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Reflections on Ethics 74
The Eighth Commandment
What Constitutes a Theft?

by: Joseph Lewis

Editor's note: This is the opening section of Chapter Eight of Joseph Lewis' book, The 10 Commandments.

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"Thou shalt not steal."

What Constitutes a Theft?

"Thou shalt not steal" -- what? Is it only property that one must not steal, and, if so, what kind of property? Are there not things more valuable than property that can be stolen, and are those things included in this Commandment? Is it not true that

"Who steals my purse steals trash; ...
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed."
-- Merchant of Venice, Act 3, sc. 3.

Unless there is a more specific definition of stealing or a more detailed description of what not to steal, this Commandment is impossible to understand, and impossible to observe.

Even Professor Philip Wheelwright, of the Department of Philosophy at New York University, admits that before this Commandment can be made effective "there must be some way of knowing what actions 'stealing' is to cover."[1]

Stealing, like morality, very often depends on time and place. What is considered honesty in one community may be condemned as thievery in another. Certain acts considered honest in the past are today classified as flagrantly dishonest. What at one time was considered dishonest, may at another time have both moral and legal sanction. Honesty depends on place and circumstances, and the more inflexible the rule governing honest conduct, the more difficult is its observance. Extremely significant to this study is the fact that of the ten crimes which Biblical Hebrew law punished by stoning, nine have ceased to be offenses in modern society.[2]

Is the stealing prohibited by this Commandment condemned from the ethical, moral or legal standpoint? What is the standard by which we are to judge? On whose authority is the standard to be accepted?

Do we not from the moment of birth begin to "take" things which are not ours? Does not the instinct of self-preservation often force us to take what belongs to others in order to survive? Will the value of the article stolen, or the age of the person committing the theft, determine the guilt or innocence of his conduct?

Is the man who "steals" his friend's sweetheart or wife guilty of theft? Or are there exceptions which make it "all's fair in love and war" even though the act is dishonest? Is "stealing" a kiss just as flagrant a theft as stealing a purse? Is the boy who "steals" his brother's ties, or the girl who "steals" her sister's dress, guilty of theft within the meaning of this Commandment? What about the boy who "steals" a ride on his friend's bicycle?

Some years ago a New York judge ruled that a man who enters the home of another to "steal a nap" is not guilty of burglary,[3] while another judge ruled that "robbery for love" deserved the court's mercy.

Alexander the Great said he would not "steal a victory," yet there are many business men who "steal a march" on their competitors for financial advantage. Stealing an idea from another, stealing a patent or a valuable trade secret, is just as dishonest as any other form of theft.

I know some people who are so scrupulous about other people's property that they will always make sure that the light is turned off when they leave a hotel room, feeling that failure to do so would put the owner to an unnecessary expense.

How are we to judge those acts which at one time were legal and at another time illegal? Would an act committed under the belief that it had legal sanction violate this Commandment if at a later date such sanction were removed and the act condemned as thievery? Sometimes acts are ethically and morally wrong but legally right, and there are many acts condemned by law which possess inherent moral and ethical value.

At one time legal permission and license was granted to commit robbery on the high seas. Did that change the immoral nature of the act? Many laws on our statute books today are not very far removed from those which gave legal sanction to the sea robber. Could a Commandment of this kind be applied in a society where it is lawful to commit deliberate robbery? What is more pertinent than the fact that pocket-picking even today is a recognized and highly unionized profession in Egypt? When King Farouk was married, the King of Thieves issued a proclamation in the newspapers stating that, as a friendly gesture to the other king, he would call off all his thieves during the nuptial celebrations; in consequence, not a pocket was picked.[4]

Forgery, as we know it today, was certainly unknown in Biblical times, since the majority of the people then could not even write. Yet today, forging a person's name to a legal instrument, such as a check, contract or deed to property, may be the means of perpetrating a greater theft than the actual stealing of physical property. William Harriman, the banker, who merely ordered a transfer of balances from one account to another on the ledger sheets of his bank's books, stole millions of dollars by this simple transaction, yet he did not physically take part in the transfer.[5]

Several years ago two well-known bankers were convicted of a "highly technical violation of an intricate banking law" and given long prison sentences. This was done despite their plea that not one person lost a single penny as a result of their act,[6] and that they had acted in good faith only after receiving the advice of responsible legal counsel.

Are these men as guilty of theft under this Commandment as is the robber who breaks into a home and steals valuable property, or a thief who in the dead of night perpetrates a hold-up on a defenseless man and robs him of his money? The theft of a nickel is considered petty larceny; yet to take some lead, mold it into the shape of a five-cent piece and use it to purchase a single article, makes one guilty of the serious crime of counterfeiting! One can resort to the protection of bankruptcy laws for the relief of debts he is unable to meet, and start anew without a penny's obligation. But if, in doing so, the petitioner "conceals" part of his assets, he is guilty of a dishonest act and is punished severely for it.

There have been innumerable instances where jurors seeking to judge the acts of certain of their fellow men with some degree of certainty have been unable to agree as to whether or not the accused's conduct was dishonest, so difficult is it sometimes to determine the honesty of a transaction in relation to the interpretation of the law. In fact, not only have juries disagreed as to the guilt or innocence of a person accused of stealing, but learned judges, men trained in the art of weighing evidence, have also been unable to agree. There have been cases when both judge and jury adjudged a person guilty of stealing, when in reality he was not; and, likewise, there have been instances in which judge and jury have acquitted a person charged with theft, when in reality he should have been convicted.[7] There have also been instances when a judge condemned a person as a thief and the jury decided otherwise, and just as many cases are recorded in which a jury condemned a person as a thief and the judge thought otherwise.

In a recent decision, United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone rendered a dissenting opinion in a case concerning an activity which the government characterized as a "union racket." It was claimed by the prosecution that nearly a million dollars had been extorted as a result of coercion and violence, yet the highest tribunal in the land gave the stamp of legality to these acts. Justice Stone said that in giving legal sanction to them, it "would render common-law robbery an innocent pastime."[8]

Sometimes it is utterly impossible to know with any degree of certainty where stealing ends and honesty begins.

Was Shakespeare right when he said to a band of professional thieves:

"I'll example you with thievery:
The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears; the earth's a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen
From general excrement; each thing's a thief;
The laws, your curb and whip, in their rough power
`Have uncheck'd theft....

. . . . . . . . . . .

All that you meet are thieves....
Break open shops; nothing can you steal but thieves
Do lose it...." [9]


  1. P. Wheelwright, A Critical Introduction to Ethics, p. 225.
  2. Westermarck, Morals, Vol. 1, p. 187.
  3. New York Journal, May 15, 1934.
  4. Reader's Digest, Sept., 1938.
  5. New York American, May 17, 1934.
  6. New York Times, Apr. 26, 1924.
  7. For a detailed account of innocent men suffering the penalty of guilt, see Edwin M. Borchard, Convicting the Innocent.
  8. New York Times, Mar. 3, 1942.
  9. Timon of Athens, Act 4, sc. 3.