Friday, August 13, 2010


I came across an expression the other day that really started me thinking.

It's opportunity that makes the thief.

This expression is credited to renaissance philosopher Francis Bacon. It seems to me that the idea behind this phrase is that we are all looking, at heart, to cheat or steal, but we remain in line only from the fear of being caught or being exposed. It's the idea that we obey the law for fear of the stick hanging over our heads and not because we believe in their morality and the notion of fairness and justice. Anybody given the opportunity to cheat with assurances that they will get away with it, will indeed take that opportunity.

Let's consider just a few what-ifs that span a range of opportunities.
  • Suppose a filthy rich, old, eccentric lady with a terminal disease is walking down the street and drops a bag containing 1 million dollars in untraceable bills. You happen upon the bag and there is nobody around. What would you do?
  • Suppose you are in a busy airport walking to your gate when you stumble upon an antique diamond brooch with a broken clasp that has fallen into a planter. You are just about to board the plane and could make an easy grab and go. What would you do?
  • Suppose you purchase a second-hand computer and find an undeleted folder containing several thousand illegally downloaded song files. What would you do?
  • Suppose that a young boy is sitting near you as you wait outside the library and leaves behind his shiny new iPod when he runs off to meet his friends. What would you do?
In each of the above "what-ifs", there is an opportunity. An opportunity to get something for free and nobody would ever be the wiser and an opportunity to do the right thing. I maintain that what we do and how we act when nobody is watching is a much better measure of our character than what we do and how we act when we are surrounded by others. I would like to think that more than a small handful of us would return that bag of money, find the owner of that necklace, delete those files, and call that young boy back to gather up what he left behind.