The ethics of looting, part deux

Judging by some of the reponses I've received, I apparently sounded pretty cold-blooded when I argued against the notion that if someone leaves his property in flight from a hurricane, it can be considered "abandoned" and taking it is not theft, but rather salvage.

I maintain that position, but there is another level of complexity I did not go into in the last post which I will try to explain now.

If in fact Hurricane Allen had hit the middle Texas coast and caused damage comparable to what Katrina has caused, and someone desperate for food had raided my pantry, or grabbed some other necessity of life, I would take a different attitude.

I would still consider the action a theft, not a "salvage," but would gladly forgive the thief provided that my property was restored in some manner (replaced, paid for) as soon as the thief could reasonably do so.

If I were to find myself in such a desperate situation, I would take what I needed to survive or provide for my dependents, provided I didn't injure someone in the process. And I would acknowledge a moral debt to the person whose property I had taken, and once the crisis had passed I would go and offer reasonable restitution to the person I had wronged.

We have rules against aggression, and against taking others' property in particular, because these rules function to preserve and enhance our lives. In certain extreme circumstances, strictly observing those rules may instead serve to injure or destroy lives. In those cases it is not unreasonable to violate the rules in pursuit of saving lives -- but the rules are still important can cannot be cast aside completely, for once this is done those rules will never regain their former protective power when normalcy returns.

After all, we all have "crises" in our lives, and it is a slippery slope from "I have to steal this food because the town is flooded out and my children must eat" to "I have to steal this booze because I'm an alcoholic and I've run out of cash until next payday."

So, while we may forgive breaking the rules in extremis, we must still recognize that someone has been wronged, and the rule breaker is obligated to make his victim whole as soon as he is able to do so.

Take for example, the young man who commandeered an empty school bus, loaded 100 fellow flood victims on board, and drove to safety in Houston.

Some have argued that what he did with the bus was not theft, but salvage. I disagree, because if we regard that action as salvage, then we must agree that the bus is now that guy's property to dispose of as he wishes. But I dont' think those making this argument would take things that far.

I think most would agree that the bus still in fact rightfully belongs to the school district, and the young man is obligated to return the bus to its rightful owner, and make further restitution for fuel use, wear and tear on the vehicle, and whatever real cost resulting from loss of access to that bus by the school could be demonstrated. Perhaps those 100 people he rescued could pass the hat and help him out with these expenses -- and perhaps they would even be obligated to do so.

But the young man is not a "looter" in my sight, and should not face criminal punishment so long as he returns the stolen property and makes his victim whole. In fact, I congratulate him for taking responsibility for his own safety, and helping his neighbors, and not waiting around for some government functionary to save him.

(There is another layer of complexity involved in this case -- assuming the bus is owned by a government school district and not a private school, it could be argued that the young man and his passengers were simply recovering property which had been stolen from them in the form of taxes. But I'm seeking to explain a general principle here and this is a special case which does not apply if the bus had been private property.)

I hope I've made my position more clear now. Those who wish a more thorough discussion of such matters are invited to get a copy of L. Nei Smith's novel, Forge of the Elders, which has a chapter explaining lifeboat ethics in a pure libertarian context.


Anonymous Max Freiheit said...

I believe this is the L. Neil Smith argument you reference, found near the end of Chapter 36, entitled Restitution:

"The pentagonal shape with five sinuous tentacles sprouting from its sides swiveled to face Gutierrez. “Thinking afterward, I was deeply troubled. It had been an emergency. But my use of Babnap Portycel’s property, if it were to become generally acceptable, would inevitably be abused. The time is long past when anyone who lives among the Elders may assert his need as a claim upon the lives of others, as I gather is customary among humans. The word ‘emergency’ is subjective: people would begin cutting through a neighbor’s property—mine, for example—merely for the sake of convenience. Such violations are habitual and progressive. Before long we’d be living like animals, reduced to the level of …” Clym Pucras swiveled to Eichra Oren, “I can’t remember the human expression.”

"“Socialism, “ stated the assessor, “and I fully agree. Your trespass was understandable in the circumstances and Babnap Portycel’s refusal to help at least unkind. But as one of the few great human philosophers once observed, one’s need doesn’t constitute a mortgage on someone else’s life. Babnap Portycel was not morally obligated to tolerate your presence, let alone to help you.

"“Now on the other hand, the purpose of property rights in particular and of moral codes in general is to support the lives of sapients. On the other, they must support the lives of the specific sapients they belong to, or they’re without meaning. You acted to preserve your life, something we can all sympathize with and, in a different context, even commend. However, as you say, should need become a general excuse for violating individual rights, then all of our lives, in effect, would eventually be forfeit, defeating the whole reason for having moral codes in the first place. Your concerns are well placed.”

"“Thank your Eichara Oren.”

"He raised a hand, “Don’t thank me yet. I also agree with your choice of words. Babnap Potrycel is as curmudgeonly a being as I’ve heard of. Of course, that’s his right. And curmudgeons, whether they intend to or not, do all of us a favor. In many cultures, miners take small birds into the earth to warn them—through their fragile metabolisms—of poison gases or a lack of oxygen. Curmudgeons are their moral equivalent. Any culture which fails to uphold the rights of curmudgeons, no matter how inconvenient, no matter how tempting it is to cut corners ‘this once,’ degenerates until no one has any rights, not even nice people.”"

I found it interesting to note that I had highlighted the last four sentences in my copy of the book.

I once had a man argue that I had no right to gun ownership and, consequently, to the right to defend my property against trespass because he may, at some time, need to break into my house to use my telephone to save his wife who was injured in an automobile accident in front of my property! Can you say "Socialist?"

Regarding "salvage," for better or worse there are laws that codify the "moral codes" that we have developed over time for salvage situations. Most of these laws deal, however, with private property that is lost upon property that is held in common with all mankind, like the oceans, not with private property that is left upon privately-owned real estate that, although currently flooded, may have a reasonable expectation of later recovery.

9:53 PM  

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