46
$\begingroup$

I'm working on differentiating primarily nonhuman cultures from human cultures in a fantasy world by adding a bit of Blue and Orange Morality. One way I'm considering adding a unique element to one cluster of them where stealing is considered acceptable and clever – where swindles are laudable and (nonviolent) burglaries are something to brag about, and theft is just another way to make money (because really, in their view, the exchange of currency is just an elaborate ritual for two people to think they're stealing from each other).

I have two questions. One may be too broad, one is much more specific.

  1. Why is stealing immoral?

Why, as a species, did humans decide to make theft "wrong"? Is it an attachment to property, something to do with impressing others with possessions, a desire for trust or security?

  1. Could a culture that considers theft something neutral, even laudable if done in a particularly impressive manner, sustain itself?

Or is there something fundamental here that would be thrown out of balance if theft was more commonplace?

EDIT: Another way to phrase this might be – Could an entire society and culture develop a Robin Hood-esque attitude toward others' property? (There's a little more variation than that, but that's the way my hypothetical thieves' institution is currently visualized to operate).

EDIT 2: Probably should have mentioned the limitations I had on this to begin with. It's an honor based society. It's dishonorable to steal something essential – like a diabetic person's insulin, for instance, or a poor person's only source of food – not because it's stealing, but because it equates to killing. Generally, the theft that bolsters your status (if you tell your friends about it) is the theft of someone's surplus. And a thief caught in the act of stealing – though not awhile afterwards – will generally hand over whatever they tried to take, or might start bargaining for it... stealing from someone of greater status than you and then being caught may result in demands from the almost-victim. Those are the specifics, though, I'm still very happy with all of the answers about theft in general.

$\endgroup$
21
  • 12
    $\begingroup$ This reminds me a little of Terry Pratchett's "thieves guild" in his Discworld series. It's not really a society based on thieving or on lauding thieving, per se. But it is basically a government sanctioned thieving protection racket where thieves have quotas, etcetc. You pay to make sure you only get robbed of so much. And people in the city with the thieves guild basically just accept robberies as a part of life. $\endgroup$
    – MiraAstar
    Nov 15 '15 at 18:49
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ If a theft is revealed (i.e. someone stole your lunch, then sits down next to you to eat it), is that still acceptable, or does the theft have to remain unproven to be acceptable? $\endgroup$
    – Cyrus
    Nov 15 '15 at 19:05
  • 17
    $\begingroup$ If it can be deemed laudable to commit burglaries of those outside of the group, you can study real life cultures that have these rules. The gypsies and the gangs are typically proud of how they interact with the outside world. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Nov 15 '15 at 19:50
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Do we include cases of tribal societies (or current groups which live in a tribe-like manner, as commented by Cort Ammon) where stealing is a crime only if you steal from a fellow tribe member, but is OK if you steal from a different tribe, or the "enemy"? Or must the theft be tolerated even within the group? $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Nov 16 '15 at 4:43
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ A minor thing to note for your honor bound system - it could be assumed, by the person who is being stolen from, that the thief needs the item much more than them. They may pretend not to notice the stealing. This is building off your "stealing is bad because it's actually murder". If a desperate, starving street urchin steals my bread, I may be honor-bound to let them steal it (and pretend not to notice), or else I may as well have murdered them. $\endgroup$ Nov 16 '15 at 18:09

33 Answers 33

1
2
-1
$\begingroup$

I don't think so. All cultures promote peace. And theft doesn't.

Even if it doesn't pose a threat in some case, it might change your thinking and your morals/principles.
Which, in turn, takes you to the wrong path, encouraging more wrongful deeds.

So, one way or the other, it is wrong.

$\endgroup$
4
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Taher. I think your answer may be a bit narrow. There have been plenty of societies where stealing is ok, perhaps not at the nation level mind you...though you could argue corrupt governments promote theft...for some. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Nov 16 '15 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ @james Thank you for the positive criticism. But we can't promote a wrongful deed just because the whole world is doing it, do we? $\endgroup$ Nov 16 '15 at 15:29
  • $\begingroup$ Well thats just the thing isn't it. What should be promoted and reality just don't line up sometimes. When you look at ultra-wealthy dictators in third world countries its hard to argue that theft isn't a reality. Same goes for Robin Hood scenarios, that is certainly theft but is it wrong? I guess my point is your answer is idealistic as opposed to realistic and doesn't capture the nuances of the world. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Nov 16 '15 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ I agree to your point. But just because we can't achieve a goal, doesn't mean we should stop aiming for it. $\endgroup$ Nov 16 '15 at 15:43
-2
$\begingroup$

We already live in such a society.
I recently saw a case (in the US!) where one individual forcibly took and/or destroyed most of another person’s property (including taking over his house and everything in it, backed by “or else” threats of violence, defamation, death, etc.) and when the person sued, the court said this taking over and/or destroying property did not even give rise to a cause of action. A jury said that some of the individual’s other actions (e.g. in pursuit of making good on those threats) were "outrageous," but the judge ruled that forcibly taking and/or destroying another’s property does not even give rise to a cause of action in the courts! A different judge ruled that the owner could eventually take his property back, but not necessarily in the same condition, and the individual did not have to voluntarily surrender it nor pay for having taken and/or destroyed the owner's property.


In the US, those with the backing of law enforcement can also legally seize property of others even if its owner committed no crime. (See John Oliver’s coverage of the topic here). This may be more common in countries where corruption is more common, but it also happens surprisingly often in the US. Billions of dollars have been taken from people who weren’t even charged with a crime, and it’s all legal.


I’ve also recently read the official description of the “Theft Purchase Protection” benefit of a credit card from a major US bank, which allows people to buy things on the credit card having more confidence that if it's stolen shortly after purchase the cost will be reimbursed.
The details stated that “Theft Protection Coverage doesn’t apply to any item if the item was stolen as a result of illegal activity.” The coverage apparently applies to the subset of theft that is not illegal activity, which is a large enough subset to set up a whole insurance program that’s apparently fully capitalized and staffed.


Related to the first example, this article describes another (i.e. non-US) country where that first case is much more common. Dangerous individuals/groups come up to owners of homes and land demanding that the home and everything in them be turned over “or else” (violence, death, etc.), causing large numbers of people to be displaced from their original homes. 14% of the country’s national territory has been stolen from its original owners, and the people who took it are unlikely to face penalties as a condition of a pending peace deal.


Finally, there are existing communal societies in which there's no clear concept that XYZ thing is "mine and not yours" so if you take and use and even consume it, that's not considered stealing.


Conclusion: Apparently, at least sometimes, theft is legal, in existing societies, even if that fact isn’t widely known.


Note: I recognize the question asked more about moral than legal but also asked about “a culture that considers theft something neutral.” Here, the various parties involved appear to disagree over the question of morality but the legal system speaks on behalf of the larger culture or society.

$\endgroup$
1
  • $\begingroup$ This all looks very interesting. Do you have any citeable sources? $\endgroup$
    – Clearer
    Nov 3 '17 at 9:43
-3
$\begingroup$

There are certain things that are ingrained in us as humans. The immorality of certain activities is one of those things. I believe that stealing is one of those things that humans intrinsically feel is "wrong." I feel like you couldn't have a society in which stealing is guided by certain morals, because human nature would automatically break that down into chaos and anarchy.

$\endgroup$
2
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I remember reading somewhere that the concept of posession, of ownership, is somethign that children have to learn. That seems to contradict your idea of it being ingrained. Unfortunately i cannot find the source atm. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Nov 16 '15 at 13:17
  • $\begingroup$ They're tribal orcs (who eventually develop civilization and outlaw thievery, though things like the "thieves' guild" remain despite the law). I think I can bend their version of morality away from normal human psychology a bit. As humans, though, I can see where you're coming from. $\endgroup$ Nov 16 '15 at 21:17
1
2

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.