The Jewish Ethicist: Finders Keepers?
A primer on the laws related to lost objects.
Q. When do I have to return a lost object? When can I keep it for myself?
A. In two places the Torah commands us to return lost objects. In the book of Exodus (23:4), we find, “If you encounter your enemy's ox, or his donkey straying, surely return it to him.” And in Deuteronomy (22:1-3) Scripture is even more explicit:
Don't see your brother's ox, or his sheep, astray and ignore them; you shall surely return them to your brother. And if your brother is not nearby, or you don't know him, then collect it into your house, and let it remain with you until your brother claims it and you return it to him.
An entire chapter of the Talmud is devoted especially to the laws of lost objects. If we examine these laws, we can discern two basic principles:
- As long as the original owner has a reasonable expectation of having the object returned, the finder must take reasonable steps to locate the owner and return the object. This principle applies if there are distinctive identifying characteristics and if the object was lost in among good-hearted people who are likely to take seriously their ethical obligation to return the object.
- If the owner should recognize that he has no reasonable expectation of finding the object, we consider that he has despaired of obtaining it. In this case there is no absolute obligation to return the object, but it is appropriate to do so if the finder can easily determine who the owner is.
According to this classification, if we find a passport or a wallet, then we are almost certainly obligated to return them. These have clear identification of the owner and many conscientious people would empathize with the owners and try to return them. But if we find a sum of money we are almost never obligated to return it. After all, money has no identifying characteristics, and there are many finders who are anxious to keep it. Even so, the most ethical course of action is to return money as well if we have the ability to locate the owner.
Later authorities point out that we should also return objects whenever the secular law obligates this.
Very often the best way to make sure a lost object gets back to its owner is just to leave it alone. If the owner is likely to come back and find his property, whereas the finder would have difficulty locating the owner, then the most ethical thing is just to leave the object alone.
AN EDUCATIONAL MESSAGE
The Maharal (Rav Yehuda Levai of Prague, Beer HaGolah chapter 24) writes that these two principles represent two different approaches to ownership. One kind of ownership is based on a genuine connection between the owner and the property; it follows that once the object is lost and the owner despairs of finding it, then the connection is broken and the object becomes ownerless. Another kind of ownership is the formal conventions of ownership which society agrees on in order to maintain orderly commercial life.
According to this approach, we should always return an object if we know who the original owner is, just as we would want someone else to restore our own property. In this way we maintain the proper incentives to cultivate wealth.
The first kind of ownership is primary, as we see from the fact that when the owner still has reasonable hope of finding the object returning it is obligatory. The Maharal then explains that this contains an important educational message. Human conventions are important and beneficial, but they are ultimately arbitrary. (A good example of this is the often hair-splitting legal distinctions between valid and invalid transfers.) And giving primacy to a person's psychic connection to his possessions emphasizes that “you can't take it with you”; when our consciousness disappears, so does our ownership.
We may add that there is a limit to how much property a person can personally connect with; this can remind us that even if someone has vast wealth, there is a much smaller amount of property which he can really feel is “his own”.
The Torah acknowledges the importance of conventional rules and orderly markets. But the most important aspect of property law is the human aspect. When a person still feels a living connection with his property but is separated from it, that is when our obligation to return it is greatest. When he is already reconciled to his loss, we should still strive to return his property; after all, he is the one who invested effort to obtain it and who relies on having it. But in this case the obligation is at a lower level.
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