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11.3: Act and Preference Utilitarianism on Stealing

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  • Peter Singer as defenders of Act Utilitarianism and Preference Utilitarianism respectively.

    The teleological, consequentialist and relativistic nature of Utilitarianism may seem to make it more open to the idea that examples of stealing will sometimes be morally acceptable. This is because all that needs to be the case for an example of stealing to be morally right is for the good consequences to outweigh the bad consequences. Indeed, this very much seems to be the case in the example of a person stealing bread from a multinational supermarket chain in order to survive. Thus, the key issue for Act and Preference Utilitarianism when it comes to stealing is not “can stealing ever be justified” (this was the key question facing Kantian Ethics) but rather “does Utilitarianism justify stealing in too many cases”.

    Consider the following situations:

    1. James has two children who are desperate for a particular Christmas present. If he steals the present, which he cannot afford to buy, from a major international retailer then this action would very likely lead to far more pleasure for his children than pain for the company.
    2. Matthew can illegally download a music album that he would greatly enjoy, saving himself money in doing so. Or, he can pay full price for the music and allow his money to line the pockets of an international pop star, her record label and a financially powerful music retailer. In this case, more pleasure would seem to be produced by an illegal download rather than a paid-for download.
    3. A gang of thieves has the ability to steal 1p from every bank account in the world. The pain of losing 1p, even when multiplied an extremely large number of times, is minimal. However, the theft would make the thieves rich beyond their wildest dreams, filling their lives with extreme pleasure.
    4. A football club requires a large donation in order to keep running its youth teams and providing pleasure for hundreds of children in the local area. Imogen, a fan of the club, breaks into the mansion of a millionaire and steals £10,000 worth of property to sell in order to raise the necessary funds to save the youth programme. If the goods stolen were of trivial importance to the millionaire, the balance of pleasure versus pain may favour the theft.
    5. Bryony and Robert are going to miss a concert that they have been looking forward to for a very long time because their car has broken down. By chance, they notice an unlocked car parked on a driveway near them. If they steal the car, attend the concert, refill it with petrol and park it back on the driveway — all without the owner’s knowledge — then their action appears to provide them with a great deal of pleasure and no pain at all to the actual owner of the car.

    In all five cases as described (and we should not cheat and change the examples!) the Benthamite, hedonistic act utilitarian would seem to be forced to suggest that stealing would be morally right; indeed, not stealing may well be morally wrong in all of these cases because not stealing would fail to create the greatest pleasure for the greatest number. If we replace “pleasure” with “preference satisfaction” in the five cases, the situations do not seem to be different in any key respects, and so the preference utilitarian would seem to face the same issue.

    In response, we should pay attention to Bentham’s suggestion that act utilitarians would have “rules of thumb” that provide general guidance against stealing. We are better off being disposed not to steal, for example, because we cannot be sure of the consequences.

    If James, for example, was caught then far more pain would result from his action than pleasure might have been generated if successful. Indeed, in the real world, thieves often have no idea what pain their victims suffer as stolen items can often have hidden sentimental value beyond any that a thief could recognise in the abstract (this seems most relevant to cases four and five). The thief who stole an iPad in Colorado Springs, for example, probably did not factor in the pain of an eight-year-old boy losing photos of himself with his recently deceased father.3 Thus, even when we might think an individual act of stealing will produce the maximum amount of pleasure in a given situation, we should be wary of over-confidence in our analysis, and not downplay the painful consequences associated with that possible action.

    As an objection, it can be asked whether or not such “rules of thumb” are enough to save the utilitarian from being overly promiscuous in terms of allowing morally justified stealing. There is good reason for thinking that Utilitarianism does not offer enough in respect of cautioning against stealing in general. Although stealing may be viewed as undesirable in some of the previous situations (and similar such cases) for the reason alluded to in the previous paragraph pertaining to rules of thumb, there are plenty of situations where the consequences obviously point to stealing if total pleasure or preference satisfaction is all that determines morality. We are sure that you can imagine many such situations yourselves where consequences are relatively easy to predict. There may be a difference between wanting to be less than absolutist about the wrongness of stealing, and being so liberal that stealing turns out to be morally required in a potentially enormous number of situations.

    Act and preference utilitarians may make their final stand on this issue by suggesting that greater attention should be paid to the psychological costs associated with stealing. The pain of a victim will not be fully accounted for if we only think of immediate pains to do with finance and anger. In addition, we must recognise the psychological pain often resulting from the fear of having property stolen or a house burgled. This psychological distress may be so severe that it outweighs even large-scale pleasures resulting from the theft. In addition, it might be the case that engaging in an act of stealing in one potentially morally justifiable situation would make someone more prone to stealing in a second, or third or fourth situation where moral legitimacy is either more questionable or obviously not present.

    Perhaps if one becomes comfortable with stealing and therefore less empathetic as a result, then the long-term costs of stealing — as they pertain to the character and future actions of the perpetrator — may be far higher than originally thought. This idea has much in common with Kant’s indirect concern for animals, as discussed in Chapter 14.

    Whatever your views on Act and Preference Utilitarianism as they impact the issue of stealing, it will be well worth your while coming up with your own examples and then applying the theories to those cases in order to make clear that you understand, and can defend, the scope of cases in which utilitarians would morally criticise or morally support stealing.

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