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Mar172013

The Finder's Keepers Threshold

Yesterday evening as I was popping out to pick up some groceries, I found a $50 note in the courtyard of my apartment block. I felt a slight compunction in pocketing it, but finder's keepers, right?

Then, a few paces further on I found $270.

Damn!

If I lost that amount of money I would feel sick. At various times in my life, such a loss would have been quite a setback. I couldn't use that money, or even give it away without thinking about how the person who lost it must be feeling. I had to try to return this money to its owner.

It's experiences like this that, for me, give the lie to arguments that we need religion for moral guidance. That without it we would descend into a bloody, every-person-for-themself struggle for survival. Utter self-serving twaddle.

My motivation for returning the money came not from a fear of divine retribution, but from an empathic response, and I don't mean in a shallow "do unto others" sense. It was almost visceral. When I found the money my thoughts went immediately to how the person who'd lost the money might feel. When it was just $50, the answer was "annoyed", but at $320 it kicked over to "devastated". And I felt those emotions personally.

This kind of response cannot be taught. It has to be wired into our brains.

The key here is the shift in my response from finding that first $50 to finding the wad of notes. For many people losing $50 would be at least as devastating as losing $320 would be for me. If my moral calculus was due entirely my christian upbringing I would be just as motivated to return $50 to it's owner as I would be for $320. Instead my response was calibrated to my subjective experience.

There's also the question of where I found it. I'm pretty sure my "finder's keepers threshold" would be very different for money I found on a public thoroughfare than for money within my apartment block. Empathic responses are far more acute when you the person involved might be your neighbour.

After returning from the shops, I found another $50 and put up some posters around the apartment block. After a full day nobody has claimed the money.

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    Football is definitely 1 of the most significant sports in America. It has a important following.
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