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poohat

Isn't inheritance theft?

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While I agree with the majority of Objectivism on some level, there has always been one particular aspect of Objectivist morality that has troubled me, and reading an essay on the newly launched site ("Why theft is always wrong") brought it back into my mind.

Objectivism states (correctly) that any rational morality has to be firmly human-centric, and intimately tied up with the nature of man as a rational being. A consequence of this is that all action has to be evaluated based purely on the effects it has on the long term happyness of the subject.

Now, Rand often claimed that the morality involved in inheriting large sums of wealth was largely dependent upon how it was used. A heir that blew his fortune on crack and whores would be classed as a moral degenerate, whereas one who took advantage of his priviledged position and converted the money given to him into productive achievement (starting a successful business for example) should be praised, even if he would have been unlikely to have managed to succeed without his inherited wealth. I agree with this position.

The problem is, why is this standard of judgement not similarly applied to stolen wealth? If a person steals money, the Objectivist will (to the best of my knowledge) decry this act as being automatically wrong, regardless of the use to which the money is put. Since the Objectivist evaluation of an action has to be carried out purely in terms of what it does to the subject's long term happyness, the justification given for this is usually that even if someone converts stolen money into productive achievement, the achievement will always be tarnished by the initial theft, the subject will know at the back of his mind that he could never have succeeded without the initial action, and this will plague his self-esteem and prevent him from gaining any real happiness.

But this is a blatent contradiction. The idea is that self-esteem is gained from self-reliance, and productive achievement. But there is absolutely no difference in these terms between starting a business using inherited money, and starting one using stolen money. In either case, the individual would probably not have been able to suceed had they not obtained (from others) the initial capital. To claim that in the case of inheritence the future success would somehow 'cancel out' the unearned wealth while in the case of theft it would leave a permanent black mark on the self-esteem of the thief no matter how productively he used what he had stolen seems to be a completely unsupportable position. There seems to be a general consensus that a thief will always spend what he has stolen in a degenerate way ("crack and whores"), but I seriously doubt that this is always the case. It is certainly possible for someone to create a genuine value using money obtained through immoral means; in this situation, how would an Objectivist be able to morally condemn him in a way that wouldnt also condemn the productive heir?

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I will answer as best I can. Correct me if I'm wrong.

The difference between starting a business with inherited money and stolen money is that inheriting money involves a person freely giving the money to you while stealing money involves violating rights.

Theft is wrong because it violates rights, not because it will damage your happiness in the future. It is wrong to violate rights because it is destructive to human life. Productive achievement is a life-supporting action, an enterprise started with stolen money will be tarnished because it was started with a life-destroying action.

You can maintain your self-esteem when using inherited money to start a business. You are still self-reliant because without you the money would be useless.

I praise the the man who makes good use of his inheritance because of the value he creates. I condemn the man who steals because this is an immoral action though I may recognise that he has created value with the stolen money.

One needs to separate the way the money was obtained and the use to which it was put.

Inheriting=neutral

Stealing=evil

Producing=good

Squandering=evil

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I will answer as best I can. Correct me if I'm wrong.

The difference between starting a business with inherited money and stolen money is that inheriting money involves a person freely giving the money to you while stealing money involves violating rights.

Theft is wrong because it violates rights, not because it will damage your happiness in the future. It is wrong to violate rights because it is destructive to human life. Productive achievement is a life-supporting action, an enterprise started with stolen money will be tarnished because it was started with a life-destroying action.

I'm not sure that Rand said anything that supports this position; she certainly didnt in the Objectivist Ethics. I dont think she ever claimed that human rights were 'sacred' in themselves- only that they had value because they were the means to a desirable end (ie the individual's happyness). Everything I know of Objectivist morality is based around the claim that the reason the violation of other's rights is 'wrong' is because it is likely to lead to unhappiness on the part of the perpetrator, not the victim. Someone who goes around looting others is harming himself, since it is not in the nature of man to gain self-esteem from a life which is spent leeching off the wealth produced by others (ie being a looter). However this simply doesnt apply to the productive theif.

I dont even know where you'd even start making a case that the violation of rights was 'in itself' wrong while still staying true to the fundamentals of Objectivist morality. I think Rand would have rejected a claim like that on the grounds of it being intrincist or mystical.

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What a person does with money which he has acquired has absolutely no bearing on the morality of the method by which he acquired that money.

Meaning, whether a billionaire's son blows his money on whores and crack, or whether he spends it on a beautiful mansion, a fast car, and other more admirable consumer goods, or whether he invests and produces with it, has absolutely no effect on the morality of inheriting it. Him inheriting the money is of itself (ie, without needing to consider its future use) neutral, neither good nor evil.

Similarly the thief - whatever use to which he puts the money he illicitly acquires, the act of theft is of itself evil.

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You're saying that a person who inherits money can't have self-esteem based on what he then goes on to do with it, since he wouldn't have been able to accomplish the same things without it (which I think is arguable, depending on what you mean by accomplishing the same things).

But anyone born in an industrial, Western society is already starting out way ahead and can then go on to accomplish things they otherwise wouldn't have been able to if they were born in Iran, or during the Dark Ages, or whatever.

It makes absolutely no sense to say that one's self-esteem is invalid if they didn't start from an absolute null point. Nobody starts at an absolute null point. So the issue of how much extra one might inherit, as such, is morally irrelevant.

This is just progress.

In the case of the thief, however, it's just parasitism.

There's a huge difference.

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No matter what you do with the stolen money, you had to make the conscious decision to steal it in the first place. That makes the action immoral, without a doubt.

But does it stop there? What if the stolen money is used for good? I actually experienced this a while back, when I used to work in a grocery store. One night at this job at a very late hour, I witnessed an obviously very poor, relatively young man that had an entire shopping cart packed with diapers and baby formula. No booze. No expensive luxuries at all. Merely basic products he needed that I am assuming would go to his family (immediate or otherwise).

The man was walking out of the store with this cart, and because it was so late, there was no one else around at the time. I caught him red-handed, and we exchanged eye contact. I did not react, however, and simply walked away. The man knew of this, and left the store, stealing successfully. I made the conscious decision to allow someone to steal.

In retrospect, I believe that stealing (no matter what, and no matter for what end) is ultimately immoral. But that night, I simply did not choose to confront this man for his crime. Would that be a crime onto me? Probably. But I suppose I must live with that.

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But that night, I simply did not choose to confront this man for his crime. Would that be a crime onto me? Probably. But I suppose I must live with that.

You can decide to donate the goods to him--but then of course you have to pay for them in his stead.

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Inheritance and Theft. Why does inheritance add good conscience to currency or has the moral lease expired upon death, thus rendering the benificiary free of responsibility as to it's root source.

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Inheritance and Theft. Why does inheritance add good conscience to currency or has the moral lease expired upon death, thus rendering the benificiary free of responsibility as to it's root source.
Bob, Welcome to the forum. I cannot figure out what you're saying. If you could provide a less pithy explanation, it would help people answer you.

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Inheritance and Theft. Why does inheritance add good conscience to currency or has the moral lease expired upon death, thus rendering the benificiary free of responsibility as to it's root source.

Hi Bob. An inanimate object like money can't have "good conscience" or bad. If money has been stolen and you receive it as inheritance and know about the theft, I believe you would have a moral obligation to return the money, if that is possible and practical. However, this is not a statement in favor of reparations for slavery or giving Native Americans back land or anything of the sort. It simply isn't possible to right every historical wrong.

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Issue: I have a friend who's from a very wealthy family. He spends the majority of his time sitting on the couch, mindlessly watching television, and generally, doing nothing productive (or of value), but makes $xxx an hour (even while sleeping) off of his trust fund. Even in our current political-economic system, he could invest his money (which he did not earn), live and raise a family off of the interest, and never work a day in his life.

Question: Is this a problem in Objectivism? Does investing like this represent a value for value exchange (investing in companies)? Will L-F capitalism exacerbate the problem (if it is a problem)?

Although Ayn Rand held that receiving inheritance was neither good nor bad, it seems to me that an Objectivist would refuse the inheritance based on principle, due to the fact that it would not be a value for value exchange. I can't imagine Howard Roark accepting any kind of inheritance (in the same way that he refused commission if he had no architectural freedom). Would an Objectivist refuse inheritance based on principle (the principle being that they have provided no service to justify earning the inherited money)?

Personally, inheritance seems like unnecessary charity...

Edited by NewYorkRoark

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it seems to me that an Objectivist would refuse the inheritance based on principle, due to the fact that it would not be a value for value exchange.
If you mean the situation where a person picks some unknown individual to receive an inheritance, then I would agree. Or, an Objectivist would not accept an unearned gift from someone he despised which was given only out of a feeling of duty (coming maybe from the fact of being related). On the other hand, if you are speaking of someone willing valuables to a loved one, and let us presume that the love is deserved, then you are wrong.

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I haven't seen anybody answer the real question. Inheritence is NOT theft, the idea is ridiculous (and Marxist if I recall correctly.) Who would it be stealing from?? Only on a socialist view could it be considered "theft" - the heir receiving money that would be "better" in the hands of government/society/the poor, and the heir is "stealing" it from them. (Ha).

A man who earned his money has the absolute right to determine its disposition, including giving it away during his lifetime, or willing it somebody else after his death. Who else would???

Regarding what an heir does with the money, two thoughts (I do not claim originality but I don't have a source handy):

-- Only a man who could become successful on his own, deserves to inherit money. (This is separate from the legal question of rights of the owner to will his assets to anyone he chooses.)

-- "Riches to rags in 3 generations." Worthless heirs can take any fortune and waste it.

In the right hands, inherited money could be extraordinarily valuable, by effectively extending one's productive lifetime by years. The same principle as a parent paying for a university education for their self-motivated, bright child - who can then spend their time studying rather than a very painful and perhaps impossible effort to simultaneously excel in a difficult, top-notch school, and work to pay for it.

Edited by Unconquered

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Thank you, Unconquered, for pointing this out. I wondered, while reading it, when someone was going to.

Also note, that money, by itself, does not make someone happy. As Christmas is approaching, I am noticing this more and more. What do I want: to get a 4.0 (pulling 3.9), get an internship, score exceptionally well on my SATs, etc - all things that money cannot buy! Sure, a car would be nice, but I'd give up the nicest car in the world to accomplish my goals.

My point is: why should I give a thought to how much money someone inherited? They didn't steal it from me. It's not like there is a limited amount of money in the world. I know I will be infinitely happier than the playboy who squanders millions.

I don't see why people need to measure money. Why does it matter how much money a neighbor, brother, or good friend has? However, I think people need to measure money (if they wish to measure it at all), not by how much they have, or even how much they've gained, but by what percent they have increased. If I start with ten dollars and make $50, and you start with $100 and make $200, who makes more money? Who has the better business?

Ultimately, it doesn't matter how much you start with, only how much you increase from that.

Zak

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On 12/22/2005 at 2:47 PM, DavidOdden said:

Objectivist would not accept an unearned gift from someone he despised which was given only out of a feeling of duty (coming maybe from the fact of being related).

I would accept the gift to spite him.

On 12/22/2005 at 5:55 PM, realitycheck44 said:

Why does it matter how much money a neighbor, brother, or good friend has?

How are you going to determine where opportunities exist if you choose to be blind to that?

On 12/22/2005 at 4:28 PM, Unconquered said:

I haven't seen anybody answer the real question. Inheritence is NOT theft, the idea is ridiculous (and Marxist if I recall correctly.) Who would it be stealing from?? Only on a socialist view could it be considered "theft" - the heir receiving money that would be "better" in the hands of government/society/the poor, and the heir is "stealing" it from them. (Ha).

"You didn't build it" (from Obama et. al) is basically another way of saying that you inherited it without making any effort to produce it. As in you inherited it from the people who came before and made it easy for you to ...

But there seems to only be a view that inheritance is a gift from someone who is conscious. Isn't it one of two definitions:
1. Someone giving it to you
2. The government giving it to you based on (?tradition? etc)
     What is the moral principle behind the government giving it to you based on genetic association?
 
 

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14 hours ago, Easy Truth said:

But there seems to only be a view that inheritance is a gift from someone who is conscious. Isn't it one of two definitions:
1. Someone giving it to you
2. The government giving it to you based on (?tradition? etc)
     What is the moral principle behind the government giving it to you based on genetic association?
 

In a proper system 2. will happen only when the person inherited from fails to make his or her wishes known.  In this case, all that can be done is to have a rule based on a best guess as to what most people's wishes will be.  It is the responsibility of the person inherited from to make his or her wishes known. 

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On 2/17/2004 at 7:33 PM, poohat said:

Isn't inheritance theft?

Short answer: no

Long answer: You launched into a lecture about the morality of squandering one's inherited wealth and compared it to squandering one's stolen wealth.  You needed to separate the two things.  How one obtains wealth is not related to how one uses it.   Inheritance by definition is getting what a dead person willed you to get.  You had the owner's permission to get it.  That's not theft by any objective meaning of the concept.   I could squander earned wealth too.  Does that make earning it in the first place theft?   

 

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