Delta fares error prompts question: Is it OK to profit from other’s mistakes?

Mark Memmott, who writes the Two-Way blog at NPR, asks a good, if uncomfortable question: Is it right that people took advantage of Delta’s mistake when it put flights on sale for as low as $5 yesterday?

He knows what you’re thinking, too: “Hey, it wasn’t my fault they messed up.”

This popular rationalization confuses blame with responsibility. Carried to it worst extreme, Hamm’s Excuse would eliminate all charity and much heroism, since it stands for the proposition that human beings are only responsible for alleviating problems that they were personally responsible for.

In fact, the opposite is the case: human beings are responsible for each other, and the ethical obligation to help someone, even at personal cost, arises with the opportunity to do so, not with blame for causing the original problem. …

This rationalization is named after American gymnast Paul Hamm, who adamantly refused to voluntarily surrender the Olympic gold metal he admittedly had been awarded because of an official scoring error. His justification for this consisted of repeating that it was the erring officials, not him, who were responsible for the fact that the real winner of the competition was relegated to a bronze medal when he really deserved the gold.

The ethical rule to counter Hamm’s Excuse is a simple one: if there is a wrong and you are in a position to fix it, fix it.

We have seen these sorts of things before, of course. Back in 2007, I asked the same question when a gas station in Minocqua, Wis., mistakenly priced gasoline at 33 cents a gallon. People couldn’t fill up fast enough.

Most of the time, that’s what happens. People take advantage of someone else’s bad day. But not always.

Last month, a bag of money from a casino — $223,600 in all — fell out of an armored car in New Orleans. A woman found the money and it was back in the appropriate hands in 30 minutes. Of course, she turned out to be a probation officer.

The same thing happened just outside of Columbus, Ohio in 2010. People took the money and ran.