Situational Ethics, a Guest Post by Caitlin I. Woods
Is it wrong to steal if it’s to feed your starving family?
No, no, wait—I mean, what if you *really really* needed the food, and you had no alternative way to get it, and you had a huge extended family that was going to die, *literally die* if you didn’t procure food for them *right now*. And you live in a hideous dystopic world where the powers that be are intentionally starving everyone, and the only people who have food are the ones that are actively starving
everyone else, and…
Stop. Just stop.
Yes, I’m sure it’s possible to posit a world where the only reasonable alternative to death is theft, and even a world where any moral person would cheer the decision. You win. I will completely and totally agree that it is theoretically possible to come up with the circumstance.
So. Freaking. What.
I think the best comparison is really something like… I don’t know, gravity. The effects of gravity vary wildly depending on where in the universe you’re observing it. In a black hole, it is an astoundingly inescapable force that even light is powerless against. On Deimos, a human could, unassisted, attain escape velocity.
For pretty much all practical purposes, though? Gravity is 32ft/s^2, and anyone who needs to deal with it being different than that will certainly know it well enough in advance to be able to make the proper allowances.
In the same vein, while it’s possible to come up with a circumstance in which it isn’t wrong to steal… it’s not here, it’s not now, and it’s a circumstance none of us are likely to come across. Ever. Let me put it this way: While we can have an argument about whether it is more moral to steal than to allow someone under your care to die of starvation, there are *so many millions of options to take* before that’s even remotely an issue that I’m astounded at the sheer fatuousness it requires to come up with the circumstance.
But it’s not fatuousness. Not really.
It’s an inherent, knowing attempt to destroy the entire idea of things being always right or wrong *at all*.
Think about it. Let’s just go and assume it’s all right to steal so long as you’re trying to feed your starving family, take it as a premise, as obvious as water being wet or fire burning.
Well, that means that stealing *isn’t wrong*, per se. Not for the fact that it involves taking something that isn’t yours. It’s just wrong if you do it for the wrong *reasons*. It takes the question of morality from the *act*—and, perhaps even more importantly, from the *victim*—and onto whether you had a really good reason to do it.
This itself is pretty horrifying. I mean, let’s say you and your family are escaping from some sort of murderous chainsaw clown. Is it okay to push a bystander in front of him in order to distract him long enough to get away? If we think about it in this way, there’s no question. You do what you have to in order to save your family. The
victim… well, is the victim really important, anyway?
But it gets even worse when you think just another step further.
Because if right and wrong is just a matter of circumstance, who is it that gets to decide the circumstances?
Circumstances are a slippery beast. You can’t codify them in advance; there’s just too many of them, and there’s a real impulse to make every different detail you can into a question. (This is one of the reasons that common law gets so confusing so quickly.) The only way to *really* gauge if something is a circumstantial right or a
circumstantial wrong… is to appoint a judge.
A judge, see, who can see past the bourgeois concepts of things being right or wrong in and of themselves, and able to see instead the entirety of the circumstance behind them. The petty puffery behind an act of charity, say, or the true helplessness behind an act of theft.
No more condemning people for something that isn’t *really* wrong, not given the circumstances.
Wouldn’t that be *great*?
(And again, pretty much anyone in any of the countries with commenters on this blog have about a zillion options to turn to before they’d really be reduced to theft or starvation. Seriously, we are in an era of plenty *undreamed of* in any past age, where he only real way to starve people *at all* is to actively prevent them from getting any of the food that charitable souls are trying to send their way. We might as well talk about whether it’s right to sacrifice a virgin in order to prevent the
village from being torched by a dragon.)
So sure. I can see a world and a circumstance and a time and a family where it wouldn’t be wrong to steal.
But it’s sure as hell a lot harder to come up with than the situation where puffed up jackasses try to eliminate the idea of right and wrong in order to consolidate power into their own greedy little hands.
Go live in that world if you care to. If you can find it. But leave *my* world alone, before you destroy everything good about it.
Because believe me—the concept of objective wrong is not the only thing you’ll be losing.