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Why shouldn't I steal ONE dollar from a millionaire?

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Hotu Matua
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I am reading Bernstein's "Objectivism in One Lesson" and I have a question on the basis of Ethics.

If I am understanding correctly, contrary to Kant and his deontologism, objectivist's ethics links values with facts and ethics with the life of a man qua man.

If something promotes man's life qua man, it is good. Not because it follows a rule enacted by God, society, or the whim of an individual, but because it favours man's ability to live a flourishing life, to achive his long term purposes.

But then, why is it inmoral to steal one dollar from a millionaire?

In which way stealing that dollar prevents him from surviving, from living a plenty life of man qua man, from achiving his ideals, values or projects?

In fact, if we were to ask that man if the loss of such a dollars has impacted his ability to survive or advance in his goals, I think he would answer no.

Still, he would be angry, at least moderately angry, and would consider the thief a thief.

What is the basis for the inmorality of this one-dollar theft?

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Principles, that's why it is wrong to steal from anybody who hasn't been violating anybody else's rights. By stealing you are violating the principle of rights and going against the fact that man is the being who survives by reason, something you need to recognize to support your life as best as you can, instead counting on force or trying to thwart people's knowledge of the facts of reality. Once this is done, once you've conceded the principles, there's not much of anything left to stop you from it becoming a slippery slope of doom basically to seeing how much you can evade applying your ideas, how long you can keep from concluding that anybody can steal from you or that you can murder somebody for a few dollars because rights don't matter to you. Remember that there is more than just material values in human life, though the material ones are indeed important. All the money in the world isn't going to help you if there is no value created to back them up because everybody is trying to get by by stealing, you'd all starve if everybody counted on just taking food from somebody else whenever they were hungry. So, if you can see, the single dollar being stolen is less about what it does directly at the moment to that man who was robbed than to what it does to the thief long term, the consequences to their thought process and then their life in practice.

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Ask that millionaire if his values include having others steal from him. Then ask yourself who should make the choice of where the proceeds of your labor should go.

Objectivist morality is not relative to a subjective interpretation of the economic value of a dollar to another person. The "immorality" in your example comes in to play as soon as the thief disregards the millionaire's individual rights. In this case, his right to spend that dollar he earned however he wishes.

Edit: for better grammar

Edited by freestyle
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People have to stop trying to justify stealing by referencing to 'minuscule' objects as the exception. The concept of theft is not defined by the quality, quantity, or personal value-estimates related to the item of theft. They have no essential connection to the concept of stealing and this is therefore a fallacy by defintion by non-essentials. What difference does it make if its one dollar or a million? There is no entity which is personal property which is the exception to the rule. It doesn't matter if its money, or candy bars, or a gym membership. Stealing/theft is to take (the property of another or others) without permission or right, esp. secretly or by force. How is a dollar, or any other list of concretes an exception to this? Theft is theft. Force is force. Force and good are opposites. You cannot say that you will use force to acheive the good, this is a contradiction.

Also, who are you to judge what the relationship of that dollar to that millionares values? Why do you get to decide, "Oh, well its just a dollar. I mean he's got another 999,999, he'll be fine." Well what about my dollar? How the guy down the street who wants in on his buck? And if we can each take a dollar from that millionaire, why not take a bunch more dollars from others whom we judge 'able' to afford it. Why stop at dollars? That furniture store down the road is like a warehouse, they won't miss one sofa. And so on... the socialist trickle.

It is immoral because it is parasitic. You take the form a dictator which judges and decides for him what is good and his best interest, and then you lay claim to his private property. You suspend honesty, integrity, pride, rationality, productivity... How can one still lay claim to moral ground after laying aside all of his primary virtues? Force and morality are opposites, one destroys choice, the other thrives off it.

I could go on, but the issue is crystal clear. Its not the dollar or the donut your laying claim to primarily, but rather another mans life.

Edited by LogicsSon
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I am reading Bernstein's "Objectivism in One Lesson" and I have a question on the basis of Ethics.

If I am understanding correctly, contrary to Kant and his deontologism, objectivist's ethics links values with facts and ethics with the life of a man qua man.

If something promotes man's life qua man, it is good. Not because it follows a rule enacted by God, society, or the whim of an individual, but because it favours man's ability to live a flourishing life, to achive his long term purposes.

But then, why is it inmoral to steal one dollar from a millionaire?

In which way stealing that dollar prevents him from surviving, from living a plenty life of man qua man, from achiving his ideals, values or projects?

In fact, if we were to ask that man if the loss of such a dollars has impacted his ability to survive or advance in his goals, I think he would answer no.

Still, he would be angry, at least moderately angry, and would consider the thief a thief.

What is the basis for the inmorality of this one-dollar theft?

The basis is the principle of individual rights.

By stealing a dollar you are admitting that you do not accept the principle of the individual rights of man, which of course means that should anyone steal from you then you have no basis of complaint since you don't recognise individual rights.

If nobody recognised individual rights then there would just be widespread theft, in fact people wouldn't bother producing since it would be stolen. Either there would be dictatorship or gang warfare.

A slave no longer has a purpose, other than to escape.

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We all agree that a theft is a theft.

By my question is about the philosophical basis of this inmorality. Is it inmoral beacuse it violates a principle set by society, the State, or God, or is it inmoral beacuse it affects the survival and flourishing of other man's life (which would mean, because it affects reality for other man).

If you tell me that it is because of a principle, the principle of property rights, this starts sounding dangerously Kantian to me. :)

If A, a poor man, is stealing one dollar from B, a millionaire, I could not tell my children that A is making something inmoral beacuse A is making B difficult to survive qua man, advance his projects, achieve his long-term goals, obtain or mantain his values, etc. I could not tell my children that beacuse it is untrue. Reality does not back me up.

However, I can tell my children that A is being inmoral because there is a universal principle related to respecting other individual's property. If the principle is violated, even for one dollar, we go down the slippery slope and get all kind of crimes and THEN we would have a survival qua man issue. Or I could tell them that stealing is bad becasue God included a "Thou shalt not steal" in the Ten Commandments, or anything like that. However mystical the explanation, in the end it would mean that there is a universal principle, a norm that has to be upheld for the duty itself.

A judge considering this case in a court, would condemn A for the sake of uplifting or protecting an abstract, universal PRINCIPLE, expressed legally in terms of property rights, and not for the sake of consistency with reality.

Reality, the objective and undisputed reality, would most likely show that A did get a direct survival benefit from the dollar (say, buying a plate of rice) while the millionarie was not affected in his survival or long-term values and purposes.

I guess I am missing something important here. Please help.

Edited by Hotu Matua
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Imo, those were pretty shit answers. I do not feel confident enough to answer this accurately, but I think it lies somewhere in the realm of the nature of attempting to gain values by the use of physical force as an abandonment of reason which is inadequate for you to survive. It doesn't create any value for you to take a dollar from someone else, it is destruction. You are facilitating destruction simply for the fact that you are unable to act on reason and someone else is, so you act to sacrifice him. You are also putting yourself in danger because the person may retaliate against you.

Now, stealing a dollar from a millionaire likely doesn't cause a huge calamity for his life, nor does any "what if I only steal really, really, small almost worthless items from people who will never miss them" questions, but as freestyle said, that person has a right to spend that one dollar how he sees fit, not you.

Edited by 2046
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I guess I am missing something important here.
Let's start with the most basic question, about man's nature and his means of survival. Unlike animals, which survive by instinct and brute force, man's nature is to reason and survive by reason. It would be wrong -- a denial of reality -- to claim that or act as though man's nature is to be the fastest and toughest beast.

One fundamental aspect of "reason" is concepts. We don't exist simply by learning in each and every case "That is a leopard; that is an apple; that is another leopard; that is a tasty plant; that is a poison plant". Instead, we learn general concepts, which are open-ended and allow us to conclude something about the nature of an individual thing that we haven't seen before -- "That too is nightshade, which is a poison plant".

A moral principle is a kind of concept: a concept integrating notions of "good" and notions of "should act". If one has no moral principles, each choice has to be made without reference to general facts of reality. Acting without moral principles means that you cannot know what a "good action" as opposed to a "bad action" would be. That means, then, that you cannot survive as a man, if you have no moral principles.

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Reality, the objective and undisputed reality, would most likely show that A did get a direct survival benefit from the dollar (say, buying a plate of rice) while the millionarie was not affected in his survival or long-term values and purposes.

The reality as you have already pointed out is that theft is theft. Objectively the act of stealing a dollar is the same as stealing $1,000,000. The need of the thief is not and can not be considered as mitigation of the act of theft.

If that were the case could a dying man who needed a kidney be justified in stealing one from a man who had two? Surely his need to live would trump the other mans need to have two when he can survive with just one.

It is not the amount, it is not the need it is the principal embodied in the prohibition against the act itself. Theft is theft. Men deal with each other as traders or by force. If you permit the use of force in any exchange between men then you no longer have a society, you have anarchy where the survival of the fittest rules, and in the long run that survivor will not be the man that "needed" to steal a dollar.

How about this example. Rape is wrong. But what if the rapist never actually caused physical harm? I mean if he made sure there was no vaginal tearning and he didn't bruse or abuse his victim, what if he was even good looking? What if the woman was tested for psychological trauma and showed none? Would it be proper for a judge to claim that since the rapist really didn't cause physical or mental harm to the woman that he shouldn't be punished? I mean it's not like the woman can't still have sex as many times as she wants, she has plenty of sex left, limitless amounts actually. and hey, to top it off the rapist really needed to have sex.

Edited to add example...

Edited by Zip
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Let's start with the most basic question, about man's nature and his means of survival. Unlike animals, which survive by instinct and brute force, man's nature is to reason and survive by reason. It would be wrong -- a denial of reality -- to claim that or act as though man's nature is to be the fastest and toughest beast.

One fundamental aspect of "reason" is concepts. We don't exist simply by learning in each and every case "That is a leopard; that is an apple; that is another leopard; that is a tasty plant; that is a poison plant". Instead, we learn general concepts, which are open-ended and allow us to conclude something about the nature of an individual thing that we haven't seen before -- "That too is nightshade, which is a poison plant".

A moral principle is a kind of concept: a concept integrating notions of "good" and notions of "should act". If one has no moral principles, each choice has to be made without reference to general facts of reality. Acting without moral principles means that you cannot know what a "good action" as opposed to a "bad action" would be. That means, then, that you cannot survive as a man, if you have no moral principles.

Thank you, DavidOdden. I think you did understand where I was coming from.

You helped me to understand that moral principles DERIVE from reality, because they function as concepts.

Let me understand this logic:

  1. It is wrong to put an obstacle in other man's path to achieve his own ends/projects/values.
  2. Stealing puts an obstacle to other men in their way to fulfillment.
  3. Therefore, stealing is wrong.

What I challenge here is the premise number 2.

Wouldn't it better to state that "Stealing generally puts an obstacle to other men in their way to fulfillment" and that "Therefore, stealing is generally wrong" ?

If we can show at least one single case in which stealing did not represent an obstacle for another man's survival or path to fulfillment, then premise 2, as stated, would be invalid.

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I am reading Bernstein's "Objectivism in One Lesson" and I have a question on the basis of Ethics.

If I am understanding correctly, contrary to Kant and his deontologism, objectivist's ethics links values with facts and ethics with the life of a man qua man.

If something promotes man's life qua man, it is good. Not because it follows a rule enacted by God, society, or the whim of an individual, but because it favours man's ability to live a flourishing life, to achive his long term purposes.

But then, why is it inmoral to steal one dollar from a millionaire?

In which way stealing that dollar prevents him from surviving, from living a plenty life of man qua man, from achiving his ideals, values or projects?

In fact, if we were to ask that man if the loss of such a dollars has impacted his ability to survive or advance in his goals, I think he would answer no.

I think you are wrong. If a political system says it is OK to steal a dollar from him, then on principle it provides him no property rights protection. A dollar may be what you choose to take - someone else may choose to steal more.

On principle he should be afraid for his life, his factory, his wallet - everything, since nothing is safe and nothing is protected. He is at the mercy of any random person and how much that person chooses to steal.

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I think you are wrong. If a political system says it is OK to steal a dollar from him, then on principle it provides him no property rights protection. A dollar may be what you choose to take - someone else may choose to steal more.

On principle he should be afraid for his life, his factory, his wallet - everything, since nothing is safe and nothing is protected. He is at the mercy of any random person and how much that person chooses to steal.

Take it one step further...

If a political system says it is ok to steal a dollar from him, what happens when one million people each steal one dollar?

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How about this example. Rape is wrong. But what if the rapist never actually caused physical harm? I mean if he made sure there was no vaginal tearning and he didn't bruse or abuse his victim, what if he was even good looking? What if the woman was tested for psychological trauma and showed none? Would it be proper for a judge to claim that since the rapist really didn't cause physical or mental harm to the woman that he shouldn't be punished? I mean it's not like the woman can't still have sex as many times as she wants, she has plenty of sex left, limitless amounts actually. and hey, to top it off the rapist really needed to have sex.

Edited to add example...

Very good example.

I could still go further. Some men, as we say in Mexico, "steal a kiss" from a woman. This means, the man quickly approaches the woman, and without asking permission grabs her, kiss her lips and let her go. Everything happens quickly. The woman is forced for five seconds. But no physical or psychological damage can objectively be demostrated.

Could the woman argue that the man prevented her to achieve her lont-term goals or values in any way?

The principle here would be something like "No person can invade other person's body or property without permission".

The principle sounds great. We all would agree with it. But again, what is the rationale for this principle? Is it because it was set by society, God, the State?

Why shouldn't I invade your body or property, even if I can demostrate that I did not harm you and I did not damage your property?

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But then, why is it inmoral to steal one dollar from a millionaire?

In which way stealing that dollar prevents him from surviving, from living a plenty life of man qua man, from achiving his ideals, values or projects?

This is a curious question. Presumably the thief needs this one dollar to survive (which seems unlikely) but why must he steal it from anyone? Can't he earn it? Is there no one who will lend it to him or donate it to him if he asks?

On the larger point, are you sure you understand the stated justification for protecting everyone's right to property? The millionaire will no doubt survive the theft of this single dollar but is his survival being at stake really the stated reason it is immoral to steal it?

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I think you are wrong. If a political system says it is OK to steal a dollar from him, then on principle it provides him no property rights protection. A dollar may be what you choose to take - someone else may choose to steal more.

On principle he should be afraid for his life, his factory, his wallet - everything, since nothing is safe and nothing is protected. He is at the mercy of any random person and how much that person chooses to steal.

I think you did not understand my point, Ifat.

I am not arguing in favor of permitting small thefts.

I fully agree with you and with everyone here on property rights.

My point is that Joseph Ratzinger, Immanuel Kant, Peter Singer and Karl Marx would also agree with us.... based on an entirely different metaphysics, epistemiology and ethics.

So, what I want to know is in which sense our ethics does provide a rational basis for condemning this one-dollar theft.

Is our ethics based on reason and reality, or in principles that are rooted, in the end of the day, in the mystical realm?

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We all would agree with it. But again, what is the rationale for this principle?

Why would you agree with a principle, unless you know the rationale for it?

As for the rationale for the principle of individual rights, it relies on philosophy:

I have gained this from philosophy: that I do without being commanded what others do only from fear of the law.--Aristotle

It relies on a whole lot of other knowledge, and principles. For one, it relies on the rationale for principles and abstract thinking, in general. Then, it relies on Objectivist Ethics, which in turn relies on the nature of men and life. And all of the above relies on the three axioms. You know, philosophy.

My point is that Joseph Ratzinger, Immanuel Kant, Peter Singer and Karl Marx would also agree with us.

That's not true.

Edited by Jake_Ellison
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Why would you agree with a principle, unless you know the rationale for it?

As for the rationale for the principle of individual rights, it relies on philosophy:

I have gained this from philosophy: that I do without being commanded what others do only from fear of the law.--Aristotle

Well, I think I am still early in the process that Aristotle once went thorugh.

For the time being, I can tell you honestly why I do not steal one dollar from a millionaire (or steal a kiss from a lady)

1) I fear law (the wrath of the State)

2) I fear loss of respect from my family, friends and colleagues (the wrath of society)

(If I had answered this question some years earlier, I would have added a third one: "I fear God".)

That is, nowadays, the foundation of my not-stealing-one-dollar-from-a-millionaire or not-forcing-a-lady-for-a-kiss.

It means that the principle I am following here is "Do not do things that make the State or the society angry with you, even if you do not fully understand why"

Edited by Hotu Matua
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The principle sounds great. We all would agree with it. But again, what is the rationale for this principle? Is it because it was set by society, God, the State?

Why shouldn't I invade your body or property, even if I can demostrate that I did not harm you and I did not damage your property?

The rationale is that both are forms of the initiation of force. What is the rationale against the initiation of force, it stems from ones right to life (and liberty and property).

Life, Right to

There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)

http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/life--right_to.html

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A possible explanation comes to my mind, based on DavidOddoen propositions.

You know that natural laws help us to understand the world as it is most of the times, 99.99% of the times.

For example, Newton' physics help us to get by in this world, in this human scale.

But then, when an object speed gets close to the speed of light, Newtoninan physics gets into trouble. We need Einstein here.

And when we explore what happened in the first miliseconds after the Big Bang, our understanding of relativity also breaks down, and we need new laws (meaning new undestanding of the laws).

Now, considering the reluctance of Ayn Rand to approach lifeboat situations, stating that we do not live in a lifeboat and therefore, we need a philosophy and an ethics that help us with our daily life,

Could we admit that Objectivism generally works? that Objectivism ethics help us to guide our lives in most situations?

Could we say that in real life, thieves do not steal one dollar from millionaires? In real life, thieves steal as much as they can, and not from millionaires, but from anyone that can be attacked. Indeed, most of the victims are not millionaires, and most of thefts do objectively affect your economy and pursuit of values.

Governments, via taxation, usually do not loot millionaires, or you, by just one dollar. They take 10%, or 20%, or 30%, or 50% (if yo live in Sweden) of your wealth.

In other words, why don't you tell me, "Hotu Matua, this is a version of a lifeboat situation, do not try to apply Objectivist Ethics to this kind of stuff"?

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Do you have an opinion on whether stealing is a good thing, or whether there even is such a thing as good and bad?

Generally, I know what is good and bad.

I think I am good at it within daily life scale.

Above or below some limits, though, my reasoning starts breaking apart. My boat starts sinking.

This is when I go from the daily-life scale to the lifeboat scale. And I am starting to think that the example of the one-dollar thief is a lifeboat situation.

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Let me understand this logic:

  1. It is wrong to put an obstacle in other man's path to achieve his own ends/projects/values.
  2. Stealing puts an obstacle to other men in their way to fulfillment.
  3. Therefore, stealing is wrong.

What I challenge here is the premise number 2.

Wouldn't it better to state that "Stealing generally puts an obstacle to other men in their way to fulfillment" and that "Therefore, stealing is generally wrong" ?

If we can show at least one single case in which stealing did not represent an obstacle for another man's survival or path to fulfillment, then premise 2, as stated, would be invalid.

You are definitely missing something. Since you do not challenge your #1, then can you accept my #1?

#1 - It is wrong to usurp another man's individual right to make his own choices with regards to his life's ends/projects/values.

#2 - Stealing usurps another's individual right to choose what to do with his possessions

#3 - Therefore, stealing is wrong.

I suspect it was not #2 that you had the issue with. You may still be caught up on #1. You're looking for a premise. To have an individual "right" to your own life must necessarily entail being free from "physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men."1

1"Man's Rights" essay by Ayn Rand

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In other words, why don't you tell me, "Hotu Matua, this is a version of a lifeboat situation, do not try to apply Objectivist Ethics to this kind of stuff"?

Because it isn't a lifeboat scenario. There is nothing hypothetical about it. Your observations on the nature of theft earlier are correct, but this isn't a hypothetical for another reason. Some people do believe that the thief is somehow owed that dollar by the rich man and that the theft of it is less serious than it would be if someone had stolen a dollar from a child or someone else who needed it.

Edited by Zip
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Generally, I know what is good and bad.

I think I am good at it within daily life scale.

Above or below some limits, though, my reasoning starts breaking apart. My boat starts sinking.

That's because your reasoning isn't based on your own principles. If you attempt to make decisions without moral principles, or based on principles you don't fully understand (principles that you borrowed from others, the Church, your family and friends etc), it's not going to work.

On the ARI website's registered users' page there's a one hour free lecture by Leonard Peikoff called Why Should One Act on Principle?. It has examples, and detailed explanations, if you sign up you can listen to it. It should answer your original question.

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That's because your reasoning isn't based on your own principles. If you attempt to make decisions without moral principles, or based on principles you don't fully understand (principles that you borrowed from others, the Church, your family and friends etc), it's not going to work.

On the ARI website's registered users' page there's a one hour free lecture by Leonard Peikoff called Why Should One Act on Principle?. It has examples, and detailed explanations, if you sign up you can listen to it. It should answer your original question.

Thanks for the advice, Jake.

I will listen to the lecture.

Regards

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