Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Ethics of the Scam

Confused, Maybe Not clued me in to this article about an atheist run company that contracts with Christians to take care of their beloved pets after they a raptured away. When the end times comes, who will be around to take care of Fido and Fluffy? For $110, they'll take care of it.

I had a similar idea about fifteen years ago when reading an article about people who were having themselves cryogenically frozen when close to death in order to be thawed out when their diseases could be cured. My idea is that they could be cured if they had the money to afford the operation, but since everyone they know would be dead and since they would be considered legally dead and therefore could own no property, they would need a source of ready cash. They would have no cash, but they would have plenty of time before that, so why not use the power of compound interest? I would set up an account such that as soon as they are unfrozen , they would get the cash meaning that they would not only be healthy, but also rich. I would only take a small percentage of the interest as a management fee.

In both cases, neither I nor the post-apocalyptic dog walkers expect to have to pay up. We see it as free money, as taking a rube. But those buying the pet insurance or the post-mortem mutual fund see it as perfectly rational, indeed as desirable. They enter into the contract willingly, thinking it to their advantage.

The ethicist in the article sees this as identical to any sort of insurance arrangement. Those who sell auto insurance expect not to have to pay. That's how they make money. She sees nothing unusual, and therefore nothing wrong.

But surely this is a flawed analogy. In the case of health or auto insurance, they have actuaries who figure out the risk and adjust the price in their favor. It is an odds game that we play in case we hit the lotto of bad fortune. But this is a case where the insurer thinks there is absolutely no chance, that those who are their customers are just plain missing the boat. They think they are scamming them. Isn't there a problem there morally? Does the intent to scam mean that this is wrong or is it o.k. if the people you think you are scamming are hip to the scam and still do not think they are being taken? Is there something ethically problematic with this arrangement or is it like a Jewish publisher selling the New Testament, just business?