Are there degrees of dishonesty that have become acceptable in our society — like little white lies? Or snitching a grape while shopping? Or fudging on a tax return? Or pirating music online?

The problem, when it came right down to it, was towels.

And sheets. And pillows. And blankets.

The stuff just kept disappearing.

Of course, there was no great mystery about where it was going. Mark knew perfectly well that his guests were taking it home. The problem was getting it back.

Mark had been in the hosting business for a long time. He studied hotel management in college and worked his way through school at one of the city’s finest hotels. He was accepted into a management-training program with a prestigious hotel chain and began climbing the corporate ladder. After six years, his company offered him the chance of a lifetime: an executive position, with the kind of fringe benefits you only see on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

It was a dream job, but it wasn’t his dream. So he turned it down. His dream was finally realized when he was able to purchase a beautiful, well-kept motel near a busy tourist attraction. Running his own motel was all he hoped it would be — except for one thing. Experience had taught him that people sometimes take things that don't belong to them. But he didn’t realize how personally it would affect him when the towels that his guests were taking were his towels.

“It was a slap in the face,” he told me. “I mean, I did everything possible to see that my guests had a pleasant stay, and they rewarded me by stealing from me. I couldn't understand it.”

Mark tried writing letters to gently ask guests to return motel property that may have “accidentally” found its way into a suitcase. But it was just an additional expense, with no return. The only time he ever went after someone legally was when a couple of young guys slipped a television into the back of their truck. Mark found himself taking such overblown delight in their arrest and subsequent conviction that he decided it was time for him to get out of the business.

“It got to the point where I didn’t like people very much,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to be a good host when you consider your guests to be Huns and Visigoths.”

He’s been behind a desk in an unrelated business for a few years now, and he’s had time to become more philosophical. Most people value honesty, he reasons, and they consider themselves to be honest. But for some reason, they don’t think there’s anything dishonest about taking towels from a motel or silverware from a restaurant or, as one news report indicated, bathrobes from an aircraft carrier upon which they are the president’s guests.

“I guess they think it’s OK,” he said, “or else they think it’s just a little thing that doesn’t really matter. But it does matter, and not just in terms of dollars and cents. The way I see it, there’s no such thing as relative integrity. Either you’re honest or you’re not. It’s as simple as that. If you’re honest — really honest — it doesn’t occur to you to take something that doesn’t belong to you.”

But aren’t there degrees of dishonesty that have become sort of acceptable in our society? You know — like little white lies? Or snitching a grape from the grocery store’s produce department while shopping? Or fudging a little on a tax return? Or making personal copies on the copy machine at work? Or pirating music online?

“Sorry,” Mark says, “but I don't see it that way. I guess everyone has to decide for themselves if they're going to allow circumstances to dictate the degree of their integrity. For me, that’s too complicated. Maybe it’s just the way my mind works, but I can’t see the difference between snitching a grape and snitching a watermelon. So for me it’s just easier to keep my hands off stuff that doesn’t belong to me.”

Even if it means packing up after a trip without throwing in the towel.

To read more by Joseph B. Walker, please go to