Philosophy Weekend: A Dollar’s Worth of Morals

Years ago, when I was working for a small litigation software company in New York City, I was leaving the office one day when I thought I heard someone shout my name from far away.  I stopped in the building lobby and looked around, but I didn’t see anyone and couldn’t imagine why somebody would be calling for me. So I continued on my way and was just about to reach the building’s front door when I heard the muffled shout again, coming from the mezzanine above the escalator I’d just taken, along with the sound of pounding footsteps.  A figure finally came into view, running down the escalator. It was my co-worker James.  “Did the servers crash?” I asked when he finally reached me.

“No,” he said, breathless, grabbing his knees.  He regained his composure and began digging around in his pocket, finally pulling out his wallet and handing me a single dollar bill.  “The soda machine before,” he sputtered.

The soda machine.  Several hours earlier, he’d asked me for a dollar to buy a soda, and I had handed one over.  I’d completely forgotten about it, and he could have too for all I cared. After all, we’re both software developers, allegedly well paid — what’s a dollar to either of us? But I guess he takes great pride in being the kind of person who pays back every single dollar he ever borrows.  I could see the pride on his face.  “Thanks,” I said, shrugging and turning away, shoving the dollar bill in my pocket.

He was proud of the way he’d handled this, but I found his obvious pride irritating. It occurred to me at this moment that I was beginning to dislike James more and more as I got to know him better.  We didn’t know each other very well, but I had picked up from our workplace conversations that he was a rigidly moral person, a churchgoer, and a joyless, highly responsible software developer.  He was going to law school at night, paid for by our company’s generous employee education program, and I knew this meant a lot to him. We had recently been talking together about a workplace problem that I thought we should confront our boss about, but he declined to join me in speaking up. “I’m not going to make waves,” he said. “They’re paying for my law degree.”

We each have our own moral codes. I’m the kind of person who will always speak up at work if I see a problem, even when I know it won’t help my own standing in the company. That’s what I’m proud of. James, I guess, was proud to be the kind of person who always pays back every single dollar he borrows.

But that doesn’t impress me very much. i think it would impress a lot of people, but I like to look for a different indicator of a person’s character.  What would really impress me is if I loaned a co-worker a dollar, or ten dollars or twenty dollars … and the person never paid it back, and never mentioned it again.

This would impress the hell out of me, because it would mean this person is my friend.  We share stuff.  We don’t worry about ten dollars or twenty dollars; our friendship is worth more than that, and life is too short to pass small change back and forth between friends.  If this ever happened between me and a co-worker at my job, I’d have no doubt that I could hit this person up for a sawbuck or two any time in return, and it would be all smiles. Don’t worry about it! That’s the kind of relationship I like to have with people I see every day.

What James showed me, when he came running down the office building lobby shouting my name, nearly knocking over little old ladies as he lunged for the escalator, was that I was not his friend.  Rather, I was his potential opponent.  I stood in perpetual judgement of him, which meant that he stood in perpetual judgement of me too.

This was several years ago.  I’ve lost touch with James, but I bet he’s a practicing lawyer today. He’s probably damn good at it; he was a smart guy. But I try to live by a different code of moral law, and I wonder if he understands this code of law at all.

* * * * *

NOTE: In response to the comments below, an update to this blog post was published a week later.

13 Responses

  1. …as a 20 year member of the
    …as a 20 year member of the great american corporate world, the john t.’s you speak of are an epidemic. mostly, i’ve found them to be good at getting the next job. taking time to get really good at their current job is a secondary concern. returning the investment to the company who is employing them, and perhaps paying for your further development, is done only at a minimum. deep down, their relationship with the company is adversarial. why else would they feel the entitlement. usually, these people are exposed and end up with 3 page resumes at age 50. family was backburnered as they moved to wherever the next nudge came from. the other end of the spectrum sat the sitter. asses would grow big and wide as they held on, mostly unwanted due to laziness. finally, the company’s fortunes would turn downward and the layoffs would sweep them out. there’s a reason productivity shot up during the last round of american job losses. the productive ones are kept. capitalism, refining itself. most fall in between somewhere and the perfect place is different for everyone, depending on other eternal comittments and moral obligations. the middle way.

  2. That’s too bad — he sounds
    That’s too bad — he sounds like a nice guy. It seems like a stretch to parlay this action into a “moral law” … even then, we don’t really know how various actions translate into what happens in someone else’s soul and how this may actually be different in expression but fundamentally the same. If someone feels like giving you the dollar back — it could be that this is less about pride in being the “always pays back every single dollar he borrows” (which, I might add, is not a negative quality — if we applied this principle to our interaction with the world at large, I’d offer that this would be an improvement), and more that he felt *this* was a way he was showing his respect/friendship to you. It’s interesting, because I think you’ve written about this phenomenon here before. I would also add I think it’s a bit unfair to extrapolate this individual moment to create a “John T.’s of the world” supposition of work ethic, corporate behavior and whatever else. I know plenty of people with a 3-page resume at age 50 who are pretty awesome and don’t really fit the stereotype we’d like to cling onto.

  3. Levi, as a Thoreau
    Levi, as a Thoreau enthusiast, surely you remember that when Henry-D borrowed an axe, he returned it sharper than when he got it.

  4. I thought this little
    I thought this little exercise was disturbing. For example take this line: “I stood in perpetual judgement of him, which meant that he stood in perpetual judgement of me too.” While honest from your standpoint, I don’t find this statement to be true, of John T at least, based on the info provided. It’s definitely true of you, Levi! You are definitely judging this guy, but I don’t get how you logically arrive at the statement of him judging you. How do you know for sure he stood in judgement of you the same way you did of him?

    No offense, but I see you judging him more than anything else.

  5. Even if he was prideful and
    Even if he was prideful and morally strict about paying back a dollar, it seems a bit excessive to chase someone down in the subway when surely he could have just paid it back the next day. A lot of people freak out over money, and maybe he’d had other coworkers berate him for not paying back a dollar right away.

    I agree that a true friend wouldn’t feel obligated to pay back a dollar, but then again there are also a lot of people who aren’t friends who would borrow money and never repay it. It sounds like this guy was never a friend and never going to be a friend and so maybe he did feel he should pay that dollar back.

  6. No matter how you viewed John
    No matter how you viewed John T. your simple “thanks” should have been an end to this curious post of yours, Levi. Certainly there are far more important subjects to discuss, don’t you think?

  7. To those of you who don’t
    To those of you who don’t like this story: well, I hear you, but I promise you there is a good story with a positive message hidden in this admittedly negative blog post. Rereading it, I think I see that I went off course here, that I let my anger dominate what was originally supposed to be an amusing tale.

    And, yeah, sometimes I am angry and sometimes my anger gets the better of me as a writer. I wish I’d written this fable more skillfully, but I still stand by the point I’m trying to make, which is buried in there somewhere …

  8. I borrowed $75 from a friend
    I borrowed $75 from a friend one time and didn’t get around to paying her back until about 3 years after the fact…I just didn’t have it all…I was broke all the time. We’re still friends. So I see what you’re saying…one part of me is saying “who gives a fuck about one dollar?” the other part of me kind of admires this fella….that’s the Gemini in me

  9. Well, other than asking to
    Well, other than asking to borrow a few dollars I did have some ideas on this post.

    I generally agree with you Levi and share your view about this incident.

    As far as the friend and money thing — note your answer to me. There is a limit. If you’d loaned him 100 you would have cared (friend or no friend). The theatrics of his repayment were not necessary and somewhat proves your point.

    Some guys just don’t ever really connect with others and this fellow may have been one. I have had experiences in the past where someone really should be more of a friend but they never really become that close or comfortable. There’s always a bit of a stilted dynamic.

    Yet I think Caryn made excellent points. And also Stephanie regarding the theatrics — just give you the dollar tomorrow.

    I will add another scenario. There are lots of men like this. They don’t ever connect. They are not sociopaths or anything, but isolated. Some of them can become bitter and cold. These fellows may become the greedy businessmen that may cheat a bit on the margins of legality etc…

    This fellow having his rather flamboyant moral code is still a positive. At least he believes in to the letter honesty and ethics. It acts as a governor.

    The real trouble comes when the businessman/lawyer give up even these basic Sunday school ethics.

    Oh, yes. Everyone must go google that most elegant of poets, Ewan McTeagle.

  10. i think you perhaps read too
    i think you perhaps read too much into his actions. some people are like that. though quite few and far between, granted.

    peter falk’s columbo character was like that. he’d even chase after rich assholes to repay a buck or two . . . of course, that was just a t.v. show . . .

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