Is stealing coq au vin such a heinous crime?

The other day, a French woman who lives in Naxxar was arraigned in court for stealing wine and chicken wings from a Maypole store. The Law takes a serious view of such matters, but could there be instances when theft is morally acceptable?

The newspaper reports do not say what made an otherwise normal woman succumb to the temptation of stealing the items. Was it because she was short of money?  Was it because the loneliness which can be induced by COVID made her subliminally wish to draw attention to herself? Or was it because the woman found that store’s wine and chicken wings too expensive to cook coq au vin for the whole family?

Is stealing morally acceptable in some situations? Society says it is not. However, we live in a very grey world where sometimes people compromise their morals in order to serve a purpose that is more important than those morals.

The easiest example is someone stealing food to survive. We have had citizens being arraigned in court pleading that they did not have money to feed themselves. Obviously staying alive is worth more than their moral compass telling them it’s wrong to steal.  

Also, what if another person had seen this man starving and he in turn stole the food and gave it to him? Is that theft or is it a noble gesture? The Court could find itself in a tangle deciding whether it was a crime which merited the full force of the law, or whether there were extenuating circumstances. 

We live in a very grey world where sometimes people compromise their morals in order to serve a purpose that is more important than those morals.

Then what about someone who has had a bad run of luck and steals some batteries to run a small electronic device, because he has no electricity at his house and wants some entertainment? Is that morally acceptable? After all, playing video games is a matter of life and death for some people nowadays, not to mention that EneMalta has no right depriving us of a reliable supply of electricity.

We know that stealing is wrong. Yet, the world is an interesting place where people do wrong things all the time and compromise their own beliefs regularly in order to survive or serve themselves in some way. I know there are numerous faults with my argument, but if I were a utilitarian I would venture to say that stealing to satisfy one’s desires would be justified.

Like all negative impulses of the mind, the habit of stealing results from greed, selfishness and discontent. Stealing has a corrosive effect on one’s moral character. Sometimes betraying one’s morals can be a righteous thing in the moment but we always need to remember that someone else pays the price for these things.

Stealing takes many forms, from small thefts with limited karmic consequences, to “stealing” Earth’s natural resources to satisfy our unlimited desires, producing far-reaching karmic consequences, such as climate change.   

Corporations not paying their workers a fair wage is also a form of stealing. Likewise, the €23m owed in tax by 12,300 businesses in Malta. And what about the arrears of National Insurance contributions amounting to over €180 million owed by employers? It seems that the Law is very forceful with a housewife, but powerless with the bosses.

Corporations not paying their workers a fair wage is also a form of stealing.

To restrain one’s unethical attitude and cultivate moral aspiration, sage Patanjali of ancient India in his “Yoga Sutras” defines the moral disciplines necessary for fostering inner restraint as Yama, and the disciplines necessary for cultivating good habits as Niyama.

Yamas include non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, control of physical desires and not-receiving of gifts (a bribe). Had Rosianne Cutajar had a good understanding of Yama, she would not have fallen foul of the Code of Ethics of MPs. Had Konrad Mizzi cultivated Niyama, he would not have fallen so heavily from grace.

In his magnum opus Summa Theologica, the medieval Catholic philosopher-saint Thomas Aquinas asks whether it is ethical to steal in a time of extreme necessity. He answers: “…if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succour his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.”

So, is it ethically justifiable for a person to steal from the public if the only way of satisfying his craving for a yacht is to do so? Let’s say, the poor guy has already exhausted all possibilities to do so with a puny salary and there is no other conceivable solution but to help himself to the public purse. Is that theft, pure and simple, or is it creative genius?

Thomas Aquinas believes that taking another’s property, whether openly or secretly, is morally acceptable in extremely rare but ominously not unreal circumstances. He thinks that private property is not so private after all.  Infrastructure Malta certainly thinks so.   

Citing St Ambrose, another medieval scholar, Thomas Aquinas further writes about those who accumulate (hoard?) superfluous goods. “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.” Then, who is the real thief?

So, hoarding of toilet paper at the beginning of the COVID pandemic was morally wrong and should have been prosecuted. But, then, imagine the scenes at our already-overburdened Courts had thousands of people been arraigned for hoarding two years’ supply of double-ply toilet paper.

Legal or ethical gobbledygook may not perfectly resolve the difference between urgently needed and somewhat needed. But I would like to think that Thomas Aquinas speaks primarily to one’s personal conscience (and rumbling stomach) that will ultimately determine whether the French woman just taking or actually stealing Maypole’s chicken wings and wine.

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Victor Diacono
Victor Diacono
2 years ago

A really excellent and provocative read, at times humorous too. Really enjoyed it. And (forgive my ignorance) I had always been under the mistaken impression India had gifted the world just the one Sutra (-:

Dr. Mark Said
Dr. Mark Said
2 years ago

The Italian government has very recently ruled that theft conviction in terms of food theft will not be considered a crime as long as the person who stole the food is in dire need of it. The food stolen must only be a small amount that is needed for immediate essential nutrients, acting only in a state of necessity. This came about after one man was recently sentenced to six months in confinement and fined 100 euros for stealing the amount of food costing less than five euros. This is seemingly an injustice in terms of the punishment that he received for the small petty crime that was committed.