The Shopping Cart Theory – Are You A Good Person?

Philosophers have been debating about human nature since the dawn of history. Some have argued that people are inherently good, others say we’re basically selfish. 

Still others say whether you’re a good person comes down to your choices.

Enter the shopping cart theory.

(Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash)

The shopping cart theory presents the idea that a person’s moral character can be determined by whether they willingly return their shopping cart after unloading their groceries. 

The civilian who brings the cart back to its proper resting place is a selfless person, the theory goes, whereas the person who chooses to abandon the cart in the parking lot is not. 

Origin of the shopping cart theory

While Socrates once sat in the agora, or marketplace, of Athens, challenging the views of politicians and aristocrats, it may come as no surprise that the modern forum for philosophical debate is none other than the Twittersphere. 

It’s there that the shopping cart theory first emerged. 

The shopping cart theory apparently made its debut circa May 2020 when a Twitter user referred to it as “apex example of whether a person will do what is right without being forced to do it.”

He argued that this test alone is the ultimate way to determine the quality of someone’s values or moral character.

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The author of the Twitter post goes on to say, “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.”

While this is a pretty strong statement, the reasoning is that there are no real obstacles preventing someone from returning a shopping cart, yet there are no laws enforcing it. At the same time, returning the cart offers no reward, so the only real motive for doing it is to abide by a subtle social contract.

“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,” says the Twitter post. “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.”

Because there’s no reward or ulterior motive to avoid punishment, the theory goes, this test shows whether someone will do what is right just because, thus providing the perfect backdrop for examining moral character.

Twitter’s response to the shopping car theory

“The Shopping Cart is what determines whether a person is a good or bad member of society,” the Twitter post concludes. 

Much of Twitter seems to agree.

For instance, user @bekahbooooo_ says “​​Idk I just feel like as someone who once worked a retail job, I might not be required to put it back but the guy working would really appreciate it so I might as well make someone else’s day easier?? Idk it’s more about respect for the worker and not the unspoken societal law.”

In a reply to the above, user @nyahoarder says, “I mean yeah that’s the idea. having that level of respect and consideration for a stranger is what makes you a ‘good member of society.’”

Still, there were a few scattered posts on the other side of the argument.

One user, @thedxman, felt especially strongly about it:

“It’s a shitty theory, ignoring disabled people and others who may not be able to return a trolley, putting them in a “extreme emergency” vs “not even human” comparison. It’s shitty analysis on every level,” the user says. “Yeah, return your shopping cart. Also appreciate reasons ppl don’t.”

What is self-governance?

According to the shopping cart theory, whether or not you return your cart after your shopping trip determines whether you’re capable of self-governance.

But what exactly does that mean?

Self-governance is the ability of an individual or group to regulate themselves without the management of an outside force or authority. 

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In the case of the shopping cart theory, it refers to personal conduct that demonstrates self-control, self-discipline, and a respect for the collective.

Shopping cart theory test

Want to test out the shopping car theory for yourself? All you have to do is pay attention the next time you’re at the store. 

Do you have the impulse to leave the cart behind, but put it away anyway? To some, this indicates you’re a decent human being.

There are plenty of other scenarios you can apply this logic to. Simply observe what you do in those moments when no one is watching and you have the choice to act or not to act in a selfless way without consequence. 

In this situation, do you choose kindness—or not?

(Photo by Austin Pacheco on Unsplash)

Several users shared reasons that they choose to leave their shopping carts at times, or at least possible reasons why we should be understanding of those who do. 

“A good reason not to return it is if you are alone, with young children, and you are too far from the return to leave your kids alone in the car,” says user @UrbanPat

User @Ryan_Secord argues that “leaving carts for employees to gather is job security, and therefore a good deed.”

“Only times I haven’t done this has been in situations at night when I felt unsafe in the parking lot,” says user @MellisaJPeltier. “Rare times, but as a survivor of violent crime, it’s a choice I believe is right for me. Otherwise, I’m a very good citizen, apparently.”

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User @runawaywithme points out that this theory doesn’t work in countries that require payment to use carts:

“This is so flawed, because in the netherlands (and other countries as well for sure) you actually have to put a coin in the cart to be able to take it with you, so if you want that coin back, you need to put the cart back where it belongs. seems to work for most people.”

stencil of a person with a wheelchair
(Photo by marianne bos on Unsplash)

As these users point out, the shopping cart theory has some serious limitations.

It’s location-specific

First of all, it can only apply to shoppers in countries or locations where shopping carts aren’t regulated by pay-to-use systems. 

It’s ableist

As several users pointed out, it may also be ableist. Ableism is discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.

For instance, a shopping cart user who walks with a cane, cast, or other mobility device may find it to be a hardship to return a shopping cart. 

Concluding that they’re “no better than an animal” or “an absolute savage” because of that isn’t quite fair.

It doesn’t consider extenuating factors

The same may be true of the parent with small children secured safely in the car with the cart return too far away to be considered safe.

Too black and white

Another major flaw in the theory, some say, is that it’s too black and white. 

What of the person who returns their cart most of the time, but on a particularly rough day decides to leave it behind? What if a person spent most of their life abandoning the cart but has recently decided to change their ways?

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One thing that can be said of human nature is that we crave certainty, and this is especially true when we try to define right and wrong. Having rules and answers for life’s tough questions gives us a sense of comfort and stability, even when those questions can’t really be answered.

In the end, defining good and bad isn’t as easy as one simple test that can be applied as a blanket-theory to all of humanity. Nor are people so simple that we can sort them neatly into those categories. 

The vast majority of us have nuanced personalities with a whole slew of qualities, idiosyncrasies, and outright quirks that play a major role in how we interact with the world. 

In the midst of all that, I’ve yet to meet a single person who’s never done something others might deem as “bad.” 

Perhaps as we muse about human nature, the very first thing to realize is that we’re neither good nor bad—but we all contain the potential for both. 

That said, while human nature may be a little bit of everything, there’s still no doubt that choice plays a major role.

man looks at his reflection
(Photo by Fares Hamouche on Unsplash)

In the end, the shopping cart theory may not be the definitive test for whether or not you’re a bad person.

Still, it presents some interesting things to consider. 

What do you do when no one is looking? When you know a good deed doesn’t benefit you directly, do you still choose to do it?

And now that you’ve come across the shopping cart theory, might those answers be different? 

Whatever your answers might have been now or in the past, you still have the choice to define what they’ll be in the future. 

Therein lies your answer.

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