The Ethics of Looting

Can stealing be ethical? Are there circumstances which can justify theft or is it always wrong?

Those questions reverberated in many people’s minds in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation of the Philippines. A category 5-equivalent typhoon which had winds in excess of 315 km/h, surpassing the 1969 Hurricane Camille wind speed of 305 km/h to become the strongest typhoon ever observed. Although the winds were threatening, the biggest damage came as a result of a storm surge – which engulfed rural communities. The death toll was predicted to hit 10,000 at the final count.

Sadly, even as the typhoon left the Philippine area of responsibility the danger had not. As the calamity rendered countless families homeless without any food or water supply, legions of desperate victims began a crusade of looting. Shopping malls were invaded, ransacking tenants for food and other supplies. Even smaller establishments were not spared, with reports of convenience stores being intruded as well. The victims were led to theft in an effort for self-preservation.

Survival instinct is a genetic impulse, a natural behavior universal among all living organisms. However, can self-preservation be used to justify theft or acts of violence?

Aristotle once made a case that there are some things which are always wrong – he enumerates murder, adultery and theft to be examples. If we take the standard interpretation of his ethos, then the looting during calamities certainly counts as evil – not to mention illegal. However, modern philosophers present a better interpretation, by saying that theft is only done if there was a deliberate intention to deprive the owner of an advantage or if the perpetrators committed the deed to unfairly advantage themselves.

If we take that translation, then the victims hording food, water, medicine and first aid equipment are justified because they did so in order to survive. But unfortunately they were not the only ones; video footage showed that a sizable number of people stole non-essential items such as jewelry, appliances, gadgets and toys from establishments. Surely no rational person would stand up for this kind of behavior.

Alas, opinions were aplenty in social media that these actions can still be tolerated because the looters would be able to sell these non-essential goods and in turn use the money to purchase essential goods. The only problem with that logic is that the establishments – especially the medium and small-sized businesses – would be making a loss and be disadvantaged as a result. This violates the more liberal interpretation of Aristotle’s ethos. Surely, Rolex watches amounting thousands of dollars is not needed to buy food for an average family?

A family bring sacks of toys they ransacked from a nearby department store.
A family bring sacks of toys they ransacked from a nearby department store.

Stealing may be an indecent act and one which discredits human dignity, but we can concede there are situations where it can be tolerated. However, it is very important to draw a moral line and know how far stealing can go before it is considered an injustice. First, the act of taking must be the only way to achieve the goal at hand. Second, the deed must occur for the purpose of preserving a greater good at hand – in this case, that is one’s health. Third, taking must treat those goods that preserve ownership according to their true value.

The storm took plenty of homes and properties – the shock of the loss is enough to drive the victims or anyone else irrational. Add that to the fact that immediate relief supplies were inadequate and there were reports of victims still trapped under debris. From this we can understand why they were so desperate to collect supplies and to find shelter immediately. But the people who looted non-essential goods did no one a favor. There were reports of armed men infiltrating not only business establishments but as well as residential homes and taking everything at gunpoint. Families are already reeling from the damage of the storm, now there are thugs who take advantage of their devastation by deliberately committing theft. That kind of behavior cannot be justified as acceptable because of the calamity, nor can any rational person.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, looting was rampant as well but police were largely tolerant of it at first. Many ethicists drew an analogy that breaking into a pharmacy to obtain medicine to save a diabetic relative was the ‘right thing to do’. But the thieves quickly targeted gun stores soon after and robbery at gunpoint became common in the streets.

Many say that the permissive behavior authorities had when the looting started is a factor in the chaos that ensued months after Katrina’s devastation. Even until today, the state of Louisiana has among the highest gun-related crimes in the United States. In another example, the catastrophic Haitian Earthquake of 2011 saw widespread theft becoming a problem as well. A big reason for this was because the national penitentiary was severely damaged, allowing convicted criminals to escape. In just a few months, the biggest hindrance to the work of relief agencies changed from the damaged infrastructure to armed crime groups terrorizing evacuation centers and looting their supplies.

The best answer to the morality of stealing dispute is that theft in response to self-preservation can be justified but being entirely tolerant to ransacking using calamity as an excuse is not only an injustice but can lead to bigger problems in the future. The aid promised by ally nations should be a reason for people to stop looting and receive legitimate aid. Typhoon Haiyan was a disaster, but the province of Leyte descending into an anarchy the like of Somalia is infinitely more tragic. A tragedy should not be used as an excuse to sacrifice humanity.

Further Reading

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s