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The Ethicist
May 10, 2010

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. If you'd like help with a moral dilemma you're facing at school, at home, or at work, send your question to: ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a phone number.

Money Shouldn't Talk at the Library

My library book is due today, but I'm only about halfway through it. I can't renew the book, because the library put it on hold for someone. I'm willing to pay the penalty, 25 cents a day, so I can keep reading. May I do that—or must I return the book, knowing that someone else is waiting for it?
RACHEL BUCCI, Salem, Oregon

YOU MUST return the book on time. That 25-cent charge is not a rental fee but an incentive to return the book promptly.

As you point out, someone else is waiting for the book, which is why the library won't let you renew it.

The fact that the fee isn't high enough to provide a proper incentive—say $25 a day, or $250 a day—doesn't give you the freedom to hang on to a popular book past its due date.

Similarly, the willingness and ability to pay a speeding ticket does not make it OK to speed. (That's why some countries make the price of a speeding ticket proportional to the speeder's income.)

The saying "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time" may sound sensible, but it's just plain wrong. It should be simply "Don't do the crime."

The public library is a great institution. You should honor what I suspect you know to be the intent of the 25-cents-a-day fine, rather than embrace some sort of money-talks philosophy.

UPDATE: Bucci returned the book on time; she intends to check it out again.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, May 10, 2010)