we just pointed out, but is also found in a surprising context. It is not included in the chapters immediately following the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus, where we find the foundation of the basic monetary regulations of the Torah. Rather, it is found in the passage that discusses the freeing of slaves in the Jubilee year. This should hint to us that very often the best way to overcome the temptation to unethical behavior is to free ourselves from slavery to anger, vindictiveness and suspicion and conduct ourselves with generosity and dignity as befits free and noble human beings.