Theft and ethics: some thoughts

Some theft is legal and unethical; some is illegal and justified.

In what is below I will argue that a highly paid executive is guilty of theft although not breaking the law, while a person who does something like steeling food to feed his starving family is breaking the law, but may well not be doing anything unethical.

This page written 2016/05/27, last edited 2021/03/09
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©


Another page on this site...

This page is an attempt to look at the idea of theft from a point of view with minimal preconceptions.

Ownership: private property

While humanity has taken the concept of private property to heights far beyond any that exist in the animal world, it is not a human invention. A seagull with a potato chip has a concept of private property.

In primitive human societies people would have had their personal weapons and tools, possibly a hut, but not much else.

But in modern society, private property can include not only concrete objects: houses, boats, cars, shops, factories, but also investments and even money in bank accounts on the other side of the world. This would not be 'real', palpable, money (if any money can be called real, it is after all promissory notes), but a record of money deposited.

Right to private property

Consider an electrician who has worked all his life, lived frugally, saved as much as he can, and bought his own house and paid off its contents. I think most of us would say that he has a pretty valid right to this.

Then there is the entrepreneur who has made a fortune by buying and selling businesses, but not actually produced anything. Would we think that his wealth was as well justified as that of the electrician?

What about the person who has inherited his wealth and has not done a stick of work his whole life? Why should he have so much without earning any of it?

Legal theft


How much money buys happiness?

Research has shown that if people have so little income that life is a hard slog their happiness suffers. People who have enough money to cover their needs, with a little left over, are happier. The research indicates that beyond this level, more income leads to very little increase in happiness.
As one example of legal theft I will point to a company CEO who is receiving a salary of two million dollars a year, plus bonuses.

Many of the workers in the factories that he manages are receiving just enough in wages to get by; they have to be very careful what they spend money on, can't buy their kids as nice clothes as they would like to, have a hard time saving enough money for Christmas presents and really struggle to afford an annual family holiday.

If the CEO was to sacrifice a million dollars of his salary a thousand employees could each receive a thousand dollars more per year. The research discussed in the box on the right suggests that the CEO would be just as happy, but the thousand workers might well be significantly more financially secure and a little happier.

You can think of this another way. The greedy CEO is steeling money from the more deserving, and certainly more needy, employees.

Illegal theft

Let's suppose that one of the employees in one of the companies run by the above hypothetical CEO has some terrible luck: his wife gets cancer and his son has a bad car accident. Suddenly he is faced with big medical bills that he could not have foreseen or planned for (let's face it, he was in no position to put aside a lot of money for 'a rainy day' in any case).

The worker takes some money from the company. Plainly he is breaking the law, but has he done anything that should be condemned as unethical? The company must have lots of money to spare if it can afford to pay the CEO $2m/year, when he could live very comfortably on 1/20th as much, the employee is in great need, not for himself so much as for his wife and son.

Has the employee behaved unethically? I don't think so.