My regular running routes take me over many miles and through areas that are heavily trafficked—most often by college students. Because of this, I often find lost phones, wallets, IDs and other items. Recently I came across a wallet fat with cash and credit cards. As always, I sought out the owner and returned it. Being a philosopher, I thought I’d write a bit about the ethics of this.
While using found credit card numbers would generally be a bad idea from the practical standpoint, found cash is quite another matter. After all, cash is cash and there is typically nothing to link cash to a specific person. Since money is rather useful, a person who finds a wallet fat with cash would have a good practical reason to simply keep the money and use it herself. One possible exception would be that the reward for returning the lost wallet would exceed the value of the cash in the wallet—but the person who finds it would most likely have no idea if this would be the case or not. So, from a purely practical standpoint, keeping the cash would be a smart choice. A person could even return the credit cards and other items in the wallet, claiming quite plausibly that it was otherwise empty when found. However, what might be a smart choice need not be the right choice.
One argument in favor of returning found items (such as the wallet and all the cash) can be built on the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. More formally, this is moral reasoning involving the method of reversing the situation. Since I would want my lost property returned, I should thus treat others in the same way. Unless, of course, I can justify treating others differently by finding relevant differences that would justify the difference. Alternatively, it could also be justified on utilitarian grounds. For example, someone who is poor might contend that it would not be wrong to keep money she found in a rich person’s wallet on the grounds that the money would do her much more good than it would do for the rich person: such a small loss would not affect him, such a gain would benefit her significantly.
Since I am reasonably well off and find relatively modest sums of money (hundreds of dollars at most), I have the luxury of not being tempted to keep the money. However, even when I was not at all well off, I still returned whatever I found. Even when I honestly believed that I would put the money to better use than the original owner. This is not due to any fetishes about property, but a matter of ethics.
One of the reasons is my belief that I do have obligations to help others, especially when the cost to me is low relative to the aid rendered. In the case of finding someone’s wallet or phone, I know that the loss would be a significant inconvenience and worry for most people. In the case of a wallet, a person will probably need to replace a driver’s license, credit cards, insurance cards and worry about identity theft. It is easy for me to return the wallet—either by dropping it off with police or contacting the person after finding them via Facebook or some other means. That said, the obvious challenge is justifying my view that I am so obligated. However, I would contend that in such cases, the burden of proof lies on the selfish rather than the altruistic.
Another reason is that I believe that I should not steal. While keeping a lost item is not the same morally as active theft (this could be seen as being a bit analogous to the distinction between killing and letting die), it does seem to be a form of theft. After all, I would be acquiring what does not belong to me by choosing not to return it. Naturally, if I have no means of returning it to the rightful owner (such as finding a quarter in the road), then keeping it would not seem to be theft. Obviously enough, it could be contended that keeping lost property is not theft (even when it could be returned easily), perhaps on the ancient principle of finders keepers, losers weepers. It could also be contended that theft is acceptable—which would be challenging. However, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who claim that theft is acceptable or that keeping lost property when returning it would be quite possible is not theft.
I also return found items for two selfish reasons. The first is that I want to build the sort of world I want to live in—and in that world people return lost items. While my acting the way I want the world to be is a tiny thing, it is more than nothing. Second, I feel a psychological compulsion to return things I find—so I have to do it for peace of mind.