Lynn Stout

 

On her book Cultivating Conscience: How Good Laws Make Good People

Cover Interview of November 17, 2010

A close-up

On a warm summer evening in Los Angeles, Franco Gonzales, an undocumented immigrant working as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant, was waiting alone at a bus stop.  An armored car drove by.  It rear doors mysteriously swung open, dropping a plastic bag that contained $203,000 in cash at Gonzales’ feet.  Gonzales took the money home.  After a long night spent wrestling with his conscience, he called the police to return the money to its anonymous owner.

Gonzales’ story was unusual enough to be reported in the national press.  (It isn’t every day a small fortune lands at someone’s feet.)  But the remarkable tale of the honest dishwasher is not really that remarkable.

Civic life in the Unites States is filled with similar, if more modest, acts of decency and forbearance.  Beefy young men wait patiently behind frail senior citizens instead of pushing to the front of the line.  Drivers wait for red light to turn green, even when the police are out of sight.  People withdraw cash from ATM machines without bothering to carry weapons or hire armed guards.  Kidnapping for ransom is rare and unusual.

Indeed, conscientious behavior is so deeply woven into the warp and woof of American life that it usually goes unnoticed.  We take for granted the innumerable small, unselfish acts that bind us together in a civil society, just as we take for granted the gravitational force that keeps us from floating out into space.

But sometimes gravity produces results dramatic enough to make us ponder: when an apple fell on Isaac Newton’s head, he stopped to think.  When a dishwasher goes out of his way to return $203,000 in cash to its anonymous owner, we should also stop to think.  What’s going on here, and how can we get more of it?