Moral sense and stealing

The following is a recreation from memory of a conversation I had with a Christian about morality. I would be interested to hear your opinion of it.

Christian: The human moral sense is evidence that God exists. If there is no God, then were do we get our moral sense?

Me: People don’t agree about what is right and wrong, so how can you say that we all have the same moral sense?

Christian: But people do agree about right and wrong. They might make different decisions because of their culture of whatever, but even then their moral senses all agree, they’re just being overridden by culture. For example, everyone agrees that it’s wrong to torture babies for fun.

Me: If what you are saying is true, then why should we have to go to such an extreme example to find something that everyone agrees is wrong? Shouldn’t everyone agree about simple moral issues, like what constitutes stealing?

Christian: I think that everyone does agree about what is stealing.

Me: Then how would you define it?

Christian: I can’t define stealing, and I’m not saying anyone can. What I’m saying is that we all have the same moral sense and we can agree in our hearts when something is stealing or not.

Me: Okay, then for example let’s say you walk out of your house and find that there is a quarter on the sidewalk by your front gate. If you take the quarter, is that stealing?

Christian: No, that’s finding.

Me: And everyone everywhere in the world would agree that this is not stealing?

Christian: If they’re honest and not hiding their feelings or corrupted by their culture, yes.

Me: Okay. Now, what if instead of a quarter you found a $100 bill on the sidewalk outside your home. Would taking that be stealing?

Christian: No, that’s still finding.

Me: What if the $100 bill is in a wallet.

Christian: Then that’s stealing.

Me: Even if the wallet has no identification in it?

Christian: That’s still stealing, unless nobody claims the wallet. You have to make an effort to let people know the wallet has been found or turn it into the police, though. If you just keep it, it’s stealing even if nobody claims it.

Me: Okay. What if instead of a wallet there’s a bicycle on the sidewalk, leaning against your fence. Can you take it?

Christian: No, that’s stealing. But if the bicycle has been there for a long time, like a week, then it’s abandoned and taking it isn’t stealing.

Me: What if a car has been parked at the curb in front of your house with its keys in its ignition for a couple of weeks. Can you take that?

Christian: No. Taking a car is stealing.

Me: How are you drawing the line between a bicycle and a car? Is it the value? Or the fact that you could probably figure out who owned the car?

Christian: Those might be factors, but you’re not going to get me to give you a definition to pick apart. This is about moral sense. I know which is stealing and which is not because my moral sense tells me.

Me: Then I’d like to ask you about a few more situations to try and work out your methodology for myself.

Christian: Sure.

Me: If you purchase something and are given too much change, can you keep the change?

Christian: If you notice right away, then you have to give it back. If you don’t notice right away, you can keep it.

Me: For example, if you buy lunch at McDonalds and don’t realize you’ve received too much change until you sit down at a table, is that stealing?

Christian: Probably not.

Me: Probably?

Christian: Well, if it’s really busy or you’d have to leave your food alone to go back to the counter, then you don’t have to. If it isn’t a big deal, then you have to.

Me: Does the amount of money make a difference?

Christian: It’s like the money on the sidewalk. If you have to drive back to McDonalds because they gave you an extra quarter, then that’s silly. If they gave you change for a $20 when you gave them a $10, you should drive back if you haven’t gone too far. If they gave you a $100 bill instead of a $10 bill, you should return it even if you get home before you notice. You should at least call the store so they know there was a mistake and the cashier doesn’t get fired.

Me: Imagine there’s a restaurant that allowed customers to pay whatever they thought the meal was worth. If you eat a meal and enjoy the food but decide it wasn’t worth anything because the restaurant was too noisy, would leaving without paying be stealing?

Christian: No. You paid what you thought it was worth.

Me: If you went back to the restaurant a second time and got the same meal, could you still not pay for it.

Christian: Sure. If they’re going to be stupid enough to run a restaurant that way, how can it be stealing to take them at their word?

Me: Continuing with stupid retailers, if a used book store has outrageously high prices, can you erase the price written in the book and replace it with a price that is more in line with what other booksellers are charging?

Christian: If the store really is ripping off their customers, that wouldn’t be stealing.

Me: Would you consider a book store that charges cover price to be ripping off customers since books can be had at a significant discount online?

Christian: No, because you’re paying for the convenience of getting the book right away.

Me: If I go into a full-price bookstore and get a knowledgeable employee to help me put together a list of books that would help me with a project I’m doing, would it be stealing to take the list home and buy the books on Amazon instead of buying them in the store?

Christian: No. You weren’t going to buy anything in the store anyway, so they didn’t lose money. That’s not stealing. It might be lying to the person who helped you, though.

Me: Let’s get away from money for a second. If you surf the Internet for fun at work when it’s against company policy, is that stealing?

Christian: No. It might be immoral if you are breaking your promise to be working, but not if the policy is a foolish one. In any case, if it’s immoral it’s not because it’s stealing.

Me: Is it stealing to use your workplace’s photocopier to make copies for your child’s school project?

Christian: Not unless it’s a lot of copies.

Me: Is duplicating a commercial music CD for a friend stealing?

Christian: No.

Me: How about downloading an illegal copy of a movie?

Christian: It’s immoral because you’re breaking the copyright law, but it’s not stealing. The same with the CD example.

Me: What about plagiarizing someone else’s writing?

Christian: Plagiarism isn’t stealing; it’s lying.

Me: What about taking credit for something someone else did?

Christian: Also lying. It’s the same thing as plagiarism.

Me: Even if you accept a reward for the deed someone else did?

Christian: That’s still just lying. The person giving the reward was going to give it anyway. They didn’t lose anything. The person who would have received the award instead of you never got it, so you didn’t take anything from them unless they were expecting a reward. It’s still immoral, just not stealing.

Me: Imagine you check out a book from the library and love it so much you want your own copy. The book’s out of print, so you tell the library you lost it and pay the fine. Is that stealing?

Christian: No.

Me: Your neighbor has a one-of-a-kind birdbath on their front lawn that you really like. You take it, tell your neighbor you accidentally broke it, and pay them to get a new birdbath.

Christian: That’s stealing. It’s also stupid — where are you going to put the birdbath that they won’t see you have it?

Me: Good point. Let’s say you see a table where various groups have put our fliers and brochures that are free for the taking. One of the brochures is clearly anti-Christian. If you take all of them so that nobody else will see them, is that stealing?

Christian: Not if they’re free.

Me: What if there’s a donation box next to them with a note suggesting a 25-cent donation for each brochure? Can you still take them all?

Christian: Yes. It’s just a donation suggestion, not a price.

Me: Okay. Is sneaking into a movie theater stealing?

Christian: No. It’s trespassing or something like that, but it isn’t stealing.

Me: Even if the movie is sold out?

Christian: Correct.

Me: What if your sneaking in prevents a paying customer from getting in?

Christian: It’s still not stealing.

Me: Is it stealing to lie about your child’s age so that they can get into a movie at a lower price?

Christian: You said it yourself, it’s lying.

Me: I think that’s plenty of examples. Just to be clear, you are stating that everyone’s moral sense will agree with your moral sense in every one of these cases?

Christian: Human moral sense is God-given and universal. Every honest person will agree. If they think they don’t agree, they need to examine their feelings and see what it is in their culture or upbringing that it making them deny what they know in their heart is the truth. Honestly, did you disagree in your heart with anything I said?

Me: Yes, but I’m not sure how I could prove that to you.

Readers: Did you disagree with anything the Christian said? Please let me know in the comments.

Posted on December 30, 2010 at 7:22 am by ideclare · Permalink
In: Discussion, Morality

10 Responses

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  1. Written by bob
    on December 30, 2010 at 8:33 am
    Reply · Permalink

    There is no logical difference between taking a hundred dollar bill and a hundred dollar bill in an unmarked wallet. there is no way to prove who owns the wallet, so turning it into the police station is just going to give it to the first person who walks in and notices it.

    Same thing with the difference between a car and a bicycle. If we use the definition that something sitting there for a long period of time has been abandoned and it’s morally fine to take it, then the same thing is between the car and the bicycle. and if it doesn’t, then how is taking the bicycle okay?

    Getting advice from an employee in-store and then buying the books on amazon is essentially stealing from their company, because you used their resources (the employee’s knowledge and time) without giving them anything in return.

    Surfing the internet at work depends on what you are supposed to be doing instead of it. if you have finished all your work, then there is nothing wrong with it. If you are surfing the internet while there is a big project you need to work on, then it is stealing because you are stealing the company’s time that it is paying you to do work.

    Plagiarism could easily be considered stealing because you could easily consider “Credit” a resource. It is possible you are stealing future prosperity from someone in the future by taking the resource “credit” from them that they would need to get another book deal or a job.

    Sneaking into a movie theater that is sold out is also stealing because you are stealing that person’s movie watching experience. it is essentially the same thing as stealing a rented copy of the movie from that person.

  2. Written by Chip
    on December 30, 2010 at 8:37 am
    Reply · Permalink

    I definitely disagree with a very large chunk of what this “upstanding,” “moral” Christian says, but like you I sincerely doubt there’s any way to prove that to him. I expect he’d argue that it was simply my culture or upbringing clouding what was *truly* in my heart.

    It’s an unwinnable argument of the No True Scotsman sort; if you agree with him it’s because you’re clearly in touch with the universal moral sense he believes in. If you disagree, well, you surely still have that universal moral sense but it’s been obscured by your culture.

    If he’s an example of the kind of morality that religion fosters, I’ll continue to be good without god, thanks.

  3. Written by ff42
    on December 30, 2010 at 10:13 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    On one hand I believe that all violations (murder, rape, stealing, etc.) of the innocent can be mapped to theft in the property rights sense. Even lying (“stealing the truth”) can be mapped to theft.

    However you should have pushed back on the very first logical fallacy “Christian: The human moral sense is evidence that God exists. If there is no God, then were do we get our moral sense?” as 1) existence of X doesn’t require creator of X or 2) perhaps a moral sense was an evolutionary step that helped mankind to survive.

    You could have also asked “According to the O.T, who directly (or via orders) KILLED the most people?”. That who, of course, was god. Doesn’t sound very moral to me.

  4. Written by Andy
    on December 31, 2010 at 9:08 am
    Reply · Permalink

    It’s interesting how much his feelings reflect his culture. Most cultures have some concept of stealing but it can vary widely. In fact I find it amazing that most Christians believe their religious beliefs reflect “the word of God” more than they reflect their culture.

  5. Written by Joakim Rosqvist
    on December 31, 2010 at 10:10 am
    Reply · Permalink

    I agree on most points, but not these:
    * Eating at the restaurant for free – they clearly expect some form of compensation.
    * Changing the price on the book – that’s the price that was set, take it or leave it.
    * The “lost” library book – this is stealing, the library expects to be able to lend it to others.
    * That something (e.g. breaking copyright law) is illegal does not make it immoral.

  6. Written by Mike
    on December 31, 2010 at 5:46 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    What is both funny and sad is the Christian seemingly being totally unaware that HIS values are shaped by HIS culture just as much as anyone else. His only test that people are honest and moral is that they agree with himself.

    He also seems to see no moral issue where things might work in his favour with little chance of discovery.

    His god given morality on steeling birdbaths seems to say not to do it simply because you won’t get away with it. I think his responses reflect human nature very much more than pointing to some supreme being.

    I think there are some agreed shared values by most people regardless of which gods they do or don’t believe in which I’d have though would be an argument against any one particular god having inspired it all.

    Another thing that would be interesting to discuss would be the morality of the God in the old testament. and how it compares with morality of modern secular societies of today. It seems to me either we have become more moral as we have turned from crackpot religion to the rule of democracy, liberty and law. These are far better inspirations for morality.

  7. Written by Caleb
    on January 1, 2011 at 6:24 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Actually, I think it’s fairly easy to define some things.

    Most of the time when people disagree about “Grey” issues it’s primarily because they don’t believe the particular action breaks any moral laws.

    I don’t think that your argument is completely “fair” to the Christian, as the statements made by him don’t reflect the beliefs of the majority of Christians. Well, at least those of us who think logically :)

  8. Written by Clytia
    on January 14, 2011 at 4:20 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry. I agree with most of the commenters. For the most part, the christian view of morality makes me cringe.

  9. Written by Tom_M
    on July 30, 2011 at 3:31 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Joakim Rosqvist wrote: “That something (e.g. breaking copyright law) is illegal does not make it immoral.”

    Unfortunately, it is immoral – as the writer breaking copyright is claiming credit for something which was not theirs to begin with…

  10. Written by Tom_M
    on July 30, 2011 at 3:38 pm
    Reply · Permalink


    Don’t take the comments of one person (identifying himself as Christian) to be the answers he should have given. Nor, expect that all of us would respond the same way.

    Intuition is a dangerous basis upon which determine generalities. It’s unreliable.

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