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First, Be a Bread Thief…

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]

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99 thoughts on “First, Be a Bread Thief…

  1. How ethical is it to steal money if you intend to use it better than the person holding it? (venality need not apply, we’re thinking of truly altruistic uses here). How about if you can persuade/trick/dupe the person into giving it to you willingly?

    I’m rather of the opinion that stealing money is hardly the worst thing in the world. I can think of various products sold on the open market that are far more vile than simple theft.

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    • If someone out there could use electronic means to steal money from some of the megacorps out there exploiting sweatshop and slave labour, or from the oil companies, and donate it to worthy causes, I’d be totally in support of them. For one thing, I don’t consider that money legitimately acquired anyhow, given that it’s gained by taking what the workers have legitimately earned (e.g.: paying them the equivalent to 1%, or typically far less, of the value of what they produce) and destroying people’s lives and health (obvious in the case of sweatshops and slave labour; read about Shell in Nigeria if you want one example of how this relates to oil companies).

      For another thing, the lives of the poor are of far greater value that the luxuries of the rich, and the vast majority of the profits lost would be going to the very rich (and even the middle-income shareholders would be substantially better off than the typical person benefitting from the theft).

      I think the idea of marginal utility backs that up, too. The marginal value of a dollar is much, much higher for a poor person than for a wealthy person, so you’re greatly expanding aggregate well-being by this action.

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      • I would call into question the existence of property claims on a fundamental level.
        If someone asserts that labor mixed with natrual resources justifies the resulting wealth, that would imply that there is a nexus between work and wealth.

        With the modern industrial economy, that nexus gets ever more strained. Perhaps Bill Gates can justly claim the profits from the work her personally did, or oversaw.

        But at some point, when his share of the wealth becomes 300, 500 , 1000 times the value of the people who work for him, I would ask if he is performing work 1,000 times as valuable or working 1,000 times as hard.
        Or does the work become performed by many other hands, but artificial legal structures dictate the share of rewards?
        Certainly, one person can write some code, but it takes many many others to erect the civil and legal structures that allow it to flourish. How the resulting wealth is apportioned isn’t self evident.

        To assert that he deserves the wealth because the stockholders agreed to it, and that the politicians who designed the global structure of commerce agreed to it, is to assert that the apportionment is a negotiation- that had they erected higher taxes or sharper compensation package, that too, would be just. In other words, there is no natural or pre-existing just level of apportionment of wealth, just what is negotiated.

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      • Not wanting to hear Russel Crowe attempt to sing high notes is truly the best reason to support the Orleanist monarchy of King Louis-Phillipe I. If I were in the Les Meserables movie, I’d support the King for that very reason.

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      • I thought the Les Mis movie was an excellent adaptation, though Crowe was definitely the weakest part of it.

        For the parts of Javert, and the parts of M. and Mme. Thénardier, they should have hired the people from the 25th anniversary concert (Norm Lewis, Matt Lucas, and Jenny Galloway, respectively). I’ve watched it and listened to it many times, and those parts in particular are absolutely fantastic. The movie did hire the woman who played Eponine in that performance (Samantha Barks), and she did a great job.

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  2. We had our daughter’s bike trailer stolen off my bike a year or so ago. The thief was almost certainly a homeless or at least down-and-out person, who was going to use the trailer to move bottles and cans, so I couldn’t really get that angry about it.

    What really got me was that he’d taken our daughter’s teddy bear and helmet out of the trailer and left them behind. Somehow that made it just heartbreaking – that the thief cared enough to take a moment to avoid stealing a kid’s toy, but still found himself in a position where he felt he had to knowingly steal from a child to get by. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to live that situation.

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    • That’s really sad.

      The less sad and more dangerous version are the junkies who go around stealing copper wire and other things to feed their habits. SF has or had an issue with junkies who would steal a lot of copper wiring from public and private places and sell it to scrap metal dealers because the industry is completely unregulated or was completely unregulated.

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      • On my way to work I pass a scrap metal yard that I’m pretty sure is… not entirely conscientious about refusing copper that may have been stolen. There’s often great heaps of the insulation from electrical wiring lying on the ground just around the corner from the yard.

        I hope most of it is at least stolen whole spools at a time from construction sites, so not endangering people by tampering with live installations.

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      • we had a some of that here in Maine, they were stripping metal out of seasonal ski homes in the summer and summer camps in the winter. They did us a huge favor, took an old propane tank that would have cost us $300 to dispose of. They didn’t take our wires, but some places they stripped of all the copper wiring. A couple of places had serious damage; pipe freezing up and bursting.

        At the same time, there was a huge crystal meth lab cooking; when they busted the lab, the copper thefts stopped.

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  3. I don’t think saying Bernie Madoff convinced himself he was a bike thief is quite right because his ponzi scheme was stealing but in a different way and I think he would claim that for most of his scheme, it wasn’t really a scheme. I.e. a lot of people made more money than they put in. So he was able to convince himself that he was running a legitimate investment service/business.*

    That being said, you are probably right about more garden varierty thieving and that everyone is able to psychologically convince themselves that they are doing a bit of self-Robin Hood or that companies are not going to miss a product or thing here and there. Though I imagine that a lot of teenage shoplifters do it more for the thrill and rush than anything else.

    IIRC companies with low morale among employees are likely to suffer from shoplifting the most. This should be a cautionary lesson for employers and companies but it usually isn’t. If an employee feels like their employer is looking after their well-being and happiness than they are less likely to steal. Though perks are hard to do and once given, they are hard to take away. I often wonder how long tech companies can continue with their mega perks before needing to scale back. I wonder how bad it is going hit employees when the perks get scaled back drastically.

    I would also say that companies could stand to probably allow for employees taking home some notepads and pens without getting huffy and miserly.

    That being said technology ads a twist. Musicians put their music on youtube. Someone invents a program that allows people to rip youtube videos into MP3s. Is there a different between someone who only listens to the music via youtube and someone who uses the ripping program. I would say yes but at the same time this is a much different category of stealing than illegally downloading a movie (which was uploaded illegally in the first place) or even stealing CDs from Best Buy.

    Of course you can just go for a full categorical imperative and say that stealing is always wrong and it is better for a person to let their family starve to death than to steal but I don’t many of us would go that far and can’t be like Kant who stuck to his guns.

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      • Ponzi schemes work for the people who get in early and the people running it. If you want to find out about ponzi schemes ignore anything and anybody that suggests Social Security is one.

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      • My sister got hit by a ponzi variant. It was an, ahem, underthings club. The idea was that you’d buy underthings for the people above you on the list, put your name/size/address on the bottom of the list, and knock off the person on the top of the list, then send the list onto five people.

        Sure you’d buy underthings for the five people above you, but then, hurray! Your startup costs were done! Everyone who went to get the list in the future would send you underthings and then the people that *THEY* sent the list to would send you underthings and then the people that *THEY* sent the list to would send you underthings and for only the low, low, startup cost of 5 underthings, you’d get, like, a *LOT* of underthings!

        Except, of course, if you bought the underthings and then sent out letters and none of those people bought underthings. Then you’d be out of 5 underthings.

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      • Why would you do that instead of just buying underthings (or anything else) for yourself?

        Do the math. If everything works as advertised, you’re getting um… like a kabillion underthings even taking into account some failures downstream. And all it will cost you is the price of 5 of them.

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      • Believing that SS is a ponzi scheme is buffoonery and only works if you stretch the definition of Ponzi scheme to a size triple xxx varient. It’s nonsense. Moreover……..wait “underthings club”……ummm okay. How many underthings can any one person need or want….wait don’t answer that.

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      • I’ve noticed that when people offer up a characterization of something as “nonsense” or “buffoonery” before offering a reason why that is the case, it’s a pretty good sign that person is arguing almost purely from mood affiliation.

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      • JR. How dare you accuse me of having a mood. I would never have such a thing.

        But anyway, i’ve had and seen the SS is a ponzi scheme discussions. They either use some super vague and wide definition of a ponzi scheme or are just repeating Repub talking points. Maybe you would be the one to make a good argument that it is, but i’ve never seen it done yet.

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      • Well, from what I understand, Ponzi schemes work like this:

        You join the Ponzi scheme by kicking some cash up. You then get payments from people who join the scheme after you and the more people that join, the more money you make (see, for example, how the underthings club would have worked in an ideal situation (or Amway or something)).

        The problem, of course, is with what happens to the Ponzi scheme when you start running out of new people to join even as you have tons of people above who are still being promised the payouts that made them willing to join the scheme in the first place.

        The only way that Social Security would qualify as a Ponzi scheme is if the ratio of new folks to established people expecting payments was getting all crazy. Since we know that Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme, we don’t have to worry about that at all.

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      • Jay,
        the stock market,on the other hand…
        Pre-reagan, small money on the market.
        Post-reagan, tons of money on the market (More Every Day!)

        Now the boomers are pulling their money out, and the rest of us are too jack-shit poor to put much in.

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      • Ponzi schemes need a constant influx of more and more people to come in at the bottom level to keep going. You need to keep adding bigger layers at the bottom of the pyramid or it all falls down.

        SS doesn’t need to have more and more young folks forever. We have bulge in the population due to the baby boomers ( who can reasonably be blamed for everything). There are a variety of fixes to SS which get us over the baby boomers then SS is fine and dandy. Not really anything like how a ponzi scheme falls down. Of course medicaid has different issues due to the varity of underwear needs of old people. If only there was a way we could fix that.

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      • Thinking aloud: The main thing is that your job has to do is add value in some way. It doesn’t have to be directly. It can be like an enzyme or catalyst and enable someone else to add more value than they would have without you. Hell, it can be preventing “shrink” and allowing there to be more value than there would have been without you.

        The problem is that you need to eat and sleep and poop and be entertained and whatnot so you’re constantly removing value from the system (food that other people make, housing that other people build, that sort of thing) so you constantly need to be adding/assisting value of some sort or else you’re part of an unsustainable model.

        If all you’re doing is shuffling value around, sorting it, resorting it, and taking a little off the top, then you are, yes, acting unsustainably (whether you be in the private sector or in the public… and, yeah, whether your first thoughts were “PEOPLE ON WELFARE” or “WALL STREET BANKERS” when you read that sentence is probably an indicator for whether you lean this way or that way politically).

        If you’re in a situation where there is totally a ton of abundance, you can probably get by ignoring “shrink” and without catalysts or what have you. I mean, it doesn’t make sense to hire a guy for $50,000 a year to prevent loss of $5,000 worth of office supplies.

        But little things can turn into big things and soon you’re going to have to deal with all of the people who have been paying into the system, one way or another, who will be demanding at least the value they put in (if not the value they were promised). If it’s possible to run out of abundance, then some hard things are going to happen.

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      • Social Security is different than a Ponzi scheme in an important way.
        Ponzi schemes promise profit to everyone, without actually investing anything.

        Social Security does NOT promise a positive rate of return- in fact it doesn’t promise any return.

        Its set up with the expectation that some percentage of people will pay more in than ever take out- either by dying early or contributing more than their aggregate benefits. Meanwhile other people will withdraw far more than they contribute either by living longer or contributing very little.

        What we DON’T do is rigidly match contributions to benefits, and cut them off when they reach zero.

        We allow people to imagine that they are investing and reaping a return later, only to spare the feelings of middle class people who would feel insulted to think they are on welfare.

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      • Like I said, my first comment was a joke, but like all jokes it has a kernel of truth. In this case, the kernel is that the mechanics of pay as you go pension schemes are almost identical to the mechanics of a ponzi scheme.

        That said, one of the defining characterizations of a ponzi scheme is the fraudulent representation of the pyramid scheme as something else. Social Security is fairly transparent in its workings, so I would stop before calling it a ponzi scheme.

        I do like to point out, however, the accounting fiction that is the social security trust fund and note that any private company that used accounting processes like that would be in clear violation of the law.

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    • I don’t have a very strong opinion about whether I’m right about Madoff’s internal motivations. I would be surprised if he didn’t try to rationalize it somehow (and you’re not suggesting he didn’t, but that he didn’t do it in the way I suggested). And there probably are a number of teenage (or older) thrill-seeking shoplifters.

      Interesting thing about employees shoplifting from their employers. It reminds me of a practice called “pan toting” in the South in which domestic servants took food or other items from the householder. Those who supported it saw it as a perk or as part of the payment, and undoubtedly a lot of householders saw it that way, too. But those who opposed it (which probably included some householders) saw it as stealing. I imagine there was a 3rd category that saw it as somewhere in between: technically “stealing” and “wrong” but nothing to get too upset about or nothing to throw the book at someone about, or maybe get strict when the pan toting gets out of hand.

      It’s not just a “South” thing or a “domestic service” thing. I remember my 5 or 6 years as a fast food worker. Two things prohibited by “Management”: 1) making your own food and eating it without paying for it; and 2) eating leftover food at the end of the day (we were expected to throw it away instead). The second rule was probably to forestall people making a bunch of fries or burgers or whatever right before close and then just eating the excess. The “Management” forbade those practices, especially the General Manager and the co-managers/assistant managers. But the shift managers often (not always, and not predictably) looked the other way.

      The youtube example bothers me, at least in the abstract, because I use it for music (not really for movies, thought).

      I kind of had the categorical imperative at the back of mind when I wrote the OP. I claim in the OP that I don’t have a good idea of where my bread thief rule falls in the ethicist’s triad. However, I think it can be used as a check against whatever imperative we deem categorical, or almost categorical. (Of course, if something only “almost categorical,” then it isn’t categorical at all.)

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      • It’s not just a “South” thing or a “domestic service” thing. I remember my 5 or 6 years as a fast food worker. Two things prohibited by “Management”: 1) making your own food and eating it without paying for it; and 2) eating leftover food at the end of the day (we were expected to throw it away instead). The second rule was probably to forestall people making a bunch of fries or burgers or whatever right before close and then just eating the excess. The “Management” forbade those practices, especially the General Manager and the co-managers/assistant managers.

        Ugh, that’s awful. Most people at a fast-food place will be on-shift during a mealtime, they’re being paid crap wages anyway, and the cost of a burger and fries to the establishment would be negligible – or non-existent, in the case of genuinely left-over food.

        I think any restaurant-type establishment should give its employees free meals when they’re working over mealtimes; it’s just the decent thing to do. I washed dishes for a while at a place that did that (and they had good food too!) and it made me like them a ton more.

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      • I imagine some, perhaps maybe even most, fast food places let their employees eat for free. The ones I worked at–it was only three total, if I recall–did not, at least not officially. At two of the places, we had to clock out for our breaks, so they weren’t technically during our shift.

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      • I washed dishes for a while at a place that had really gotten into the idea of treating workers well – to the point where it was practically mandatory to take the free food.

        None of the customers paid for their lunches – they were all employees eating their daily free lunch. The first thing most kitchen staff did on shift was to eat breakfast. No work had happened except by the few staff who came in early to lay out the breakfast buffet, but there we were on the clock, so the choices were eat breakfast or watch everyone else eat.

        Being a buffet, they ended up with a lot of leftover food at the end of the day, which I understand officially totally got thrown away as required by food safety regulations but in fact there was a well regulated process where we brought containers from home, lined up at a given time, and made take-home packages, all overseen by a few cooks entrusted with making sure everyone got their share.

        The showers in the locker rooms at work were also amazing, which was a godsend as I was living in an overcrowded campground at the time.

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      • From a documentary on servants in 19th century Britain that I watched on YouTube, pan toting is common whenever you have domestic servants doing kitchen work. Like you said, the reaction of British householders fell into the three categories you outlined. I’m a bit more sympathetic to pan toting for domestic servants than restaurant workers simply because in a domestic setting, the householder does not make a profit by selling food. Its a bit dumb as a basis for a moral distinction but it makes sense to me.

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  4. From the pure consequential utilitarian perspective venal theft such as the archetypical binary example described in the OP can be justified. It can’t be justified deontologically. Atomically, it is a win-lose transaction and a reasonable person wouldn’t agree to be the one being stolen from even if she could absorb the loss. If the behavior is universalized, it becomes self-defeating as soon enough no one will have bread on offer because it all just gets stolen. Nor is theft consistent with virtuous behavior, even in an extreme circumstance; theft will not be the happy, thriving person’s habitual choice. Can’t justify this even if there is utility — and I note that it take a reductionist, purely outcome-driven (as opposed to rule-driven) kind of utilitarianism to justify it anyway.

    But of course the binary nature of the premise is not congruent with the real world at all. MegaWalCorp may very well be about to discard the bread as stale, but as a practical matter, it may well participate in a charity by which its almost-stale food is shipped out to shelters for consumption. If not, and the bread really goes into a dumpster to be sent off to a landfill, then its act of putting the bread in the dumpster is abandonment of its ownership interest in the bread and it’s not theft to take something that the original owner has abandoned.

    Charities exist, and I’m not just saying this to be Scrooge dismissing a call for donations by citing to the existence of poorhouses or a Community Gruel Pot. We have charities that dispense provender and shelter with dignity (and perhaps a little bit of churchy preaching but that’s part of the territory).

    Now, with that said, there is a good case to be made that a security guard, police officer, prosecutor, and judge ought to let go a petty theft of a necessity of life taking place in an extreme set of circumstances. Javert could have let Valjean go; he could have demanded that Valjean make restitution when he was able to do so in the future. But that is a matter for weighing the moral weight of an authority figure’s response to a theft, not for weighing the morality of the thief.

    The OP goes on to point out that none of us are morally perfect and it’s likely that all of us have been the beneficiaries of things which we did not earn and which others may think they should have had the benefit of instead of ourselves. And it is important when we are asked to render judgment to bear our own imperfections in mind. But that cannot stop judgment from proceeding, lest there be no rules whatsoever. If only he without sin may cast the first stone, then wrongdoing becomes a nominal exercise free from consequence or effect. Justice may very well lie in a place where less than the full weight of the law comes down on the wrongdoer, but that’s the sort of thing that requires a particularized assessment of the situation.

    Which is why we are a long, long away from a computerized justice system.

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    • There is a chain of buffet’s in downtown SF called Lee’s Deli. They are mainly hot and cold Asian(ish) buffet places and seem to throw out vast quantities of food everyday. They keep FiDi hours which means they are usually open from 7-3 or 4 every M-F. When I work downtown, I often see homeless people digging through Lee’s trash and getting perfectly edible food.

      Food Waste is a serious issue.

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      • Yeah, see, this is stuff that some charity needs to do something about. A restaurant needs to sell food of a certain quality and freshness to its customers — but not everything that is unsuitable for use in a restaurant will be unsuitable for consumption otherwise. Same thing with a grocery store.

        Is it really too much to ask to have someone take a few minutes to sort out stuff that’s beyond its “best used by” date but still edible from the stuff that has fuzzies growing on it, and give the other usable stuff to a homeless shelter?

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      • My guess is that they would see it as a time and resource issue because they would need to coordinate with the non-profit or shelter and stay open while those guys do the sorting; or they would need to stay open later and pay their staff more. Throwing everything away allows them to clean easier and shut down earlier especially because SF has mandatory composting so they can claim that at least it is becoming fertilizer instead of going to a dump.

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      • Burt: I suspect that it’s much more of a liability issue. Who’s responsible if someone gets really sick? Probably both the charity and the restaurant.

        Passing a Good Samaritan law that exempts a restaurant from liability for making a homeless person sick may be good public policy, but it also sound profoundly creepy and more than a little derogatory towards homeless people.

        Food waste is a staggering issue. Something like half of all the calories produced in the US go unconsumed. And dumping into landfills instead of composting it makes landfills really noxious and unhealthy places as the stuff putrifies.

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      • Our grocery store throws food away at the end of every day.

        And many of the employees come to our food pantry every month. The number of hours they work is always subject to change. And I’ve heard from many of them how shameful they think this is; to have to throw away food while their own families experience juggle eating and heat and gas money and warm-boot money and pay-the-doctor money. (Maine’s not buying into the exchanges and expanding medicaid and employers who keep people under 30 hours a week, too.)

        The food pantry has been getting these huge donations from Wal-Mart; often yesterday’s culled produce, unsold meat or meat in leaky packages, and expired stuff they bake I wish we didn’t get — pies, donuts cookies, bread; stuff our customers are surprisingly happy to get, it’s actually a treat for a lot of them. There are state laws governing what the grocery store throws out; and we don’t have means to collect and distribute it in a regulated safe way. I do think that some of this regulation is designed to discouraging employee’s taking advantage of things in the name of concern over food contamination. The soup that was safe to sell an hour before is safe for someone to take home in a take-out carton.

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      • Kolohe – Having volunteered quite a bit at a homeless shelter, I can say that they’re generally quite happy with the “leftovers” that are donated. The problems crop up when you’re given stuff that’s very hard to use / make appetizing (once, a whole bunch of liver was donated to the kitchen) or that’s outright spoiled (not infrequently we’d cut the blueberry muffins in half to find that the blueberries had gone moldy).

        The same goes for donating clothes to homeless shelters. If it’s in good condition, people would be happy to have it. But homeless people are still people, they do have dignity, and no, they don’t want your smelly old pants with tear in the leg and a pee stain on the crotch. Or your stained underwear. Or your socks with holes in them. That stuff just goes in the trash, and makes more work for the volunteers.

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      • Kolohe – After reading the linked article, I want to clarify that the “leftovers” I’m talking about are the day-old pastries from bakeries, bread from grocery stores, and the like, which I think is good to donate (if it’s still reasonably good quality). I can definitely see why someone would be affronted by being offered a half-eaten meal, which seems like quite a different thing.

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      • Let me repeat what I said before, that I understand that this is not as simple a process as it might seem at first glance. But the problems can be solved. Subject matter experts can lend their expertise, and there should be a way for people of good intentions to help out people in need.

        We are all living in a very, very wealthy place and time — and while distributing that wealth in a way that no one need do without might not be as simple as it seems at first glance, I take it as an article of faith that it can be done.

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    • There’s a chain of organic grocery places here that are apparently the best spots to dumpster from – a friend of mine said he was in the dumpster when a staffer from the store came out to throw some stuff away, and the staffer checked whether there was anything in particular he was looking for – since he had a whole day’s worth of expired food to throw out, he could try to fulfill special requests on his next walk from stock room to dumpster, and make sure those things didn’t go in a bag with anything really spoiled.

      The staffer even checked if my friend had any dietary restrictions, which he found amusing, figuring his own presence in the dumpster signalled a generally liberal stance on what would be acceptable.

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    • That’s an awesome comment, , really awesome. I really need to digest it a bit, but here are a few riffs off what you wrote.

      1. I try to distinguish among judging a person’s moral character, judging their guilt or innocence according whether they’ve violated a predetermined set of rules, and judging a certain act (either categorically or in a situational ethics way) as good or bad. I do believe the casting stone injunction is meant for the first (judging a person’s moral character) more than for the other two. In the real world, though, it’s a hard thing to separate. But I’d prefer to aspire to the separation. When honored, the separation is a reminder to me that I’m not a god.

      2. One thing I didn’t say in the OP, but will say now, is that I believe that most instances in which a thief/liar/killer believes on some level he or she is somehow justified in the theft/lie/homicide are actually wrong. Or more wrong than right. And the rationalization comes down to “I only stole because I wanted that item,” or “I only lied because it would have been inconvenient to tell the truth,” or “I only killed because I was angry.” By my saying that, perhaps I am erring from what I said I aspired to in point #1.

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      • I think that’s right: people will interpret their own actions in the most favorable possible moral light, until challenged or indeed forced, to do otherwise. That’s part of what human nature is.

        Asfoor difference between evaluating a person’s moral character and the moral weight of a particular action, while none of us would like to be defined by only a few decisions we have made, isn’t it also the case that our morality is defined by the sum total of the decisions that they make?we may judge a particular point in a painting, or perhaps a particular element within it, as being beautiful or not, but in the end we also must step back and look at the entire work of art.

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      • Yes, , I think that’s a real problem with my “taxonomy of judging,” although I define the problem along slightly different lines:

        We can judge an action to be wrong. Therefore we imply that anyone doing that action is acting wrongly. It’s not much of a stretch to say that if they do that wrong action and other wrong actions consistently, we can infer something bad about their character, i.e., we judge them morally.

        I could insist that the last sentence does not follow necessarily from the first two. And I think technically it doesn’t. But even if it doesn’t necessarily follow, it doesn’t not follow, either.

        So all I can say is that’s a challenge to my preference to separate the moral judgment from the other types of judgment. I don’t have any other answer except my sense that it’s better to forbear such judgment. And again, I should repeat that the forbearance is aspirational. I judge others’ moral character all the time.

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    • Burt,
      So, a few things spring to mind:
      1) How to get Rich — there are two accepted ways to get rich. First, one steals other people’s labor (or productivity, if you will), by paying them less than they are worth. Second,by actually creating productivity enhancing items. You can guess which is more likely, from a historical perspective.

      2) A thief is slightly different from a shyster, but there are enough shysters with Perfectly Legal Business Opportunities… if morality need not apply. Fleecing those who choose to “invest” in improbable ventures seems a little better than stealing, doesn’t it?

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  5. I’m self employed, nobody pays me for my time, they pay me for things that I produce on my own time.

    That’s a great luxury, I know. Luckily, my husband and I are able to take care of ourselves because I am unable to hold down a regular job, I’m quite disabled sometimes, and it’s impossible to predict when those times will be.

    I’ve participated here long enough to see that there are patterns through the day; in the morning over coffee, at work, rush hour, after dinner, late night. Weekends.

    Lot of people commenting from their work. Is that theft?

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    • Lot of people commenting from their work. Is that theft?

      I don’t know how to categorize it. For starters, while I won’t ever swear on a stack of bibles that I have never checked or commented on a blog during work hours, I can say that in general I don’t and haven’t for quite a long time. Not so much because I believe it’s theft as because I want to keep my job and people knowing that I blog during work hours will be one more reason not to rehire me when my contract’s up. It wouldn’t make or break my prospects (in fact, I suspect people wouldn’t even notice), but it wouldn’t help.

      But I haven’t answered your question. I’m a pretty robust believer in the idea that one does not sell their entire being when they work for a wage. And I truly believe that it’s important for the worker to carve out his/her own space within the workplace in order to maintain human dignity. I think that’s always true, but much more true the more routinized and totalizing the work environment is, in part because the routinization and totalization (not a word, but I hope you know what I mean) functions as a way to destroy or hamper dignity. I think there’s a lot of room to tolerate and even celebrate and welcome “everyday acts of resistance” as some Marxists do.

      All that said….I can’t deny that most jobs I’ve had I felt some kind of duty toward my employer and to the mission of my job. Some things that I would have considered “theft” (and therefore needing better justification) instead of something like “pan toting.” What’s more, my and my coworkers’ sense of what counted as such differed, with me usually being more conservative (sourly and silently disapproving, but not ratting them out) and them usually being more “liberal.”

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      • one does not sell their entire being when they work for a wage

        I guess this really does depend upon the job. I can only imagine how I’d have abused my time on social media when I was programming if it had existed then. I was certainly using the TCP network of the computer systems I worked for social media-like things with my fellow employees. We passed jokes around and chatted with one another very much like we do here, but we had a command line instead of a com box and there was no internet attached to it to share stuff from.

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      • It may be strange, Zic, but for some reason, I’m usually able to resist the temptation to go to blogging while at work. One reason is that although I said in my comment I don’t see it as “theft,” I do think it would be wrong on some level for me to do it, even though I do other time wasting things that are probably not much better than blogging. In part, I think it would be wrong because I’m paid relatively highly, certainly high in relation to any previous job I’ve ever had, at least in nominal, annual numbers. Also, I’m a public employee and I do believe that while the members of the public are paying me, whether they want to or not, I owe a certain duty to them to give them what they’re paying for and ideally even more. So I’m probably more vigilant than I would be if I were working in the private sector, where my boss has a stronger incentive to make sure I don’t slack off. (It’s not all duty…..I like the idea of keeping my job, so if I have the reputation of working well, I have, I hope, at least a marginally better chance of staying on in this era of budget cuts, but when isn’t it an era of budget cuts?)

        Whether I would have been able to resist temptation were I younger when the internet became a thing, I don’t know. Most jobs I’ve had involved a lot of chatting and socializing among coworkers during down times.

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  6. On the bread issue I think the right answer is that it’s always “wrong” in a Kantian Categorical sense but that in certain circumstances it’s also forgivable.

    On the other hand, Elizabeth Stoker Bruening penned an article recently on the proper Christian view of property. Condensed version is that we are all due the opportunity to provide for ourselves and our families. If we live in an economic system such that some have much while others do without then as long as there are any who don’t have the decent minimum then the surplus of the “haves” isn’t actually their property. So the poor taking from the rich isn’t theft so much as recovery of stolen property. I’ve probably mangled her argument but hopefully you get the idea. Of course a more equitable and systematic means of redistribution is preferable to random thievery.

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    • Thanks, . Do you have a link to the Stoker article by chance? (Not that I couldn’t probably google it.)

      This, however, is potentially dangerous, at least if taken in isolation (and not in the context in which Stoker probably put it):

      So the poor taking from the rich isn’t theft so much as recovery of stolen property.

      It seems like a reasonable assertion. But then I think that I have a heckuva lot more than many, many people. Would it be okay if they could somehow raid my savings account and take the 4K I have in there and have saved over the past year because I have so much more than they? To be clear, that’s not what you’re saying and doesn’t seem to be what Stoker is saying. But there is a point where one person’s privilege seems overwhelming.

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      • A friend linked to her article on Facebook. She writes so many places but I think it was a Catholic themed site.

        Yeah she was actually answering/criticizing the Acton Institute (Catholic libertarians) criticism of Pope Francis more outspoken advocacy for the poor. In particular his call for governments to do more through taxing/redistribution.

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      • Here is the link:
        http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2015/01/04/logic-problems-in-christian-libertarianism/

        Unsurprisingly, I found it to be a terrific article. The logic is that property rights diminish as wealth is accumulated above sustenance. So the community can justly redistribute excess wealth as the need arises.

        Redistribution doesn’t equal individual assertion of property claim- in fact it refutes it. I don’t own your excess any more than you do, so my individual assertion of a claim over you rproperty is unjust, unless it literally is a matter or sustenance.

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      • “unless it literally is a matter or sustenance”

        That seems like a slippery standard though, no? Are we talking about the bare number of calories needed to keep breathing, along with the bare number of threads in fabric to be life-sustainingly clad and the bare maximum heat in one’s shelter to avoid pipes freezing and actual hypothermia? Or are we talking about something more?

        I wouldn’t, by the way, begrudge anyone who claims more than “mere sustenance.” Frankly, even though I don’t want what I have taken from me, I’m not, for example, going to complain about or preach the virtues of thrift to someone on food stamps uses my tax dollars buys a birthday cake or candy, or who spends their ssi on a monthly cable subscription. I might think such moves to be unwise, but I’m not sure I have much of a right to complain or tsk-tsk, even if it is my tax money. Or maybe I technically have a “right,” but there seems something off about me doing so.

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      • Elizabeth (an OT alumn, we should note) is always worth a read, though I admit that I can’t help reading her without thinking about the stark contrast between her temperament and her husband’s, which is basically all condescension all the time. If he’d calm down for a bit, they’d make a formidable intellectual team.

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      • A robust objective nonslippery definition, to which no reasonable person can disagree?
        Does such a thing exist, for anything?
        Of course not.

        The boundaries of free speech, exercise of religion, reasonable search and seizure, and all other things are formed by trial and error and consensus.

        If you want my personal opinion, it is that taxation can legitimately increase progressively, to where at some point (lets just say a billion in wealth) the assumed right to the wealth becomes overwhelmingly subordinated to the needs of the community.

        The 95% marginal tax rate of the Eisenhower years seems perfectly reasonable to me.

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    • On the other hand, Elizabeth Stoker Bruening penned an article recently on the proper Christian view of property. Condensed version is that we are all due the opportunity to provide for ourselves and our families. If we live in an economic system such that some have much while others do without then as long as there are any who don’t have the decent minimum then the surplus of the “haves” isn’t actually their property. So the poor taking from the rich isn’t theft so much as recovery of stolen property.

      I like this! I like it a lot!

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  7. Another issue that used to come up for me back when I worked in an office. Suppose there’s a very popular piece of software for image manipulation, call it “Picturestore”, published by a company we’ll call “Abode.” This software is very powerful and versatile and a lot of fun to play around with. It is also very expensive. I would enjoy having a copy of said software to play around with but I’m not a graphic artist and there’s no way I could justify purchasing it.

    A friend offers me a pirate copy. Basically a copy of an install disc with the activation code. (This was before online activation was a thing.) If I take him up on the offer am I stealing? Keep in mind that of three possible courses of action — buying, pirating, or nothing — the first simply ain’t gonna happen. So that leaves the choice between piracy and angelic virtue and in neither case is Abode getting any of my money. If it’s thievery then who precisely ends up with less than they started with? Is it just the fact that I got something for nothing?

    Discuss

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    • There are two issues here.

      First, yes, that install is theft of a work that’s subject to copyright, patent, and trademark. It is no different then an illegal music download or bit-torrenting game of thrones off a pirate site.

      But it’s also a business problem, too. It means there’s potential demand for a product that the company has priced itself out of. I use one of those; let’s call it LightSpace, for my photography. I wouldn’t have purchased it outright, most particularly because the learning curve is steep and difficult, and it’s a lot of money to spend if you’re not sure you’ll be able to justify it, same problem you had not being a graphic artist. When you are an artist with limited resources, your careful about what you spend. But that company recently went to subscription base, and I’ve been able to figure out if I like it for $11/month; and that’s pretty awesome. I like it, and I’m actually learning how to use the stuff.

      We have an investment in a music tech company that’s expensive. (It’s not an American Company too, which adds an additional layer of intrigue.) Our son’s does some electronic music, my sweetie teaches electronic music, and this particular software is really frequently pirated, often by people who discover they like it, they wish they could afford it; so the basic argument is a subscription, a stripped-down version, smaller apps of individual components to sell, or even just lowering the price on the whole package would be wise marketing schemes to at least consider.

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      • Oh, , I’m well aware that legally it’s a copyright infringement. That’s not the question I’m asking. If the real living choice is between piracy and doing without, with purchasing it out of the question, then who’s actually being harmed?

        Comparing it to music or movie pirating doesn’t really settle the question as definitively as you might like. I’ve always been really skeptical of industry claims regarding the magnitude of their losses. Putting aside questions regarding the accuracy of their estimates of the magnitude of downloads, the idea that the industry is out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars because some teenage kid has a bunch of stolen music on their computer is just ludicrous. It assumes that absent the ability and opportunity to get it for free that the kid would of course have actually spent all that money to purchase it rather than just do without.

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      • I’ve always been really skeptical of industry claims regarding the magnitude of their losses.

        You know, a lot of the industry you’re talking about here isn’t just big companies like Adobe. It’s small companies like this.

        ‘industry claims’ don’t necessarily have anything to do with it. And Adobe, the big company, had such a problem that they switched to the subscription model; which strikes me as a fine way to resolve their problem; and there’s plenty of free alternatives to most of what photoshop can do via open source; so there was real competition for them to resolve their over-pricing problem.

        But creators deserved to be paid for their work, and while the people I know don’t begrudge the kid in Malaysia who developed microtonal patches (think of it as the anti-auto-tune, sweet, huh?) a free copy, the guy djing at your local dive shouldcouldawoulda paid for it if it had been priced right.

        /online gaming seems another model; build the play space, and they’ll pay to enter it.

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      • I’m going to try again because I don’t feel like you’re getting my point, . Let’s say, just to make up some numbers, that the industry grosses $50B in a year. Let’s also say that we have a reliable estimate that $10B worth of content is being distributed illegally. The industry would therefore say they have “lost” $10B through piracy.

        I’m calling bullshit. At least some of that pirated material is consumed simply because it is free. I’m saying that in an alternate reality where it wasn’t technologically possible to pirate that material only some fraction, I don’t know how much, would have instead been purchased.

        The relevant industries have a political interest in making these numbers look as bad as possible to justify draconian measures to combat what I agree is a very real problem. So in the alternate universe maybe their real revenues would have been $55B instead of the $60B they’re implying. And it has nothing to do with “Abode” vs Mom & Pop Inc.

        Zero minus zero equals zero.

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      • I know exactly what you meant. I just think that you’ve focused on it in a way that suits some realities and not others. Does it hurt microsoft when someone gives away a copy of their operating system to a friend? Probably not. Does it hurt adobe when you copy photoshop from your employer? Probably not, also, and it may well end up being a benefit because eventually you’re likely to actually purchase that software.

        But how do you tease out the difference between the hurt to adobe and the hurt to a small startup with a big innovation?

        There are other concerns here, too. Pirating, giving stuff away for free, often hides another motive. I see my knitting patterns online, the most expensive is less than $5.95; if you purchase it, you get a nice PDF file with beautiful photographs and text explaining a method of doing something new and unusual; plus you get me. You can also go to a few websites and download my pattern for free. I occasionally get contacted by people for support who’ve done just that, often not realizing they’ve literally stolen something from me. But I’ve also discovered they’ve gotten something else, too: viruses and code on their computers that do all sorts of malicious things. Not only do I have to tell these people that, no, I will not help them; they can purchase my pattern from me legally, and then I’d be delighted to help them, but I also have to tell them they need to have their computer cleaned; it’s probably got a social disease.

        Does this mean all pirated software has malware embedded in it? Does this mean that all pirated software is a huge hit to the producing company? No. But how do you know the difference between the clean and the malware versions? How do you know if the company producing it is richest-in-the-world or a small firm on the edge of folding? In my experience, people tend to think of ‘business’ and think of the biggest and most successful, and project onto small companies what they see big doing, and that’s what you’ve done here.

        There are a lot of other ways to approach this; I’ve repeatedly said that too much piracy is a business problem that engages your pricing. IP law, particularly in the US, is weird and moribund.

        (Projecting big business abuses on small businesses seems, to me, a particular failing of liberals. I’d probably be doing the same thing if I hadn’t spent a decade writing about small businesses and didn’t run small businesses, and I think it’s a big reason for the tendency among business owners to become Republicans; they hear that Dems don’t get it a lot, and get blamed for the sins of the Waltons.)

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      • zic,
        0verflow actually created a pirated version of their own video game. It put a screenshot of the pirate’s desktop onto 0verflow’s website. The idea was that they’d pay money to get it taken down…

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    • That’s my question about pirating as well, particularly because, functionally, there’s little to no discernible difference (and no difference to the company) between renting a DVD from the library and watching an old TV show online. I generally use the library, but I’m not rigorous about it.

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