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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 think that one of the evilest aspects, if not the most, of theft is that it is an action which boldly states that, "The ends justify the means." Disgusting.

Also I thought that a passage from "Ayn Rand Answers" was relevant here. The questioner asks, "I'm going to cheat my aunt out of her money, and then spend it on a library and devote the rest of my time to reading ang thinking, which is in my self interest." Miss Rans said that the questioner was guily of context dropping. She replies, (my italics):

"He is dropping several contexts, primarily that his self interest is not determined by whatever he feels like doing. To determine one's rational self interest, one must include allof the relevant elements involved in a decision. The first contradiction he would encounter is the idea of robbery. He cannot claim self interest if he does not grant this right objectively to his aunt. If he decides to follow his own self interest but respect nobody else's, he is no longer on an objective moral base, but on a hedonistic, whimworshipping one. If so, he has disqualified himself; he is claiming a contradiction. If he wants to maintain rationally his own self interest, and claim he has a case for his right to self interest, then he must concede that the ground on which he claims the right to self interest also applies to every other human being. He cannot make a rational case for taking his aunt's property." - Pg 110

Edited by LogicsSon
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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.

I've been hearing about this forfeiture of rights idea for years now, but I am yet to see an actual basis for it. It certainly doesn't sound like something that would exist in harmony next to Ayn Rand's characterization of individual rights, here, for instance:

"Since Man has inalienable individual rights, this means that the same rights are held, individually, by every man, by all men, at all times. "

I have violated people's rigths in tha past, and I would be very much against any ideology that might suggest that I therefor have no rights right now.

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as cited two posts above:

"If he wants to maintain rationally his own self interest, and claim he has a case for his right to self interest, then he must concede that the ground on which he claims the right to self interest also applies to every other human being." - Rand

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Please let me know how you interpret Bernstein's paragraph.

I interpret it as saying that being the victim of force sucks. Which I completely agree with. :)

If somebody asked me, "Hey, CF, why do you dislike being a victim of force?" or "Why would you support a government that bans the initiation of force?" then I would answer something along the lines of what Dr. Bernstein says in that quote.

If, on the other hand, somebody asked me: "Hey, CF, why do you not initiate force against others?" then I would tell him that initiating force is not my idea of life qua man.

Note that the first question is a political one (What type of government do you support?) while the second one pertains to ethics (What principles do you live by?)

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Thanks, CF.

Indeed, I think you did a much better job in explaning the rationale that Dr Bersntein himself.

But then I have this problem

OK, it is immoral to take the dollar form the millionaire because this is not allowing the thief to live qua man, depending on his own mind and effort. The ethical question is closed.

But when we jump from the ethical to the political realm is when I seem to have the problem.

I have a problem in defending the millionarie's RIGHT to his dollar, if I use as an argument the victim's inability to employ his resources to advance his personal goals or values gas been undermined. I must use other argument. And this is the point of my question.

In an Objectivist court, I could not use as an argument the immorality of the thief (the ethical part). Who cares what the criminal does to his own character? What do we care if he prefers to live as a wild, mindless sub-human?

But to defend the millionaire, to explain how his property rights have been violated, I think I should base the property right on a universal PRINCIPLE. A principle like "A man has a right over the product of his mind, because the product of his mind is GENERALLY necessary for his survival /lon-tem values /flourishing life, etc." I would have to resort to a principle derived from a moral concept, a moral generalization that works 99.9 % of the time (which is pretty good for our daily life situations) but not 100% of the time.

This is when my hypothesis of lifeboat situations comes up. Ethics in any system, including Objectivist system, breaks apart when placed in very unusual situations. Ethics, as Newtonian physics or any other theory of reality, breaks apart when forced to explain reality (or human behavior) at extremely tiny scales or very large scales.

Maybe our understanding of morality, as well as our understanding of reality, is still limited... and it will evolve.

There must be a solution to the pending issues in physics, as there must be a solution to the pending issues in ethics. It is just that we have not discovered them yet.

In the meanwhile, we can keep applying the property rights concept to the case of the one dollar theft to a millionaire. But maybe we have to admit that we are doing it because this is as good as it gets... because the world is a better place with that interpretation of the principle that without it...

Edited by Hotu Matua
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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.

It doesn't have to be the thief's explicit objective in order to be morally binding on him. The thrust of the Objectivist ethics is that so long as any of the thief's stated objectives includes survival, continuing to exist on this planet, he must either accept the standard of man's life qua man to further his life, or accept a contradiction (attempting to continue living while engaging in actions that undercut his ability to continue to live, long-term). Now, the vast majority of people do indeed accept contradictions in their moral code, but the point is that there is only one objective moral code which is fully and completely compatible with a course of life (without contradictions), and that code does not include theft. The Objectivist ethics is not deontological, in that it is only the initial choice to live which makes it binding, but it is not subjective either, in that it is compatible with any given end whatsoever, and it applies to anyone who wants to live. The theif's particular objectives don't matter and are most likely self-contradictory.

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.

How exactly do you "forfeit your own" rights when you commit an act of theft? I understand that in a free society, based on property rights, when someone commits an act of theft, they forfeit some of their rights, allowing the government moral sanction to lock them up for a bit... but outside of that context, what exactly do you mean when you make this claim? Is it that any act violating others' rights makes your own rights more likely to be violated? This claim is highly dependent on the social context, which is exactly what an objective morality is not supposed to be. Is your claim merely that I lose the moral high ground when claiming my rights, and I become a hypocrite? You must then indicate why I should care about that.

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.

You're still gaining a value from theft (fun, in this case), and you're still internally undermining your own respect for production and property rights (production and product), and it is precisely this respect that you need to be able to live the best life possible. It is not important (primarily) because one day the guy might see you, and come vandalize your lawn, it is important because it undermines your own character, which is of primary, selfish importance.

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But when we jump from the ethical to the political realm is when I seem to have the problem.

I have a problem in defending the millionarie's RIGHT to his dollar, if I use as an argument the victim's inability to employ his resources to advance his personal goals or values gas been undermined. I must use other argument....

But to defend the millionaire, to explain how his property rights have been violated, I think I should base the property right on a universal PRINCIPLE. A principle like "A man has a right over the product of his mind, because the product of his mind is GENERALLY necessary for his survival /lon-tem values /flourishing life, etc." I would have to resort to a principle derived from a moral concept, a moral generalization that works 99.9 % of the time (which is pretty good for our daily life situations) but not 100% of the time.

You are right to argue that the jump from ethics to politics must have more to it than just what is contained in ethics. Indeed, although the thief is harming himself, this is not the basis of legal code or of a theory of rights. After all, in an Objectivist system, people would have the right to engage in all sorts of self-destructive behavior (drug abuse, risky sex, etc). Rights are, as Ayn Rand defines them, "moral principles defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context." Rights are about what you can do to others, and they exist for one, and only one, reason: they are a necessary condition for anyone to live a flourishing, full life. Now, your concern seems to be that rights, defined and created for this purpose, cannot logically extend to minutely small amounts of resources. After all, I am not noticeably harmed by the loss of a single penny, to take an extreme example. How could rights theory punish someone who, say, took a penny out of every bank account in America? It doesn't seem to impede anyone's flourishing.

The answer to this has to do more with the necessity of security and constancy in property rights than in tying every little loss to a diminishing of well-being. I may not be appreciably harmed by the loss of a single penny, but I am noticeably worse-off for living in a social system which sanctions the theft of a penny. In a system of absolute property rights, I can be 100% sure that what I produce, I am entitled to, and I will be able to keep. This allows me to construct a rational, realistic plan for my own future, a plan which has as stable a foundation as possible. I am certain that no one will be able to come up to me and proclaim part of my resources as his own (legally). I know, when I go to work, that the money I earn will be there for me when I call on it in the future.

Every legal intrusion on property rights such as these will unhinge my secure planning foundation; I am no longer certain that I will be able to lay claim to my resources when I need them. Every legal route to forcible transfers of wealth undermines the strength of everyone's property rights. If, hypothetically, you could lay claim to a penny of the money in my bank account, how much of my money could I realistically lay absolute claim to? Now, it's true that under neither system am I 100% safe from theft, but in one I am 100% safe from legal theft; i.e., I have absolute legal claim to my resources. This provides me with the most secure base possible for rational planning.

As Ayn Rand repeatedly emphasized, life is entirely dependent on a process of self-sustaining action. Organisms have to take action to achieve values in order to continue to live. Rational animals like us require the ability to rationally plan for the future and for need-fulfillment in a far-off horizon. It is this need for planning that gives rise to a need for stability, which can be best achieved by absolute property rights.

A comparison could be drawn to what the economist Robert Higgs has termed "regime uncertainty." Looking at what FDR did during the Great Depression, Higgs contends that the negative effects of each individual plan from the White House wasn't the full extent of the damage done. Sure, the NRA, the Wagner act, and the WPA each held back recovery on their own. But a lot of the damage done to the economy can't be tied to any particular part of the New Deal. When the president comes out with a different and new plan for recovery every two weeks, what businessman is going to be willing to make large investments, that might not pay off for five, ten, or twenty years? Maybe in a month the president will pass a law that makes such an investment obsolete, or at least less profitable, and all (some of) that money will be down the drain. More than just wasting resources, the New Deal scared off potential investment because of the environment of "regime uncertainty." Now we can see a similarity between this damage and the damage done by unsecure property rights. If there are legal ways to trump property rights, there is a certain amount of regime uncertainty in everyday life; who knows who will come along tomorrow with a legal right to some of my property?

Objectivism isn't about simply getting by, or surviving in the short term. Objectivist ethics calls for one's true best efforts, the most rational and most productive one can possibly be. The Objectivist standard isn't simply scraping by, but achieving values to the fullest extent possible, and the Objectivist theory of rights is designed so as to make this possible. And this standard calls for the most secure base of property rights possible, to allow for the best chances of success in achieving values.

This is when my hypothesis of lifeboat situations comes up. Ethics in any system, including Objectivist system, breaks apart when placed in very unusual situations.

Objectivist ethics and politics recognizes lifeboat situations, but they are not similar to the situation you have described. Lifeboat situations are generally massive, unforseeable (to a certain extent), and life-altering; life by the normal procedures (production, rational planning) is literally not possible in a lifeboat situation. When an earthquake rocks a city, or a tsunami hits, these are candidates for genuine lifeboat situations. In such situations, property rights can be suspended for a time, until the situation is returned to normal. However, there is nothing abnormal about the environment in which I steal one dollar from a millionaire; we are inside the normal context, where property rights should make my actions illegal.

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You are right to argue that the jump from ethics to politics must have more to it than just what is contained in ethics. Indeed, although the thief is harming himself, this is not the basis of legal code or of a theory of rights. After all, in an Objectivist system, people would have the right to engage in all sorts of self-destructive behavior (drug abuse, risky sex, etc). Rights are, as Ayn Rand defines them, "moral principles defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context."

I haven't read this whole thread, but I agree with what Dante said: The principle of individual rights and property rights must be established in a society for it to flourish. If you had uncertainty about what a thief could legally take from you, then you would be spending a considerable amount of time and effort just to secure what is yours -- a job for a proper government,not each individual in a society. Once the principle of individual rights is breached -- once you think that the millionaire has no right to all of his earnings, then neither do you, and any thief can come along and still "just a little bit" from your bank account legally. I don't think it takes much of an imagination to realize that if this were the rule of society, then no one's property would be safe from petty thieves. How many hundreds if not thousand and millions of people would want a piece of the millionaire's money, why do you think you would be the only one with that idea that he won't miss a dollar? Many people would act that way, and anyone who has less than you would act that way regarding your earnings. The issue of property rights must hold true across the board, that what is yours is yours, and not someone else's, otherwise, there is no principle to stop all the petty thieves from eating your whole savings one penny at a time.

A desire for the unearned, even a little bit, is a pervasive evil in uncivilized times and societies. You may not think you are doing any harm, but you are by proscribing a non-principle, that stealing a little bit won't do anybody any harm. Multiply that out to the millions of looters who would follow, and the rational society would collapse.

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Thank you, Dante, for your comprehensive answer.

Thank you Thomas as well.

For what I understand, by establishing absolute property rights we are playing the safe side.

And we play the safe side by forming concepts, generalizations, abstractions.

In the same way that language, reasoning and culture would be impossible if we had to name every single apple in the world with a unique name (as there are not two identical apples), law and order and cililization could not develop if we had to apply a unique rule to every single possible interaction between men (as there are not two identical circumstances or interactions).

So, the episode of a thief stealing one dollar to a millionaire should not be analized without the context of all possible thefts to all men and for all amounts of money. We should never miss the whole picture. Animals do that, but men, as a rational animal, form concepts, contextualizes, constructs abstractions: builds a theory of rights.

I think I am clear now. And I thank all of you who took the time to help me out.

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I've been hearing about this forfeiture of rights idea for years now, but I am yet to see an actual basis for it.

I think what he was getting at by saying one forfeits their rights when they violates the rights of another is, now I can't complain when someone comes and takes a dollar from me because i didn't 'need' it. If I didn't respect his rights, how can I expect anyone to respect mine. maybe?

And I'm not for that whole death sentence thing but, in an 'Objectivist society', I wouldn't think one would have to worry too much about that. What a place to be eh. B)

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I'm sure, aside from the obvious response of "Stealing one dollar from a millionaire is still stealing", is that this kind of mentality can lead to a slippery slope of further stealing.

Just steal a little more money from him! It's okay! After all, he makes a lot of money, it won't hurt!

...Just steal another dollar from him! Okay, I promised myself I wouldn't steal again.. but.. just a little more!

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" If they demand the violation of the rights of others, they negate and forfeit their own." - Rand, racism essay

although, you could argue that here Rand was referring to a political entity (civil rights related campaigns) and not an individual

but anyway, the way *I* see it, the argument flows like this

man needs rights to survive qua man

rights must be mutually respected amongst humans

it is irrational to want to keep your own rights whilst violating another's

therefore someone who steals is living irrationally

so stealing is contrary to your survival (as a rational being, ie. 'qua man')

maybe the forfeiting sentence isn't the best way to phrase it but essentially

- rights require mutual respect amongst rights-holders, if we are operating rationally

say on my way home i can take two equidistant routes, one which is an open road, or another which is a path through private property

production of value is not an issue here

the reason i should not take the second route is because i want to preserve my own property rights, not my own self-respect/esteem

It doesn't have to be the thief's explicit objective in order to be morally binding on him. The thrust of the Objectivist ethics is that so long as any of the thief's stated objectives includes survival, continuing to exist on this planet, he must either accept the standard of man's life qua man to further his life, or accept a contradiction (attempting to continue living while engaging in actions that undercut his ability to continue to live, long-term). Now, the vast majority of people do indeed accept contradictions in their moral code, but the point is that there is only one objective moral code which is fully and completely compatible with a course of life (without contradictions), and that code does not include theft. The Objectivist ethics is not deontological, in that it is only the initial choice to live which makes it binding, but it is not subjective either, in that it is compatible with any given end whatsoever, and it applies to anyone who wants to live. The theif's particular objectives don't matter and are most likely self-contradictory.

How exactly do you "forfeit your own" rights when you commit an act of theft? I understand that in a free society, based on property rights, when someone commits an act of theft, they forfeit some of their rights, allowing the government moral sanction to lock them up for a bit... but outside of that context, what exactly do you mean when you make this claim? Is it that any act violating others' rights makes your own rights more likely to be violated? This claim is highly dependent on the social context, which is exactly what an objective morality is not supposed to be. Is your claim merely that I lose the moral high ground when claiming my rights, and I become a hypocrite? You must then indicate why I should care about that.

You're still gaining a value from theft (fun, in this case), and you're still internally undermining your own respect for production and property rights (production and product), and it is precisely this respect that you need to be able to live the best life possible. It is not important (primarily) because one day the guy might see you, and come vandalize your lawn, it is important because it undermines your own character, which is of primary, selfish importance.

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...the way *I* see it, the argument flows like this

man needs rights to survive qua man

rights must be mutually respected amongst humans

it is irrational to want to keep your own rights whilst violating another's

therefore someone who steals is living irrationally

so stealing is contrary to your survival (as a rational being, ie. 'qua man')

maybe the forfeiting sentence isn't the best way to phrase it but essentially

- rights require mutual respect amongst rights-holders, if we are operating rationally

One might argue that it is irrational to expect a theft that goes unnoticed to have any effect on the theif's own rights.

It is hypocritical, certainly, to expect others to respect your rights when you don't respect the rights of others. But consistency isn't something that one pursues as an end in itself; one requires consistency in one's thoughts ONLY because reality has no contradictions. One's thinking is inconsistent if one tries to get away with acting as if two contradictory facts are true in reality. But what, exactly, is contradictory about me pursuing a "prudent predator" approach, whereby I steal and whatnot only under very special circumstances, where it will likely have no effect on how others treat me? Is there something contradictory between doing something and thinking that occasionally, other people won't notice it? That happens all the time. People get away with thefts all the time.

The root contradiction does not, in fact, concern how others will react to your disregard for their property rights, because that depends on their awareness. The root contradiction lies in thinking that isolated acts of theft do not have a spillover effect on one's overall character. One's life is an integrated sum, and deviations can never be contained. That effect will always be present, whether others are watching or not. That is what makes a prudent predator approach not prudent at all.

It's true that if all actors are acting rationally, one is best served with respecting property rights, but Objectivism must also give compelling reasons for behaving ethically before we get to a perfect Objectivist society. It has to give people reasons to be ethical even when they might well "get away with it" in the conventional sense; and its response is that they aren't truly getting away with it, when you take the long-term perspective on their lives.

say on my way home i can take two equidistant routes, one which is an open road, or another which is a path through private property

production of value is not an issue here

the reason i should not take the second route is because i want to preserve my own property rights, not my own self-respect/esteem

But this would imply that if you know that the owner isn't there and no one is watching, you shouldn't care which way you go. My point is that making ethics dependent on other people's reactions to your behavior is an unstable base, unable to provide solid principles. You should go the first way because respect for property rights is an important character trait that will serve you well in most situations of your life, and you can't go the second route without undermining it.

Edited by Dante
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I think what he was getting at by saying one forfeits their rights when they violates the rights of another is, now I can't complain when someone comes and takes a dollar from me because i didn't 'need' it. If I didn't respect his rights, how can I expect anyone to respect mine. maybe?

It would be irrational to steal, and then claim to adhere to a system of rights, sure. If you're to be honest, you'd have to admit your transgression, before appealing for justice, when it's your turn as the victim. But there is no law that says you have to be honest, or have integrity, or else you won't be considered part of society, with the same rights as everyone else.

Integrity is a matter of one's personal morality, not politics, so saying that one forfeits their political rights by committing a transgression is wrong. One forfeits a personal, moral claim (a claim of being independent, honest, and just, etc, in other words a claim to one's own code of morality; or, if in the future the thief becomes a victim himself, a claim of being the innocent victim of an immoral brute). There are all sorts of personal consequences to that, that affect one's self esteem, social standing, friendships etc. Who's going to trust a thief, especially one that isn't repentant, with anything?

Politically, of course, a criminal faces punishment for their crime, while retaining his rights, including to a fair trial and an objective sentence. That is a direct consequence of the inalienable nature of rights. But fear of punishment should not be the primary reason why a person should stay moral. If it is, that means that the need for morality has been successfully evaded. At that point, evading the danger of getting caught is child's play, for a career criminal. That's why they tend to end up in jail, even the smart criminals, they just have no compass to realize when not to take risks anymore.

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I think your argument for 'character' addresses stealing specifically, and strongly, but my argument actually pertains to rights violations in general

i didn't construct my argument to conclude "you will be arrested" or "you will be shunned by your fellow man"

it concludes with 'you will be acting irrationally, thus contrary to your survival'

i'm going by 'reason is your only absolute' and 'reason is your means of survival' and 'all evil stems from the refusal to think'

if you take a prudent predator approach, you will be seeking to hold rights, whilst seeking to infringe the rights of others

since the only rational grounds for rights is ranting everyone else the same rights, you will be suspending rationality

thus, it is immoral - rationality is man's means of survival (qua man)

it's not because there will be an effect on others (like you said, that's not guaranteed), or a response from others, it's primarily because you will be trying to hold a contradiction

imagine you were one of those people like the protagonist of Memento who only has short term memory - the long term (internal) effect on character/integrity would be negated because you would have no knowledge of previous actions, but you could still act morally on a case-by-case basis by holding reason as your only absolute and recognizing that rights must not be violated

(of course character, integrity, pride, productivity are all still good additional arguments for not stealing, i just don't think they are the primary motivation)

One might argue that it is irrational to expect a theft that goes unnoticed to have any effect on the theif's own rights.

It is hypocritical, certainly, to expect others to respect your rights when you don't respect the rights of others. But consistency isn't something that one pursues as an end in itself; one requires consistency in one's thoughts ONLY because reality has no contradictions. One's thinking is inconsistent if one tries to get away with acting as if two contradictory facts are true in reality. But what, exactly, is contradictory about me pursuing a "prudent predator" approach, whereby I steal and whatnot only under very special circumstances, where it will likely have no effect on how others treat me? Is there something contradictory between doing something and thinking that occasionally, other people won't notice it? That happens all the time. People get away with thefts all the time.

The root contradiction does not, in fact, concern how others will react to your disregard for their property rights, because that depends on their awareness. The root contradiction lies in thinking that isolated acts of theft do not have a spillover effect on one's overall character. One's life is an integrated sum, and deviations can never be contained. That effect will always be present, whether others are watching or not. That is what makes a prudent predator approach not prudent at all.

It's true that if all actors are acting rationally, one is best served with respecting property rights, but Objectivism must also give compelling reasons for behaving ethically before we get to a perfect Objectivist society. It has to give people reasons to be ethical even when they might well "get away with it" in the conventional sense; and its response is that they aren't truly getting away with it, when you take the long-term perspective on their lives.

But this would imply that if you know that the owner isn't there and no one is watching, you shouldn't care which way you go. My point is that making ethics dependent on other people's reactions to your behavior is an unstable base, unable to provide solid principles. You should go the first way because respect for property rights is an important character trait that will serve you well in most situations of your life, and you can't go the second route without undermining it.

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