Back in 2020, a tweet went viral positing a “shopping cart theory” of morality. It’s a tidy assessment of humanity based on whether a person makes the choice to return a shopping cart to its rightful place after they’re done using it. The author of the now deleted tweet considered this to be “the ultimate litmus test for whether a person is capable of self-governing… the apex example of whether a person will do what is right without being forced to do it.”
The image in the tweet is a play on the popular trolley problem meme. The trolley problem thought experiment asks whether a person should passively allow five people on the tracks to die from being hit by a trolley, or actively divert the trolley in order to kill only one person on the adjacent track (who would have otherwise been safe).
My first exposure to the trolley problem was in the season two episode of The Good Place that shares its name. Ostensibly a comedy, The Good Place was interesting in its first season before morphing into a self-serious and needlessly confusing mess. If I could, I’d divert the trolley to kill the version of me who watched The Good Place, thereby freeing five other hypothetical Jons to go explore the world, learn new languages, and watch other television.
But the Shopping Cart Theory is more mundane. No fast-moving trolley, no death. Just a loose shopping cart, a cart corral off in the distance, and the intoxicating idea that you can stand on moral high ground if you return the cart to its proper place.
I’m not sure many people would stand on a soapbox to declare that we should all refuse to return our carts. But there are some worthwhile reasons to not return a cart—like not wanting to leave a small child alone in the car or feeling unsafe alone in a parking lot at night—and these make it harder to consider the Shopping Cart Theory an incontrovertible indication of a person’s character.
Still, we should try, when we can, to make other people’s lives easier. It’s the same as returning your tray at a food court or dumping out your cup of backwash and ice at the coffee shop. Cleaning up after ourselves is the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, the shopping cart corral is just one location where we decide to be our best or worst selves. Here are all the ways we can actively choose not to be assholes at the grocery store.