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.

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§ 20 Responses to A Non Physicalist/Causal Account of Theft

  • e. says:

    Zippy,Your comments here is a more refined and clearer explication than that previously submitted and for which I am grateful.I do, however, find issue with the little bit said here:“…that same man failing to repay the baker if and when he becomes able is stealing…”I wouldn’t go so far as declaring or even accusing the subject individual with the very crime of stealing.Let’s say that, by his subsequent attempts at begging, he manages to obtain a sum that would just about pay the baker for the bread.Do you really mean to say that if the severely indigent does not do so upon coming into such a sum, that surely his having taken the bread previously in order to escape imminent death by starvation would assuredly be tantamount to stealing and would, in fact, have committed an grave and intrinsic evil by his not having paid off what you’ve seemed to have necessarily deemed here as an mandatory incurred debt on his part that must be paid immediately once he is able to do so?It may seem that I am simply quibbling with the petty matter of how one defines “prosperous” within the context of the circumstances you’ve set forth; however, I believe there are far more weighty concerns than just this which may, in fact, require either a revision of the above terms or even a reconsideration of the aforementioned matter concerning exception.

  • Anonymous says:

    Zippy, this is difficult to follow but I’m going to try. Are you saying that really, really rich people don’t have the “legitimate juridical authority” to withhold their stuff from really, really poor people as long as the really, really, poor people pay it back when they can. Is that it??

  • zippy says:

    e:I think the debt, like any natural debt, remains outstanding until the person has reasonable capacity to pay it and does so, all other things equal, and unless the debt is forgiven by the creditor. (I would add though that in many cases the virtuous thing for the creditor to do is to forgive the debt, and so he ought to do it).And I do think that walking away from a natural debt one has the reasonable capacity to pay is a form of stealing.Anonymous:It is well established that there are circumstances where, in an emergency, one may take something that is not one’s property in order to meet the needs of that emergency. I have simply presumed that understanding as the background of this post, I haven’t argued for it; though it does make sense once we realize that “ownership” is a kind of juridical authority that an owner has over others with respect to the property he owns.

  • Anonymous says:

    “It is well established that there are circumstances where, in an emergency, one may take something that is not one’s property in order to meet the needs of that emergency”I’m aware of the concept, and as we know, it’s in the catechism; but I live (at least for a little while) in the real world. How do we apply this to daily life?There are thousands upon thousands of destitute people in the world who are constantly in a state of emergency (the poor you will always have with you). How are we as faithful Catholics supposed to implement this concept in everyday life? Why should we make poor people resort to “theft” when in an “emergency”? Why not just give up all of our extra stuff, so that they don’t have to “steal”.If a guy steals my car ( I have two others), but he tells me he really needs it to get back and forth to work at a job he realy needs to feed his family, do we not call the cops, since this isn’t really theft and I don’t have the legitimate authority to keep it from him?

  • zippy says:

    <>How are we as faithful Catholics supposed to implement this concept in everyday life?<>That is a fabulously important question worthy of much discussion; though it goes well beyond the scope and purpose of my post.<>If a guy steals my car ( I have two others), but he tells me he really needs it to get back and forth to work at a job he really needs to feed his family, do we not call the cops, since this isn’t really theft and I don’t have the legitimate authority to keep it from him?<>A better question I think is what to do if he <>asks<> you for it: do you have the moral authority to refuse? Do I have the moral authority to refuse money to a pandhandler? (I should say that since my personal situation is far from ordinary the ‘rules’ are I think legitimately quite different for me, though it isn’t my intention here to talk about my personal practices when it comes to being asked for help by the poor on the street).So I guess my answer is “that depends”. In general we need to look upon ourselves as stewards of the property we have in our care, rather than “owners” in some absolute libertarian sense, I think. That does not necessarily mean simply liquidating everything (though it may mean that for some people in some circumstances) and giving it all to the poor; but I do think we tend to be far too comfortable exercising our juridical ownership authority all the way out to its limits, and doubtless sometimes beyond those limits.

  • e. says:

    “How are we as faithful Catholics supposed to implement this concept in everyday life? Why should we make poor people resort to ‘theft’ when in an ‘emergency’? Why not just give up all of our extra stuff, so that they don’t have to ‘steal’.”I believe the prescription for such ‘dilemma’ lies within the very passages of Matthew 25:31-46.

  • e. says:

    Zippy,It would seem that you are merely attempting to circumvent the entire matter of exception (which you seem wont to eliminate altogether) by a simple redefining of the terms in which such exception would happen to apply.There’s nothing actually wrong with that; however, it is not so simple.Although you’ve made your case clearer, there remain still certain issues.Cases frequently cited in discussions as these (somewhat analogous to the ones currently and previously discussed) evince terms for valid moral exception which you avoid all too simply by a mere relegation of certain aspects of such exceptions to nothing more than just an incurred debt on the part of their subject.To me, this seems a novem that goes against the very historical context of traditional moral reasoning wherefrom such exceptions have typically obtained warrant for their validity and application; moreover, there isn’t — nor has there ever been (at least, to my knowledge) — an obligation (either expressed or implied) on the part of the severely indigent who had, out of urgent necessity, taken to resorting to such desperate solution, that these same would have incurred such debt and for which they must give redress or else they would have committed a grave and intrinsic evil.

  • Anonymous says:

    “I believe the prescription for such ‘dilemma’ lies within the very passages of Matthew 25:31-46.”e.It’s not Matthew 25:31-46 that I have trouble with, It’s Luke 18:22

  • zippy says:

    e:Keep in mind that the particular example of the baker and the starving man is just a particular example. You need not agree with the notion that a debt is incurred in the particular case of the baker in order to see that more generally, a non physicalist/causal account of theft – that is, an account of theft qualified as intrinsically immoral independent of the intention for which the choice is made, irrespective of proximity games playing off the notion of “intention for which the choice is made” – is possible.Understanding ownership as a juridical authority in general solves the problem, and removes, by counterexample, the objection that theft cannot be classed as intrinsically immoral other than through a p/c account. The rest is just arguing over the particulars of what the limits on that juridical authority happen to be, and so, other than for whatever illustrative value it provides to particular readers, is beside the point.

  • Tom says:

    <> Why not just give up all of our extra stuff, so that they don’t have to “steal”.<>If we don’t give up all of our extra stuff, then we are stealing from the poor.

  • Tim J. says:

    “The bread you store up belongs to the hungry; the cloak that lies in your chest belongs to the naked; the gold that you have hidden in the ground belongs to the poor. If everyone would take only according to his needs and would leave the surplus to the needy, no one would be rich, no one poor, no one in misery.”– St. Basil the GreatThis says nothing, of course, about the government confiscating property ostensibly on behalf of the poor and redistributing it. IThis kind of charity can come only from a conversion of heart.

  • e. says:

    “This says nothing, of course, about the government confiscating property ostensibly on behalf of the poor and redistributing it. IThis kind of charity can come only from a conversion of heart.”A forced redistribution of wealth by the government isn’t at all charity but a form of tyranny; more specifically, the tyranny of entitlement. Something we shall come to acquaint ourselves even more intimately in the passing days.Charity, properly put, is something that is done freely by the individual out of genuine love.

  • zippy says:

    <>A forced redistribution of wealth by the government isn’t at all charity but a form of tyranny…<>Well, it <>can<> be, but it is not <>necessarily<> and in every case. I’ve discussed the matter before, for example in < HREF="https://zippycatholic.wordpress.com/2005/06/charitable-community.html" REL="nofollow">this post<>.In short, I don’t think a tax-subsidized safety net is wrong <>per se<>; in fact it is a good thing, all else equal. But I do think the one we happen to have is informed by perverse values which are destructive to the common good.

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