Let’s define ownership: a lesson in morality and logic

Let’s define ownership: a lesson in morality and logic


Image source: Wikimedia Commons

So the other day I was engaged in an argument with a fellow poster. A nice guy who knew what he was talking about. So we come to the old question about Morality. His responses are in Italics.

I think subjectivity is simply inconsistent so I rejected subjective morality early on. He however was in the opposite corner. In between our conversation, I said “Stealing is wrong”. Now listen to this, he says:

If I define stealing as ‘wrongfully taking what doesn’t belong to you’, then it’s wrong by definition. Then, the problem is reduced to our theory of good or our idea of what makes something right or wrong. And also, it helps to establish what qualifies as ownership.

When we assert ‘stealing is not good’, there is a lot going on. There is the arduous task of defining each of those words and ascribing meaning (what does it ‘mean’ to have meaning?). Is it wrong for a lion to steal from a lion? What if a plant steals sunlight from a plant? We should examine the actors, doesn’t it matter if they are morally relevant actors? What does it mean to steal? What does it mean to own? How do we ascribe ownership to a ‘thing’? What is a thing? The obvious problems of then deciding what ‘good’ means. Layers upon layers of complexity, ideas, and abstractions to arrive at ‘stealing is not good’.

And to that, I’ll have to say.. ‘well, it depends.’

All good and valid points for sure. I asked him, that in his opinion, would this explanation work if I am standing in the court on the charge of theft and I repeat the above statement in my defense? To which he replied:

You ask, “is stealing wrong?” to which I’d say, yes. It is wrong, or bad, by definition. The only ambiguity left would be can we define and set a concrete border on all actions that constitute stealing? That seems difficult. Can we set a concrete and inflexible value to the harm of stealing? Why is stealing a car worse than stealing a bag of chips? Is it even worse? The harm of stealing would seem to be very complex and depend on a lot of different variables, and we can even approach an objective harm without even denying subjective values exist (by the method I described above). Could stealing then be justifiable if it was, say, to steal food for your starving family? There is so much context to consider that I have trouble making absolute blanket statements. This makes morality very difficult when when don’t want it to be, and intuitively, these things feel so obvious. I think ethics is a good way to simplify morality in some cases, but we also have to agree on what morality is (what is right and wrong?). Lots of issues to tackle. Morality may be objective in a way we didn’t realize, though.

I understand his side, I really do. And he had the guts to take his argument to its logical end even if that ended at an awkward end. I appreciate that.

I realize that there are indeed problems with regards to morals. There are problems which lie deep within at the heart of the issue. And yet this is precisely why I reject subjectivity.

Now before you think I am a heartless chap, let me expound on one bit of what he said, the part about stealing food for your starving family. Now this is a very tender subject and I can just say that if you have a starving wife and child, you do what it takes to feed them, after all nothing is precious than life itself. I sympathize with anyone who is in that position.

But regardless of whether you steal or not, ask yourself this, does this suddenly make stealing a “good” act? Just because you have been wronged, or you have hard times, does not grant you the liberty to do another wrong. No one has the right to do that.

Should people just start stealing because they are out of a job or having hard times? Don’t you think its kind of a wrong mentality to have? Do you understand where this leads? What if you steal from someone to provide food for your family and the guy you stole from needed that money to buy his child’s medicine? Don’t you think you just exchanged one evil for another.

You see, the thing about morals and logic is, that they have to be consistent or else we have serious problems. I think objective morality exists because the simple rules of logic, by deductive reasoning demand it. It is also one of the same reasons I think evolution is the best model, not because of how much evidence we have but rather without evolution, biology simply does not make sense.

The second rule of logic is that two opposite things can not be both true at the same time, hence the Law of non-contradiction.

Now, my proposition is “stealing is not good”. So lets scrap out objective and subjective morality, lets start from zero.

How many states of reality does this proposition holds to? Only two in my opinion. Either my statement is true, or it is not true. To say we do not know whether it is true or not is irrelevant since what we believe can not alter the nature of the act in question. To say it is both true and false at all given time and space is also wrong because it is inconsistent with the the first rule of formal logic.

To say it is true in some instances and false at others is what we call subjectivity, it is to evade the question partially because now we are defining true or false as we see fit and even that may change from our understanding over time. But why I do not find this work around impressive, is because it does not address the nature of the act in question rather it judges the act according to how it is perceived by the beholders or observers. But see here the problem arises again it now appears to have broken the law of non-contradiction.

This is why I believe OM exists, two opposite things can not both be true, and if SM is true than the rules of of formal logic are also null and void. But if OM is true than the rules of logic hold and they are consistent. Subjective morality simply can not stand consistency. Objective morality can.

Even to say that subjective Morality exists, would be an act of attributing a fundamental objective property to the statement. The fact remains, relativity has no direct impact on the inherent nature of an act. I am not discussing here how we get the knowledge of something. Things exists without our knowledge of them, that is why we discover them.

Ultimately, what do you think? What qualifies as ownership? Is stealing inherently bad, or is it just relative to your situation?

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17 thoughts on “Let’s define ownership: a lesson in morality and logic

  1. This is my Christian perspective:

    Goodness depends on whether or not you believe in Jesus Christ or not.{ Don’t roll your eyes just yet, let me explain.}
    If you serve Him then He has set the boundaries for good and right and wrong and evil. They are clearly defined. Stealing for your starving family would therefore be a sin (wrong) because of the lack of trust in God to provide food. (Much like Abraham and Sarah, she took matters into her own hands when they were “starving” for a child)

    If not, then good and evil, or right versus wrong is defined by the society in which the action was done based on the majority factor of who believes what things constitute right or wrong. Society is subjective and right verses wrong will change as society changes.

    While each person as an individual has an instictive disposition as to what they feel to be right or wrong, those instincts are then governed by society. An example of this would be:

    If you are stranded on a desert island with one person and you kill that person, based on the society or based on your reasoning of why you killed that person, would then define it as right or wrong.{The society would be made up of the two people and therefore right or wrong would be subjective to what their instincts of what right and wrong are.}

    However, if you area Christian and you are stranded on a desert island and you kill that person it would be wrong in the eyes of God and therefor wrong. Period. Ye shall not kill. Is clearly defined.

    As for the car vs chips thing. Stealing is wrong in the eyes of God and therefor is not based on the value of the item but the action of taking something that did not belong to you. Where as in society the right verses wrong is conditional on the value of the item and therefor you would not receive prison time (here in America anyways) for stealing chips but you could or would for stealing a car. It would still be wrong to steal the chips but according to society it is not an egregious crime and often over looked as petty. {I realize it is not this way every where but then that just goes back to the value vs society argument}

    This is one of those things that could go on and on and on depending on who believes what.

  2. Great post. Yet the problems with objective morality remain. We value a situational ethic from time to time, don’t we? We approve of the policeman who, in your scenario, takes the family to a shelter rather than taking the father to jail, not because we think it was good for the father to steal food, but because we recognize a priority in the situation. Most people would lie to the murderer, rather than expose his quarry’s hiding place, to use the classic example. So what we employ now is a system of objective morality tempered by benevolent hypocrisy. Consistency at every level may not be possible.

    1. Hey Keith,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      How one decides to perceive an action in a given moment is another thing.
      In fact you said it yourself, “lie to the murderer”. Most people would confuse that with good. I am saying keep the good or bad out. Did you lie, if you lied, you lied. I can understand why someone would lie in a situation like this. But it is still a lie. Your words suddenly do not change into truth. Why you lied may be understood or even condoned, yet that does not change the nature of the action which was, you said something which was not truthful.
      I am not saying whether lying in this situation is wrong or right. Simply that the act is a lie in its own nature.

      Objective morality does not mean you act perfectly good, it means that there is a standard with which we can judge our actions. In the case of the classic example of murderer and the lie, the more important would be the sanctity of life and therefore it must be protected, that is a greater moral. You can say I lied to save life but you can not say, I did not lie.

      1. Hi John,
        I see you (and others) have been doing a lot of typing this morning! I think I see your point. It does seem like you are taking the classic approach to the problem of moral conflicts in moral realism. Lying is evil, but is sometimes a right action (an action leading to good) as well. We are forced to take a calculated decision, then, and simply accept that we can’t always do good – moral realism tempered by benevolent hypocrisy. I think you can see the potential pitfall in this way of proceeding, which is the appeal of the ends justifying the means. Again, I don’t think you can escape this kind of inconsistency in moral relativism or moral realism. I’ve thought that error theory and fictionalism might be a better approach, but that has its own difficulties at societal scales, too. I think we’re all stuck sweating it out in some circumstances, no matter which approach to our relationship with the world as a whole we take.

        1. Oh I agree, there is no single way to achieve consistent action. In theory objectivity is consistent. Logically it fits. Subjectivity, if carried with the right presumptions, can be defended too. That is why both parties clash so often because both have a good case.

          I am not saying, lying is evil, simply that lying is lying, lets call a spade, a spade. The problem with these things occur when we introduce positive or negative connotation like, pleasurable or evil or good or bad.

          Sometimes some actions are justifiable even when they seem horrendous, and some seem harmless and yet are wrong. we just have to be open minded and not be legalistic.

          I am not advocating precisely for “the end justify the means”, I am saying, good and bad may be relative but their inherent nature never changes. And we must not confuse them. I don’t think I have all the answers. But anyway, thanks for the brainstorming. I enjoy a healthy one.

  3. Disgusting. To not satisfy the needs of man by being fed a lie about sin and eternal suffering is a disgusting proposition. This notion of “trust,” “hope,” or “faith” that something will get done is similarly disgusting, because it takes agency away from man. Let’s problematize it: if someone trusts in the design of god to provide someone with food, or a job, or whatever, what agency does man have to achieve those ends? None. If it is predetermined that I am to be a poor beggar, I believe there is nothing I can do in this world to change this. How sad. If god commands me to never kill, I will be condemned to sin and eternal suffering if I kill someone who is about to do the same to me. Should I let the man kill me, and resign to the notion that if he does it’d be part of god’s plan? Should we pull the plug on our family’s life support because it is in god’s hands? Faith-based ethics is the most amoral position one can take, for it removes responsibility and agency.

  4. No way. You are taking about a cult called “word of faith” movement and part Jehovah witnesses. Hardcore determinism is something which only the high Calvinistic hold to and they are a rare minority over all. There is nothing in mainstream christian theology which says what you saying about faith and all that.

    1. I was mainly responding to one of your commenters. Mainstream christian theology is based on these notions that are now a minority. At any rate, to believe in an objective morality is to believe in something categorical, no? If we appeal to OM, there must be something universal about it, applicable to all everywhere and whenever, no? The simple fact that there is a debate on the validity of OM exposes that there isn’t an OM. Objectivities cannot be argued and exist outside the thoughts of man: people need food and air to survive; man is a thinking being. To base the validity of OM on the fact that SM violates the rules of logic is a parlor trick of the intellectual variety.

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