Lost and Found

By | December 31, 2006

Remember back on the playground, when you lost a favorite knickknack and later saw another kid playing with it? “Finders keepers, losers weepers!” the finder chanted, and that was the end of it, for how could you challenge such a time-honored saying? It is not surprising that children would resort to this defense, but how can it be that so many adults seem never to have grown out of believing it?

Why does it make the local news when somebody finds and returns a full wallet? Returning a lost object shouldn’t be unusual; it should be part of the basic social contract binding every person in a civilized society. But if it were truly expected, it wouldn’t be news, and we wouldn’t hear about it.

In a 2002 study, Professor Mark West of the University of Michigan Law School “lost” 20 wallets in New York City, each containing $20. Only six (that is, 30%) were returned intact by their finders. West reported that in a survey conducted by Money magazine in 1994, 21% of 18-to-34-year-olds said that they would keep a found wallet that contained $1,000. In contrast, 17 of 20 lost wallets were returned in Tokyo, Japan, where West repeated his experiment. (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=316119)

Major world religions consider returning lost objects to be an ethical obligation. Under Massachusetts law, a found object must be reported to the police and returned to its owner if claimed, and similar laws exist throughout the world. Why do so many people in our society feel comfortable ignoring this nearly universal ethical and legal precept?

Have we turned from, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” to, “Do unto others whatever you can get away with”? From, “Do the right thing,” to, “Don’t get caught”? How else can we explain not just the disturbing statistics on returning lost objects, but also WorldCom, Enron, Ivan Boesky, and the other scandals that have come to light in recent years? Or how about the fact that over 20% of American taxpayers have lied at least once on their tax forms?

It’s not just about money, either. The next time you’re on an open highway, drive at the speed limit and watch how many drivers pass you by. Why do most drivers ignore speed limits? Why do drivers complain about “speed traps” as if it’s somehow wrong for the police to issue citations to drivers who violate the law?

“If everybody jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” is the clichéd response of every parent to every teenager. And yet, “Everybody does it, so why shouldn’t I?” is the rationalization of choice for today’s misbehaving adults. Why return a lost wallet when only a “sucker” would? Why drive the speed limit when nobody else does?

For our own sake, and for the sake of our children, we must do better.

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11 thoughts on “Lost and Found

  1. jik Post author

    Certainly, one should return lost objects because it is the right thing to do.

    On the other hand, anyone who doesn’t give some sort of reward for the return of a valuable lost object is simply a cad, especially when the finder went to some effort to return it.

  2. David

    Ah, I wondered what the return rate of wallets would be… In a very short span, both I and my wife each lost our respective wallets (she lost hers in Concord–likely in the library parking lot; I, mine, in Hanover, likely in a shop’s parking lot). Neither was returned. I would have been quite happy had either been returned sans all money: each contained small, personal mementos that, sadly, cannot be replaced.

    My wife has found and returned (by tracking down the owners) two cellphones and two wallets; on the train, I once found a bank check for ~$35,000 and spent a good hour tracking down the owner (I located his wife; she called her husband; the check, which he had not realized he had lost, was returned in the lobby of my office).

    Neither of us did this–or do this–for pats on the back or congratulations in any way. We do it because, well, it is simply the “right” thing to do; further, we expect (too often incorrectly) others would do the same. Regardless of the return rate of 30% (likely indicative of any number of “good deed” rates), we try to help our children understand that many things are done simply because they should be done, without regard to reward, compliment, or even any further acknowledgment than a good feeling inside.

  3. jpp

    Seems the issues are not only the moral, but the physics. Energy increases as the square of speed, thus slower means less crunching of your protective metal cocoon in a car crash. Add air n=bags and you might walk away unscathed. I’m an inveterate speeder, have broken three windshields with my head, and don’t recommend it. I now drive slower. It really hurts to break a windshield with your head!

  4. jik Post author

    I must have read different studies. I certainly didn’t find anything “universal” in the studies I read.

  5. Greg

    I think his point is that if you were driving the speed limit on a clear highway then that would be perfectly safe. But if you’re driving the speed limit on a highway where nobody else is then you’re obstructing traffic and creating a dangerous situation. By your own admission people pass you several times a minute. Every time they have to change lanes, potentially failing to spot someone else on their left, or two lanes over changing lanes to the right, anyone on their left has to adjust their speed. Accidents are only possible when two cars interact. The greater the disparity in speeds the more two-car interactions occur.

    And it’s not true that driving more slowly on the same road decreases the rate of either accidents or fatalities. In fact there were a number of studies in various states where the limits were raised to 65mph and they universally found either no strong evidence for any effect or that the fatality rate *decreased*.

  6. jik Post author

    I agree with your comparison of The Right Thing To Do vs. The Law. In that respect, you’re right, returning lost objects is on a different level from obeying speed limits.

    As for your comment about dangerous situations, the fact remains that you have subjectively assigned odds to all sorts of events (odds of a passing maneuver resulting in a collision; odds of driving faster increasing the risk of collision; odds of driving faster increasing the severity of collision; odds of deltas in the speed of two vehicles increasing the severity of a collision; etc.) when you really have no idea what the actual odds are for any of them and thus have no objective way of comparing which course of action is in fact the least dangerous.

    And, as I pointed out before, even if you are sincere in your claim that you drive faster because you feel it is safer to do so, it does not follow that the majority of people drive faster for the same reason, given that most of them drive faster even when the road is clear enough that they can drive at whatever speed they want without additional risk. In fact, most of them drive faster on an clear road than they do on a road with enough traffic that people driving at the speed limit are passed frequently.

    Do you drive at the speed limit on a clear highway?

  7. jont

    Returning lost property would be the moral thing to do regardless of what the law says. Exceeding the speed limit is a concept that cannot exist unless there is a legal speed limit.

    If I go to a place where the government has no law requiring the return of lost property, returning somebody’s lost wallet would *still* be the right thing to do. If I go to a place where there is no legal speed limit, then the concept of speeding doesn’t even exist, as long as I’m driving safely.

    Now, one can argue that in a state which is relatively non-corrupt, following the Law of the Land is a moral value in and of itself. However, I still see a distinction between doing something because it is The Law, and doing something because it is The Right Thing To Do.

    >When you drive faster, you have less time to respond if a dangerous
    >situation occurs, and hence you are more likely to be involved in a
    >collision in such a situation. You really have no way of knowing
    >whether the increased danger of collision because you are driving
    >slower than everyone else is more or less than the increased danger of
    >collision as you drive faster.

    “Dangerous situations” are rare. Having people pass me when I drive at the speed limit is very common (several times a minute).

  8. jik Post author

    When you drive faster, you have less time to respond if a dangerous situation occurs, and hence you are more likely to be involved in a collision in such a situation. You really have no way of knowing whether the increased danger of collision because you are driving slower than everyone else is more or less than the increased danger of collision as you drive faster.

    I think you may very well be right about the general perception regarding speed limits, but the fact of the matter is that driving slower does lead to increased fuel economy and does reduce the frequency and severity of collisions (assuming that it’s everyone driving slower, not just one person). So regardless of the motivation behind the speed limits, everyone would benefit if people obeyed them.

    The correct way to address an arbitrary or unjust law is to campaign to have the law changed, not to violate it. You could try to argue that those who are speeding are engaging in civil disobedience, but I don’t buy that. Most folks on the road are not speeding because they believe the laws are unjust, they are speeding because they want to go faster. It’s only civil disobedience if you’re willing to suffer the consequences of your actions, and you don’t see a lot of people willingly paying their speeding tickets after making an impassioned speech to the judge about the unjustness of the law.

    Speeding is in the same ethical category as not returning lost property because people do it only because they can get away with it and because doing it damages society. People who speed put their own needs ahead of those of society, just like people who keep lost objects rather than returning them.

    The only ethical distinction I see between speeding and not returning lost objects is that the rationalizations for the former are more convincing than those for the latter.

  9. jont

    I have no statistical evidence. My reasoning is as follows: when I drive at the speed limit, a LOT of people pass me. Each instance of someone passing me is another opportunity for a potential collision. Furthermore, the greater the difference in speed between two vehicles at the time of a collision, the more energy is transmitted in the collision, and the more potentially serious the collision would be. On the flip side, there *is* evidence that when a collision happens, the higher the speed, the worse the damage. However, I think I’m better off reducing the likelihood of a collision than reducing the potential damage should one occur.

    I think the general perception regarding speed limits is that the laws themselves are more motivated by politics than by safety or fuel economy, and that their enforcement is more geared by local governments trying to enhance their income than by anything else. In our neck of the woods, I tend to think that this is borne out to some extent by the emphasis on speed enforcement, and the lack of emphasis on other traffic regulations, such as tailgating, signaling, red-light-running, etc. Americans also have a cultural resistance towards laws that are seen as arbitrary and/or unjust.

    I don’t think that speeding is really in the same ethical category as not returning lost property, but alas, I don’t have time right now to elaborate. Perhaps later.

  10. jik Post author

    I drive at the speed limit on the highway pretty much all the time. Every once in a while I find it necessary for safety reasons to exceed the speed limit, e.g., when I need to pass someone in the lane next to me to be able to get over into that lane because there’s someone tailgating me in the lane I’m in, and when that’s necessary I do it. But I spend the vast majority of my time driving at the speed limit, I’ve never been in an accident as a result, and I do not feel that by driving the speed limit I am increasing the danger of collision for myself or others.

    Do you have some concrete evidence to support your assertion that driving at the speed limit increases the danger of collision? I’ve seen this asserted quite a bit, usually in the context of suggestions for how to convince a judge to let you out of a speeding ticket, but I’ve never seen any hard evidence that it’s actually true.

    If you truly feel that it would be dangerous for you to drive at the speed limit, then obviously you shouldn’t. But I really don’t think that’s the reason why most drivers speed, especially since you see most drivers speeding even on a mostly empty rode when there is plenty of room for drivers to drive at whatever speed they feel most comfortable.

    If it were true that many drivers are speeding for safety reasons, then it’s worth pointing out that their reinforcing the problem and the only way it’s going to be solved is if they buck they trend and stop speeding.

  11. jont

    In the case of speed limits, “everybody does it” is a legitimate excuse.

    Getting myself and my passengers safely to our destination is my highest priority when I drive. If I drive at the speed limit and nearly everybody else on the road is driving faster, there is a greater danger of collision than if I drive at about the same speed as the general flow of traffic.


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