To have what isn't yours

To have what isn't yours: is it stealing or sheer good luck? To most people, the moral compass swings depending on the manner in which you came across the object in question. For example, if you found a hundred rupee note while you were taking your morning stroll, most people would think it is just their luck and would pick up the money. However, if you just saw that the note dropped off someone's pocket in front of you, will you still silently pocket the money or will you call the man and let him know? Like I mentioned, the "manner" of acquisition of the object matters most when deciding if it is morally self-permissible to have it.

What you do with it is a completely different question: some would donate it to a beggar or charity nearby, others would just add it to their wallet. Let us not digress there for now.

Guilt-free rationalization of being the beneficiary of an error is an art to be learned. Allow me to explain. Shoplifting and clerical errors are part of any store's budget. Which means, on any given day, in spite of all kinds of security guards, RFID tags, etc. there are always a few items that slip through. usually, the big brand stores already calculate for that in their daily operations (sort of like their rent or electricity bill). A certain category of people always benefit from the errors of the clerk, meaning the person at the counter probably just failed to scan an item and therefore you got it without paying. You might discover it in the store itself, or you might come home and realize that the item in your bag does not appear on the bill. Now the question is, do you return to the counter or to the store and pay for that as well?

"Maybe, maybe not" for most of us. In a just and truthful world, where you "[be] are the change you wish to see in the world", perhaps all of us would go back and get ourselves billed for that item. In reality, some of us have also learned to live with the fact that "it was their mistake" and therefore you are not at fault to pay for this even though you benefited from the transaction. Notice the words mistake and fault here: the implicit assumption of penalty for wrongdoing is used to absolve yourself of any guilt.

 For some of us, though, a big factor in the equation is the size of the business who loses money due to this. If it is a simple 2-3 person neighborhood store run by some man with his wife and kids, we would think twice before doing this. If, however, it is a big chain of stores where some faceless nameless guy at the top of the foodchain has to eventually deal with it, you would be much more comfortable with this. "He has enough money", "he wouldn't even notice this", "big corporations are evil anyway so I am just getting back at them", "they exploit poor workers in China/the villages" are the many justifications you can use to rationalize your behavior. Notice that those are the same justifications that one may use to rob or steal from a wealthy businessman - they already have enough, right?

I can see that there are lots of discussions that may arise out of this post, or perhaps lots of other blog posts as well. But in essence what it boils down to is whether your conscience is clear of your deeds, by hook or by crook. Like Sri Ramakrishna used to say, "ভাবের ঘরে যেন চুরি না থাকে" - (loosely translated) let there be no fraud in your own deeply personal thoughts.


  1. To go deeper in philosophy, what really belongs to whom in this world? Property rights is a man made concept and there appears to be a significant investment of morality to the sanctity of property rights over the evolution of mankind. This is partly because we believe that no civilized society can exist without recognition of private property rights.

    However, as the saying goes: we come with nothing and go away with nothing in this world.

    Having said that, of course, this might seem an escape route for those who seek to justify their behaviour of coveting other people's possessions.

    The simple phrase: "Finders keepers, losers weepers" seem to have profound philosophical implications.

  2. Hari, your comments are insightful as ever.

    I agree with your concluding remark, in that there are profound philosophical implications of the entire discussion. Perhaps more blog posts are due over this - you and I both seem to sit on the fence for this one.

  3. You echoed my thoughts exactly!

    I tend to base my behavior on something even more flimsy - impulse. Sometimes, I would know that I **would** feel guilty (depending on how 'nice' the one dealing with me was, my mood, whether I'm in hurry or not [so, in a way convenience counts]) or not. So, if I were to feel that I'd feel guilty I'd correct the wrong, otherwise I would just let it pass, but nor would I feel the need to rationalize it.

    I'd done a blog post exploring a similar theme here: Of course, I was trying to determine what are the the considerations that people would apply to consider something as honest v/s dishonest.

  4. Ketan, impulse is a good rule of thumb to have, since we do not always have the time to analyze in great detail. And your impulses are a great indicator of what you really believe in, your subconscious thoughts, etc. That way, the need to rationalize something later on diminishes.

    I'll read your post and leave a comment there.

  5. Deciding what is right/wrong is easy. If you truly believe its wrong, its wrong. If you truly believe its right, with no qualms, its right!

  6. Kaala Kavva, true, but when the lines in your own mind are blurred, it is a problem.

  7. Everybody has his own definition of morality, the same deed for someone might be a justification and not so immoral thing, while for someone, it may be a big wrong deed!! However, there are some people, who might not be able to control their heart and remake their definitions of morality, while there are some people, who through passing of life, learn to control their heart and stick to their rule and moral limits, no matter what!!!! It is you who gotta decide, where you make your heart control you, or you control your heart!!!

    1. Terry - I am very confused about whether to mark this comment as a spam and delete it (for link whoring), or to reply. Finally, the reply part of me prevailed. So you are right - the choice is always ours. But they are hard choices. And the hardest part is that it is often difficult to tell whether it is the heart or the mind making me do something.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts