The dictionary definition of stealing is to take one property without the right or permission of the owner. When referring to the definition it is important to distinguish what the word “right” can be defined as. Some on the first view would assume a right would be based on the situation, such as if an innocent man was starving. Regrettably, for this man “right” in this sense mean the legal right. Therefore when looking at the definition of stealing it is always legally wrong to steal in any situation regardless of how unfortunate your position is. In my opinion stealing, from a moral standpoint, stealing is not always wrong. Laws are there to be followed but that does not always mean they are right. For instance, people who kill an armed intruder do not always go to prison as sometimes it can be deemed as a necessary action. Laws have changed regarding things like this and therefore this suggests that there might be some flexibility in relation to the current laws concerning theft.
It cannot be morally right to let a person starve, just because the law says it is wrong for him to feed himself. Being ethical is also not the same as following the law. The law often encompasses ethical standards to which most people support. But laws, like feelings, are different to what is ethical. Slavery laws and the old Apartheid laws of present-day South Africa are horrifically clear examples of laws that stray from what is ethical. Being ethical is not the same as doing “whatever society accepts”. In any society, most people accept standards that are, in fact, ethical. But standards of behaviour in society can deviate from what is ethical. An entire society can become ethically corrupt. Nazi Germany is a good example of a morally corrupt society. This, therefore, means that we as a society do not know if stealing, as an act is right or wrong. We cannot understand what is morally right or wrong if we not have a moral system within ourselves that is perfect.
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Despite this dilemma, my views are very much associated with teleological beliefs or effectively looking at the consequences of an action rather than the action itself. Stealing is right if it leads to a better situation afterwards. Qualities such as love, honesty and kindness are only good because they have good results; why can stealing not be any different, if it has a good outcome? The fact that a shop owner may lose 50p from an apple can surely not be more important than potentially saving a life. Using the principle of utilitarianism, or doing what is right for the ‘greater good’ one can argue that by having a little impact on the shop owner and a big one on the starving man, this would benefit the most people e.g. the family, children of a starving man, etc. Utilitarianism is based on what causes pleasure and pain and therefore using those we can make moral decisions. The rightness or wrongfulness of an act is determined by its “utility” or usefulness. In this case, a Utilitarianist would feel that the “utility” of the act would make it right.
By using ethical frameworks such a ‘situation ethics’ we can also justify how stealing is right in some situations. For example in the starving man scenario, one can presume that the act of stealing would best serve ‘love’ as this would be the most ‘loving’ thing to do. A big part of my decision was using ‘natural moral law’ or the belief that humans have an inbuilt sense of right and wrong. This assumes that we as people have a universal moral code and that we knew what was wrong or right since birth. Assuming one was using this principle he could argue that the natural human thing to do would to see the act of a starving man to steal as right. This is because the preservation of life is more important than the act of stealing. From a moral standpoint, it is also more humane, otherwise, those who reject this idea believe material wealth is more important than human life.
Others regard stealing in a slightly different manner, e.g. those who follow ‘Divine Command’. They feel that stealing is wrong because it breaks one of the 10 commandments. They use their faith to decide what is right and what is wrong. Many Christians believe that as the 10 commandments are the word of God they are always right and therefore they use this as their judgment. This commandment directly opposes the idea that stealing can be right and therefore can be used as a counter-argument to my beliefs. Other ethical arguments such as ‘Rights and Duties’, which come from a deontological background, believe we do the right thing due to a sense of duty. People who support this belief would say stealing is wrong because each person has a right to keep their own property and we have a duty to respect that right.
Like other deontological beliefs, the message is that if the action is wrong, do not do it. Unlike my views, some people look at Natural Moral Law in a slightly different way and believe that the actual action of stealing is wrong and therefore we as humans can identify that and say it is wrong to steal. This is similar to saying we should always tell the truth. The idea of cultural relativism can also be used as a counter-argument, in many cultures, if not all, stealing is deemed wrong. If you steal, you are punished. Our parents even tell us stealing is wrong when we are young. Society almost tries to tell us that actions such as stealing and murder are immoral things. All this points to the fact that stealing on its own is a bad action that causes pain and anger. This belief ties in with Naturalism or knowing the right thing to do, based on what we have observed in society. Based on this, it is clear that stealing is wrong.
Even the word has a negative, pessimistic sound. Thieves are punished by our universal law system and it does not make exceptions based on the circumstances (for stealing). Therefore to conclude after weighing up both sides of the argument, it is clear that stealing is wrong in a legal, society driven sense. But from a moral standpoint, I believe it is not. Using ethical frameworks such as Utilitarianism and situation ethics one can successfully analyse a situation to determine the rightness or wrongness of something. I believe that these frameworks are more reliable to use than for instance divine command, as basing modern-day decisions on scriptures written centuries ago seems somewhat disillusioned. That is not to say the basic messages are wrong. By accepting that stealing may be the right thing to do in some scenarios we are by no mean condoning it and we should not lose sight that people do have a right to keep their possessions and that stealing causes pain and hardship.
But we need to analyse why one is doing the act, looking at the intentions can see this. If someone is purely stealing to benefit themselves out of greed rather than a necessity then it is wrong but if someone is forced into that situation what other option do they have? Teleological arguments provide a much more ethically sound decision because they are concerned with the consequences, if one believed in a deontological framework would he or she commit a ‘good act’ even if there were bad consequences? Therefore we can conclude that under the teleological framework stealing in circumstances of necessity is ethical as the loss to the possessor is dwarfed in comparison to the thief. Using of natural moral code the victim of the theft would have different feelings towards someone stealing because it may save their life, to one stealing out of greed or jealousy.