Identity theft is a buzzword in our society. Many policies and procedures are being adopted to try to deal with it, and people are now willing to go to great lengths and tolerate rather unbelievable conditions in order to protect themselves. I have always found this to be a bit silly. That is, until I experienced the problem of stolen identity first-hand.
One afternoon when my wife was out of town, I decided to log into our online banking system and make sure we had sufficient funds to go camping that weekend, when she would be returning from her business trip. As I ran through the list of charges on our checking account, I saw one charge that was rather puzzling, $1 charged to something called true.com. I wondered aloud what this could be and quickly opened a new browser tab, typing “true.com” into the address bar with anticipation and more than mild concern.
True.com is a dating website, which seemed rather odd for my wife and I to be paying for. After having a very awkward conversation with her, I contacted my bank about these charges. The short version of this story is that someone got my debit card number and the required information to use it, set up an account on true.com, then quickly changed their mind and closed the account before any charges were accrued. Luckily, I noticed this and was able to cancel the debit card before additional, more problematic charges could be incurred.
This is, sadly, an all too common tale with a conclusion that is far happier than some that I have heard on the subject. And although it may not seem so at first glance, the pervasiveness of this problem has a significant impact upon our ability to be morally upstanding people. The ever-present threat of identity theft literally forces us to be suspicious of others, especially people that we do not know. Our ability to trust others is an essential aspect of our everyday ethical behavior, though this is not obviously the case.
It seems that acting morally involves determining and then doing the right thing, whatever that may be in a given situation. However, a powerful motivator for many people to do the right thing is the knowledge that others will do likewise in similar circumstances. Not everyone is compelled to act morally for the sake of doing so, and many people find morality to be a necessary evil, albeit one that they readily comply with because they have this confidence that others will do the same. But what if this confidence were weakened? Would these individuals still act morally if they did not have confidence that others would reciprocate?
The answer to this question seems to be no. Many philosophers, including Thomas Hobbes and David Gauthier, have argued that morality is something of a maximizing strategy that we all participate in because the results are better than if we do not do so. On this account, our motive to be moral relies crucially on our ability to trust that others will also be moral. If this trust is lost, our best bet is to maximize our own well-being, even at the expense of others.
Luckily, most of us will not be sent into moral nose-dives due to problems like identity theft. We will certainly be cautious about our personal information, and will likely submit to annoying and time-consuming safeguards that seem rather pointless despite their necessity. What we must not do, however, is allow this scourge to excessively harm our ability to trust others. As long as we continue to have some faith in our fellow man, the moral life is still worth living.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.