Remember meForgot password?
    Log in with Twitter

article imageOp-Ed: The Morality of Theft

By Sean O'Flynn-Magee     Dec 28, 2009 in Politics
Are superstores legitimate targets for theft? A renegade priest in Northern England raises important philosophical questions about the values of a society. What do we care more about: property rights or human rights?
A minor stir erupted recently when Fr. Tim Jones, an Anglican priest in Northern England, used his Christmas sermon to condone shoplifting as a solution to poverty. Fr. Jones' impromptu advice was not a call for widespread thievery but a carefully worded treatise to England's suffering poor, exhorting them to target large chain retailers, as a means of alleviating economic woes unaddressed by the social welfare system.
The priest's comments inevitably sparked a flurry of commentary, with supporters and detractors lining up to voice virulent responses. Many who sided with the renegade preacher agreed that left with no choices other than theft and starvation, the former was by far the better option. Critics, on the other hand, argued that Fr. Jones was doing his parishioners a disservice by telling them to break the law, and, worse for a man of the cloth, disregarding the commandments he is under oath to uphold.
Whether Fr. Jones spoke in order to galvanize the hungry, huddled masses or to prompt an intellectual debate is uncertain. However, his sermon raises an important philosophical question, one that I think warrants deeper analysis and discussion.
This is a discussion of morality, not of religion (although many people often wrongly synonymise the two). Although Fr. Jones was speaking as a religious representative, he clearly saw his role pertaining to moral and spiritual advocacy, not doctrinal testimony. Therefore, I will refrain from referring to scripture (though I will note that Jesus would have sided with the poor, not the superstore). Religious texts in general provide guidance through the use of absolutes, such as the Ten Commandments. The problem with absolutes is that they offer simple answers to complex moral dilemmas; in other words, they fail to answer the question. Hypotheticals can be constructed to contradict every single one of the Ten Commandments (from the Sabbath to murder) because, in reality, codes of conduct must be contextual and nuanced.
So, what is theft? Informally, as we are all taught growing up, theft is taking that which is not yours. In Biblical times, this likely meant taking anything worth taking from somebody else (in other words, the king and his entourage). Formally, it is much the same. Section 1 of the Theft Act, which is in force throughout the United Kingdom, legislates that "A person is guilty of theft, if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it".
Although Moses brought one of the earliest protections of property down with him from Mount Horeb, the basis for modern property rights is rooted in the 17th century philosophy of John Locke. In attempting to solve the volatile conflicts between regent and subjects that were plaguing England, Locke composed a labour theory of property, roughly that every man has a right to what he produces. This is the basis of patent law, the valuation of home improvements, and personal injury litigation. Locke considered this right to be innate or natural, much like the human rights now enshrined in many constitutions, guaranteeing, amongst other things, basic needs like food and shelter.
Therein lays the beginning of a paradox. If both property rights and human rights are natural, then property can only be protected as long as every person in a society has their basic needs provided for. In a society where human rights are violated, presumably protection of property rights diminish until human rights are restored. This is the world (our world) that Fr. Jones is referring to. At least 10% of Canadians, Americans and British live in some measure of relative poverty, and income inequalities are increasing. If a society cannot ensure natural rights like shelter and nourishment, can property rights really be assured?
But Fr. Jones was not advocating any form of theft, but only from large retailers. Why? Because large retailers, like Safeway, Asda, Wal-Mart, and Tesco, are guilty of a host of crimes against employees, communities and environments. I will use the largest retailers in the United Kingdom and United States, Tesco and Wal-Mart, respectively, as examples.
Firstly, superstores destroy local communities. Wal-Mart has wiped out smaller, local competition through the use of predatory pricing practices, such as "loss leaders" (products sold at a loss to attract shoppers). The Arkansas-based company has been found guilty of monopolistic practices in Germany and investigated in Mexico and the United States. Tesco has similarly been investigated by the Office of Fair Trading for attempting to gain an insurmountable market share in the United Kingdom (already it controls 30% of the UK market). Both have been heavily criticized by farmers for using their purchasing power to drive down prices, subsequently putting farms out of business. Tesco has also been accused of price-gouging in its Irish stores and of using a combination of lawsuits and private security forces to silence critics in Thailand.
Secondly, despite generating grotesque revenues (Tesco nearly USD $100 billion; Wal-Mart over $400 billion), superstores finance hefty corporate salaries and pay dividends to affluent investors rather than providing employees with reasonable wages. Wal-Mart is America's largest employer, yet its average full-time employee earns less than the American poverty line. . And Wal-Mart isn't satisfied with just cheap labour but squeezes every penny out its staff. In a class-action lawsuit filed in 2005, as many as 200 000 employees claimed they were forced to work extra hours off the clock, denied overtime pay, and prohibited from taking lunch breaks. Tesco's insufficient sick-pay policy has been criticized for forcing employees to work despite illness for fear of dismissal. Tesco has also been accused of using exploitative labour in its Bangladeshi factories (where children were forced to work 80 hour weeks for less than ten cents an hour). Similar concerns have been raised about sweatshops in China that supply Wal-Mart.
Although it often prides itself on being America's largest employer, Wal-Mart has likely lost as many American jobs through its anti-competitive practices and foreign outsourcing. Many of the jobs that do remain are under fire, are being eliminated by the industry trend towards automated cashiers.
Thirdly, there is superstores' dismal environmental record. By their nature, big retailers cause substantially more ecological damage than do local stores. Big stores rely on regional distribution centers which necessitate significant transportation-related carbon emissions, and they are often located in isolated suburbs, requiring customers to make long vehicular commutes. Furthermore, because of their low-cost mission, big retailers import products from abroad outsourcing products that are considered too expensive locally. Tesco sells flowers flown in daily from Africa and clothes manufactured in South Asia. But that is nothing compared to Wal-Mart. 60% of Wal-Mart's stock comes from overseas, and it imports more from China than do Australia, Canada or Russia.
Shoplifting from superstores is Robin Hood situation. There are too many citizens in Western countries who have to choose between food and a home. To generalize these millions of impoverished as drunks, addicts and layabouts is not only incorrect but heartless. To suggest they wordlessly except their plight while large companies gobble up billions of dollars is absurd.
Yes, it is illegal to steal. Yet, the gears of justice are slow to work against business that exploit employees, rely on shameful environmental practices and irreverently demolish local communities. Law is supposed to follow from morality (though, evidently, this is not always the case). Fr. Jones' sermon asks us to reflect as a society and question what has happened to our morality. Do we value human rights or property rights? Are we open to the idea of being compassionate to the worst off in our societies or are we intent to foster the growth of multi-billion corporations? What would Jesus say?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Philosophy, Religion, Crime, Multi-national coporation, Wal-mart
Latest News
Top News