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The Shopping Cart Theory


There are a lot of ways to demonstrate that you are a basic decent human being. You can help an old lady cross the street. You can hold the door for someone. You can give a homeless man some change.

Those are all nice things to do, but there’s a little detail in all of those things… they all require a second party. But what to we do when there is no other person there to offer us positive reinforcement for our good deed. What do we do when there is no reward at all for doing the right thing?

They say you can measure the morality of a man by what he does when no one is watching. Well, in that regard, there’s a meme going around on the interwebs these days called the “Shopping Cart Theory” and it addresses this very issue.

You see, the “Shopping Cart Theory” describes a supposedly character-defining behavior that proposes that an individual's moral character can be determined by whether they choose to return a shopping cart to its designated spot after use or whether they simply leave it wherever it suits them.

'The shopping cart is the ultimate litmus test for whether a person is capable of self-governing,” the post states. “To return the shopping cart is an easy, convenient task and one which we all recognize as the correct, appropriate thing to do. To return the shopping cart is objectively right. There are no situations other than dire emergencies

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in which a person is not able to return their cart.

Simultaneously, it is not illegal to abandon your shopping cart. Therefore the shopping cart presents itself as the apex example of whether a person will do what is right without being forced to do it.”

You see, there’s no reward for returning the cart to the little cart corral. No one is going to pat you on the back or even give you a thumbs up. Alternatively, there is no consequence for just leaving it in the parking lot by your car. Worstcase scenario, it blocks a parking spot or someone dings their car door on it, but eventually some employee will come along and gather it up. So, really the only reason to put the cart up is, well, because you’re a good person. Or, at least good enough to have the common courtesy to put your cart up.

Like the author of the “Shopping Cart Theory” notes, 'No one will punish you for not returning the shopping cart, no one will fine you, or kill you for not returning the shopping cart, you gain nothing by returning the shopping cart. You must return the shopping cart out of the goodness of your own heart. You must return the shopping cart because it is the right thing to do. Because it is correct.'

As for those who do not pass the “Shopping Cart Test,” the author states, 'A person who is unable to do this is no better than an animal, an absolute savage who can only be made to do what is right by threatening them with a law and the force that stands behind it. The simple shopping cart is what determines whether a person is a good or bad member of society.

That might be a little overstated, but apply that simple idea to another simple idea… wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. Are you a decent enough person to care enough about the wellbeing of the vulnerable members of the population, or are you simply unwilling to “suffer” such a minor inconvenience for the sake of others?

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