The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Gas for a Steal or Stealing Gas?

Question: “What do you have to say to the customers who bought gas for five hours for $.45 a gallon, clearly a mistake, without informing the owner of the station. Or to the people who grumbled at Henry DeHart, the customer who told the owner about mistake?

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“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

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Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“The American marketplace operates under the principle of Caveat emptor, ‘Let the buyer beware.’ We all have to keep our eyes open in business, whether we buy or sell. Those who bought the gas at the pump price are free of any blame. They were not responsible for any error on the part of the vendor. Who questions the prices posted on pumps at a gas station? How was it ‘clearly a mistake?’ And I recall a certain ‘Chance Card’ in the game of Monopoly​: ‘Bank Error in your favor. Collect $15.’ Such things happen now and then.

“But Henry DeHart is to be commended for calling the owner’s attention to the situation. He performed the duty required by the Eighth Commandment (‘Thou shalt not steal,’ Exodus 20:15): ‘That I promote the advantage of my neighbor in every instance I can or may, and deal with him as I desire to be dealt with by others’ (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 112). The grumblers should take to heart the duty we all have to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“I will admit that if I had filled up my tank for something like $6, I would feel a jolt of excitement running right through my bones that would be almost akin to…well, let’s just say it would feel mighty fine. But if the receipt price didn’t match the sign price, I can only hope that I’d do the same thing as Mr. DeHart. By all means, what he did was noble, and in our tradition, Dharmic. I am happy that the news report I read on this included the reaction of the station owner. It’s often easier for us to think we are pulling something over on a faceless, impersonal business. But as the report reminds us, the profit that gas station owners make on fuel is razor thin. It saddens me to think of how much income was lost today simply due to the greed of so many customers.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“I would say the customers wrongfully took advantage of a situation that will cost the owner of a local small business a great deal of money. They did not love their neighbor as they love themselves. Their behavior was not right. Henry DeHart did the right thing by alerting the owner. We are all taught as children not to take what is not ours to take. The customers that morning were essentially stealing the gas from the owner of the gas station.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“The act of taking something is stealing. Stealing is a violation of the Fifth Commandment. Receiving gas in this context is stealing.

“Living a moral life is a form of worshipping God. A person devoted to what is right may suffer. I prefer to be attacked than do objective wrong.”

My response:

To the customers who bought gas rather than alert the owner to his mistake, I say, “shame on you!” The owner of the store is a small businessman. He is trying to make a living, maybe support a family. He made a mistake, and you took advantage of him. Had the mistake been a small one, I would not fault you. But the magnitude of the difference between the average price of gasoline and the price at his pumps clearly say to any person with a conscience and a brain that it was not intentional.

And to Mr. Henry DeHart:

Sir, you are well-named. You do, indeed, have a heart, a beautiful one. I hereby award you with the first “Ethics and Religion Talk Moral Courage Award.” You were the only person with the moral courage to do what was right even though it harmed you (you could have benefited from cheap gas), placed yourself in potential danger (you angered other customers who expected to buy cheap gas at a price that was clearly a mistake). You placed the financial welfare of the owner above your own. You did not, as did some other customers that day, rationalize the purchase of gas at a 90% discount because of a decimal point error,  and claim that the little guy is finally getting back at “big oil.”

Mr. Henry DeHart, you are a hero.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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