Why Theft is Neither Ethical Nor Practical

January 13, 2009 by  

Tom, an acquaintance of mine, is about to commence an ethics course. The outline for the course states:

The first part of the course addresses the challenge that the egoist (sometimes called the amoralist) poses for moral philosophy…The egoist is a person who doesn’t care about morality – all the egoist cares about is his or her own advantage and happiness, and he or she will be prepared to break any of our standard moral rules in order to secure it- just as long, that is, as he or she can get away with it.

Tom explains:

…if I do decide to argue for egoism in that seminar, I know someone is going to ask something like: “Wouldn’t it be in your interests to steal, so don’t we need rights as a way of limiting peoples self interest, or everyone would be stealing and civilization would collapse”, so I’m going to have to make sure I fully understand why it’s not in someones rational self interest to violate peoples rights, to counter that argument. I’ll probably re-read a few chapters of [Ayn Rand’s book, The Virtue of Selfishness] and [her book Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal] to make sure I fully understand my arguments.

A year or more ago, I was discussing the ethics of theft with a student of Objectivism. I was surprised to hear him opine that theft is wrong because, for example, one might get caught and spend years in prison. However, one might, alternatively, never go to prison. One might be very good at not getting caught. And it is not the case that the virtuousness or viciousness of theft depends upon the skill of the thief. Neither is efficacy the same as practicality.

Accordingly, I gave to Tom a response similar to that which I gave to the aforementioned student of Objectivism:

Do not make the mistake of making such arguments as “you might get caught and have to spend life in jail”. Though true, that is not essential. The essential point is that, when you attempt to make theft your method of continuing to exist, you make yourself dependent upon the production of others: you cannot steal what someone else has not produced. By neglecting rational production, you make yourself akin to a helpless baby, begging for a teat.

Thievery is not a mode of survival. It is the surrender of your fate to others. Moreover, because thievery entails a neglect of earning, happiness – not the alleviation of sadness, but happiness – cannot be obtained.


9 Responses to “Why Theft is Neither Ethical Nor Practical”

  1. Glenn on January 13th, 2009 11:43 am

    Happiness is not to be achieved at the command of emotional whims. Happiness is not the satisfaction of whatever irrational wishes you might blindly attempt to indulge. Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind’s fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but of a producer. Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions.

    Just as I support my life, neither by robbery nor alms, but by my own effort, so I do not seek to derive my happiness from the injury or the favor of others, but earn it by my own achievement. Just as I do not consider the pleasure of others as the goal of my life, so I do not consider my pleasure as the goal of the lives of others. Just as there are no contradictions in my values and no conflicts among my desires—so there are no victims and no conflicts of interest among rational men, men who do not desire the unearned and do not view one another with a cannibal’s lust, men who neither make sacrifices nor accept them.

    – John Galt’s Speech

  2. Mark Wickens on January 13th, 2009 12:13 pm

    You might also point out that “a person who doesn’t care about morality” is not a good description of an egoist. Morality is not synonymous with altruism or systems of morality that view the proper beneficiary as outside of oneself. You could point him here:

  3. Paul McKeever on January 13th, 2009 1:01 pm

    Thanks Mark. I quite agree. Fortunately, Tom has already gotten to the point of recognizing the poorness of the description, so I didn’t need to get into that with him.

  4. Paul McKeever on January 13th, 2009 1:09 pm

    A friend of mine, P, responded thusly, via e-mail:

    Just a quick response to your response.

    The objection, in standard ethics courses, to egoism is not whether or not you should make thievery a way of life, but, rather, should you steal something when it is obvious to you that you will get away with it.

    Your response sort of misses the point of the objection. Suppose I were to ask you whether or not I should play basketball and you, knowing that I am less than 6′, am out of shape, etc., might respond: You shouldn’t make basketball a way of life, because you will be deeply disappointed with your failure. To which I respond, “I mean right now, silly. Not as a way of life, but just today, in a pick up game.” And surely the answer is, “go for it!”

    So, too, with theft. We need a good explanation from the egoist point of view for why, when confronted with a situation where the money is right there, an egoist shouldn’t take it. It’s not about making thievery a way of life, but making it an exception in an otherwise “productive” life.

    Secondly, being productive on the market is also a way of “surrendering your fate to others.” You have to sell your product. You have to put together commercials or other forms of advertising your wares. You are dependent on others agreeing that your product is worth buying. You’ll have to say more about why this form or way of “surrendering your fate to others” is relevantly different from surrendering your fate to others in the case of stealing. (Unless by “productive” you mean the man who is able to hunt his own food, build his own shelter, etc. who can say “bugger it all” to the rest of us.)

    Finally, the point about happiness is an interesting one. But I’m not sure if I find the psychological theory that underpins the view all that persuasive. But this last point can be tackled some other time. The above two counter-responses are good enough for now.

    If time permits later today, I’ll write a response below.

  5. Ralf Wilmes on January 14th, 2009 4:47 am

    Reading the issue, my first answer that came to mind was that thievery erodes your integrity. Thus doing so it is not in your self-interest, because by damaging your integrity you damage your self-esteem (which is in turn very inherent to happiness indeed). How can that be in your long term self-interest? Also, in fact, depending on the production of others erodes self-esteem, that is a good point, wasn’t what I immediately thought of.

    As to the point that P. makes: do not quite agree -unless I misunderstood- with your point on trade being a way of surrendering your fate to others. Without going into much detail, I think it’s fairly obvious that independence does not imply we must live alone on a desert island and are able to survive without others. Your seems to suggest that -by definition- independence in a human society is not possible.

  6. c andrews on January 15th, 2009 1:49 pm

    Regarding your friend, P., it sounds as if this is the prudent predator argument. After having followed a long tedious argument on UseNet regarding the PP, I came to the conclusion that there is a certain Heisenberg-esque quality to the prudent predator. As soon as he is identified, he ceases to exist…

    But I think that the requirement of the PP is that one would have to engage in each interaction with the implicit subtext of “what can I get away with this time.” I don’t think that you can do that without subverting your capacity for honest exchange, eventually.

    In answer to those who would say, “But I don’t have to do it all the time,” I’d ask, then how and when do you make those decisions? And unless you’re willing to act only on range of the moment or at whim, which would seriously undercut the “getting away with it” aspect of the exercise, you would have to have standing orders to your consciousness, to wit: “Look at each situation and see if you can get away with screwing them, this time.”

    And that will subvert your capacity for honest dealing.

    c. andrew

  7. Charles on January 18th, 2009 7:00 am

    If I were Tom, I would not debate the proper definition of “egoist” with the class; it is a semantic issue. Instead, I would ask:

    • what “our standard moral rules” are,
    • what their unifying principle is,
    • how they are justified,
    • what is wrong with breaking them, and
    • in what way such a person poses “a challenge to moral philosophy.”

    This would lead, hopefully, to a discussion of:

    • why people care about morality;
    • whether it has an objective basis;
    • whether there is a fundamental conflict of interest among men;
    • what the difference is between “Live and let live,” and sacrifice; and
    • who is happier: the cannibal or the trader?

    As to the practicality of stealing:

    If morality means, not a set of traditional rules, but rather a set of principles for guiding one’s choices and actions, then the criminal does indeed care about morality: he has adopted the principle of cannibalism, though perhaps without articulating it. Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t work, because it isn’t practical to declare war on the human race.

    Since the rest of us have to defend ourselves, the first requirement for a criminal is, to lie — i.e., to lead a double life. To do this consistently would deny the criminal any fundamental visibility, which to most people is simply intolerable. But it is not safe to confide in decent people, because they will turn you in, or at least ostracize you; any decent person who befriends you is a fool, since inevitably you will victimize him, whenever you can “get away with it.” And people who are not decent will victimize you — for example, by blackmailing you, or by doing whatever they think they can get away with, just as you do. Why would thieves behave honorably?

    Once you have become a criminal, it is hard to turn back: you will have a reputation to overcome. Rational people will not trust you, and to your criminal friends you are a threat, which they must defend against.

    And what do you gain, as compared with earning what you want? What is the practical value you achieve, that you cannot achieve by trade?

    Eventually I’d ask what the teacher would call a person who lives by Galt’s oath.

  8. Charles on January 20th, 2009 6:02 am

    Ayn Rand never wrote much about the impracticality of crime. Perhaps that’s because a debate on the practicality of crime is really a debate about the practicality of moral philosophy. (No one proclaims himself to be a criminal; everyone avows morality; the debate is over the reason for being moral.) Therefore, it might be more fruitful to respond to Tom’s hypothetical questioner by saying:

    “I am rationally convinced that crime is by its nature inescapably impractical. But if you are rationally convinced otherwise, it is morally proper for you to be a criminal. That is so, in my opinion, because the first rule of morality is always to act on your best, most rational judgment.”

    See where that leads.

  9. Luke Murphy on January 22nd, 2009 7:48 pm

    “The first part of the course addresses the challenge that the egoist (sometimes called the amoralist) poses for moral philosophy…The egoist is a person who doesn’t care about morality – all the egoist cares about is his or her own advantage and happiness, and he or she will be prepared to break any of our standard moral rules in order to secure it- just as long, that is, as he or she can get away with it.”

    Wow. Rather presumptive of them, don’t you think? Before even asking what morality is, why we have it, or anything along those lines, they just assume the conclusion that egoism is “amoral.” A dirty little trick.

    And why do people awesome that selfishness comes so automatically anyways? Can’t one just look around and see how many people fail at selfishness all the time?

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