A Non Physicalist/Causal Account of Theft
January 29, 2009 § 20 Comments
It has been suggested that it is not possible to understand stealing as intrinsically immoral without appealing to a physicalist/causal account of theft. (I think the reason people think this is because our modern conception of property is a distortion of reality, as I have argued before). To refute this suggestion, I offer the following non physicalist/causal account of theft as an intrinsically immoral act. In this account we will be able to qualify as morally evil the choice to steal independent of the intention for which that choice is made.
Property is something over which an owner has some legitimate authority.
Authority, when it is legitimate, is a capacity to juridically impose moral obligations on other people. So for example the owner of a widget can impose a limited moral obligation on others not to run off with the widget, through the exercise of his legitimate juridical authority as owner. He can also let you borrow his widget or give you his widget.
If you take the owner’s widget against his legitimate juridical authority, you have stolen his widget. It is always and intrinsically immoral, without exception, to steal his widget, independent of the reason why you steal it.
However, every juridical authority exercised by an individual or a government has due limits. Beyond those limits there is no authority: that is, an attempt to exercise a juridical authority beyond its due limits does not impose a legitimate moral obligation on others. For example, a positive law requiring doctors to perform abortions does not impose a genuine moral obligation on doctors to perform abortions.
Suppose we have a baker, and a man who is literally starving to death. For the baker to deprive the starving man of that loaf of bread is (let us propose) an attempt to exercise juridical authority beyond its due limit. When the starving man becomes prosperous, expecting payment for that loaf of bread however is within the due limits of the baker’s juridical authority. So a starving man eating a loaf of bread is not stealing, but incurs a postponed debt; that same man failing to repay the baker if and when he becomes able is stealing, unless the baker forgives the debt.
The so-called “exceptions” to the absolute prohibition against stealing, then, can be seen to be no exceptions at all. Neither do these “exceptions” genuinely represent an appeal to the intentions of the acting subject, though it is possible to speak of them in those terms. Rather, they are simply a matter of making explicit some of the due limits on the juridical authority an owner has to impose moral obligations on non-owners: they are an expression of some of the truths intrinsic to the nature of ownership, which by its nature is a juridical authority to impose moral obligations on others, and therefore by nature has due limits.