Property and theft

Thoughtful words from Thomas Aquinas, on whether a starving man who takes bread is stealing:

“…each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, 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.” — quoted in Jean Valjean Acquitted! by Mark Shea

It’s not necessary to agree with Thomas about everything, but he is usually right, and he’s always logical. If you haven’t carefully considered his arguments, your position isn’t as well-grounded as it could be. In this case I’m wary of misapplication of a correct principle. It’s one thing to say a starving man doesn’t sin by taking bread to keep himself alive for another day. It’s another to say Question 66, Second Part of the Second Part means the US federal government in normal circumstances may take as much of anyone’s income as they please for redistribution.


8 Replies to “Property and theft”

  1. Seems pretty clear that it doesn’t apply to the more elaborate version, in part because it’s not someone taking it for their own survival or that of their dependents (the “starving children” version is very popular), and because it’s not in response to a manifest and urgent need. (being a preparation ) The Japanese emergency planning of– as I understand it– officially sanctioned scrounging in destroyed homes for emergency supplies would probably pass muster, though.

    Same way that I can’t justify killing a child molester in cold blood, but could if they were in the process of assaulting a child.

    1. Immediate need vs. preparation does seem like an important distinction. I’ve heard that in Islamic law stealing perishable items is a less serious crime than stealing, for example, gold.

  2. OK, I finally figured out what “Question 66, Second Part of the Second Part” means, and I can see that it is not gibberish. It’s just old.

    As to original question of whether “the US federal government in normal circumstances may take as much of anyone’s income as they please”, well of course they can. This is the government, they can do whatever they please. After all, we, the people, gave them the power. This is a democracy, which as we all know, is the worst of all possible forms of government.

    1. Yes, Aquinas and his Summa are positively medieval. Since the Constitution was ratified, the people eligible to vote has rightly grown, and we vote on more things, especially in a state with popular initiatives like California. It’s funny that the more democracy we’ve got, the less freedom we’ve had.

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