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Monday, February 17, 2014

Is It Okay to Steal?

Cover of "Steal This Book: 25th Anniversa...
Cover via Amazon

Nobody “owns” anything. When you die, it all stays here.  -- George Carlin

         In 1971 radical activist and revolution advocate Abbie Hoffman released his guide to free and cheap living Steal This Book.  Turmoil and controversy ensued as the book became a touchy topic for mainstream media and publishers and become an iconic read for the counterculture movement.  Accusations were even made that Hoffman had not really written the book himself, but plagiarized (stole) the material from another author.

         There are many great stories that raise ethical questions regarding stealing:    Stealing to feed the hungry in Les Misérables,  redistribution of wealth in Robin Hood, and stealing to get by in Huckleberry Finn.  Stealing for a good cause is often accepted in our society, yet it is stealing nevertheless.  

          If we want to decide that there are degrees of stealing then who decides which type of stealing in what kind of a scenario is right and which is wrong?   The arguments could in theory become quite complex.  

           Or if we use an absolute standard such as "Thou shalt not steal" as stated in the Ten Commandments of the Bible, then there are no degrees.  If we accept this standard we might ask why God set a rigid rule about stealing yet decries love of earthly possessions.   Was the Commandment decreed because of natural human nature to be possessive, selfish, and greedy?   Perhaps this law was merely a stopgap to prevent violence, killing, and bad feelings among people.

           In a higher more God-like mindset might we have the view as nothing belonging to anybody with all things belonging to God.  If we aren't using something then someone else is free to take it for their own use for a while.   We would own nothing and desire nothing.  We would not amass collections of unused possessions.

          The argument might then be that humans would no longer have any incentive to create or be productive.   But if we were in a true God mindset this should not happen.

          I'm just tossing out a few thoughts for your consideration.  This topic could go on to book length proportions, but as it is my thoughts are not particularly focused on presenting any conclusion here. Instead I'll toss out a few more questions for you.

  • Is it more wrong to take office supplies home from work or shoplift them at Staples?
  • Would you steal food to feed your family?
  • If you owned two houses would it be okay for a homeless family to move into the one you weren't using without your permission?
  • If you had spare bedrooms would you mind if a homeless person moved in without asking while you were on vacation?
  • If you were flat broke with a burden of bills hanging over you and you found a briefcase filled with thousands of dollars, would you report it or use the money?
  • If you charged a considerable amount of merchandise on your credit card and it never appeared on your statement, would you tell the big money grubbing credit card company or would you keep quiet and hope the charge would never show up?
       These are just a few thoughts that came to my mind.   Are there any scenarios you can think of where it might seem ethical to take advantage of a situation that would materially profit you?     Do you think "stealing" from big corporations that may be ripping off all of us is a righteous cause, abhorrent, or somewhere in between?   When is it okay to steal?

   The above post does not necessarily reflect what I believe.   I have posted it as a matter of philosophical and ethical discussion.  

     Be sure to visit the blog of Alex J Cavanaugh today for a special tribute post for A to Z co-host Jeremy Hawkins.
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  1. To God, there aren't different degrees of stealing, just like there aren't different degrees of sinning. While the temptation in some of those situations would be to steal for a good cause, it's still that - stealing.

  2. Stealing is stealing no matter how one tries to spin it. But if I saw a briefcase of cash and i knew it was from a bank, no way I'd give it back. if I didn't know, could be a drug dealers and I'd end up getting shot, I'd report it and leave it the heck alone. If I bought stuff on my credit card and it didn't show I'd say, as they always get you in the end

  3. I could sure use a suitcase of cash, but I believe in Karma - you never get away with anything - ever!

  4. I'd be lying if I said I didn't steal office supplies and stuff from jobs. And I took a huge hunk of glass out of the garden of an abandoned house in Berkeley once. I wanted it for my garden.

    But when I am undercharged for something or get too much change back, I always alert the store or cashier to it. If I found money with no ID, I'm not sure what I'd do but I think I'd feel guilty keeping it.

  5. >>... "Thou shalt not steal" as stated in the Ten Commandments ... Perhaps this law was merely a stopgap to prevent violence, killing, and bad feelings among people.

    If so, it hasn't worked, and God has some more work to do.

    >>... Is it more wrong to take office supplies home from work or shoplift them at Staples?

    Ha!-Ha! That was a GREAT question, BOIDMAN! Pretty damned brilliant for a stodgy old man.

    >>... When is it okay to steal?

    ONLY when you are absolutely certain that you will get away with it! Anything less than that and stealing is just dumb and thus wrong!

    In all seriousness, YOLANDA RENEE has stated the great Truth. Her comment will not be topped.

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

  6. If we were not so self-absorbed, if we were not so greedy, if we were more compassionate, more giving. If we thought more of others than ourselves, then there would be no need for stealing - or very little.

  7. Stealing is stealing, no matter what the reason. There's no excuse. And it's like lying - start with one and it sets off a chain reaction of events that will bit you in the butt in the end.

  8. Stealing is stealing to me but I've never been in the situation where my family was starving. Now if there was a way to get out of paying some of the massive taxes we pay, I would consider that keeping what I've earned, but the government thieves get away with their crimes all the time.

  9. Alex -- Even thinking about engaging in a sin is a sin according to Jesus. If we justify one degree of sin then we can probably justify the next degree and so on.

    Pat-- Those credit card companies know everything about us and whatever slips through the cracks eventually gets outed by the big machine.

    Yolanda -- Yes, I'm a believer in karma or whatever one wants to call it.

    esbb-- Aren't we wordy today!

    JoJo -- I think we've all been guilty of stealing at some time or another. At the time I guess we may not have seen it as stealing or may not have even realized that we had done whatever it was that we had done.

    StMc -- Since God's work is perfect I guess it's more of a matter that humans have more to learn and understand. I'm also a big believer in the karma theory that Yolanda expressed. Everything comes back to bite us in the ass or to reward our good deeds in one way or another.

    Bish -- Exactly and that's kind of where I was going with this post today. Our materialistic society does have some worthy outcomes, but it also fuels greed and selfishness.

    L.Diane --This is so right. Justification is merely an excuse and turning a blind eye to immoral acts of others or ourselves will be seen by some other eyes. We may think we are smart in getting away with something we shouldn't be doing, but in the end we don't get away with nuttin'.


  10. Susan GK -- We can sometimes use the loopholes to use law to our own advantage and that's probably acceptable. The government and corporate thieves seem to get away with crimes against the people much of the time, but I think things eventually turn on them too in one way or another.


  11. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that people can justify anything to get and do what they want. It doesn't make it right. It's simply an effort to excuse their less than honorable behavior. Can't say I'm a big fan of stealing, regardless of who, what, when, where, how or why. The integrity of the individual is at stake, and I'm not sure why anyone would willingly give that away.

  12. Stealing is stealing is stealing. Doesn't matter how you rationalize it or justify it. With that said, I hate how the music industry tries to make it seem like if I let my friend borrow my CD he's "stealing" it. Or if I borrow my friend's book and read it that's also "stealing" because I didn't pay to read it. Every single person has to buy their own individual copy or it's stealing. I guess borrowing is now illegal?

  13. To approach the food question only:

    If we did the other things like taking care of the poor, no one would ever need to steal food. That someone is being put to death because people with food are unwilling to share is so much worse, but we don't hold people accountable for that. Or the companies that would rather throw out food that has been sitting too long rather than allow shelters to take it.

  14. MJ -- And yet many literary heroes and movie heroes are sympathized with or even lauded for behavior that might be considered immoral by some.

    Beer -- In the cases you cite I guess intent would be a big factor to consider. If I copy something to resell that is definitely stealing.

    Andrew -- You raise issues that might appear to be justification for stealing. This might also be a big reflection on the overall morality of our society. I do think there is more corporate awareness about allowing usable but unsaleable goods to reach places of need as more charitable distribution channels are opening up. I've read articles locally about more supermarkets and restaurants working with charities to try to eliminate waste. When awareness of a problem is vague or unknown then hauling things to the dumpster can seem like the most economically viable solution. I see change happening in the U.S. at least.


  15. Sure, they could appear to be a justification. I'm not making them that, though. You know, the whole two wrongs don't make a right thing. But, frequently, people are put into positions where they feel they have to do some wrong thing to be able to survive, and they are put into those places because of the wrong things other people do that just happen to be wrong things that society condones. Like the ever widening gap between the wealthy and everyone else.

  16. I think AJC hit it on the head. There are plenty of places to go even if your family was starving for help. No need to steal. I think the Staples thing really depends on the attitude of the company- do they expect employees to walk out with a pocket full of this or that? As for the last two questions, I wouldn't be able to sleep without at least doing due diligence in checking it out.

  17. I agree stealing is stealing, but if you have a starving child and no money to feed it, who wouldn't steal. One of the problems used to be the punishments which were unnecessarily severe.

    The Aboriginals believe nothing is owned by man and we are just caretakers.

  18. I got messed up at the quote . . . . .that cant be right, I cant take it with me . . . . . . . . . . DAMN.

    We must do the right thing or at least do our best to do the right thing.... Who knows when we die that might be what we take with us.... well that and my stuff I dont plan to leave my stuff behind.

  19. I think there will always be an ethical dilemma when it comes to stealing. Have I done it? When I was a teenager, yes. As an adult, only with the occasional pen.

    For larger things, or even the questions that you present, it all depends.

    I read in the comments that there really isn't a reason to steal food for the family when there are programs available.

    While there may be programs available, the fact that there is serious quantities of red tape that can often frustrate people to the point of not wanting to apply.

    Unless of course, you know how to game the system. Which in of itself, is also stealing.

    Perhaps another question should be added is: If your child was in desperate need of a particular medication, would you steal to buy it?

  20. That's a tough one. It's hard to think in absolutes on something like this.

  21. Andrew -- Income gap is definitely another topic for another day. Moral relativism is an issue to consider when lives are at stake. It's like the old argument about lying to a bad person in order to save someone good. We'd all probably do it in certain circumstances.

    CW -- There is probably always a reasonable alternative to stealing.

    Jo - The aboriginals may have a good point.

    Rob -- I've yet to see anyone who has left this life take anything with them unless we include what was buried with them. If they were buried.

    GB -- Many stories have been written and will be written as an attempt to answer these dilemmas. We need to make it okay to ask for help in our society without having a stigma attached. Help is always available the way I see it, but I agree it's not always easy.

    Liz -- The question of absolutes on this issue are what has made it a long debate for many philosophers and theologians.


  22. I have an A-Lust stellar comment all types up on word, but alas I still can't get the computer to open any of my browsers. So, here's the Readers Digest condensed version.

    Sin is sin. They are called The Ten Commandments not the Ten Suggestions. Sin, Karma, or whatever you call it we all will have to answer for every wrong one day.

    That said, if my children were seriously STARVING and there was NO OTHER WAY, I would steal if necessary, without a second thought and take my chances with God.

  23. When I was young I was a real black-and-white thinker about things like stealing. I still think stealing is wrong, but after living in Central America for a few years and seeing how kids grew up stealing just so they could literally sustain their lives, it changed how I viewed the culture there. I think there's always value in understanding where other people are coming from. If you want to get really technical, my ancestors stole land from native tribes in this area, while preaching the evils of stealing -- oh the irony. Now that I've dropped that bomb, I'm outta here!

  24. Wow. This is a thought-provoking question. I think that as a people we tend to be more forgiving when theft is about life/death versus greed. Like Steven indicated above, there are portions of the world that are so poverty-stricken that if not for stealing, people would die. So, I tend to be more forgiving of that sort of theft. I think "Thou Shalt Not Steal" was about greed.

    Since I don't live in a situation (at least not yet, and hopefully not ever) where stealing is the difference between starving to death and living, I can't condone it for me. I just had a situation at the beginning of the year in which my Homeowner's Policy was credited with a payment that I didn't make. Since that bill was $1,000+, it would have been really nice to use that money elsewhere. However, I KNEW that someone made a payment and it was misapplied to my bill. The company may have figured out where they misapplied it... and they might not. However, I called them to let them know that the money was misapplied and that they needed to run a trace to figure out who made a payment and did NOT get the credit for it.

    I will also correct a cashier if they give me incorrect change (in my favor) if I notice while I am still in the store. If I don't figure it out until I am home, I probably won't go back. Gas is costly and the mistake wasn't mine. If it less than a dollar, it would cost me more to correct their error (in gas money) than it is worth.

  25. Oh crud. I messed up my post and wanted to correct it. I copied it, deleted the old one, and went to paste it -- and it pasted the wrong stuff! I'm very annoyed. I have a nasty cold and so everything is very annoying!

  26. Stealing is wrong, no matter how people might try to justify it.

  27. Faraway -- Not many parents would be willing to just idly watch their children suffer. We are in God's image.

    Steven -- You raised another issue that's on my list of someday posts.

    Robin -- The old Golden Rule is probably the best one to follow whenever in doubt.

    Southpaw -- Believe me, I know what you're talking about. I was in the same boat for the past month and now just getting back to normal.

    Sheila-kay -- Bottom line is I think you're right.


  28. Yeshua said, love thy neighbor as yourself. We are to take care of widows and orphans. If we did this, maybe no one would feel the need to steal.

  29. Stealing is wrong, but we all do it. Especially us creative types. Anyway, I just recently followed you and invite you to visit my blog and follow me back. I need some followers as I'm launching a new novel on April 18. Smack dab in the middle of the A to Z Challenge. Here's my blog's address:

    Thanks Arlee!

  30. Just look at Dexter, for example. We finished watching the series recently, and our discussions often focused on how we could cheer him on, hoping he didn't get caught, when clearly what he was doing was so wrong. Yes, a lot of immoral stuff is glamorized in various ways for the general public. Still doesn't make it right, but it broadens the lens, creating room for different perspectives and thought provoking debates.

  31. Shelly -- So true.

    Anthony -- I think there are many who would deny that they steal and don't realize the ways people can steal that they might not have thought of. Good luck with the novel.

    MJ -- Literature and entertainment media does much to open the channels of broader thinking and softening the jagged edges of immorality.


  32. It's so hard to know how you would actually react until you're in a hopeless situation. If there is absolutely no where else to turn, I can't imagine anyone intentionally allowing their family to starve. Hopefully, they would be able to locate the nearest food pantry.


  33. I think I read that there is no such thing as a small sin or a big sin. Sin is sin but on the topic of stealing and the law I was told after my house was burglarized twice by an ex daughter in law that since I knew the person who did it- it really couldn't be called burglary. That was even after saying that I wanted to press charges. I really didn't know who had actually stolen my stuff until I found it in the pawn shop with her name on the slips. So where I live stealing isn't actually stealing if it is someone you know (at least that is what they say around here) Just wanted to pass that along. :)

  34. Thought provoking post Lee! I consider myself to be honest for the most part. I do take what I need in terms of office supplies, but I don't stock my house like a second Staples. I would do my best to provide for my family. Thankfully never got tested where I would have to steal for them, but if all else fails, wouldn't we all do it? I wouldn't squat in an empty house and wouldn't want a squatter. I try my best and follow the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do to you.

  35. Julie -- It's true that we likely don't know what we would do in a situation of extreme need. Would we risk jail or getting killed?

    Gossip -- I can't imagine the law would say that. I've seen cases around here where parents have charged there own kids with stealing. Especially bad if a break-in is involved.

    Buck -- If everyone followed that Golden Rule we wouldn't even be thinking about other rules.



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