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I could be stealing

On my way to work the other day, I saw a man standing at the corner at the end of the offramp.  He was holding a sign that said "I could be stealing."  I don't know anything else about him.  I will assume that he was being honest, that he sincerely did need money just to get by.  That may not be the case, but that discussion is separate from the one I wish to engage in here.  So the entire discussion will be under the assumption that he was being honest.

It made me think.  Well, it also made me want to help him out.  I considered picking him up and taking him somewhere, even allowing him to live with me.  I didn't do anything--I didn't even give him money or anything.  I considered several options.  But the sign made me think.  He could be stealing.  He could be trying to survive by taking things from people and pawning them, by picking pockets and taking cash or making cash advances with people's credit cards.  I've lost my wallet twice and both times that's what people have done with my cards.

He could be stealing, but instead he's standing on the corner begging.  It made me think "Which is better?" When my house was robbed a couple years ago, I considered the theft as a donation to the poor.  A forced donation, but a donation nonetheless.  Someone less fortunate than myself now had something that, to be honest, was a luxury for me.  Begging for money seems to be more moral than stealing money from people.  On the other hand, stealing seems to be more effective (at least superficially--I'm not familiar with statistics on likelihood and expected cost of being caught).

Personally, I would prefer to have someone beg me for money than someone steal it from me.  So I admire and respect the man for having chosen that option.  But am I a hypocrite for not giving to him, when he chose the honest path instead of the dishonest one?  By not giving him money, am I sending the message that he should be stealing instead?  That theft would be better because he won't be getting any of my money unless he coercively takes it?

Another thought I had was, "What constitutes theft?" If someone begs for money and I feel pressured to give, is that theft?  If someone offers me employment but pays me less than what I think I deserve, is that theft? If I employ someone and they do a poorer job than what I expected of them, is that theft?  What if I'm a billionaire and I earned my fortune from the sweat of thousands of employees who work for me at minimum wage?  Is that theft?  It certainly doesn't seem to be very compassionate.  It made me think that in life, many people (if not all) take whatever they can get in whatever method seems convenient (or moral) at the time.  So is a man begging or stealing really that much worse than a man taking advantage of masses, even though what he's doing is technically legal (and even socially acceptable)?  I'm not convinced either way on the matter.

I do think that it's reasonable to claim that theft is justified in some cases.  I think that it's better for a person to steal food to feed eir family than for the entire family to starve.  I was raised with a very black and white moral compass.  An act is either completely good or completely bad.  It's either sin or it's god's will.  I'm growing more and more accustomed to greyscale thinking.  I see certain acts as more or less moral than other acts, but many acts are not easily decided as good or bad.  And I think that theft falls into that category.  For a person with nothing to steal from a person with an extreme abundance I think is not nearly so bad as a person with abundance to take more money from people who have very little.

Every time I see people suffering, I feel like we as a society could be doing a much better job at helping each other out.  I ask myself what I can do to make society better.  How can I contribute?  What is the best way for me to improve quality of life for those less fortunate?  I don't know.  I know I could be doing more than what I do.  I know that I often indulge myself in things that I don't need.

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