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

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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

We have to be careful when we say that something is immoral because it violates someone's rights. There is a connection between rights and morality but to be precise we need to respect the hierarchy of the concepts. Rights are derived from morality, not the other way around. Indeed, if you violate someone's rights you are acting immorally but morality is the more fundamental concept. You must first know what is good or bad before you can know what is right or wrong.

So the question to ask (and I believe this is the question that Hotu Matua is asking) is: why is it bad to steal? One way to discover the answer is to read: "The Objectivist Ethics" and you will find that Objectivists live by an objective code of morality. And therefore we reject the role of society or state or god or any irrational concept in defining a proper code of values.

You should do as DavidOdden suggested and go back to man's nature. How does man survive? By using reason to produce the values upon which his survival depends. Values must be produced using reason, and not just physical values. Each man must produce the spiritual values (values pertaining to his consciousness) upon which his life depends. He must use his rational faculty to not only gain knowledge but to discover how to gain knowledge. He must develop a sense that he is worthy of attaining values and happiness. He must believe that he is an efficacious being able to act and achieve. He must develop his own independent judgement in order to figure these things out.

If you steal from another man you are doing something terrible to him, but more importantly, what are you doing to yourself? You are damaging that delicate mechanism that is your means of survival: your mind, your reason. You are saying to yourself: I am unable to produce the values upon which my life depends. This is a very precarious position to put yourself in. What will happen to your spirit? Will you consider yourself efficacious or impotent? What will be your sense of your own self worth? If everyone should get what they deserve, what do you deserve?

This is a difficult point for many to integrate. There are several threads on it, search for "prudent predator" threads though most of them are long and argumentative. Another aspect of this argument is acting on principle so I whole heartedly endorse Jake Ellison's recommendation of "Why Should One Act on Principle?" it is one of my favorites!!!

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Your question seems to be based on a HUGE misconception about Objectivists ethics: Objectivism does NOT say that the theft is immoral because it prevents the millionaire from living qua man.

How is it that your going to get this dollar? Its not going to magically appear in your pocket. Will you break into his house? Car? Hold him up at gun point to take a dollar out of his wallet? What if he refuses? Or maybe you could hack into his bank account and transfer the dollar to your account.

Your basically saying, "Its stealing, but its not immoral because stealing one A from X won't (by definition) take away from the quality of his life." This is rationalism, your just playing with words and definitions while ignoring the actual processes that you would have to take in order to aquire your dollar. Because in your arguments you just "somehow" get this dollar and never actually appeal to the way you will get it from this man, and what your willing to do to get it. No context.

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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 millionaire's dollar is his dollar, not yours.

Bob Kolker

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The simple answer, guys, to the "$1 vs. $1 million" question is cost of living.

If we're using extreme examples, consider this:

The penniless man gains $1. He is able to buy food and live another day.

The rich man loses $1. He earns $1 million a month and his mortgage is $1 million a month (work with me here). He is not able to make his mortgage payment that month.

In that extreme example, the penniless man has violated the rich man's right to live and use his money to do so.

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The simple answer, guys, to the "$1 vs. $1 million" question is cost of living.

If we're using extreme examples, consider this:

The penniless man gains $1. He is able to buy food and live another day.

The rich man loses $1. He earns $1 million a month and his mortgage is $1 million a month (work with me here). He is not able to make his mortgage payment that month.

In that extreme example, the penniless man has violated the rich man's right to live and use his money to do so.

That's not the answer because the wrongness of it doesn't depend on the millionaire's inability to do something, anything because of the missing dollar. It would be wrong even if the millionaire never noticed the missing dollar.

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So there are 2 thoughts: principle and action/result.

In principle, it is wrong. In action/result using that example, it is illustrated to also be wrong.

I find it's easier to just make my case using the latter. Clearly, I don't need to make it so easy on this board. :P

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So there are 2 thoughts: principle and action/result.

In principle, it is wrong. In action/result using that example, it is illustrated to also be wrong.

I find it's easier to just make my case using the latter.

That's because you didn't make your case at all. The question wasn't about a man who has a one million dollar mortgage, and makes exactly one million.

And even if that was the question, the answer should have been: such a man doesn't exist, so it's neither right nor wrong to steal from him. If he did exist, it would be right or wrong for the same reasons it is always right or wrong to steal, and those reasons in fact have nothing at all to do with his ability to survive, or your concern for him. This is an Objectivist website, where we consider our own life, not the lives of others, as our standard of value. His ability to survive is not the reason why we won't steal from him at all.

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The simple answer, guys, to the "$1 vs. $1 million" question is cost of living.

If we're using extreme examples, consider this:

The penniless man gains $1. He is able to buy food and live another day.

The rich man loses $1. He earns $1 million a month and his mortgage is $1 million a month (work with me here). He is not able to make his mortgage payment that month.

In that extreme example, the penniless man has violated the rich man's right to live and use his money to do so.

The millionaire's right to use his money is violated. However, it is violated whether or not he has a mortgage. Your example distracts and misleads. Why do we need to show that the millionaire has this mortgage that will be $1 short? The only inference is that you think you must demonstrate that the millionaire really needs that $1, just as the poor man does. However, need is not a justification.

You actually undermine your case with such an illustration. Any opponent would simply point out that a millionaire doesn't just have a mortgage and nothing else. Surely he buys fuel, drives a car, gets toys for his kids, gets lunch, and so on. If one is speaking of one dollar lost, one has to consider the marginal dollar that he spends. One has to ask what he would not spend on if he had one less dollar. It will probably be something that poor people would consider a luxury (for instance an average tip at a restaurant, instead of a good tip, might save him a few bucks that he lost). You can never win such an argument based on the millionaire's need. The millionaire does not get to keep his money because he needs it (at his standard of living). No, he gets to keep it because it is his.

The millionaire owns the dollar. It is his. He can spend it on any value, even if he could easily do without that value, even if he would not notice it; it would be completely immoral to force him -- by theft or by government decree -- to do otherwise.

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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?

Ethics is not about helping others to flourish. If you act ethically, you will be in a position to truly help those around you, but only because of the harmony of rational interests. No, ethical behavior in Objectivism is driven by a primary concern for one's own flourishing. The point is, stealing is not truly in your own rational self-interest, and here's why.

First of all, theft is not a dependable strategy for sustaining your life in the long term. Being able to produce value yourself and do it well is a much better, more sustainable, and more reliable strategy for producing value and securing your own flourishing. Basically, being able to earn money is a much more useful skill than being able to steal it. Think about how many millionaires or billionaires got there through business vs through theft.

So, production should be one's primary means of gaining values, simply because it's the best for oneself. But how does this translate into not stealing one little dollar? Well, this has to do with an understanding of character and its importance in one's life. One's character is basically a fundamental, gut-level orientation to either ethical or unethical behavior. Think of it as a strong wind blowing in a certain direction. If you have a basically productive character, you're always looking for opportunities to produce more, do it better, etc. If you have a fundamentally unproductive character, you'll always be looking for ways to avoid work, to get something for nothing. Working will take much more effort. If production is going to be your main method of gaining values, then you're obviously going to have the best life and best opportunities if you have a productive character. But how do you get one?

You have to build it, act by act. Each action you take to attempt to gain value, either by work or without effort, adds to your character in whichever direction. Every little act of theft or procrastination or whatever is a little note to your subconscious that you don't need to exert effort to get what you want. Since that's not true usually or as a general rule, that's a bad message to be sending yourself. Even if you could get away with it in this instance, or even if you don't think it's a big deal, like a dollar from someone who can afford it, it's a little step down the wrong path, and coming back from that will take additional effort. The more "advantageous" the theft would be in terms of money, the more harmful it is to your predisposition towards production. One dollar is only a tiny setback, but it's only a tiny amount of money. Theft is just never worth it, once you consider all the costs.Thus, it's in your own self-interest to refrain from actions such as the one you describe.

The Objectivist case against theft is thus basically the recognition that it won't work out over the long term, plus the fact that building a virtuous character is a big part of one's self-interest.

"To deal with men by force is as impractical as to deal with nature by persuasion." - Ayn Rand

Edited by Dante
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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.

Gold star ^_^

The standard for morality is not whether or not you harm other people, it is your OWN life. If an action benefits your life it is moral; if it detracts from it it is immoral. By the nature of acting in a social context, when you harm other people you can and will harm yourself -- the responsibility for the use of retaliatory force lies with the initiator of force, not the one retaliating. The question of degree ($1 vs $1 billion) is irrelevant and doesn't change anything.

Even long time Objectivists have a hard time giving up the idea that the standard of morality is what you do to others. It isn't. What you do to others is the standard used in politics, not in ethics. Ethical questions do not concern other people, they concern you and you alone.

Simply stating "because its a principle" is something one would hear in church. :/ It is unfortunate to hear it here.

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Thank you, Dante and TomL, for your insights.

They are really helpful.

As I know understand it, we must act by principle. But not principles derived from authority (either the authority of gods or society) but derived from the conceptualizing ability or man's mind.

Principles derived from reason.

And conceptualizing means to generalize instead of particularize, precisely because keeping the big picture in mind (in this case, the long-term development of your character) is proper of man qua man.

I deeply appreciate the time, insight, and patience of all of you who have contributed to help me to understand this better.

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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?

Because property rights are something protected by the government and are a natural extension of reason and rationality. By stealing a dollar, you are committing a crime and are liable to be put away for a long time. In an Objectivist society, I do believe theft, however tiny, should be given the death penalty or at least life imprisonment. Its the best way to promote a culture of healthy respect for individual rights, capitalism and freedom.

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

It would help if you learned proper English for starters. :stuart:

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Because property rights are something protected by the government and are a natural extension of reason and rationality. By stealing a dollar, you are committing a crime and are liable to be put away for a long time. In an Objectivist society, I do believe theft, however tiny, should be given the death penalty or at least life imprisonment. Its the best way to promote a culture of healthy respect for individual rights, capitalism and freedom.

An Objectivist society would base its enforcement of laws on Objectivist values, in this case justice. Justice doesnt mean ridiculous punishments; it means fairness and balance in accordance with reality. But then again I am not sure how good of an understanding of reality you have after a statement like that.

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Your question seems to be based on a HUGE misconception about Objectivists ethics:

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?

Objectivism does NOT say that the theft is immoral because it prevents the millionaire from living qua man. It is immoral for the thief to steal because it is incompatible with the thief's life qua man. The reason for that is that stealing is antithetical to life qua man--because life qua man means surviving by means of your own rational faculty.

The millionaire's life is solely the millionaire's business; it has no direct relevance as far as the morality of my actions is concerned. Objectivist ethics is not altruistic; it does not make it my responsibility to worry about some other guy's life. If I cancel some contract with the millionaire and thereby reduce his bottom line by one dollar, the effect on him is still the same--he has lost $1--but such an action may well be moral on my part. It is not the effect on the millionaire that matters, but the effect on me.

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Your question seems to be based on a HUGE misconception about Objectivists ethics:

Objectivism does NOT say that the theft is immoral because it prevents the millionaire from living qua man. It is immoral for the thief to steal because it is incompatible with the thief's life qua man. The reason for that is that stealing is antithetical to life qua man--because life qua man means surviving by means of your own rational faculty.

The millionaire's life is solely the millionaire's business; it has no direct relevance as far as the morality of my actions is concerned. Objectivist ethics is not altruistic; it does not make it my responsibility to worry about some other guy's life. If I cancel some contract with the millionaire and thereby reduce his bottom line by one dollar, the effect on him is still the same--he has lost $1--but such an action may well be moral on my part. It is not the effect on the millionaire that matters, but the effect on me.

This is a beautiful response.

I thank you for that.

Let me quote the paragraph of Andrew Bernstein's "Objectivism in One Lesson" that made me raise this question:

Talking about why the initiation of force by a gunman is bad, he says (bold is mine):

"... Left free, a man will choose to hold onto his money (or his home ior his land or other valuables)-- but under compulsion he surrenders it to a gunman. The victim realizes that if he is unable to retain the wealth he earns, then he cannot survive --reality will, in time, terminate his life; but if he does not hand over the wealth he's earned to the brute, his life will be terminated now....The victim is thereby placed in a hopeless position [...] Even if the initation of force does not entail the threat of imminent death --even if, for example, it involves merely the theft of a few dollars -- it undermines a man's ability to employ his resources in support of his life. If he has no recourse against such theft, then he has no means of preventing his financial life blood to be drained. How then is he to exercise his right to life? The conclusion is that the initiation of force always undercuts an individual's ability to employ his mind in support of his own existence. An absolute requirement of a civilized society is that it bans such actions violating men's moral right to seek survival as a rational being" (page 101)

Reading the context, I thought that when Bernstein says that "initiation of force always undercuts an individual's abilty to employ his mind in support of his own existence", the individual here means the victim. The victim is deprived of his freedom to use those dollars in support of its existence.

I thought that theft was considered evil because it is harming the victim, and then wondered in which realistic sense a very wealthy victim could have his quest for survival undercut from the loss of one dollar.

Please let me know how you interpret Bernstein's paragraph. I can paste here the whole section if needed.

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In an Objectivist society, I do believe theft, however tiny, should be given the death penalty or at least life imprisonment. Its the best way to promote a culture of healthy respect for individual rights, capitalism and freedom.

It is statements like these that turn off people from Objectivism.

It is silly to make such a claim.

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Apologies if my statement came off too strong. I am a strong believer in property rights and enforcements of property rights. I do believe property rights are the only thing distinguishing civilization from barbarism, hence my statement.

You're either rationalizing, and have no idea how you're supposed to form concepts, come up with principles, etc. , or you're just a big fan of giving into sadistic impulses. There is no other reason why you would seriously want the death penalty for shoplifting. Being a fan of property rights certainly isn't that reason.

What you can do however, is read, and learn. Instead of just posting your answers, you should from now on try to figure out what the answer of at least two philosophers, accomplished writers etc. (hopefully Ayn Rand will be one of them) would have been to that question, based on actual writings you actually read. Then, post your answers, you'll be surprised at the speed at which your understanding of these issues will improve.

It would help if you learned proper English for starters.

If your posts were as interesting and smart as the post you decided to attack, I would be pleasantly impressed with your progress in all matters philosophy.

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These answers don't really convince me. It may be impossible to use theft as a long-term means of survival but who said that was the thief's objective? That claim is pertinent to why a country develops property rights through law in the first place, but not in this individual scenario.

Like I said a few posts ago, the reason you shouldn't steal is because you'll be forfeiting your own rights, and you need rights, not dollars, to survive.

I could, for instance, draw a steady salary from my job, which I use to buy all my food and other necessities and luxuries, and then on the way home each day I could pinch an apple from someone's garden. I don't even need to eat the apple, I could just throw it away for fun. This does not undermine the income that supports my life, it is merely isolated theft or vandalism. And it is still immoral, and serious - because in violating someone else's rights, I forfeit my own.

This is a beautiful response.

I thank you for that.

Let me quote the paragraph of Andrew Bernstein's "Objectivism in One Lesson" that made me raise this question:

Talking about why the initiation of force by a gunman is bad, he says (bold is mine):

"... Left free, a man will choose to hold onto his money (or his home ior his land or other valuables)-- but under compulsion he surrenders it to a gunman. The victim realizes that if he is unable to retain the wealth he earns, then he cannot survive --reality will, in time, terminate his life; but if he does not hand over the wealth he's earned to the brute, his life will be terminated now....The victim is thereby placed in a hopeless position [...] Even if the initation of force does not entail the threat of imminent death --even if, for example, it involves merely the theft of a few dollars -- it undermines a man's ability to employ his resources in support of his life. If he has no recourse against such theft, then he has no means of preventing his financial life blood to be drained. How then is he to exercise his right to life? The conclusion is that the initiation of force always undercuts an individual's ability to employ his mind in support of his own existence. An absolute requirement of a civilized society is that it bans such actions violating men's moral right to seek survival as a rational being" (page 101)

Reading the context, I thought that when Bernstein says that "initiation of force always undercuts an individual's abilty to employ his mind in support of his own existence", the individual here means the victim. The victim is deprived of his freedom to use those dollars in support of its existence.

I thought that theft was considered evil because it is harming the victim, and then wondered in which realistic sense a very wealthy victim could have his quest for survival undercut from the loss of one dollar.

Please let me know how you interpret Bernstein's paragraph. I can paste here the whole section if needed.

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