Is Stealing Always Immoral?
Utilitarianism, Kant and Aristotle
The answer to the question whether stealing is morally right or wrong depends on the moral theory that you want to use, as well as on the context of the action.
For utilitarianism, which focuses on the total benefit of an action, stealing might be morally right if it increases total benefit or happiness for all stakeholders. So, for example, stealing a terrorist’s bomb before he can detonate it would qualify as a morally right action since it increases the total benefit or happiness. Similarly, Robin-Hood-like actions (stealing from the rich to give to the poor) would probably be considered right.
For Kant, there are three aspects to consider: first, what is the motivation for stealing? For Kant, only those actions are morally right that are performed out of a “good will,” which roughly means that they should have as their main motivation the will to act morally right (rather than, say, to enrich oneself). Second, we would have to ask whether the action can become a universal law without causing any contradictions. This is a tricky requirement, and it’s not clear at all how to apply this in specific cases. Roughly, you’d have to ask: what would happen if everyone was stealing? Would we end up in a world that still works and makes sense? — Third, Kant would ask whether human beings are treated as ends or only as means to the ends of others. In the case of stealing, even if it is out of a good intention, the victim of the theft is clearly treated only as a means for the ends of the thief. This is also true in the Robin Hood case, which is why Kant would say that stealing is always morally bad.
For Aristotle and virtue ethics, you would ask which virtues underlie that action of stealing and whether the act of stealing is likely to promote the stakeholders’ personal development towards their maximum potential as human beings. It’s not easy to see an act of stealing doing this, but one might perhaps argue that Robin Hood is, indeed, driven to theft through an exercise of his virtues. Still, Aristotle would probably say that the life of an outlaw is not a good place to develop one’s potential as a human being.
There are many other possibilities (for example, Social Contract theories), but the three discussed should provide a general idea of how one might try to answer a question like that.
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