Heroes And Not Criminals: The Ethics Of Looting

Photos: A Hunt For Essentials

NPR Photographer David Gilkey documents the quest for food and water.

[Interactive:Photos: A Hunt For Essentials]

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Haitians search for essential items after a 7.0 earthquake.

Anita L. Allen is the deputy dean, Henry R. Silverman professor of law, and professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She is an expert on privacy law, bioethics and contemporary values and is recognized for her scholarship about legal philosophy, women's rights and race relations.

When disaster strikes — for example, the earthquakes that have reduced the Haitian capital to rubble — victims lucky enough to be alive ideally go into survival mode. To allow yourself to be paralyzed by the sight of death and destruction is to risk everything of the little you have left. You need to get food, medical care and shelter. Help from the outside may come. But it could be unwise to wait for the Red Cross. The airport may be down; wharves may have fallen into the sea.

Remarkably, some of the African-American residents of New Orleans who took necessities from partly submerged stores were branded "looters," a label that only fit the foolish few who bashed in windows to steal electronics and jewelry. Taking diapers, infant formula, food and flashlight batteries is a kind of self-help humanitarian relief morality surely allows. Who could let their child or grandmother go hungry in a catastrophic emergency not of one's own making simply to preserve the ethical rule against stealing?

Anita L. Allen

hide captionAnita L. Allen

Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Law School

Philosopher Naomi Zack gets it right in the Preface to Ethics for Disaster, essays exploring what it means to be a good person in the context of public emergencies: "If we have to live through disasters, we should not too easily give up our ordinary moral intuitions." I would go further, though, and insist that some ordinary moral intuitions should not be compromised at all.

In fact there are still moral absolutes in disasters. The breakdown of a society, even one that was already pretty broken down as Haiti was, could not justify gratuitous rape or reckless gun play, for example. But the demise of critical infrastructure can justify maiming and theft. You are not a doctor, but you have to amputate your neighbor's hand to rescue her from a house on the verge of collapse. You then have to steal sheeting for warmth and gauze for bandages. The extreme circumstances turn you into a hero, not a criminal.

Even when people violate ordinary moral principles to render aid to themselves and others, they nonetheless owe debts of repayment. Those debts are not best repaid by thank-you notes, flowers or refilling the cash register. They are ideally discharged by engaging to the best of one's ability in aggressive acts of charity and public service to minimize the effects of future calamity.

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