by Gabriel Conroy
When is it wrong to steal and when is it okay?
If you believe that all property is theft, then it probably follows that it’s never wrong to steal, unless you’re talking about someone who owns property, in which case it’s wrong for that person to steal. If on the other hand you believe that private property is the eleventh commandment handed down from Mt. Sinai, then it probably follows that it’s always wrong to steal.
I suspect few of us fall completely in either of those camps. I suspect that most us allow for exceptions or attenuating circumstances. We’d say that sometimes, it’s okay to steal. Or it’s never okay to steal, but sometimes it’s understandable why someone might. In some cases the thief and not the owner of what is stolen is the more sympathetic party.
Take the poor, starving bread thief, who steals a loaf from SuperMegaWalCorporation to feed his family. To honor the spirit of this example, we should suppose that the thief has no other way to get bread or comparable aliment, that he bears no blame for his current situation, that the family is truly starving, and that SuperMegaWalCorporation will not be noticeably harmed by the missing food item. If you want, we can further stipulate that the bread is about to expire and SuperMegaWalCorporation was planning to throw it way and write it off as a loss anyway.
Most of us would probably say it’s not wrong for that person to steal that item in that circumstance. Or if we concede the theft to be wrong, most of us would hesitate before throwing the full condemnation of law and morality against him.
How often do those circumstances actually happen? I don’t know. I suppose they occur more often in the developing countries than in the first world or in parts of the first world I have been privileged not to have to live in. But with due regard to what I do not know, I suspect that such circumstances tend not to occur in such a sheer, unrelenting form, where the thief is so destitute, the stolen item so needed by people so easy to sympathize with, and the “victim” of the theft so unharmed and so unsympathetic.
I intend the bread thief scenario I describe to be an ideal type. Real life situations may approximate it, but will rarely be like it exactly. The destitute person may have made at least some mistakes or decisions that put him and his family in their predicament or worsened their predicament. (Maybe a month ago he bought a king-sized Hershey’s chocolate bar and now could have spent the money on a loaf of bread.) The item stolen might be money, with which bread could be bought, it is true, but other less necessary things can also be bought. The thief may have threatened violence to get the bread. Or he might not even have a family to support. Maybe the stolen bread comes from the local bakery struggling to make ends meet and not from SuperMegaWalCorporation. Or maybe the “assets protection” employee at SuperMegaWalCorporation is a lower wage worker trying to support her own family and may have recently been warned that one more shoplifting incident, no matter how trivial, will result in her being written up.
I’m not saying any of this to trivialize hardship. I have never known poverty. And I actually have a lot of sympathy for the person who, for example, makes some very poor choices and is now suffering hardship and who feels that best option at one point might very well be shoplifting. I have less sympathy for the SuperMegaWalCorporation. (But not no sympathy. There’s a margin. Real people—employees, customers, and perhaps elderly retirees who grew up in the Depression, fought World War II, and now hold all their savings in a 401(k) plan heavily invested in SuperMegaWalCorproation’s stock—are adversely affected, or would be if enough thefts occur.)
Instead, by calling the bread thief example an ideal type, I mean is that it’s one end of a spectrum. The closer one is to the “bread thief” condition, the more justifiable—or at least understandable and sympathetic—the theft. The closer one is to, say, Bernie Madoff’s condition ca. 2005, the less justifiable the theft.
But I’d wager that most of us aren’t in either the bread thief’s position or in Mr. Madoff’s position ca. 2005. We’re probably somewhere in between. Someone with my affluence, advantages, and privilege would be wrong to shoplift from SuperMegaWalCorporation (let’s leave aside whether I have a duty to stick it to corporate America). Someone who is poorer than I might be more justified, or at least less wrong, to do so. That’s what I’m getting at.
In part, I’m pleading for a way to judge others. In an ideal world, everyone has heard about the road happiness through love and charity. And the best approach to the gambler, rambler, and back biter—or even Mr. Madoff—to accept from the outset they have convinced themselves that they really are bread thieves. But like most injunctions against judging others, my plea is fine in the abstract, but hard to do when I’m the victim. One paradox of the old “motes and beams” admonition is that once you invoke it against someone else, you’re no longer honoring it.
But I’m also pleading in part for self-reflection. If I took a survey of the OT’s readers, I imagine that at least a majority would say that stealing is generally wrong, or at least wrong in some circumstances, but acceptable (or mitigated) in other circumstances. Same thing with lying. Same thing with killing.
But how confident are we—how confident am I—that we are more like the bread thief and less like Mr. Madoff? I listen to music videos on YouTube without much regard for compensating the artist or the production crew. Does it matter that I “really need” the music or that the artist is already rich enough? When I was a grad student, I once bowed out of a job I had promised to do because a better offer—an easier job with a higher income—came unexpectedly. Did it matter that I was in somewhat dire financial straits and “needed” the money even though I would not have starved or been evicted in either case? Or, switching goal posts a bit, I have in the past temporized—and I still temporize—Mr. Obama’s lie that “if you like your insurance you can keep it.” Does it matter that I believe the lie was probably necessary in order to ensure passage of a law that might help poorer people get better coverage.
Here’s my takeaway, a standard for action. Whenever you are tempted to do something that you otherwise believe is wrong, ask yourself, “Am I a bread thief.” If you can’t honestly say “yes,” then maybe you shouldn’t do it.
I see that standard as more like a yield sign than a stop sign. It doesn’t tell you not to do something, but it’s one reason not to do it. Maybe, after further investigation into the proposed deed and into who benefits and who is harmed, the generally wrong thing is still justified in some other way. Neither is my standard a green light. Even if you are a bread thief, maybe there are reasons why you shouldn’t steal the bread anyway.
I don’t have a firm opinion whether or how this standard falls in line with the ethicist’s holy trinity of duty, virtue, and utility. But I think it works as a good first step, a practical question we should ask before judging others and especially before taking action ourselves.
[Picture: Bread Thief Rees, via Wikipedia]