Saturday, July 19, 2008

Theft, Autonomy, and Keeping the Peace

For the last few days, across a number of posts, I have been engaged in a very interesting discussion with Ron in Houston on the nature of theft. It has been quite useful since, through the course of that discussion, I have been forced to reflect on and actually refine some of my beliefs on the nature of this moral crime.

These concerns came from the Case of the Communion Cracker, but the topic has become the more general (and interesting) question of the nature of theft in general.

I do not believe that anybody in these parts is questioning the fact that the taking of a communion cracker is theft. The question has become the magnitude of the theft. It has been compared, in various comments, with the taking of a sugar packet at a restaurant, of a toothpick, or of a napkin. It is a theft that is of little concern because, after all, the communion cracker “is just a cracker”.

I am still objecting to these characterizations. The issue with respect to the sugar packet, toothpick, and napkin has to do with the fact that, for these items, the owner does not really care. We all have good reason to believe that people are not much concerned with the theft of these items. We all have good reason to believe that the Catholic church is very much concerned with the taking of a consecrated communion cracker.

But this is the rub. The Church’s concern with the communion cracker is irrational – built, as it is, on absurdly false premises. Whereas the Catholic Church has no more reason to be concerned about the consecrated communion wafer as it does about the average Ritz cracker, it is argued that we should consider the theft of a consecrated communion wafer to be no worse than the theft of a common cracker.

My objection to that view is that, with it, whenever I invite somebody into my home, I now have to worry whether or not he considers my attachment to certain pieces of my property to be rational or not. If he thinks that my attachment to anything that I might own is irrational, or grounded on false premises, then he should consider it a minimal offense (similar to taking a sugar packet from a restaurant) to walk off with that particular piece of property.

Whereas, on the view I am defending here, the reasons that I have for my various attachments and values are irrelevant. What is relevant is the fact that the property is mine. As such, what matters is my wishes regarding the disposition of that property.

If I make it clear that a dust bunny under my living room couch is my most prized possession and I tell my guests that they must absolutely leave it alone then, so far as they are guests in my home, that is their obligation. They have no right to determine that the dust bunny is of little value (because it is, after all, just a dust bunny) and to destroy it.

This may be taken as an obligation to respect the beliefs of other people – no matter how absurd – which is a principle that the atheist community in general is starting to stand up against. The atheist community, in general, is starting to say, “We have every right to challenge absurd beliefs. We have no duty to sit back and give polite respect for nonsense beliefs such as the belief that those who name a teddy bear Mohammed deserve to die, or those who take a cracker out of a church are guilty of kidnapping.”

I share this view. This is not about respect for stupid beliefs. This is about respect for autonomy. This is about respecting the express wishes of the owner of a piece of property over how that property is to be treated.

Part of the reason we can see this is because the owner need not give any reason for his decision – his reasons do not matter. Only the decision matters. If you wish to borrow my rake for an hour, and promise to return it, my reasons for refusing to allow you to use it do not matter. It may be because I have a use for the rake. It may be because I do not trust you. That lack of trust may be founded on the flimsiest of reasons.

Yet, the principle at play here is not that you get to evaluate the merit of my reasons and, if you find that my reasons for denying you the use of my rake have no merit, that you can take the rake anyway. The principle at play here is that the rake is my property, and my reasons for denying you permission to use it are not relevant. The fact that I have denied you permission is what matters.

Now, let’s back up a step and look at this dispute in desire-utilitarian terms.

There is no such thing as intrinsic value. Instead, value exists as relationships between states of affairs and desires. A state of affairs S has value (to A) only in the virtue that A desires that P and P is true in S. We cannot talk about the intrinsic value of any piece of property because no property has intrinsic value.

The part of this that says “P is true in S” is highly relevant here. Consecrated communion wafers believe that consecrated communion wafers has a certain type of value because they become the body of Jesus. However, no cracker ever becomes the body of Jesus. “P”, in this case, is never true, so the value that Catholics believe exists in the consecrated communion wafer does not exist in fact.

We are not going to depend that crazy ideas deserve any respect.

However, to look at the nature of theft, we have to look at it in desire-utilitarian terms as well. Theft is not intrinsically wrong. Theft is wrong in the sense that people generally have real reasons to promote an aversion to theft (and to promote that aversion through social forces such as praise and condemnation).

The value of an aversion to taking the property of others is that it keeps the peace. To the degree that we are secure in our possessions, to that degree we are able to make plans on what we are going to do with those possessions. To the degree that we are insecure in our ownership, time and effort that we would otherwise have available for fulfilling our desires has to go to security – often in the form of violent security – for those possessions.

Peace is not secured by a principle that says, “If you judge the reasons that I may have for giving or withholding consent on the use of my property to be unsound, then you may ignore them.” This is just an invitation for people to judge the reasons for others to be unsound, and for wholesale disregard for the rights of others. None of us are secure in our possessions if others can categorize the theft of our property as trivial merely by conceiving of our reasons as unsound.

A counter to this may be that, “It is not the fact that I conceive of your reasons as unsound that matter. It is whether your reasons are unsound in fact.”

Yet, in practice (and no moral theory is worth its salt except in the sense of how it plays out in practice) we can never get beyond the realm of whether reasons are, in fact, sound or unsound. In practice, we cannot get any further than considerations of whether the (would be) thief judges the reasons of the property owner to be sound or unsound.

It is this latter fact that will determine how secure we are in our property.

This still leaves room for view that taking sugar packets or toothpicks are trivial offenses – whenever it is reasonable to determine that the owner does not much care whether they are taken. Though a restaurant owner has reason to care if somebody regularly comes to a restaurant and routinely takes every sugar packet from every table, slipping a few packets from one’s own table into one’s pocket to be used later is a minimal theft. It hardly threatens the peace.

Yet, the theft of a consecrated wafer falls on an entirely different level. The person who is willing to steal a communion wafer is showing a willingness to violate the autonomy of the church to a much greater degree than the person who takes a sugar packet from a restaurant. Whereas we have reason to believe that the restaurant owner does not care about the loss of a few sugar packets, we also have reason to believe that the Catholic Church cares very much about the theft of a consecrated communion wafer.

As I said, the quality of the church’s reasons does not matter. What matters is each person’s autonomy over the disposition of their own property – and the degree to which that autonomy is being violated that matters.

That's how we keep the peace - by respecting each person's boundaries.


Frederick H Watkins said...

I am of the opinion that once a priest puts the wafer in your mouth it is your wafer from that moment on, therefore no theft occured.

Sheldon said...

"This may be taken as an obligation to respect the beliefs of other people – no matter how absurd – which is a principle that the atheist community in general is starting to stand up against."

Regarding the PZ Meyers incident I have been thinking about the nature of what kind of respect is owed to the religious.

I, like most atheists, think that most religious ideas, such as the ones in question, are absurd. I would have no problem expressing this view to a Catholic in a calm and civil discussion.

However, in addition to the theft issue, I am troubled by the efforts of some atheists like PZ Meyers who seem to be looking for opportunities to offend the religious simply for the sake of offending them. They may have a rational point to make, but it is pushed to the background, and thus the point is not recieved. Instead battle lines are drawn.

(Of course I do recognize in this case that a fair number of shots came from the over-reaction of some Catholics).

This is where I would argue we do need to respect peoples beliefs, depending on context. Not a respect that concedes that religious ideas are immune from criticism.

But instead a respect that says, "ok, you have these (absurd) beliefs that are important to you for cultural reasons, as long as they don't do any obvious harm to me or the broader society, I respect your right to believe them and I am not going to go out of my way to offend you."

I guess I am argueing for a respect neccessary for a tolerant, pluralistic, and multi-cultural society?

Alonzo said, "That's how we keep the peace - by respecting each person's boundaries."

Did I argue for the same type of respect as you Alonzo, or something even more?

Anonymous said...

Does the concept of resistance fit in this arguement anywhere? Despite the fact that I acknowledge this is theft, even non-trivial theft, I still find it very hard to condemn PZ because I view this as a form of social resistance and I'm willing to allow for some transgressions in the service of social good.

The closest example I can think of off-hand is the cartoons a year or two ago that portrayed Mohammad in an unflattering light. If there had been vocal opposition by muslims that these cartoons are bigotted and disgusting I would have been right there with them, supporting their cause in what small way I could.

However that's not what happened. Instead there were calls for vandalism, assualt, and murder. Not just from the masses, but from some of the highest spiritual leaders. And therefore my reaction was exactly the opposite. I immediately voiced my support for the cartoons, and felt that any publication with any respect for the freedom of speech should reproduce all of the cartoons in full as a show of support. If I had such a publication I would have done so. It is a statement of "We reject your violence and stupidity. Here, have some more you damn bastards!" Basically, committing the moral wrong of bigotted comments in order to press the greater virtue of freedom of speech. Demonstrating that we will not be intimidated by threats of violence and death when it comes to defending such basic rights.

I view the cracker situation the same way. Yes, the kid stole something which the catholic church considers very important. My immediate thoughts are "That kid is a total douchebag. Give them back their stupid cracker and stop being an ass." But when some of the highest spiritual leaders compare this to kidnapping and say they can't think of any thing more repugnant than taking the cracker; when leaders urge their followers to have this kid kicked out of his school and greatly injure his prospects for the future; when there are threats of violence, hate speech, and death threats... that's when my instinct to resist flares up again. I had a strong desire to go and procure a consecrated cracker of my own. If I'd had the resources of PZ I would have done *exactly* what he did, to the letter. To resist, to stand up and say "You won't intimidate me with your bullcrap. Hey look, I have some jesus here! Mmmm... he's delicious with Cheez Whiz!" Yes it's offensive. Yes it was theft. But we're standing up against violent extremists who are willing to murder, and cracker-theft pales in comparison.

I know I'm not the only person with this instinct to resist, it seems to be fairly common. Is this an evolutionary liability that we should try to eliminate? Is it just childish spite? Or is there some greater moral purpose behind this urge? (I'm hoping it's the latter :) )

Anonymous said...

I agree with your reasoning mostly, and kudos to you for taking this stand as an atheist which is probably really hard.

I do have to disagree though: is taking gifts really thievery? I wouldn't even consider taking pepper packets that are out thievery, not a tiny bit. They are out there for people to take, there are no rules concerning them.

Are there really any rules, or at least explicit ones, for those lil wafers? They are giving them to you and there is nothing being given in return...they don't say, "only those who have been paying attention get these" and they have no rules about taking them elsewhere, though its expected that you eat them, is it really their business once they give it to you? That's like, if you go to a charity because you're homeless and you get some food, and they /expect/ you to eat it indoors but instead you bring it outside for a friend, is that really a theft when it was a gift in the first place?

Still, you have a point. Just because they are Christians doesn't mean their opinions are not to be expected. But as in your example, you aren't exactly handing out dust bunnies and crying "THIEF!" when someone walks out with them are you?

Great post though, definitely showed another POV.

Anonymous said...

From my slight but growing understanding of Catholic doctrine related to the communion wafer I have to side with Alonzo. It seems that implicit in the giving of the wafer is the expectation that the recipient believes it to be divine and that he/she will treat the wafer as the Catholic church mandates. Thus the wafer is not given freely, but the payment is non-monetary and there is a somewhat limited effort to collect the payment. Perhaps an appropriate analogy is that entering a restaurant for the sole purpose of collecting a couple of sugar packets and then leaving is less socially acceptable than taking a few extra packets after having purchased a meal. If you came in and told the restaurant that you just wanted to grab some packets of sugar because you were baking cookies and ran out of sugar you'd likely be invited to leave, thus I conclude that they are not free. The restaurant provides these packets without explicit charge because they are subsidized by the purchase of meals. They are not free at all, you just don't realize that you are paying for them.

With regard for respect owed to religious beliefs, I show respect to people in that I try not to give offense for the sole purpose of offending. But this does not mean that I never knowingly offend. I respect an idea only if it is well supported by logic and fact. If a person presents an idea that is not respectable in this sense, like nearly all religious ideas, then I argue against the idea. Sometimes in the process of doing so I offend, but this is usually a byproduct of the argument I'm making rather than an intent to offend. I rationalize this by believing that I show greater respect for a person when I help them to avoid continuing to believe falsehoods. I fear that I've not done this topic justice, but I mean something like what has been described as "respect creep" when the respect asked for begins to be more like deference than tolerance.

Allowing people to make decisions based on false beliefs is, generally, detrimental to themselves and society at large. sheldon argues that respecting these beliefs is the correct course of action "as long as they don't do any obvious harm to me or the broader society." The problem is that even false beliefs that do not cause "obvious" harm can still serve to facilitate and support those beliefs that DO cause obvious harm. For example, believing that a piece of bread can be magically transformed into a god, while silly, doesn't seem to directly injure society but we can see in the specific incident in question that this is, in fact, not the case: death threats were prompted by this belief. Thus this belief serves to promote antisocial behavior, at least in some cases. More importantly the ability to believe in magical bread helps people to believe in the rest of the tenets of the religion, some of which are clearly bad for people and society. If bread can be magical then what could we possibly rule out? This argument is, I think, a microcosm of the argument that acceptance of moderate religions or factions of a religion supports the more radical elements of religion by providing it with some cover and a ready source of justification, setting up a "no true Scotsman" defense. So I think religious beliefs should be challenged at every opportunity, but this challenge should not take the form, purely, of creating an offensive situation if for not other reason that doing so is unpersuasive and therefore counterproductive.

Anonymous said...

This is an outstanding posting (and some good comments). Well explained. I will definately link to it from my blog. Thanks.

Ron in Houston said...

I keep bringing up the reasonable man standard because I think it applies in these situations.

Grilling hamburgers at my local park is something a reasonable man would do and is therefore acceptable.

Grilling hamburgers outside a Hindu temple is not something a reasonable man would do and therefore violates boundaries.

I suppose to an extent that I'm arguing that ethics are culturally conditioned and that things like reasonableness would apply.

M. Tully said...

I have to agree with Alonzo and Ron.

But, I base it on social contract theory (I'm still not sure there are many conflicts between that and DU).

I recently had a discussion with another irreligious friend about the "cracker debate."

My answer was that the particular church asking you to affirm certain beliefs and consume the wafer inside of the church was no different than the "all you can eat buffet" that allows no doggy bags.

It is the agreement when you enter the premises. If you don't like it, don't enter. It is private, not public land. You are free to choose.

But, then again, as private land, should it not be taxed accordingly (I’m just saying)?


Anonymous said...

You said:
"...we also have reason to believe that the Catholic Church cares very much about the theft of a consecrated communion wafer."

But do you actually have any evidence that they care, beyond assumptions? In this whole kerfuffle, the only reactions I've seen from official church representatives, was concerning the so-called outrageous behavior of the Florida student; I have seen no reactions or responses from the Catholic Church to PZ Myers' actions, at all.

Because of the various postings, emails and death threats, it's fairly obvious that many individual Catholics care, but your reasoning seems based on whether or not the actual owner(s) of the item in question cares, and so far, I really have seen no evidence that this is a fact.

So, I guess I'm just wondering: If the Church (the actual owner of the cracker, if we accept your reasoning on whether or not it was stolen) does not seem to care, does that change things in any way, in your mind?

I'd also love to see any kind of response you have to eneasz's comment on this post, since I find myself very much in agreement with him or her.

PS. Thanks for writing so extensively on this topic! I'm not sure I agree with all of your points, but they're certainly well-reasoned, and have given me a lot to think about.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo. I'm still uncomfortable calling the wafer caper violation a "theft". Even in theft by fraud, there is a requirement that there be real consideration which was promised but not delivered. In this case someone may have broken their word (I say "may" because someone posted earlier how it would be possible to get consecrated wafers without any deceit, and no one has proven such methods were not employed) and not behaved according to an implied agreement upon receipt of a wafer. But an implied promise to swallow a wafer is a far cry from tangible consideration. At worst, this is a case of someone breaking their word, which of course, is unethical. Myers suborned it, and that is also unethical. That's as far as I'm willing to go, unless someone persuades me otherwise.

By calling what Myers did theft, aside from being inaccurate, you are doing the opposite of Myers' downplaying it - you are portraying it as a more serious ethical violation than it is. Let me borrow from your excellent piece on the failure of the New Yorker cartoon. Think of a New Yorker cover screaming "Obama is a thief" versus "Obama suborned someone maybe breaking their word". Most people would say the former is a much more serious charge.


Alonzo Fyfe said...


By calling what Myers did theft, aside from being inaccurate, you are doing the opposite of Myers' downplaying it - you are portraying it as a more serious ethical violation than it is.

I am NOT calling what Myers did 'theft'. To the best of my knowledge, Myers never enaged in an act of theft. I am saying that the act of 'scoring' a consecrated wafer is an act of theft - but the thief is the person who took the cracker, not Myers.

Now, I do consider the transgression to be more improtant than the mere loss of a cracker. The seriousness is grounded on the fact that, under the theory of property that Myers and his defenders require, anybody can take our property whenever they disagree with the reasons we have for wanting to keep it.

It's just too easy for people to come up with reasons for believing, "I don't think you have a good reason for wanting this property, so I am going to take it with me."

I argue that we respect the boundaries of property. I don't care what you think of the value that I put on my property. You leave it alone. Period.

The Catholic Church has the same right to take the same position with respect to its property as I do with respect to my property.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo, Thanks for the reply.

'...anybody can take our property whenever they disagree with the reasons we have for wanting to keep it.

It's just too easy for people to come up with reasons for believing, "I don't think you have a good reason for wanting this property, so I am going to take it with me." '

In addition to the above, you wrote words to the effect that taken to its extreme, it would mean people are not secure in their possessions in their own homes. I think that overstates the case. No one disputes it would be naked theft to walk into a sacristy and take consecrated hosts without the knowledge of the owner. But hosts are handed out publicly and without explicitly stated strings. Priests hope non-Catholics will respect their beliefs and not take a host, but they do no due diligence in distinguishing Catholics from non-Catholics. When I was an alter boy and asked a priest once what kept non-Catholics from getting Communion, he said something like "Nothing. But God will punish them." They use the same technique to prevent Catholics from abusing the host (it's a mortal sin to desecrate a consecrated host - you do it and then then die before going to confession, you go to hell). Given the above, I think the hosts were given freely in a strictly legalistic sense. I have read your arguments that they were not, but I'm just not wholly convinced by them. Robert Stevensen (earlier in this thread) wrote:

"once a priest puts the wafer in your mouth it is your wafer from that moment on, therefore no theft occured."

and I find his position easier to accept on a gut level than the position that theft occurred. In a nutshell, the lack of due diligence by the priest does not necessarily turn a dishonest communicant into a thief. It just makes him a dishonest communicant. IMO


Anonymous said...

And now let's apply this to taxes.

Anonymous said...

Kaerion - thank you! :) And I'm a "he". I believe Alonzo responded to me, but accidentally posted the response in the comments section of a different post, I'm pasting it below:

I have considered the option of a civil-disobedience defense of Myers' act. Except, civil disobedience is supposed to be non-violent. It does not do physical damage to the person or property of other people. No harm is done - that is the point.

Stealing somebody else's property and destroying it does not count.

This is quite unlike printing a bigoted cartoon (in the context where one says, 'I disagree with the message, but I defend the right to say it - and the right to say it means a right to be free from violence or the threats of violence.') That fits the category of civil disobedience since no person or property were taken or harmed. That is to say, it was a non-violent act.

While I agree with you in theory, I'm still of the opinion that fighting a battle with no stakes is (usually) a waste of time. Technically, ok, this could be called theft. But there is almost nothing to be won by putting this much energy into fighting this battle. Property rights are not in any danger of being weakened (or influenced at all). In theory yes, in practice no.

For anyone who does consider the palming of a communion wafer to be theft, the best response - as far as I can tell - is to say "Anyone who would do that is being an ass-hat" and move on. This shows condemnation, but an appropriately low level of it. You don't end up having to spend days (weeks?) defending your statement and can use that energy on something else. Extremists on either side are unmoved, but those closer to the center see that most atheists are not unreasonable and recognize that the stealing of communion wafers isn't really a good thing.

A strong worded assualt, on the other hand, while perhaps correct in theory, also has the effect of galvanizing someone who before might have thought "Eh, douchebag move, but not a big deal" into someone who defends the cracker taking because they feel like they were just attacked. It has a polarizing effect.