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augustlan's avatar

Do you make a moral distinction between different types of theft?

Asked by augustlan (47711points) April 26th, 2012

Just recently, I realized that I do, for whatever reason. It seems I’m more comfortable with the idea of someone stealing food because they need to eat than with the idea of someone stealing money to buy food because they need to eat. You could substitute any number of things for ‘food’, say, a tent because they need shelter, or a coat because it’s cold outside. That makes no sense to me, and I’m not sure why I feel that way. What’s your take?

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39 Answers

Coloma's avatar

Yes, I do.

Stealing because one is simply lazy, character disordered, criminally inclined, sociopathic is a far cry from stealing out of sheer desperation for survival needs.
A 14 year old girl stealing mascara from the make up isle just because she wants it is not the same thing as an 80 year old woman stealing a can of soup and tuna fish because she has no money for food for another 3 days.

Plucky's avatar

Yes, very much so. I feel the same way as you @augustlan and @Coloma. Not entirely sure why. It just feels morally right to me I guess.

Great question by the way :)

digitalimpression's avatar

Robin Hood = Good?
Sheriff of Nottingham = Bad?

I don’t know.. stealing seems wrong to me in every way.. but if my kids were starving…..

Coloma's avatar

@digitalimpression Well…lets just hope none of us ever have to steal to eat. :-(

augustlan's avatar

@Coloma In both scenarios I gave, though, the person is desperate to eat. For some reason, I’m able to feel more lenient if they directly steal food than if they steal money to get food. That’s what doesn’t make sense to me. Why do I make a distinction that one is more ok than the other? My mind is weird.

Salem88's avatar

Ever read Les Miserables? Stealing may still be wrong but survival is existence.

Coloma's avatar

@augustlan Yes, it’s probably just your programming. It’s always interesting to investigate our reasoning. I think it’s because there are only two means of gaining the food, through stealing the actual goods or the money to buy them. Stealing money seems somehow more immoral than stealing the goods, even though there is really no difference.

Each is a means to an end. Now I would say that stealing from an equally destitute person would feel even more immoral to me because in quenching my hunger I am creating theirs.
Life is complicated these days, 500 years ago I guess you just raided the village potato patch or stole a chicken. No security cameras in the potato patch. lol

augustlan's avatar

@Salem88 I was totally thinking about Les Miserables when I wrote this question! Poor Jean Valjean.

Coloma's avatar

Well..I don’t care if you are starving, do not eat my goose! I’ll buy you groceries, leave my livestock alone, they are not on the menu! lol

Plucky's avatar

@Coloma Don’t worry, I got your goose’s back! (grabs a stick)

Coloma's avatar

@Plucky Yes, you won’t “Pluck” my goose. :-)

Salem88's avatar

I would Never cook your goose. Yea, that was too easy. Will be better next time.

jerv's avatar

Yes; there are too many variables to go by an all-encompassing, no exceptions rule.

JLeslie's avatar

@augustlan Does it matter if the person steals the money from an individual or the store? The person is going to spend it all on food in the scenerio, they are not going to be frivolous with it.

I am still thinking about your question, but I just wondered if you find stealing money worse because you picture it being stolen from an individual?

Plucky's avatar

With regard to stealing money vs a tangible necessity, I think maybe it seems worse because money is usually earned (or seems that way) ..and something such as food is more acquired (with or without that earned money). In stealing money, no matter the use, you are taking something that someone most likely earned. Perhaps that is difference?

@JLeslie I know the question wasn’t for me but I want to answer as well. I would be bothered much more if someone stole money from an individual vs a store (a large one – not a family owned/operated one). It’s so much more personal seeming to me.

JLeslie's avatar

@Plucky That is very common. For some reason people don’t think of the impact the theft at the store costs everyone else. Or, they identify with an individual like it is themseves being robbed, but not the store or business. When it comes to food, probably we all have a little bit of a soft spot, but when it is employees stealing from their place of work for instance, many feel stealing a notebook is no big deal, but would never steal one from a store they shopped in or from a friend’s desk.

ucme's avatar

If some scumbucket chooses to steal from an impoverished, defenceless old person, then my moral compass points in the opposite direction than say, theft from a careless multi-millionaire.

JLeslie's avatar

@Plucky Just to clarify, my notebook example from work is stealing to me, just as bad as stealing from a store. Some people who feel underpaid at work, take things to kind of make up for it, that is how they rationalize it. Even toilet paper, all sorts of things. I really don’t see much difference between stealing from an individual or a place of business, I know it was not mine for the taking.

@augustlan I think the food seems more ok maybe, because we would not want someone to go hungry, we would probably give a starving person food if they were right in front of us. For me, if I noticed someone took a few dollars from me, and then learned they were starving and bought food with it, it would be the same to me. Knowing how they spent it makes it the same. It’s the stealing really in the end that is the problem, I rather be asked.

josie's avatar

It is morally correct to steal as a the very last resort to save your own life.
It is still illegal however. Tough choice.
This is exactly why the issue of illegal immigration from Mexico is a difficult debate. If you are a Mexican peasant, unable to work to feed yourself and your children, and you can break the law and wade across a river and find work, what would you do? Exactly, I would too.

janbb's avatar

Jean Valjean was innocent I tell you!

dabbler's avatar

I was going to mention the other side but @ucme beat me to it. My judgement also has to do with whether or not what’s stolen is clearly something the victim really needs or not.

Swiping some cripple’s crutches or food from someone who’s already desperate is low on my mercy scale while swiping some bauble from a well-to-do so you can feed yourself is quite a bit higher.

elbanditoroso's avatar

This is the Jean Valjean (Les Miserables) question. Was Jean Valjean really guilty for stealing bread for his family? Was it worth being in prison for 20 years?

Justice Scalia would say that there is no difference – a broken law is a broken law. Human beings would say differently.

My answer: it’s situational. There is a difference but it is hard to draw a line.

Trillian's avatar

Everything needs to be measured in context. Each deed weighed individually.

Blackberry's avatar

Yeah. Bread is different than millions of investor’s money.

tinyfaery's avatar

Of course. Stealing to eat = ok. Stealing to make yourself disgustingly rich = bad.

Bill1939's avatar

The right to survive trumps the right to be secure in one’s possessions or wealth. Theft for any other reason is morally insupportable (imho).

ratboy's avatar

Theft has become a way of life in the US; the perps are the obscenely wealthy, not the hungry. Laws are commodities to be purchased rather than codes of moral conduct; copyright, patent, DMCA and laws of that ilk protect the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the common welfare. A “Free Market” is the de facto American religion. Thus, taxing the wealthy to provide for the poor is seen as punishing the successful to reward the undeserving. In such an insane society, there can be no meaningful concept of theft.

john65pennington's avatar

Here is a classic example associated with your question.

Man and woman were living together in a trailer with their three children. For whatever reason, his wife left him and their three children. He was disabled and could not work. His wife worked at a steady job and thus thier income.

His wife had been gone about two months. The food supply, in the trailer, was exhausted and his children had no food to eat. This trailer was located behind a drive-in market and could be seen from the man’s trailer.

After hearing his children cry from hunger, the man decided that he had to make a move. One night, after closing, the man went to the drive-in market and kicked in the front door. He only took food and milk enough to feed his children for a few days. I was assigned this case, as a CID detective. The market had a video camera and tape for me to watch of the burglary. As we watched the tape, the owner recognized the burglar as the man that lives in a trailerpark, behind his store. He comes in frequently to buy food.

I approached the man’s trailer and immediately noticed how disarray his trailer was inside and his three children. I gave him the Miranda Warning as we began to discuss this burglary. He readily admitted to kicking in the front door of the drive-in market and taking only enough food to feed his children. I went back to the store owner and explained the man’s situation. I advised the store owner that if I arrested this man, his children would be taken into custody by Childrens Welfare and that he might lose this children.

The store owner agreed not to prosecute, considering the circustances.

So, stealing to feed his children was taken into consideration by all people involved. Had he been stealing to also take beer, then this would have changed the outcome of this incident.

Did the store owner make the right decision? I think so.

SpatzieLover's avatar

Absolutely. IMO there is a definite distinction.

Stealing to survive is fine by me.
It’s a shame someone would have to get to the point of theft, but that’s another topic.

Linda_Owl's avatar

Stealing in order to survive is an imperative ( just ask anyone who has ever actually gone hungry ), stealing under the circumstance of needing whatever it was that a person took in order to survive – can be forgiven. Theft under any other circumstance would depend upon the circumstances that led the person to steal whatever it was that they took.

captainsmooth's avatar

Of course. Stealing to survive is justified, although still punishable.

Stealing to feed a habit, such as crack, is not so justified.

Coloma's avatar

Yes, rules ARE meant to be broken based on circumstance.
“Keep off the grass” does not mean you let someone die that keels over of a heart attack on the far side of the sidewalk. lol

King_Pariah's avatar

Nope, abstract concepts are abstract.

YARNLADY's avatar

The legal system makes a difference, so why shouldn’t we? Lesser thefts are classed misdemeanors and bigger ones are classed felony, with different levels of punishment.

In many of the examples above, however, the issue should have been solved by asking for help.

augustlan's avatar

Thanks for all of the interesting answers, guys! @JLeslie, I hadn’t really made a distinction between theft of money from a store versus an individual, just that stealing money (even if needed for survival) seemed worse than directly stealing the object(s) one needed to survive. Maybe it’s because when money is stolen, we don’t know what use it will be put to? I’m still unclear about this distinction in my mind.

Coloma's avatar

Don’t forget, animals steal too. Not just food, look at the Bower bird that steals his rivals collected treasures to pad his own pad with alluring trinkets for the female.
What an immoral bird! lol

janbb's avatar

@Coloma Someone posted a hilarious video for me of a penguin stealing the rocks from another male’s nest one by one to “feather” his own.

jca's avatar

How many people have taken something like a pen/pens from work, or post it notes and haven’t thought twice about it? How many people have made copies using the copier or printer at work and not thought twice about it? Technically, that’s stealing.

I used to work with a woman who would go out to a buffet and have containers and/or bags and slip the food into the containers and take it home. Many people do that. To me, it’s leftover food and therefore, not that thrilling.

I wonder what the amount of goods that is stolen from hotels is? Both from guests and from employees. I thought of this because I just stayed at a hotel the last few nights on a business trip. They probably have towels and hair dryers disappear often.

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