Bread Yes, Sneakers Maybe,
DVDs Not Likely
Reports out of the tragedy in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast towns spoke of widespread looting and theft. Widespread in at least two ways: first, many people resorted to looting and stealing, and second, many different kinds of things, ranging from diapers and water to guns and jewelry, were stolen. How are we to think ethically about such behavior? Are there lines to be drawn between justifiable and unjustifiable objects of theft? And what, if any, are the obligations of those who resort to stealing; must they eventually pay for what they have taken?
The range of views among editorialists spreads as wide as the looting itself. Some are of the position all this stealing marks the descent of man into savagery, and perhaps even shows further evidence of the decline of the American civilization; others argue in Louisiana's new "state of nature" anything goes – all rules are out the window and people must make do as best as they can. The poles of this spread of views, however, operate on unstated assumptions. They do not tell us why stealing would or would not be right for people in desperate situations. They simply assert their view as though self-evident. In editorial one we're told of course the New Orleans looting shows us humans at their worst, whereas editorial two tells us the "systems failed" and in such circumstances, people have no choice. Some people have even called for all the looters to be shot. These approaches are to be rejected.
In some cases, stealing is permissible, and New Orleans presents one of those cases. Thomas Aquinas argued that in cases of desperate need, stealing to meet basic needs would involve no moral crime. Aquinas reached this conclusion by distinguishing natural right from human right. He argued that the goods of creation exist to meet human needs. While the uneven distribution of these goods throughout society may be protected by human law, nonetheless, the goods were intended to meet the needs of all people. Even in normal conditions, through a quotation from St. Ambrose, Aquinas reminded the wealthy to remember that "it is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked man's cloak you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man's ransom and freedom." In other words, our claims to our possessions always are limited by the needs of others.
But human laws do protect uneven distribution of goods and the poor and the wealthy do exist. Such human laws serve good ends; they conduce to social stability and arguably even teach people the relative value of such goods and move people to help those in need. The laws, then, need generally to be respected. But what happens in cases of dire need: when needs become urgent and, in Aquinas's words, "there is no possible remedy?" Then, Aquinas argues, "it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another's property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery."
This is not theft or robbery, according to Aquinas, because the person takes what by natural right (that is, out of their need) is actually theirs. Natural right trumps human law; and, in some cases, human law simply ceases to be effective. The only remaining questions, then, are whether and how this applies to New Orleans.
Anyone who has watched video from New Orleans will acknowledge that Hurricane Katrina created just the kind of "dire need" Aquinas described. Moving video of elderly in wheelchairs and without medication, of young mothers with babies at their breast, of parentless children wandering aimlessly, confirms that in these kinds of cases "stealing" may not only be permissible, it might even be morally obligatory. To take from a Walmart, or a pharmacy or grocery store, formula, medication, water, and food ceases to be stealing in this context and becomes the exercise of one's natural right to survive. The police and other authorities who recognized this and ignored and apparently even facilitated such behavior knew this.
However, to recognize the legitimate place of "stealing" in New Orleans is not to justify all the behavior we saw. Taking diapers and medication and perhaps even a pair of boots differs objectively from taking multiple pairs of jeans, or armloads of Nikes, or DVD players. Taking these items is mere opportunism and has nothing to do with "succoring" basic needs.
Taking what is necessary to survive in a situation of dire need is not stealing, much less looting; it is making do.
Joseph Capizzi is a Fellow for the Culture of Life Foundation and Associate Professor of Moral Theology and Ethics at Catholic University. Visit his website at www.thefactis.org
Taking Aim at the Tough Issues: Sex, Abortion, War and Capital Punishment
A lot of people skirt the difficult issues. In this hard hitting series of two talks, Marcellino D'Ambrosio takes dead aim at the most controversial of moral issues sharing the wisdom of the Catholic tradition in a way that makes eminent sense.
In the first talk entitled "Sex and the Theology of the Body," he lays down some basic principles that provide answers for all the tough sex questions including homosexual marriage and contraception.
In the second talk, "Matters of Life and Death," he shows why there is a great difference between such issues as abortion and euthanasia on the one hand and capital punishment and war on the other.
Often, discussions of these issues generate more heat than light. This series, appropriate for both adults and teens, is refreshingly different.
Taking Aim CD: $16.00 Taking Aim Audio Tape: $14.00