A Question about Aristotle on Theft

Here is an issue that I thought of today as I was preparing for my class on Aristotle’s ethics. I thought I knew the answer, but after having thought about it a bit I am not sure, so I’ll ask you.

Suppose that you accepted Aristotle’s claim that there are somethings which are always wrong, like theft, murder, and adultery while with everything else the right action is that action which a virtuous person would perform. If we assume the standard interpretation of what this means then we end up with the view that the virtuous person is able to determine, or see, what the virtuous action is in the given situation they find themselves in. Does this mean, then, that Aristotle is committed to the claim that it is impossible that there could ever be a situation in which a virtuous person determined that theft was the proper action? A (seemingly) obvious counter-example would be the ‘looters’ in New Orleans who were taking bread and other supplies from a local store. Whatever one thinks about that, it seems possible that a virtuous person would act this way in some situation. Does anyone know of anyplace where this is discussed in the literature (or have any thoughts about what Aristotle is committed to here)?

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5 thoughts on “A Question about Aristotle on Theft

  1. In the passage cited in the above book (in the original Greek), which comes from The Rhetoric (1374a 15, Barnes translation) he says “Nor does taking a thing without the owner’s knowledge always amount to theft, but only if it is taken with the intention of keeping it and injuring the owner”

    Wish I had known about this when I was writing my dissertation!

  2. It always seems to come down to definition.
    But for almost any wording we can get a counter example…. for example stealing the weapon from a person intent on causing harm with it… and then keeping it, because it is a shame to waste.

  3. Hi GNZ. My question wasn’t really about stealing per se but was really about the tension between the moral particularism and the moral absolutism in Aristotle’s thinking about ethics. He claims both that stealing is absolutely wrong and that in (most) other cases there is no absolute answer. He seems to define stealing in such a way that it is plausible that a virtuous person would not act in that way (and your example is no threat to this definition. It simply isn’t stealing…)

  4. yes that is what my point was (as bad as I am at making it).

    Ie that a philosopher may propose a statement that is in a sense “by definition correct”. So he proposes a statement like theft is always immoral. At the time both he and his audience (in whatever sense) have a certain concept of “theft” as they investigate hypothetical scenarios the definition of the words inside of it that that flex.

    So in my first thought was – there probably is no tension due to definition -and that is what you confirmed.

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