Is it ethical for a business to profit from its customers’ false beliefs? Or, more to the point, is it ethical to profit from your customers’ beliefs when you think those beliefs are false? What if you encourage those beliefs?
Case in point: a number of businesses have sprung up to take advantage of the fact that a number of fundamentalist Christians believe that May 21, 2011 (i.e., tomorrow) is the day on which “The Rapture” will happen, which will involve the return to earth of Jesus Christ, the rescue of believers, and the start of a process culminating in the destruction of the world in October. Enter the profit-seeking atheists. Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, for example, will guarantee (for just $135) to come to a believer’s house, post-rapture, to rescue their pets. Salvation, after all, is for human believers only, so the faithful “know” that atheists and animals will be left behind. (For more details, and more examples, see this item from ABC News: May 21, 2011: Profiting on Doomsday?)
Profiting from this particular set of false (i.e., unsupported) beliefs seems, frankly, pretty innocuous. Those who hold such beliefs are few, and are liable to be mocked by the vast majority of Christians, who scoff at the idea that the exact date of the Rapture can be determined so precisely. When the Rapture ends up not happening (and I realize I’m going out on a limb, there) those who ponied up for the “service” offered by Eternal Earth-Bound Pets will be out $135, but other than that they’ll be no worse for wear. But what about other examples?
Let’s start with a fictional example to test our intuitions. What if I find out that you believe, for whatever reason, and despite the fact that you live far from any indigenous populations of elephants, that your rose garden is in imminent danger of being trampled by elephants. And let’s say you also believe (for whatever reason) that elephants are deterred by he sound of the revving of a Porsche engine. Am I justified in selling you a Porsche that you do not otherwise need, and that perhaps you cannot truly afford? Would that be predatory? Your belief, here, is clearly a crazy belief, and my profiting from your delusion seems not-quite-right. But then, as far as you’re concerned, I’m genuinely helping you. On the other hand, what if the reason you have that delusional belief in the first place is that I’ve convinced you of it?
Next, let’s get back to real-life examples. But let’s look at one that doesn’t revolve around a single event, like Rapture insurance does. What about, for example, selling homeopathy? Now, it’s one thing for a homeopath to prescribe and sell homeopathic treatments. After all, the homeopath presumably believes that such remedies work, in spite of the lack of evidence for that belief. Now, that belief itself might be culpable — if you’re going to sell a product, then ethically you ought to do what you can to make sure it really works — but at least the homeopath is selling in good (if misguided) faith. What about when licensed Pharmacists, people with the training to know perfectly well that homeopathic treatments cannot possibly work, sell them? That happens all the time. Shoppers Drug Mart, for example — Canada’s largest pharmacy chain — sells homeopathic treatments, and all the franchisees of that chain are required to be licensed Pharmacists. That is, they are people whose scientific training tells them that such remedies have zero scientific credibility. So they, too, are profiting from their customers’ false* beliefs — beliefs that they, the sellers, know to be false. Of course, the difference between selling homeopathy and selling Rapture insurance is that in the case of homeopathy, people’s lives really might be at stake.
Information is crucial to the efficient operation of a free market. Asymmetries of information constitute an entire category of situations in which economists will tell you market failures are liable to occur. Knowledge, alas, can never be perfect. So what we instead insist on is that transactions at least be made in good faith. It’s clear that that means the consumer needs to have enough information to know that the product she is about to buy will satisfy her desires; what’s less clear is whether the consumer must also know enough to know whether the product will satisfy her needs.
*Note: some of you may want to quibble with my use of the word “false” to refer to beliefs in either a) the Rapture or b) homeopathy. You may point out that saying that there’s a lack of evidence for a particular belief isn’t the same as saying that that belief is false. That’s technically true. But when a belief is implausible on the face of it, is unsupported by evidence, and conflicts with a great number of beliefs that are well-supported by evidence, it is entirely reasonable to call it “false.” At least until the Rapture.