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Ethics for A-Level

Mark Dimmock
Andrew Fisher

Part III. Applied ethics

Chapter 11. Stealing

Texte intégral

You shall not steal. 1

1. Stealing: Introduction

1The Bible reference above is absolutist in nature. It does not say that you should not steal so long as you have enough resources available to you, or that you should not steal if your neighbour has been good to you. Rather, it simply says that you should not steal full stop. Partly as a result of this particular commandment and the impact of Christianity upon social custom in many parts of the world, the message that stealing is a moral wrong is pervasive and fairly uncontroversial, at least prima facie. For example, if you hear that someone has been sent to prison for stealing, it would likely take something atypical for you to question whether or not the person deserved punishment for his or her crime. In this chapter, we apply the key normative theories of Kantian Ethics, Utilitarianism and Virtue Ethics to the issue of stealing.

2. Defining Stealing

2Beginning 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”.

3Yet, 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.

4As 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?

5There 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.

6Finally, 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.

7All 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”.

3. Kantian Ethics on Stealing

8In Chapter 2, we outlined the structure of Kantian Ethics, named after its creator Immanuel Kant. It would be best to engage with Chapter 2 before considering the application of Kantian thinking to the issue of stealing in this section. Background knowledge of this theory is therefore assumed in what follows.

9To determine whether an act is morally permissible (acceptable) or not, we can utilise two formulations of the Kantian Categorical Imperative. According to the first formulation, if we consider the maxim behind an action (the general principle that supports the action in the mind of the person acting), then we should consider whether or not that maxim could be willed to become a universal law. According to the second formulation, we should consider whether or not the action involves treating another person merely as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.

10To consider what guidance Kantian Ethics would provide regarding stealing, let us first take an example of stealing where the question of whether it seems possible that it might be morally acceptable can apparently be answered uncontroversially with a “no”. Consider a person who steals a toy from a child when their parent’s back is turned. The thief, in this case, seems to act on the maxim “take the property of others whenever you please”. It seems that we could not will this maxim to become a universal law, because if everyone took the property of others whenever they pleased, then whole concept of property would break down. Thus, such a maxim could not be universalised without contradiction (much like the example of breaking promises). The reason for the breakdown of the concept of “property” in this case is clear if we think about the idea of “ownership”. If anyone can take any object whenever they want, then no one can truly be said to own anything. For example, if I could (without moral condemnation) take the pen out of your hand on the basis of the universalised maxim as described above, then there is a clear sense in which you might have been holding the pen without ever owning the pen.

11Indeed, not only does the act of theft as described fail against the first formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, it also fails against the second formulation. If you steal from the child, then you are quite clearly not treating the child (or the person caring for the child) as a free and rational agent with their own dignity; on the contrary you are using them merely as a means to your own end of securing property that you desire.

12That Kantian Ethics speaks against the moral permissibility of stealing toys from children should be no surprise — any theory that did not speak against such actions would likely be in trouble. However, the structure of the Kantian response to this case is what really matters, for it is a structure that we can apply to other cases. Take an example of stealing that is plausibly moral defensible, perhaps involving stealing from a financially powerful and internationally influential supermarket chain in order to feed your hungry family. The Kantian view regarding this case will be informative as to the wider response of Kantian Ethics to stealing.

13In this new example, the maxim behind the action might be thought to be “take the property of others only when it is necessary for survival” (putting this example into the most extreme and therefore plausibly morally defensible form that we can). Can this maxim be willed to be a universal law? Well, even as it stands, there are reasons for thinking that such a maxim could not be universalised. For one, food is always strictly necessary for our survival, along with water, medical treatment and, in the modern age, some financial resource. Indeed, even someone who burgles a house to steal a television might act on such a maxim if they plan on selling that television in order to pay a debt to a potentially violent individual. The breadth of such a universalised maxim thus brings us back to the issue that afflicted the previous maxim, and the concept of property may not survive universalisation of such a maxim.

14Still, even in referring to the maxim in the more specific form of “take the property of others only when it is necessary for survival”, it might be suggested that we are venturing away from the approach with which Kant would be happy. Alasdair MacIntyre (1929–) has suggested that when it comes to applying the test of universalisation the system can be manipulated by being overly specific with the maxim. He says:

  • 2 A. MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics, p. 126.

All I need to do is to characterise the proposed action in such a way that the maxim will permit me to do what I want while prohibiting others from doing what would nullify the action if universalised. 2

15Thus, on this view, I apparently could universalise the maxim “take bread from a financially powerful supermarket only when you or immediate family members are at the point of starvation”. Indeed, less desirably, I seemingly could universalise the maxim “People with my fingerprint can steal from a shop whenever they feel hungry”, since there would be nothing contradictory in this becoming a universal law; the concept of property would not break down if only I could steal things I desired. However, there is a question — as referred to in Chapter 2 when this formulation of the Categorical Imperative was explained in more detail — as to whether or not a maxim of this type could be understood as a universal law. This is because its application would clearly not be universal in the sense that it would apply only to me or, in the case of the first maxim of this paragraph, to a limited number of desperate people. This, therefore, forms the basis of a response that the Kantian can offer to the MacIntyre-style worry.

16Indeed, the maxim universalised must also be the maxim acted upon, so, just because it might be the case that we could attempt to universalise a maxim of the form “take bread from a financially powerful supermarket only when you or your immediate family members are at the point of starvation” (as per the MacIntyre approach), this would not help someone who actually acts on the maxim “steal food when hungry”, but tries to cover this maxim up with more dramatic language. Thus, even if the MacIntyre criticism has some bite to it, this will still cover only a very small number of instances of possible theft; moral assessment must be of actual maxims motivating behaviour, not reinterpreted maxims described as favourably as possible.

17What is more complex in this example of stealing from the internationally owned and financially powerful supermarket is the question as to whether or not it involves the use of another person merely as a means to an end, thereby denying them their fundamental human dignity as a rational agent. In this case of stealing from a supermarket — an act sometimes referred to as a “victimless crime” — it is not immediately clear who might be being used merely as a means to an end. Is it the management of the supermarket? Is it the shareholders? Is it the shelf-stacking staff? Is it the security personnel on site? If stealing from a sole trader, this issue would not arise. However, it is far more complex in the modern context of large supermarkets. Working through specific instances of stealing, perhaps with real case studies, and seeing if those examples could escape falling foul of the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative, would be useful for you to consider for yourselves.

4. Act and Preference Utilitarianism on Stealing

18Chapter 1 is the location of the full discussion of the broad normative moral theory of Utilitarianism. Utilitarian theories — Act, Rule, and Preference — are linked by their commitment to the view that it is consequence that determines the morality of actions, although the three theories have slightly different views on how this central claim should be interpreted in practice. Rule Utilitarianism and the ideas of John Stuart Mill will be discussed in section five of this chapter; for now our attention is focused upon the ideas of Jeremy Bentham and Peter Singer as defenders of Act Utilitarianism and Preference Utilitarianism respectively.

19The 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”.

20Consider 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.

21In 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.

22In 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.

23If 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.

24As 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.

25Act 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.

26Perhaps 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.

27Whatever 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.

5. Rule Utilitarianism on Stealing

28If you find yourself wishing to defend Utilitarianism, but are left uninspired by the extent to which Act Utilitarianism and Preference Utilitarianism can speak against instances of stealing, then Rule Utilitarianism may provide you with reason for optimism. As a reminder, the rule utilitarian suggests that moral action is action that would be recommended by the set of rules that, if followed, would promote the greatest good for the greatest number. On initial viewing, it might seem that a rule banning stealing would be a good candidate to be included in the set of rules that would produce the greatest good for the greatest number, especially given the potential psychological costs associated with stealing as described above.

29Indeed, if we think more broadly about the “best set of rules”, then it might seem likely that there would be a rule requiring adequate provision of food for those hungry or lacking resources, and a similar rule regarding provision of medical treatment and housing etc. Such provision would not be free, of course, but the best set of rules would very likely include provision for collecting adequate taxation, given that a pound spent on someone in distress is likely to facilitate greater future happiness than a pound spent by someone economically comfortable (though we encourage you to consider this idea in more depth, perhaps with your own examples).

30Despite the previous ideas, it may be suggested that the best set of rules would allow for stealing “when necessary” and thus discriminate between “good” stealing and “bad” stealing in a way that satisfies the non-absolutist. How easy it would be to write such a rule that is consistent with promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number, yet does not “get it wrong” with individual instances of stealing and their moral status, is something that you again should find it useful to consider. Here, it will be worth revisiting the distinction between Strong Rule Utilitarianism and Weak Ruse Utilitarianism as discussed in Chapter 1.

31Finally, it is worth considering the impact of a style of “demandingness” objection as it pertains to applying Rule Utilitarianism in the context of stealing. Recall from Chapter 1, Mill’s harm principle:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.4

32If the harm principle informs rules in the set that promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number, then there would be no rule allowing people to take assets from private individuals in order to redistribute resources for the purpose of promoting happiness. A useful example to have in mind would be of jewels stored in a safety deposit box in perpetuity, when those jewels could be used in ways that would promote greater levels of happiness if stolen and sold. Such action — which seems to have the appearance of stealing from private individuals for the greater good in the style of Robin Hood — would not appear to sit neatly with Mill’s own harm principle. At the very least, in would need a particularly interesting interpretation of the notion of preventing harm to others.

33This entire issue in itself highlights the difficulty of actually fixing the rules by which the rule utilitarian wants us to judge specific actions in our minds, and this also raises another problem for the rule utilitarian in respect of the difficulty of practically applying the theory to stealing. It might be useful to return to cases 1–5 as outlined in section four and ask yourself what the rule utilitarian would suggest in those cases — does the answer of the rule utilitarian put them in a more or less attractive position than the answers of the act and preference utilitarians?

6. Virtue Ethics on Stealing

34As a normative moral theory, Aristotelian Virtue Ethics was explored in Chapter 3 and, as with all of the theories discussed in this chapter, it is important to read everything here in the light of issues raised there.

35The virtue ethicist is not interested in the moral status of individual actions, but rather is interested in the character traits and dispositions of the person performing those actions. Using reason to work out the virtuous Golden Mean in the different spheres of life, Aristotle suggested the following as virtuous and non-virtuous (vice) character traits.

36Thus, those who engage in the act of stealing on the basis of righteousness, courage and virtuous patience may be considered moral, whereas those who engage in the act of stealing on the basis of rashness, shamefulness and irascibility will not be considered moral. This reveals something interesting about the application of Virtue Ethics to stealing. According to Virtue Ethics, the very same act, performed by two different people, can be viewed differently from a moral perspective.

37Take the act of stealing a loaf of bread from a supermarket, and then passing that loaf to a hungry and homeless woman on the street nearby. If a person commits this act out of self-serving flattery, then they act in accordance with a vice of excess. Yet, if someone else commits the very same act of stealing, but does so on the basis of righteousness and generosity, then they act in a virtuous way. This example is over-simplified, but the point is hopefully clear.

38One of the bigger worries regarding Virtue Ethics is its lack of specific guidance, and this worry would seem to be at its most acute when it comes to seeking advice from Virtue Ethics over an applied ethical issue such as stealing. After all, how are we to determine if our stealing a loaf of bread would be based on righteous and generous character dispositions, or reflect rashness and self-serving flattery? How can we ascertain what the virtuous course of action would be in a specific situation?

39One possibility is to look to the actions of virtuous people for guidance, but this raises the troubling issue of subjectivity. For example, if I view St. Augustine as virtuous, then I may view his complete aversion to stealing as representative of the Golden Mean. Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) says of Augustine that:

It appears that, with some companions of his own age, he despoiled a neighbour’s pear tree, although he was not hungry, and his parents had better pears at home. He continued throughout his life to consider this an act of almost incredible wickedness. It would not have been so bad if he had been hungry, or had no other means of getting pears; but, as it was, the act was one of pure mischief, inspired by the love of wickedness for its own sake. 5

40Stealing for petty reasons looks to be the height of non-virtuous behaviour. However, if I view the fictional character Robin Hood as the paradigm of a virtuous person because of his willingness to steal from the rich in order to give to the poor, then I may have a different view as to which actions the virtuous character trait of generosity would give rise to. Or, more extremely, if I view a famous fictional pirate of the high seas as representing a virtuous individual, my views would once more be different; how do we decide which of these people are the right people to seek virtuous guidance from when it comes to stealing? Aristotle can refer to practical reason (phronesis) and human flourishing, but this may be a serious weakness.

41In addition, we might wonder how to act when virtues themselves seem to clash, as well as when the advice of possible virtuous people also seems to clash. An act of stealing might seem to be both courageous and self-serving, or both brave and rash. Resolving how to act requires use of practical reason, but again this language might be thought unhelpful by the critic of Virtue Ethics as it is still being unhelpfully vague.

7. Metaethics and Stealing

42AQA require you to understand how the various metaethical theories as discussed in Chapter 7 might be applied to the applied ethical issues on the specification, of which stealing is the first we have considered. Below, assuming some grasp of the theories from Chapter 7, we offer guidance as to how metaethical theories might relate to this issue. Much of the guidance below is easily applicable to the other applied ethical issues also discussed in the remaining three chapters.

Cognitivism and Realism

43The combination of Cognitivism and Realism in this area would entail that moral claims about stealing are truth-apt propositions, expressing beliefs that will be made true by genuinely existing moral properties at least some of the time. For the utilitarian, moral claims regarding the ethical acceptability of individual actions will be made true by natural properties such as pleasure, happiness or preference satisfaction. For the intuitionist, the non-natural property of goodness will make some of our moral claims regarding stealing true.

Cognitivism and Anti-Realism

44The moral error theorist believes that our moral claims regarding the ethics of stealing are intended to be true, but can never achieve truth because no moral properties exist as truth-makers for those moral claims. Importantly, just because the moral error theorist cannot endorse the claim that “stealing can be morally wrong at least sometimes”, this does not entail a love of stealing on their part. The moral error theorist may have a non-moral reason for opposing stealing on many occasions, or indeed supporting stealing on other occasions. Moral reasons are not the only reasons not to engage in stealing, as legal and social/personal reasons will also be a factor as they often speak against the wisdom of theft. Moral error theorists who care about the property rights of others, for example, may well strongly oppose stealing.

Non-Cognitivism and Anti-Realism

45According to the simple non-cognitivist considered in this book, our moral utterances regarding stealing are not truth-apt because they are not expressions of belief; they are expressions of emotion or other non-truth-apt attitudes such as approval or disapproval. Thus, according to theories such as Emotivism and Prescriptivism, a phrase such as “stealing is wrong” expresses a negative emotional attitude towards stealing (Emotivism) or makes it clear that we do not want people to steal (Prescriptivism).

46Whichever non-cognitivist theory you prefer, the non-cognitivist position is defined by the commitment to the idea that the moral utterances do not reveal something true about the world and do not even try to describe features of the world.

47Therefore, we cannot criticise a thief as morally wrong when using this argument (something akin to the claim of the moral error theorist). However, if we adopt Prescriptivism, we might at least be able to criticise the thief for inconsistency if she speaks of the general wrongness of stealing whilst defending the rightness of stealing in her case. Despite this, one big worry for those interested in adopting a view like Emotivism or Prescriptivism is that it cheapens and eliminates the value of moral debate over the moral rightness of stealing, since we cannot defend our ethical claims as being genuinely true or false in the way that realist seeks to do and in the way that most people would wish to.

Many will want to avoid an absolute moral view regarding the unacceptability of stealing, the kind of view that Kant might be thought to defend. Neither Utilitarianism nor Virtue Ethics offer an absolute prohibition against stealing, but each has their own problems. In terms of showing your understanding of these issues, applying normative theories to your own variety of cases is a tactic that may best enable you to write with confidence about the various nuanced issues afflicting each theory.


  • Not applying the strengths and weaknesses of the various moral theories as discussed in theory-specific chapters.
  • Having too narrow an understanding of stealing. It is advisable to discuss a range of cases (real and fictional).
  • Assuming too much when explaining how a theory might be applied to an issue of stealing — give a full explanation, showing understanding, and using key terms.


  1. Is keeping due tax from the government an example of stealing?
  2. Can you create your own satisfactory definition of stealing?
  3. How does the definition you arrived at in (2) fit with the idea of stealing ideas?
  4. Does stealing once make you more likely to steal again?
  5. Is it possible to measure the psychological pains associated with stealing?
  6. Is an absolute prohibition against stealing defensible? Why or why not?
  7. Do people you consider virtuous have any history of stealing?
  8. Would the best set of rules for promoting the greatest good for the greatest number contain a rule absolutely prohibiting stealing?
  9. Is it worth debating the ethics of stealing if you are an emotivist or a prescriptivist?
  10. What would the error-theorist say about the morality of stealing?

Categorical Imperative



Bible, New International Version, freely available at https://www.

Leon, K., ‘Family Seeks Stolen iPad with Photos of Deceased Father’, Fox21 News (3 October 2014), freely available at http://fox21news.http://com/2014/10/03/family-seeks-stolen-ipad-with-photos-of-deceased-father/

MacIntyre, Alasdair, A Short History of Ethics (London: Routledge, 2002),

Mill, J. S., On Liberty (London: Longman, Roberts, Green & Co., 1869), freely available at freely available at

Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy (Woking: Unwin Brothers, 1947), freely available at


1 Exodus 20:15,

2 A. MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics, p. 126.

3 K. Leon, ‘Family Seeks Stolen iPad with Photos of Deceased Father’,

4 J. S. Mill, On Liberty,

5 B. Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p. 364,

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