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Humanities LibreTexts

11.1: Defining Stealing

  • Page ID
    22169
  • Beginning a chapter on the ethics of stealing, it is important to make clear exactly what “stealing” amounts to. At first, this may seem like a fairly simple task; stealing is just the taking of another person’s property without their consent. Indeed, if reality television programmes following British Traffic Police are anything to go by, this definition is of use not merely for philosophy classes, but for the real world also; theft of vehicles is often categorised as an example of TWOC — “taking without owners’ consent”.

    Yet, it is not always clear that stealing comfortably fits this definition. For example, we might wonder if it is possible to steal an item even though the owner has given you consent to take it. The original definition would rule this out as a conceptual impossibility, but consider someone who, whilst inebriated (perhaps even drugged against their will), gives you permission to take an item of value from their house. Even though you have their explicit permission, acting on this verbal instruction and stealing their television still might seem to be an act of theft.

    As a second counterexample to the original definition, imagine that you are better at cards than someone else, although you hide this fact from them. If you play a game for real money, and beat them in hand after hand after hand, might it be suggested that you have stolen their money even though they freely entered into the game?

    There are responses to these two examples, of course. We might deny that either is an act of stealing, or deny that proper consent was ever given — this seems particularly compelling in the first example. However, we can also cast doubt on the definition by focussing not on the issue of consent, but on the idea of property. For example, if a person is being paid by the hour, but spends an undue amount of time on social media or checking sports scores, have they stolen money or time from their employer? Or, as a second possible example, if I make up a joke that is then retold by someone else, have they stolen “property” without my consent? This is a genuinely important issue in the field of comedy, for example. Again, the original definition might be defensible as a mechanism for capturing such instances of stealing. However, if it is defensible, it is only because of a broad reading of the idea of property, taking the concept far beyond the physical.

    Finally, consider the example of someone who fails to pay their legally due portion of tax to the government. Again, we might wonder if this person has “stolen” money just by refusing to hand over their financial property. If so, our reading of the original definition of stealing would again need to be rather broad.

    All of this has hopefully opened your minds to the variety of acts that may or may not be labelled as stealing. We will proceed in this chapter with the rough understanding of stealing provided at the start of this section, but with a broad and liberal interpretation of both “property” and “consent”.

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