[OPINION] The ethics of stealing during the coronavirus pandemic

Franz Giuseppe Cortez
[OPINION] The ethics of stealing during the coronavirus pandemic
'Why does Thomas Aquinas believe that taking another's property, whether openly or secretly, is morally acceptable in extremely rare but ominously not unreal circumstances?'


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 succor 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 food? Thomas Aquinas says that the first condition is that there is a clear and urgent need or an imminent danger. If a person is clearly dying from starvation, then there is an urgent need for food because there is an imminent danger of death. Second, Thomas Aquinas says that there should be no other possible remedy. You asked repeatedly and nobody gave. Or it has become impossible to move around and look for food. Or even if it is possible, you cannot anymore find any. In other words, you have already exhausted all possibilities and there is no other conceivable solution but to take somebody else’s food.    

Why does Thomas Aquinas believe that taking another’s property, whether openly or secretly, is morally acceptable in extremely rare but ominously not unreal circumstances? First, he thinks that human life is more valuable than lifeless property. In the hierarchy of values, human life is at the top. Proof? Just observe our trade-offs in an effort to save human lives from COVID-19.    

Second, he thinks that private property is not so private after all. There is no such thing as absolute ownership of earthly goods because ultimately everything belongs to God. Urgent necessity supersedes exclusivity of ownership. Thomas Aquinas says, “…in cases of need all things are common property, so that there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.”     

Third, if in this rare circumstance of life-threatening necessity everything is commonly owned, then taking it is not stealing at all! For how can you steal something that you also own by reason of necessity? So, this is not a case of a good intention (to save one’s life) being justified by a bad means (stealing). The moral law on stealing is not broken. More exactly, the law implicitly provides a small opening for the faultlessness of a starving person taking (and not stealing) another person’s food.   

I can think of at least two reasons wherein starving people will not reach the desperate point of using their right to “steal.” First, if social institutions work in their favor during the grimmest situation. For example, the government truly cares for them and prioritizes their basic needs. (READ: DOCUMENT: Duterte’s 30 special powers to deal with the coronavirus outbreak)

Second, if the affluent members of the society voluntarily offer their excess goods to the starving ones. Thomas Aquinas says that “whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” 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? (READ: Hoarding, overpricing would lead to criminal charges, warns DTI)

Make no mistake here. Thomas Aquinas does not sanction stealing anytime you are hungry or you need money to bring a sick loved one to the hospital. In fact, his discussion of the extraordinary case of urgent necessity comes after explaining the inherent wrongness of stealing.

But I think he does not also mean that you will only take another’s food when you are already so weak and dying. 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 she is just taking or actually stealing another person’s food.    

Oh, why am I writing this in a time of pandemic, perverse hoarding, and privilege testing?  Your guess is as good as mine. –

Franz Giuseppe Cortez is a faculty member of the University of Santo Tomas Philosophy Department.

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