A Problem In Ethics by A. A. Milne

Life is full of little problems, which arise suddenly and find one wholly unprepared with a solution. For instance, you travel down to Wimbledon on the District Railway–first-class, let us suppose, because it is your birthday. On your arrival you find that you have lost your ticket. Now, doubtless there is some sort of recognized business to be gone through which relieves you of the necessity of paying again. You produce an affidavit of a terribly affirmative nature, together with your card and a testimonial from a beneficed member of the Church of England. Or you conduct a genial correspondence with the traffic manager which spreads itself over six months. To save yourself this bother you simply tell the collector that you haven’t a ticket and have come from Charing Cross. Is it necessary to add “first- class”?

Of course one has a strong feeling that one ought to, but I think a still stronger feeling that one isn’t defrauding the railway company if one doesn’t. (I will try not to get so many “ones” into my next sentence.) For you may argue fairly that you established your right to travel first-class when you stepped into the carriage with your ticket–and, it may be, had it examined therein by an inspector. All that you want to do now is to establish your right to leave the Wimbledon platform for the purer air of the common. And you can do this perfectly easily with a third-class ticket.

However, this is a problem which will only arise if you are careless with your property. But however careful you are, it may happen to you at any moment that you become suddenly the owner of a shilling with a hole in it.

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I am such an owner. I entered into possession a week ago–Heaven knows who played the thing off on me. As soon as I made the discovery I went into a tobacconist’s and bought a box of matches.

“This,” he said, looking at me reproachfully, “is a shilling with a hole in it.”

“I know,” I said, “but it’s all right, thanks. I don’t want to wear it any longer. The fact is, Joanna has thrown me–However, I needn’t go into that.” He passed it back to me.

“I am afraid I can’t take it,” he said.

“Why not? I managed to.”

However, I had to give him one without a hole before he would let me out of his shop. Next time I was more thoughtful. I handed three to the cashier at my restaurant in payment of lunch, and the ventilated one was in the middle. He saw the joke of it just as I was escaping down the stairs.

“Hi!” he said, “this shilling has a hole in it.”

I went back and looked at it. Sure enough it had.

“Well, that’s funny,” I said. “Did you drop it, or what?”

He handed the keepsake back to me. He also had something of reproach in his eye.

“Thanks, very much,” I said. “I wouldn’t have lost it for worlds; Emily–But I mustn’t bore you with the story. Good day to you.” And I gave him a more solid coin and went.

Well, that’s how we are at present. A more unscrupulous person than myself would have palmed it off long ago. He would have told himself with hateful casuistry that the coin was none the worse for the air-hole in it, and that, if everybody who came into possession of it pressed it on to the next man, nobody would be injured by its circulation. But I cannot argue like this. It pleases me to give my shilling a run with the others sometimes. I like to put it down on a counter with one or two more, preferably in the middle of them where the draught cannot blow through it; but I should indeed be surprised–I mean sorry–if it did not come back to me at once.

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There is one thing, anyhow, that I will not do. I will not give it to a waiter or a taxi-driver or to anybody else as a tip. If you estimate the market value of a shilling with a hole in it at anything from ninepence to fourpence according to the owner’s chances of getting rid of it, then it might be considered possibly a handsome, anyhow an adequate, tip for a driver; but somehow the idea does not appeal to me at all. For if the recipient did not see the hole, you would feel that you had been unnecessarily generous to him, and that one last effort to have got it off on to a shopkeeper would have been wiser; while if he did see it–well, we know what cabmen are. He couldn’t legally object, it is a voluntary gift on your part, and even regarded as a contribution to his watch chain worthy of thanks, but–Well, I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s sportsmanlike.

However, I have an idea at last. I know a small boy who owns some lead soldiers. I propose to borrow one of these–a corporal or perhaps a serjeant–and boil him down, and then fill up the hole in the shilling with lead. Shillings, you know, are not solid silver; oh no, they have alloy in them. This one will have a little more than usual perhaps. One cannot tie oneself down to an ounce or two.

We set out, I believe, to discuss the morals of the question. It is a most interesting subject.

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