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.