Finding God’s Loopholes

Once more we are faced with the age-old moral question: do the ends justify the means? Is it acceptable to steal under certain circumstances?

British Anglican priest Tim Jones argued “yes” not long ago when he encouraged his congregation to shoplift from major national businesses. While stressing that he advocated taking only what the person needed, he believed it was a sad necessity. Economics has made it very hard for those at the bottom of society to make an honest living.

There is a lot of truth to what the Reverend is saying: these are hard times and some people will inevitably be faced with very few options as they lose their jobs and they are assailed by bills and financial obligations that they can no longer meet. Jones’s suggestion was not simply a license to go shoplifting: he specifically targeted major chains, not small businesses, and he certainly would not advocate stealing luxury items such as television sets or appliances. Stealing is wrong, but it is understandable and even forgivable under certain circumstances.

Major national corporations rake in millions in profits every year. In some cases, they do so by being relatively cheap and unfair to their employees or customers. I don’t mean to imply that they deserve to be robbed. But if one were forced to shoplift to survive, these would be the stores that could accept the minor loss that would come from being robbed. Even if every single member of Reverend Jones’ congregation not only had to steal to survive but also actually stole as he suggested the stores would still lose relatively little, a drop in the bucket compared to how much they take in. The Reverend even acknowledged that these stores would be likely to pass off the cost of the lost merchandise to customers in the form of higher prices, thus only perpetuating the problem. In other words, the corporate pricing strategy encourages poor people to steal.

Many are displeased with the Reverend’s words. British politicians have criticized his view of acceptable stealing, but I think they ought to appreciate his point better than anyone else. They, like the American government, are in power in an economically unstable time, when thousands are out of work and struggling to find jobs to feed their families. In many cases, the policy decisions these leaders have made have led to economic catastrophe. Who wouldn’t do whatever it takes to survive, so long as it do not harm another person in the process?

Some critics of the Reverend argue that he should have suggested his congregation seek support from the safety net. Certainly there are many people out there willing to lend a helping hand, but the problem is persistent enough that this safety net is not enough. Why do people still die of hunger every day if charity groups exist? The bottom line is that they are not sufficient – if every hungry person in the world came to collect, the safety net would be stretched beyond its limit.

In the end, it all comes to this: does subjective morality exist? Should a family starve rather than take food from a store with an abundance of such food? Wouldn’t letting your family starve by not stealing the food be as bad as the act of stealing itself? I doubt that many members of the Reverend’s congregation are in a position where they will have to steal to survive. Rather, he seems to be making a broader point criticizing a system that would create such a disparity of wealth between people, a system that allows CEOs of corporations to make millions of dollars a year no matter what the economic situation while those at the bottom work for hours every day but barely get enough money to pay their bills and feed their families. This disparity is made worse during hard economic times, and if a family finds themselves between that moral rock and hard place, I wouldn’t blame them for choosing the lesser of two evils.

Kerry Wakely is a second-year English major. He can be reached at kwakely@uci.edu.