The wallet test

The editors of the Reader’s Digest wanted to know what people from all over the world would do if they found a lost wallet.  They dropped 10 wallets, containing an address and a modest sum of money,  in every city they chose, and observed what the finders did with the wallets.  It was a clever yet simple test of basic honesty, the results of which can reasonably be used as an index of a society’s corruptibility. The findings, to be published in full in the magazine’s April issue, were previewed by some of our newspapers.

Filipinos didn’t fare too badly, at least not as badly as general perceptions about our people would have us believe; we returned 4 out of 10 wallets.  We did better than Hong Kong, in fact, where only 3 wallets were returned, one of them by a Filipino maid.   In Asia, Singapore had the highest return rate – 9 out of 10, followed by Seoul, Korea – 6,   and 5 each for Bombay, Taipei, and Bangkok.

Asian cities registered an average of 72 percent return rate, which was much higher than Europe’s 58 percent and the US’s 67 percent.   The test concluded that there was no significant difference in honesty between countries with high standards of living and those with low standards of living.  Manila scored better than some cities in Switzerland and Germany.  In like manner, the results showed that honest persons come from the rich and the poor alike.

We can venture at least 3 reasons why people would take or keep what doesn’t belong to them.  First, because they think that doing so does not really injure anybody, or at least not somebody they know. Second, because they think the law prohibiting them from doing so is either not clear or is not respected.  And third, because they believe the system or the law, or indeed, life itself, is not fair anyway.

The first neutralizes the immorality of the act.  The law is seen as an unnecessary obstacle to practical sensible action.  When a BIR agent takes a cut, for instance, he rationalizes this by thinking he is saving the taxpayer some money, even as he also pays a share to the government.  In this manner, he thinks everybody ends up a winner. When told that  he is in effect stealing what otherwise would have gone to the building of schools and hospitals, his ready answer might be — that even if the full tax is paid, someone else is bound to steal it anyway.

The second reason questions the clarity and enforceability of the law. The impression is that everybody is doing it, so why not do it too?  And if everybody expects everybody else to be on the take, this means that even when you’re not actually involved, everyone will still  think you are probably involved.  So why be honest?

The third reason questions the moral legitimacy of the law.  People think the government or the system really works more for the rich than for the poor.  Therefore, to be law-abiding or to be honest is really to be stupid.  To steal from such a government cannot be intrinsically bad.  In such a system, morality only obliges you to look after your own and your immediate family’s interest.

Current attempts at social reform have tended to focus on the socalled need to effect a change in values, usually through a religious transformation process.  Patriotic exhortations and periodic campaigns aimed at ethical renewal have, however, not produced any meaningful results.  They have failed, first, because they have not been accompanied by similar efforts to make the system worth defending, and second, because nothing is being done to make it difficult and costly to cheat on the system.

For as long as the government is seen only as a tool of the few or as a milking cow of those in power, rather than as an instrument for the promotion of  the general welfare, citizens cannot be expected to care and to look after its interests.  Citizens have to be made to feel they are part of one community, whose collective interests are identical to theirs.  This feeling of identification is attained initially by compulsion, but is later deepened by moral commitment.

It is interesting what Nietzsche, that iconoclast of modern morality, has to say about the origins of moral behavior.  In Human, All Too Human, he writes: “The ground for all morality can only be prepared when a greater individual or collective-individual, as, for example, society or the state, subjects the individuals in it, that is, when it draws them out of their isolatedness and integrates them into a union.  Force precedes morality; indeed, for a time morality itself is force, to which others acquiesce to avoid unpleasure.  Later it becomes custom, and still later free obedience, and finally almost instinct; then it is coupled to pleasure, like all habitual and natural things, and is now called virtue.”

Such a historicist account of moral behavior tells us that some societies are more honest than others, not because they have a natural affiliation to virtue, but only because their cultures have been formed under the auspices of a more inclusive social order backed by force.  The persistence of graft and corruption in societies like ours may thus be explained as the reflection of a weak modern state that cannot enforce its own laws.  It does not mean that we have no moral traditions; it only means that these may no longer be appropriate to the complex transactions of a modern society.

A good beginning is made in the campaign to end corruption when, by its everyday conduct, the government shows itself to be worth defending, as also when it refuses to compromise on any injury committed by anyone against its collective interests.


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