As a young man I once stole a book from a bookshop. It was an interesting book (a biography of Darwin) but I wasn’t desperate to read it at the time, nor was I short of money. I stole it because (apart from scrumped apples in childhood) I had never stolen previously and I wanted to know what a blatant act of theft felt like. Well, all I can remember is that, although I was nervous when leaving the bookshop, I didn’t feel any sense of guilt. In fact, I felt quite exultant and I seem to remember reading the book with rather more pleasure than usual.
This 40-year old memory came flooding back to me this morning when reading about the waywardness of one of our celebrity chefs, Anthony Worrall Thompson, who appears regularly on television. (He also owns several restaurants.) He had been nicking wine and cheese several times from the self-service check-out at a Tesco supermarket before he was finally arrested. (I’ve little doubt that this decision was ultimately taken at Board level!) He is obviously not very bright or he would have realized that a CCTV camera would have been watching him or he was clumsy (which means he ought not to be a chef!). Apart from “not knowing what came over me” and various other attempts at plausible explanations — that he may be suffering from early onset of Alzheimer’s, for example! — why didn’t he just say: “Sorry Guv, I was naughty and you found me out”? We’d all understand.
My own previous bout of criminality convinced me that personal guilt is not about any internal sense of morality but of fear of being found out. In my case, had I been found out, I probably wouldn’t have been prosecuted or, if I had, it would never have been publicised. In Mr Thompson’s case, however, he will probably lose his television career and might even lose him his restaurant customers — perhaps enough of them to make him bankrupt in these hard times.
However, if there is any morality at all, it is the practicality that honesty pays — most of the time, and in most of our dealings. Without this strategy, usually acquired fairly early in childhood — and spontaneously from our peers quite as much as from fear of parental punishment — then society wouldn’t possibly be able to work for more than a day or two. In almost every transaction we carry out, even in business as well as socially, there are moments of time where we trust someone else’s word and they trust us before anything can be written down. Even in many billion dollar deals between rival businessmen (particularly Asian) there are still moments during a verbal understanding when one can renege on the other at profit. This seldom happens. If deception or exploitation is involved it’s usually over matters which don’t happen to be discussed (kept quiet by one of the parties!) and reveal themselves later. It’s fair play if one party is not sufficiently well prepared at the time!
Actually, I sympathize somewhat with our celebrity chef, stupid though he’s been. It’s the morality of the Tesco self-service check-out counter that bothers me. Obviously, Tesco suffers from constant theft, like any other food supermarket, and items can still be smuggled out through the normal check-out counters. I believe the normal losses are about 5% (as are additional losses from their own staff). I wouldn’t blame Tesco for keeping a very watchful eye on any and all proceedings by customers, whether in the aisles or at the counters. But a self-service counter comes very close indeed to being a super-temptation — an agent provocateur in fact. Such may be justified in cases of suspected potential murder or terrorism but this is disproportionate in the case of food. It will not only inevitably catch the clumsy or the stupid but also tempt those who have a desperate need.
Perhaps Tesco don’t prosecute in such cases. They probably don’t, if and when the store security chief is persuaded that there’s a genuine emergency. But for a business which seeks to be super-professional in everything it does, it is wrong that it should extend this to the last crinkle of human need, whether it is exploiting child labour on some distant farm or a parent with children short of food.