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Thursday, May 08, 2003

Mr. Bad Example

I found this really interesting discussion about the ethics - or lack thereof - of shoplifting. I highly recommend the comment thread.

Some of the comments were aimed at a "Jean Valjean"-type of ethical quandry about when stealing to support oneself or another who would otherwise starve or freeze to death. Aside from the Libertarian/Objectivist types, most people weren't about to begrudge the truly desparate from a little petty theft, though there was some argument about what constituted total destitution.

There are some who proposed that while it's wrong to steal from an individual or a small, independent business, they shed no tears for Walmart, CVS, Radio Shack, et al.

One obvious counterargument is that the shoplifter generates negative externalities which are often passed on beyond the "faceless" corporation, to shareholders (for sure, mostly well-off, but not always) and employees, and ultimately to consumers in the form of higher prices. However, I'm not quite convinced by this line of reasoning, since if extended it tends to lead to places we should want to tread. If one is held morally responsible (liability is a different matter) for everything that is done by someone you interact with to someone else for reasons connected to your action, there is a minefield of moral wrongs out there for even the most guarded soul.

This situation made me think about Kantian ethics for the first time in quite a while. If everyone shoplifted, obviously the aggregate effect would produce massive negative consequences, which is enough for me to support a generalized proposition that stealing, even from a rotten and exploitative entity such as Wal-Mart, is morally wrong.

Although I think that ethical system breaks down at some level. Must we stop everyone from having a car, since if everyone in the world drove to work, none of us could breathe? Must we persecute gays and lesbians because, well, if everyone decided not to be heterosexual, humanity would be doomed? Stretch the logic far enough and you could convince yourself that damn near anything you could do would be wrong, since society depends on different people doing different things; if everyone drove in the left lane of a highway, wouldn't that stop traffic? If everyone tried to get an MBA so they can become a corporate CEO, who would teach the children? Who would produce the food?

A pure religion-based or custom-based conception of ethical standards won't work in a modern world where people with differing belief systems and/or ancestral customs have to live side by side.

Legalistic conceptions of ethics have stepped in, in place of old customary standards, but they are inefficient and are often subject to manipulation by disparities in bargaining power. People have a vague understanding of this, and it is the lawyers that are generally blamed. In reality, in many situations the law is being asked to do things it is not well-equipped to do.

I generally like the idea of being able to use "universal maxims" to govern conduct - it seems more promising than "tradition," more stable than the shifting sands of public opinion. I don't want to throw it away easily, the way a moral relativist might.

At some point, I would love to have a discussion about the ethics of song file swapping and the like. It introduces a whole new set of issues into the mix.


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