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doth shalt not steal August 30, 2006

Posted by Brad Richert in philosophy, politics.
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What do we teach our children about stealing? Exodus 20:15 famously quips, “Doth shalt not steal”. Pretty vague if you ask me. Maybe not so vague three thousand years ago but in our “democratic capitalist” system, “stealing” is a relative term. Relative to the colour of persons skin and to the time of the crime. The eighth commandment, as quoted above, definitely has some give, just as some of the other commandments in the Bible (for the ancient Hebrews as well as the current fundamentalist Christians that hold them to be the most holy of laws). We all know that the sixth commandment is “do not murder” and the ninth is “do not give false testimony”, yet murder (via war) was acceptable to the nation of Israel (not to mention God) and false testimony was relative to the situation (Joshua 2:4). So back to stealing.


Last saturday the above scene in Maywood, California took place. The days events can be found here. Basically supporters of illegal immigration took down the American flag at a postal office and threw up a Mexican flag. The entire day, claimed one blogger, was a gong show of racism (on both sides), police enforcement, and limited clarity on what is “right”. When asked how my own nation, Canada, was created I usually just say that a British trading company (Hudson’s Bay Company) came over and ripped off the natives in a bunch of sham deals. In other words, the British basically stole the new “British North America” from the natives. In the United States the situation was complicated by genocidal wars against the natives as well as “illegal” land purchases that disregarded the majority of the population living there. So what is stealing?

The political philosopher, John Rawls, who died in 2002, was famous for his theory of justice (“Justice as Fairness”). Basically Rawls played on the social contract theories of the 17th and 18th centuries with some modifications. The main modification was his “veil of ignorance” which imagined the blindness of any judgment that one might make that has nothing to do with the situation (Ie. race, social status, intelligence, strength, etc.). Rawls continue on to develop his theory with normal philosophical tediousness creating basic principles of justice that he thinks are universal. Once he has asserted his basic laws of justice he applied them to political liberalism. This, of course, would shock many people since he had stumbled upon a philosophy that did not bid well with the status quo. This is because the “veil of ignorance” was meant to capture the though experiment of the “original position”. The original position, like the social contract theories” was meant to be a sort of “state of nature” (as a philosophical experiment, not an actual situation in time and space). Rawls argued that when stronger individuals/groups coerce weaker (or smaller) individuals/groups, based on the nature of their strength/size the contractual arrangement (Hudson Bay buying “property” from natives who do not understand the concept of “property”) the contract is actually invalidated by nature of its injustice.

So what is stealing? Quoting the Bible, stealing can mean simply “do not steal directly from the victim in a crude fashion“. Rawls, however, would say that stealing is a invalidated contract based on breaking any of the several conditions of the “original position”:

  1. Each citizen is guaranteed a fully adequate scheme of civil liberties, which is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all
  2. Social and economic inequalities must satisfy two conditions:
    1. All offices and positions must be open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity
    2. Economic inequalities are only permitted insofar as they are to the greatest benefit of the least well off members of society

So anything that deviates from those conditions could be considered “stealing”. Because of the veil of ignorance there is no such thing as “just get over it”. So how does a liberal society carry on two hundred years after the crime was committed? We have made it impossible to just undo the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 or European settlement in the first place. So while the anti-illegal immigration supporters are complaining about the ramifications of “illegals” on their taxes, one thing that needs to remembered is that nations know no political boundaries. Europe has learned this the hard way through millennia of wars. Yet the “New World” has its own problem as governments start confronting the political problems they created with boundaries that disregarded the populations that once made up the majority.

Political philosophy is more or less a thing of the past, and irrational behavior often triumphs the day. People are guided by their fears rather than their minds, but if anything can be learned from the philosophers it is the attempt of the “veil of ignorance”. American or Mexican, each has a right to fight for their claim to the land, but that fight should remain in the veil of ignorance that blocks out the colour of one’s skin or the amount of one’s money.

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