Is Shoplifting OK if the Shop Owner Is Awful?

A close friend of many years whom I’ve always thought of as an extremely honest, ethical person recently confided in me that she shoplifts on a regular basis. She explained that she never steals from small or independently owned businesses, only from large companies, and only when no small business nearby carries the items she needs. She targets companies that are known to treat their employees badly, or that knowingly source their products from places where human rights are violated, or whose owners/C.E.O.s donate to ultraconservative, authoritarian-leaning candidates, etc.

My friend volunteers in her community and has worked her entire life for nonprofit antipoverty and human rights organizations. While she isn’t wealthy, she is able to afford the items she steals and believes that she is redistributing wealth; she says she keeps track of the value of what she’s stolen and donates an equal amount to charity. She thinks of her actions as civil disobedience and says she will accept the consequences if she’s caught.

When she told me, I thought, Stealing is wrong. But as we discussed it, I realized I was oversimplifying a complex moral issue. Is it wrong to steal food to feed your starving children? What if I stole a legally purchased gun from a person I knew was about to commit a mass shooting? Are those who bring office supplies home from their workplace also thieves? I find myself struggling with the question of whether an individual’s actions are morally defensible if they do more good than harm. — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

Let’s start by asking what your friend thinks she’s doing. Is the aim to produce social change? Evidently not. Because she isn’t letting these corporations and their bosses know what’s happening — this isn’t a consumer boycott — they can’t consider shifting policies in response, and anyway, her pilferage isn’t on a scale that would be detectable at a corporate level. So perhaps she just wants to diminish the coffers of the wicked, even if it makes no practical difference to them.

Insofar as the cost of shoplifting is passed on to other consumers, though, the redistribution to her is largely not from the corporations but from other customers who don’t steal. And here we have to consider the overall practice of shoplifting to which she’s contributing. The moral and legal proscription of theft is meant to create a system that allows people to hold on to their possessions and dispose of them only when they choose to. Theft undermines this system — a system we all have reason to value and a duty to help sustain by keeping to the rules.

Your light-fingered friend may protest that she steals only from retail outlets connected to bad actors. But the rest of us aren’t picking and choosing in this way; we pay what we owe at the checkout counter. So she’s taking advantage of our compliance without complying herself. Consider too that when the bosses of these corporations support candidates and causes she deplores, they are exercising their rights as citizens. A world in which we all feel free to violate the rights of people whose politics we don’t share (her conservative counterparts could target those they thought were spreading the “woke mind virus”) would be a world without the benefits of democracy.

Related Articles

Back to top button