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U.K. Priest Says Sometimes It's OK To Shoplift

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U.K. Priest Says Sometimes It's OK To Shoplift

Opinion

U.K. Priest Says Sometimes It's OK To Shoplift

U.K. Priest Says Sometimes It's OK To Shoplift

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Rev. Tim Jones created an international uproar on Sunday when he told his congregation that it is sometimes justifiable for desperately needy people to steal from stores. As the recession swells the ranks of those in need, law and philosophy professor Anita Allen examines whether or not there is ever an exception to the eighth commandment: You shall not steal.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Last Sunday, Father Tim Jones spoke from his pulpit at St. Lawrence and St. Hilda in York, England about the needs of the poor. He asked his flock to consider how difficult a life in poverty can be and - then how hard it could be to get help. There are waiting lists just to see a social worker. He said, it's a hard time for anyone to find a job. Loan sharks and begging come at too high a price. Local charities may be good only for some cereal and toast every morning.

What to do? Well, to quote the reverend, my advice in these circumstances, when people have been let down so very badly by the rest of society is that they should not hurt anybody and cope as best they can. The strong temptation is to burgle or rob people, family, friends, neighbors, strangers. Others are tempted toward prostitution, a nightmare world of degradation and abuse for all concern. Others are tempted towards suicide. Instead, I would rather that they shoplift. My advice as a Christian priest is to shoplift. No surprise these words quickly started a controversy. The Church of England on its Web site quickly rejected the call to shoplift. The British retail consortium weighed in and bloggers around the world continue to debate Father Jones' advice.

Well, we want to hear from you. Let's start with the assumption that stealing is wrong, but in desperate times, can there be exceptions? Give us a call. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Anita Allen joins us now to help us wade through the ethics here. She's a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and joins us now on the phone from her home in Philadelphia, nice of you to be with us today. Merry Christmas.

Professor ANITA ALLEN (Professor of Law and Philosophy, University of Philadelphia): Same to you. Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: And it's - I know it's probably a busy Christmas Eve. I know you've read the sermon by Father Jones. What was your reaction?

PROF. ALLEN: Well, I tell you, I had a reaction that, of course, he couldn't be serious. Maybe he was trying to say, look, I've been for years saying, give, give, give, give, give and it fell on deaf ears. I'm going to say steal, steal, steal, steal, steal and maybe I'll get some attention and get my parishioners to listen to me.

CONAN: Well, a lot of his point was these people are desperately poor, hungry, their families are hungry in a society where people buy, as he would put it, hundreds of pounds worth of material things that are thrown away the next day.

PROF. ALLEN: Right. It's a shame that in the UK, in the US, we all are over-consuming the material goods during this season and a lot of what we are buying is going to be wasted. And we should, perhaps, be encouraged more strongly to give to the poor rather than to simply consume.

CONAN: He also says he does not consider stealing - shoplifting, in this case -to be a good thing, it is not, he said. But he also says people should limit their shoplifting to large national businesses, not to mom-and-pop stores.

PROF. ALLEN: Well, sure. But clearly, shoplifting is not a good idea, even in the worst of times. It exposes the shoplifters to criminal penalties, which can be quite harsh in some countries. It also undercuts incentives for individuals to work collectively and alone to improve social conditions. And then, finally, it undercuts good character - teaches people to be bad actors rather than to be responsible people.

CONAN: And that there are exemptions to the rule, particularly, those 10 commandments.

Prof. ALLEN: Right. And that clearly are exemptions to the general rule in Western ethics to stealing. We all think that in a dire emergency created by a horrible war, for example, or a national disaster like Hurricane Katrina, it might be okay to take the food you need, the clean waters, the battery for your flashlight, but that's by no means a general permission to let poverty or dire circumstance cause one to simply take at will from large multinational corporations.

CONAN: But we go back to the example of Robin Hood: steal from the rich to give to the poor.

PROF. ALLEN: Yeah. I mean, that story is in the context of a society without any kind of social safety net. I mean, in most Western countries, there are programs, there are homeless shelters, there's food stamps, there's Medicaid, or the equivalent. There are private soup kitchens and so forth.

So, the take from the rich and give to the poor idea has to be looked at in context. By the way, we could be talking about the rich who potentially steal and exploit from the poor, so it can go both ways. But, generally, I think that we have to look at the context, and the context of modern Western society where there are safety nets, there are resources in place. It can only be an extreme situation of, again, of dire catastrophe that it will be justified to take what doesn't belong to you.

CONAN: There were some interesting exchanges - the head of the supermarket chain Asda said that the shoplifting equated to robbing from workers and described the priest as being one Psalm short of a sermon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ALLEN: Well, the - I mean, the priest says, if you just take money from the big companies, all you're doing is just raising prices for the rich. But, actually, you're also raising prices for the poor and you're taking jobs away from the poor. So, yeah, it's not a very good strategy to solve the problem of poverty just to start stealing from big companies.

CONAN: I should quote from the father in question who said in response to this supermarket chain apparently owned by Wal-Mart. He said, I would say in response that Wal-Mart is a trade union recognition short of an ethical employment policy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ALLEN: Well, you know, all companies like Wal-Mart, companies like the big food chains, they could do more. They could do more than they do to - for example, channel, raise its food to more productive usage. A lot - there's a lot of waste in how we run our supermarkets and our retail stores. So that could be a part of a larger solution along with reinvigorating our public programs to make sure we don't have people who are in these sort of dire situations the priest is describing.

CONAN: We're talking about a conversation, which has erupted since a priest in England said, under serious circumstances in some straits, it's okay for people to shoplift from big chain stores. Anita Allen is our guest. And if you'd like to get in on the conversation: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. Cameron(ph) is on - with us from Salt Lake City.

CAMERON (Caller): Yes. I just wanted to weigh in real quick. You know, the reverend made a comment. I don't condone doing anything that hurts anybody: don't burgle, don't rob, don't do any of these things. But if you think about shoplifting and, you know, what was previously mentioned about the fact that that really raises prices, that is hurting everyone. You know, shoplifting is a huge reason why we experience some of the, you know, the raise in the prices that we do. And, you know, when cost of living goes up that really does hurt everyone. So I don't think it's a victimless crime. I do want to weigh in on that, the commandment doesn't say thou shall not steal unless or, you know, unless the situation arises, it's thou shall not steal.

I mean, we're supposed to be good to one another. We're supposed to be generous to one another. And I think if we take a little more time to take care of the poor and the needy, be able to be more generous of what we have, we might not have as too many people in this situation. But I do have to say, don't think that stealing ever justified.

CONAN: All right, Cameron. Thanks very much for the call.

CAMERON: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Again, going on, as the priest elaborated, shoplifting is a dreadful thing, it's wrong and it causes harm, but when society leaves people with appalling choices, we should not be surprised when they choose one of them. It strikes me as grotesque that people spend hundreds, if not thousands of pounds on rubbish they don't need. And if they do that, they are in no position to tut-tut if other people take something which doesn't belong to them.

And, again, he's drawing a moral equivalency to the people who find themselves in dire straits. And to say, you know, that - that simply being wealthy and, perhaps, not conserving all the goods we might is equivalent to shoplifting.

Prof. ALLEN: One of the things that wasn't clear from his sermon was what kinds of things he thinks people should shoplift in order to obtain. Because even if it might be justifiable - and, again, a very, very extreme situation to take a loaf of bread or a flashlight battery - that wouldn't justify taking a leather jacket or a handbag or a plasma TV or, you know, an iPod. So the conversation about taking really needs to be looked at more carefully because it could well be that we feel one way about a loaf of bread for a starving family of four or five and differently about an iPod, to give to your poor teenager the same toy that his neighbor down the street have.

CONAN: Well, interesting also that he says, the store, the big store down the street, not the mom-and-pop store, and not inviting anybody to point out that those are silver candlesticks over there that might be worth a pretty penny, too.

Prof. ALLEN: Yeah. And, of course, there's a lot of assumptions in the notion that it doesn't hurt Wal-Mart but it does hurt mom and pop if you take from them. Again, as the caller pointed out, we really are hurting ourselves and shooting ourselves in the foot when we engage in shoplifting because prices do go up and the jobs can be compromised. And it's a huge burden that we impose on our own middle class and low income communities when we start to see stealing as a justifiable act.

CONAN: Let's talk with Claudia(ph). Claudia is calling from Novato in California.

CLAUDIA (Caller): Yeah. Thanks for taking my call. I wanted to just quickly -I'm in my 60's now. Thirty years ago, my son's father took off with no concern for me or my son. And I was on welfare and because I couldn't find a job that paid enough to cover daycare, you know, since there was nobody to stay with my son. So I was on my welfare for awhile. I was on food stamps. I also stood in lines for government surplus food. It was not enough, and so I would do things like take - buy a cup of coffee in a restaurant and then I'd go in the bathroom with an oversized handbag and I'd steal soap and toilet paper and paper towels because that was the only way we could obtain those products. I might go into a drugstore and also steal toothpaste and soap and shampoo - the same thing. The food stamps you couldn't use for those products. And so that was the best I could do. I mean, there was nothing else I could do.

And I - my father was a minister. I don't come from a family of, you know, thieves. We're well-educated people. As soon as my son got, you know, got into school then I immediately went back, finished a degree in journalism and I'm well employed. So it's not like this was something that I wanted to do for a living. It's just simply there was no - the safety net isn't as broad as you may think.

CONAN: And I understand all that. What would have been impact had you been arrested stealing some of that toothpaste on your son?

CLAUDIA: I really don't know. I mean, that was just the best I could do. I was very careful to take only what little I needed. And I was - I suppose if I had thought about it at all, it was - I would have told the judge what I just told you, you know? This was a desperate situation. I'm sorry, your honor. I don't mean to, you know - go try to make good as best as I can, but this is my situation.

CONAN: Anita Allen, it's hard to make a flat judgment against somebody like - in the situation that Claudia was in.

Prof. ALLEN: Absolutely. But I think her story shows how really isolated people can people feel when they face financial crisis. And maybe she didn't have the recursive (unintelligible) she needed to really get out there and find other alternatives to stealing. I think it would have been horrible for her if she had been caught and faced criminal penalties because unfortunately the law does not recognize poverty as an exception to the rule against stealing. And it makes a very nice moral story to tell, because I think between morality and law - and unfortunately sometimes when we break the law, we don't find that the legal system is as sympathetic as we might expect or hope.

CONAN: Claudia, I hope and assume it's going to be a much nicer Christmas this year.

CLAUDIA: Oh, yes. Oh, yeah, no problem. I mean, 30 years have gone and my son is an attorney and he's is doing very well, thank you. Anyway, all right, good talking with you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

CLAUDIA: Bye-bye.

Prof. ALLEN: I really like that call because it reminds me of how sometimes we think of the poor as some monolithic group of people who are born poor, live poor and die poor. But in fact, a lot of us go in and out of poverty, and we take our values in and out of poverty with us. People who do find themselves feeling compelled to steal are often the very same people who would think it was horrible to steal in other situations.

My own family was very, very poor. And I know my father went bankrupt I think at least three times in order to send his kids to college. And we all did quite well in life, but I mean it's not like the poor are some distinct group that we can't identify with. We can all identify with poverty.

CONAN: And we're talking about York's Father Jones who has caused quite a conversation after suggesting in a sermon that in some circumstances, shoplifting is okay. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me reintroduce our guest, Anita Allen, who's a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. And let's see if we can go next to - we'll go to - this is Alice(ph). Alice with us from Pacifica, California.

ALICE (Caller): Sure. If it were basic survival, I think it's okay to steal. But I would just - what I know from England and Europe in general - I visited there and also this country, right now, most - nobody has to steal to survive because there's enough of a safety net. But if you read, you know, literature like Dickens or you read "The Grapes of Wrath" even, there were people who had to steal to survive during the Depression and, you know, 150 years ago in England. So it's really different. Today, in some African countries or places where there's been war, those people, you know, some of them probably do have to steal to survive.

CONAN: That would be the situation of genuine oppression, Anita Allen, that you were talking about.

Prof. ALLEN: Right. In the context of a horrible civil war, for example, when social institutions have completely broken down, I mean, it's no argument against taking what you need to survive. But again, I think those are the extreme conditions which are not typical of England or the United States, Canada, Great - Germany or France today, these kinds of countries. But, you know, one interesting question I think about is if you do have to steal - you feel you have to steal, what then do you owe when you once again are on your feet? Do you owe and obligation to morally repair...

CONAN: Restitution, yeah.

Prof. ALLEN: Restitution, exactly. And I remember in the context of Hurricane Katrina, there were discussions about whether the people who took things during the storm should then go back to those merchants and offer to pay for the things that they took, or to do some act of charity that would, in a more symbolic way, make up for the fact that they themselves had to become, in effect, thieves during the time of crisis.

CONAN: Also a distinction between those who stole batteries for flashlights and necessities like that, water, and those who stole flat screen television sets.

Prof. ALLEN: That's right. That's right.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we have - this from Sue(ph) in Nome, Arkansas - do I have that right? Nome, Alaska, I think. But anyway - my caution, years and years ago my boyfriend and I took to shoplifting a few basic groceries from a large chain store to supplement the meager diet we could afford. While we were able to rationalize our original actions, it led to pocketing less essential items, until it became a game to see what more luxurious items we could come home with. I finally got arrested, trying to steal a large hanging fuchsia, of all things. But getting arrested, having it go in the local paper, losing the part-time job was the best thing that could have happened to make me realize how my, quote "justifiable actions" unquote, had slowly and unwittingly eroded my values. And I guess that's another point.

Prof. ALLEN: Yes, this undercutting character objection to the shoplifting advice that the priest gave us, I mean, people can then have their values sort of wear down. Well, if today I can steal a loaf of bread, perhaps tomorrow I can steal an entire sandwich, and the next day I can steal the little pretty tray and dish the sandwich can sit on.

CONAN: Exactly.

Prof. ALLEN: The next day, the little vase the flowers go in - I have a whole dinner party. Right, so, we have to be careful that we don't allow our sense of right and proportion to be lost if we begin to go against the grain of social values.

CONAN: One more quote from Father Jones: I hoped it would provoke discussion about the situation in York, but I'm pleased that in the last few days before Christmas, we are talking about the most vulnerable and needy members of society, which is what we should be talking about. Well, that's one aim he may have achieved. Anita Allen, thanks very much for your time today.

Prof. ALLEN: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Anita Allen, professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, joined us today from her home in Philadelphia.

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