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At what point does stealing become acceptable?

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MY mother was the most generous and kindly soul. So much so that my dad had to take over the housekeeping on account of the fact that she would always give money and food to those she deemed in greater need than herself. We were a working-class family living in a council house on the outskirts of Newcastle and my dad never earned much, but it was enough and together with my sister we were a happy family.

When I was about eleven years old in the early 1960s, I came across a homeless couple living in deplorable conditions in bomb shelters not far from our house. When I told my mum about it, she gave me a carrier bag full of food to take to them. They were so grateful.

Some years later my mum got a part-time job in a grocery store in Byker, a poor district of Newcastle catering for a sector of society that didn’t have much. It was many years later that she confessed to me that there was one particular woman who was so poor and downtrodden that my mum used to slip items through the till without charge. The woman never knew and the shop never noticed.

I mention all this because recently, on a trip to Sainsbury’s, there was something of a melee going on at the doorway. There were security men, a policeman and members of staff and in the midst of them all was a rather forlorn-looking man who was obviously in trouble. It had nothing to do with me but I presumed he had been caught shoplifting.

The Bible has as its Eighth Commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal’, and on the face of it this is a given in civilised society. However, history shows us that possessions and property have been acquired in the first place by conquest, violence, war and theft. Might is right is the bedrock of all current ownership.

However, it’s not history I want to debate today, but something I would call the ‘morality of theft’. In the 18th century men, women and children were transported to Australia for trifling crimes. The theft of food worth pennies could result in banishment to the fledgling country. A mother stealing food for her child was acting in the best possible motives to feed her offspring. Is there anyone reading this who would not have done the same in Dickensian London if that was the only option available?

Today there is no doubt in my mind that the UK is now in a position whereby the choice of heat or eat stares many in the face. The elderly, the unemployed, the sick and in fact many who are in work, simply cannot afford to ‘live’ because of the economic consequences of the last two years, with winter coming and huge rises in energy bills. Many are facing desperate moral choices.

In desperate times people will do desperate things. In a society where they are surrounded by plenty but cannot meet their bills for housing, food, clothing and heat, at what point do people consider stealing? And if they do consider this, who is in the right here? All the big supermarkets, online companies and major players have reaped and continue to reap further huge profits as they go forward. If the last two and a half years have shown us anything, it is that there has been a huge transference of wealth from the vast majority to those already super-rich. As ever, the poorest have been hit the hardest.

Is it ethical for those who have not to steal from those who have and don’t need? To steal from those who themselves are in need will always be wrong, but when it is obvious that someone’s need is set against the profiteering of those who have plenty, how does that figure? Would you steal if your child’s hunger was weighing on your mind? Or your child needed warm clothes for the winter and you didn’t have the means to pay for them?

Is it wrong to steal to satisfy a need (as distinct from a want)? Large companies can exploit their workers and make them redundant to increase profits. They have no loyalty or duty to the individual who in times of economic chaos may have no other form of income. The company marches on while the individual can become destitute.

Finally a question? Was my mum right in giving a poor person food from the shop where she worked, bearing in mind she gave from her own pocket as well? My answer to that is yes, and that I’m proud of her. She did the morally correct thing. The problem is that our economy is not built on morality so, on the economic and legal point of view, she was wrong. She was technically a thief, but I’m still proud of her: she was a lovely, generous soul. Her thefts were never for personal gain but to try to alleviate poverty when it stared her in the face, and she knew her employer wouldn’t suffer. I call that the morality of theft and in the same position I would be tempted to do likewise.

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Harry Hopkins
Harry Hopkins
Harry Hopkins is a furniture designer/maker who loves to write.

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