Saturday, January 17, 2015

First question, am I a bread thief?

(I've just posted a slightly edited version of this at the OT as a guest poster.  Click here to read it and the comments.)

When is it wrong to steal and when is it okay?

If you believe that all property is theft, then it's not much of a stretch to believe 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's not much of a stretch to say it's always wrong to steal.

Few of us (I suspect) swing in that way, and of those who do, most (I suspect) at least allow for attenuating circumstances.  We'd say that sometimes, it's okay to steal.  Or it's never okay to steal, but sometimes it's at least understandable why someone might, and in some cases the thief and not the rightful owner of what is stolen is the more sympathetic party.  (I leave aside here the question of how one's ownership becomes "rightful" in the first place, although the less absolutist among us might very well address that question.)

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 the family is truly starving, and that SuperMegaWalCorporation will not be noticeably harmed by the missing food item.  (If you want, we can stipulate that the bread is about to expire and SuperMegaWalCorporation would have to write it off as a loss anyway.)

I suspect 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.  Not having lived in poverty myself, for all I know the occurrence is much more widespread in the first world than I think.  But with due regard to what I do not know or have not experienced, 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.

For most intents and purposes, the bread thief situation is pretty close to a pure form or pure ideal, which real life situations may approximate but probably rarely resemble 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 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 minimum 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.  Again, 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 hold all their savings in a 401(k) plan heavily invested in SuperMegaWalCorproation's stock—are adversely affected, or would be if enough such thefts occur.)

Rather, by calling the bread thief example a "pure form," what 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 Bernie Madoff's condition ca. 2005, the less justifiable the theft.

But most of us aren't (I suspect) in the bread thief's position and most of us aren't (I'm fairly confident) in Mr. Madoff's position ca. 2005.  We're (probably, or at least sometimes) somewhere in between.  Someone with my affluence, advantages, and privilege would be wrong to shoplift from SuperMegaWalCorporation (assuming that we're not talking about the rightness of sticking it to corporate America).  Someone who is poorer might be more justified, or at least less wrong, to do so. 

I'm not pleading for a way to judge others.  If I were, I'd probably say the most charitable thing to do is to believe from the outset that the thief in question, even Mr. Madoff, probably on some level believes or has convinced himself that he really is a bread thief.  But like most injunctions against judging others, it's so hard to do in real life.  For one thing, it's easy for me to plead understanding for Mr. Madoff when I haven't been victimized by his scams scams.  For another thing, one paradox of the New Testament's "motes and beams" admonition is that once you invoke it against someone else, you're no longer honoring it.

Instead, I'm pleading 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?  Is that music video I watch on YouTube for free an instance of me getting something I really need, or is it me stealing from the artist and production crews?  Does my suspicion that Mr. Obama's "if you like your insurance you can keep it" lie was necessary to pass the ACA justify the dishonesty as long as poorer people get better coverage?  (For the record, I do watch/listen to YouTube music videos without any concern for whether the video is sponsored by the artist.  And I do temporize Mr. Obama's lie because of the end it (probably) helped effect.)

Here's my takeaway.  Whenever you are tempted to do something that you otherwise believe is wrong, I suggest you ask yourself, "Am I a bread thief."  If you can't honestly say "yes," then maybe you shouldn't do it.

To be clear, my admonition is more like a suspensatory veto than a red light.  If you're not a bread thief, then maybe you shouldn't do what you're contemplating   But maybe, pending further investigation, there may be other reasons to do it..  I don't have a firm opinion whether or when my admonition 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 action.

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