Ethics 6 – Possession & Theft

chimp with fruitTheft is a difficult issue, one that has particular implications today.  First we will examine the context and history of possession, money and theft, and then use the Ethical concepts we have studied as lenses.

The notion of ‘property’ is bound up with European and Western identity, often seen as a principle of politics particular to Europe or fully realized in full within European historical development.  We can easily see, however, that the origins of property, like most human cultures, has its origins in ape social behavior.  While Europe has developed cultures of property that are highly sophisticated, culminating in the corporate capitalism that dominates global politics today, this stems from cultural borrowings as much as it originates from within Europe itself.  Consider that we still use Chinese style paper currency manufactured by block printing, and this passed through Islamic cultures of borrowing, algebraic accounting and cashing promissory notes such as checks.

Banana peeledTurning to ape behavior to see precedents, we can clearly identify with apes both in focusing on and becoming possessive of objects and forgetting this possession and its objects.  Consider that an ape will become attached to a banana, fight against other apes that try to take the banana, and then, upon seeing a better banana, the ape will abandon the first and ignore whether or not the first falls into other hands.  We can see that the ape can come to possess as ‘mine not yours’, and come to forget this possessing (‘neither mine nor yours’).  This is parallel with self-other distinctions already discussed, as with the child psychology that says in the beginning there is neither and both must arise together in tension.

There is also evidence that apes can not only fall into a ‘mine vs. everyone’ relation of possession, but apes can also recognize other apes as possessing objects themselves.  Consider the case from an old Anthropology class of mine of the female chimpanzee ignoring another male chimpanzee repeatedly trying to give her a banana, and how the female only snatches the banana for herself when the male ape gets bored, wanders off and is out of sight so that there is no expected reciprocity.  We should be cautious of the sexism here, but also marvel in how familiar this behavior is to humanity.  Chimpanzees have also been observed hiding objects behind their backs that they do not want their fellow chimpanzees to see, similar to human children less than a year old.

Wall-StreetHumans, of course, have taken these impulses and instincts and complexified them with many inter-competing cultures, cultures that are actually capable of stealing from each other as much as they can describe and criminalize stealing themselves!  Interestingly enough, the one to coin the term “capitalism” was its great opponent, Karl Marx, who criticized Utilitarianism as potentially falling into the hands of the wealthy and powerful.  We get a wider view of human cultures of possession and exchange if we turn back the clock to the origin of the device known as MONEY, capital being one of its distant yet certain relatives.

Stack Of CashWhere does money come from?  Why does it exist?  What relationship does money have to theft, and is this different from the relationship between theft and any other object?  Money is a very interesting and unique device.  Before wood pulp paper bank notes, the Sumerians and Babylonians get the credit for coining money first, the government controlling the pressing process of coinage.  Today, we use Chinese style paper bank notes, backed by the government, just like in China after 500 CE or so.  Wood block printing and the block printing press are other devices of Chinese origin that are crucial to this process.  These two stages suggest that ‘capital’, though it may have been developed to its extent today in Europe and increasingly in American privatizing economics, cannot possibly have been a ‘inwardly European’ device of the ‘Western mind’.  Other cultures of mind have had no problem inventing and using devices that are the ancestors of modern day capital.

barteringBut, WHY MONEY?  Before money, people of course possessed many things and traded them between individuals and groups.  This trade was always barter, swapping one sort of thing for another sort of thing without the device of money as swapping medium.  As people settled into city states, practices of borrowing and lending became stabilized.  The first money was likely tokens indicating amounts of stuff borrowed from the ruler or other wealthy individuals.  The culture which includes the device of money has advantages over the culture of mere barter.  Money as a device is very simple, simple the ways that numbers are simple for much the same purpose.  Money is good (and bad) because it is very easy to gather/amass and divide/distribute, much more than any other object or substance.

SalmonConsider the salmon fisher in a village.  She goes down to the water, and scores 20 large salmon.  This is far more than she can eat, but she can trade salmon for other things that she needs in the barter culture.  However, salmon does not keep for long, even if one knows how to salt and preserve it.  What happens if she goes to the market and not many people want or need salmon that day?  What if she has enough salmon to get what she wants, but there are not enough people who need salmon to trade with her for what she wants?  In a culture where the salmon can be sold for money, you can keep the money for thirty years (even with inflation and other problems, deterioration of coins, etc) but no one can keep salmon for thirty years, even with freezers!  In this way, money is much easier to amass and to keep than salmon.

coinsIn the same way, money is easier to divide than salmon.  Let us say our fisher comes to market with 20 large salmon, and wants to trade for a basket.  I, the basket maker, tell her that one third of a salmon is worth one basket, but I want the front half of the salmon.  What happens if she wants to leave the salmon uncut, or if she needs four fifths of a salmon later for someone else?  What if she wants to keep all the fish heads for herself?  Money has no features to it other than quantity, even though the pictures are often very pretty.  Fifty dollars is just fifty things, nothing less, so there is no problem with changing it to two twenties and a ten.  You cannot make a whole salmon again from twenty salmon heads!  In this way, money is much easier to divide and distribute than salmon.  If we consider the bustle of a crowded market, it becomes clear why money would be such a useful (and thus abusive) device, and how its invention allowed for the modern merchants and bankers of today.  Consider the trillion dollar bailout today, how this is very abstract yet very real for many people.  Luck for us we do not need to bail out banks with truckloads of salmon!

derrida-angleThere are, however, two great disadvantages to the culture of money use.  First, theft, like trade, becomes easier!  In fact, money not only creates and supports many types of legal economics, it simultaneously creates and supports many types of illegal economics like paying money for sex or drugs.  The French philosopher Derrida mentions that as soon as artists became celebrity individuals, they began signing their artwork to distinguish it from forgers who make fake copies, which then produced a demand for forgers who can forge the signature of the artist.

crack cocaineSecond, the desire for money becomes quite intense.  Considering that money, sex and cocaine have been shown to light up similar areas of the human brain, money to barter is like cocaine to chewing coca leaves.  Since money can be traded for anything, even ironically illegal things, the draw towards money becomes the draw towards any and everything desired.  In this sense, the desire for money is far more intense than the desire for salmon because money can buy salmon, or remain money, or buy anything else if one ceases wanting salmon.  Just as having salmon means that the possibility of eating salmon is now practically guaranteed, having money means the possibility of satisfying any desire whatsoever is guaranteed.  This ultimately means that there is far more reason to steal money than there is to steal salmon, strange considering that you can eat salmon and live off of it alone!

Communism versus Capitalism

Zinn peoples history American empireIn terms of world politics, which includes the Zinn reading I gave you, stealing and money are central issues of identity.  Communism and Capitalism are divided on the issue of money, even as Communists print government money and Capitalists organize socialist programs (public education like BCC, social welfare, public roads and institutions).  The question is: do you trust the government or the corporations more with your money and economics (an instance of the one/many problem again)?  America has shown that there are great advantages to privatization, letting corporations control economics rather than the centralized government.  Unfortunately, this does not do away with problems of authority and corruption (consider that PG&E is still in charge of California’s power, a pretty plum, in spite of being convicted of stealing from Californians en masse).  Truth be told, both America and the Soviet Union told third world countries that they would not steal from them or enslave them like their other surely would, only to both be guilty of similar forms of corrupt authoritarianism.

Perkins Confessions of an Economic HitmanA great book to read on all of this is John Perkins’ book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.  He actually came to BCC last semester for a reading, but I had my other job.  As Perkins says so perfectly, in American foreign relations we try to get people in debt to us because that binds everyone to our economy and our desires.  I know firsthand from UC Berkeley Hass Business School students that getting the poor here in America and poor third world countries in continuous debt is an open practice, spoken of openly in instruction.  The financial crisis today was clearly caused by irresponsible and predatory lending.  Our newspapers never speak of these things, but a piece on NPR my friend gave to me will tell you just as clearly and honestly an economics professor at Hass.

Credit-cardsCREDIT is itself like money, a device that has its advantages but also its disadvantages, especially for the disadvantaged.  If our economy falls far from where it is today, it could very well be due to the disadvantages of credit and capital that we have stalled and distanced from ourselves for the time being as a privileged and advantaged culture.  The point is: money helps the advantaged steal from the disadvantaged, even as it helps the disadvantaged gain advantage!  This is why Americans are relatively wealthy yet there is an increasing gap between rich and poor here as well as in the third world.  While the ‘American way’ sometimes allows the poor to get rich, it also very much allows the rich to get much richer and there is only so much in the pot.

AustraliaOf course, the rich are also more encouraged than ever to steal from the rich as well as from the poor.  Consider in 1996 CIA convicted of manipulating business to favor Americans over Australians.  Neither Australians nor Americans can recall this, due to lack of media coverage in both locations.  Since America and Australia are both wealthy Capitalist countries, you are only doing the system disservice by making such a scandal public.

Now that we have briefly examined the history of money and advantage, we have set the stage to ask the question of theft.  The Ethical question we must ask is: Is theft ever justified?  We can use our Ethical concepts we have studied to give various answers to this question.  While I will not say that there is a certain answer here, we can see that there are many ways of answering the question but each has its problems.  This is how we know we are investigating the question in matters of real life and not in an ideal construct.

immanuel-kantKant, of course, would give the first and most positive answer to this question:  NO, theft of property is NEVER justified.  Notice that Kant, living in the German Enlightenment of the 1700s, is very proud of the culture of property and considers the possession of property to be an entirely reasonable and principled act.  This is questionable when we trace its roots all the way back to chimpanzee behavior, of course.

This answer has the obvious advantage of never getting one involved in most questions of stealing, but there remain issues.  What if one’s society is stealing from another, and legally one has become wealthy within the stealing society?  While we could imagine that one is ignorant of the ongoing theft and therefore not DIRECTLY guilty of theft, one is INDIRECTLY guilty.  Societies, especially America, store their wealth in the pockets of the wealthy.  America stores its wealth in its millionaires and billionaires primarily, and encourages these individuals economically to siphon money from other economies and put it in their pockets because this is the central way that America gets wealthier.  Thus, while one may hold fast to the principle of ‘I shall not steal’, one could be complicit in groups and cultures that are engaged in theft that benefits the individual and the individual actively supports (even in the absence of conscious consent).

Robin HoodAccording to the concept of ethical virtue, theft is fully justified as long as the individual is virtuous or becomes virtuous through the act of theft.  In a very similar way, Utilitarians and Consequentialists would argue that theft is justified if in the long term it results in good and justice, much happiness and prevention of harm.  Seems impossible?  Robin Hood is the perfect example for consideration.  If I rob the evil rich people and give to poor people who are starving (i.e. if we construct an example in which many would agree), many would say that I am virtuous and that I have acted for the best ends in the long view.  I may be hanged for the crimes, but my actions benefit others and can be argued to benefit my own character (though this is debatable).

93bb7-yin2band2byanThe concept of balance draws our attention not only to the duality of stealing and not stealing but also to the duality of possessing and forgetting about possession, grasping and letting go.  There is a great passage of the Dao that says, ‘if you want to be free from robbers, do not store up treasure in your house’.  If one stores up wealth, one brings theft to one’s doorstep.  If one stores up wealth and becomes attached to it, one brings fear of theft to one’s mind (a Zen koan theme is calling intention in the mind a thief, that the grasping of desire in the mind is the real thief).  If you do not worry about money, not only do you not have to worry about stealing from others, you do not worry about others stealing from you, no matter how much one has!

Also, consider that if one steals and gets away with it, this makes the compulsion for stealing stronger.  One continues to steal, and then gets caught.  Getting away with stealing can be a major cause of getting caught stealing, a paradox similar to the bad example attack on Utilitarianism (in this case, ‘good’ examples can lead to bad just as bad examples can lead to good).  One problem with using balance here: should we think that we can do bad as long as we balance it out with good?  If we give to charity every time we steal, does this balance things for our own merit or for the shared situation?

Howard ZinnAt first, it seems in accord with self interest to say, ‘steal to your heart’s content’.  This may prove harder than it sounds.  Is it in one’s self interest to steal from everyone?  Not if everyone has large sticks and helmets haven’t been invented yet.  Unfortunately, this concept is best for understanding the international situation and the reading I gave you from Zinn.  America today feels that it must indebt the third world to itself to strengthen its capitalist way of life, as it did during the Cold War.  Supporters of the Vietnam war as well as the ‘War on Terrorism’ today say openly on the News that we need to ‘defend America’s interests’.  Thought the word ‘economic’ is left off the front of ‘interests’ here, this is essentially what is being argued.  America is a very fine omelet (a money credit omelet, if you will), and this means eggs need to be stolen from the hen house.  Perkins’ book gives us excellent insight into its mechanisms.

The Corporation documentaryWe have all had the experience of stealing and having things stolen, giving us perspective.  Hopefully there is something that moves us towards wisdom in not stealing even though theft seems an inevitable and in fact integral part of our world.  Aside from the ‘Golden Rule’, there is likely no other constant source of deterrence from theft considering that the government that prints the money and prosecutes the theft also in some circumstances supports theft between its citizens and steals from other governments in the name of life.

To further show the mechanisms and complexity of theft in the modern world, there is no better nor more relevant documentary than ‘The Corporation’.  In it, we find that modern corporations are compared to sociopaths and sharks, as they are in a way machines designed to feed and not to have empathy for those on which they feed.  Here is a link so you can watch the documentary online for free:

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