You don’t know what it’s like, you don’t have a clueMost, if not all, of the world’s many jurisdictions have laws that impose severe legal sanctions on those of its citizens who commit murder, perpetrate violence or indulge in theft (which includes, but is not limited to, armed robbery, burglary, street mugging, fraud and embezzlement), although whether in these countries the relevant laws apply to everyone is a crucial point in determining the attitudes of ordinary citizens to such laws, and nobody should be in any doubt that such laws are necessary.
If you did you’d find yourself doing the same thing too.
Breaking the law, breaking the law….
Judas Priest, Breaking the Law.
In the case of murder, it might seem that there is little room for ambivalence in popular attitudes, but in Decline of the English Murder, having defined the key characteristics of what would be the ‘ideal’ murder from the point of view of a typical reader of the News of the World, George Orwell concludes by writing
With this kind of background, a crime can have dramatic and even tragic qualities which make it memorable and excite pity for both victim and murderer. (italics added)This quote should not be taken as an endorsement of murder; Orwell was merely pointing out that the domestic poisoning dramas of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were motivated by strong emotions, and that being unmasked as a murderer was somehow less scandalous, less personally embarrassing, than being revealed as an adulterer. He contrasted this with the impersonal nature of many contemporary murders, a trend that has led, in the twenty-first century, to murders being committed for the most absurdly trivial of motives.
However, it is with popular attitudes to the various forms of theft that genuine ambivalence can be detected. At one extreme, the type of thief who preys on old ladies in their own homes is highly likely to face retribution in prison at the hands of other inmates, who themselves have been found guilty of what most law-abiding citizens would regard as serious crimes. In a recent trial in Scotland, the presiding judge actually referred approvingly to the likelihood that the defendant would experience such a fate when sentencing a man who had been found guilty of systematically robbing or defrauding elderly people, which may have been taking schadenfreude a little too far but is probably what most people would want to happen in such circumstances.
At the other extreme are confidence tricksters such as Victor Lustig, the man who ‘sold’ the Eiffel Tower, who are often admired for their daring, coupled with the feeling that the person being defrauded is often a victim of their own greed. It is clear that in these two extremes there is a moral dichotomy, in which the status of the victim rather than the nature of the crime determines the reaction; snatching an old lady’s handbag is seen, by most observers, as more reprehensible, morally, than defrauding an insurance company or robbing a bank.
In a recent survey by a major insurance firm in the UK, less than half of the 2,000 policy holders questioned said that they considered an exaggerated claim to be dishonest, even though such claims are typically for goods that had purportedly been stolen or damaged but that did not actually exist in the first place.
In fact, how one actually defines theft is problematic, and one is often compelled to fall back on legal definitions, which do little to clear up any moral ambiguities. On the bookshelves of my house in the UK, you will find two bookends. They are pieces of Honister slate, the same material that is used to make the thousand and one knick-knacks and ornaments that cram the many gift and souvenir shops in Keswick, a major tourist destination in the English Lake District. However, my bookends were not purchased in such an emporium; they were scavenged from the mine spoil heaps of the Honister Slate Company at the top of Honister Pass, which have long been an eyesore. Technically, this is theft, even though the rocks had been discarded. At the time of the ‘theft’, the mine itself had been closed for many years, but it has recently reopened as a ‘visitor attraction’, and there have been prosecutions of people who have removed material from these spoil heaps.
Another personal reason for equivocation came when I was working in the BBC Publications warehouse in Bermondsey, south London, in 1979. I was asked to clear out a large room full of what was regarded as out-of-date material. I could have completed the job in a day, but this would have gone against the working practices in the warehouse, so I took a week. This gave me the opportunity to see what I was being asked to throw out rather than simply discarding it unseen. It also meant that if anything was worth rescuing I could do so. In fact, very little was worth rescuing, but I did come across two cheaply printed books published in the 1930s for the benefit of BBC announcers and newsreaders. They were guides to the correct pronunciation of every place name in England, Scotland and Wales and are now also to be found on my bookshelves.
These two examples raise a difficult point: to what extent does the owner of an item retain any ownership rights over that item if they have discarded it? Such a scenario might even have occasioned Karl Marx’s famous dictum that ‘property is theft’. Sadly for budding Marxists, this is not the case: Marx reasoned that if theft implies depriving someone of an item, and ownership of that item means that a second party is thereby deprived of ownership, then the owner is a thief. Given that most of Marx’s theories are on a similar level of absurdity, it is difficult to understand how his ideas ever gained any credence in the first place. They are definitely of no help in the present discussion. However, in fairness to Marx, it is difficult to formulate a comprehensive definition of theft without a corresponding definition of property.
There is certainly a discrepancy between legal and moral definitions of theft, and there is probably a correlation between the size of that discrepancy and position on the social scale. A resident of a leafy suburb is likely to have a notion of theft that is very close to the legal definition, while most residents of inner city public housing estates are likely to be more ambivalent. This is my explanation for the widespread looting that took place in several English cities in August 2011, where hundreds of participants were stupid enough to think that they could get away with stealing items from ransacked shops, having grown up in subcultures where petty dishonesty is routine, where the phrase ‘fallen off the back of a lorry’ is a part of everyday life. Although they would have been well aware that what they were doing was proscribed by law, there would have been no moral restraint on their actions.
So far, I have been discussing laws that have a moral basis, but I was motivated to write this piece by an observation close to home. In order to reach my house from the nearest railway station, I need to catch a minibus. Although these vehicles carry far fewer passengers than Hong Kong’s railway system, they perform a vital function in linking small population centres to the public transport network.
Nowadays, most minibuses have seat belts, and a sign is prominently displayed inside the cabin in both English and Chinese. It exhorts passengers to fasten their seat belts and warns of the consequences of failing to do so:
Passengers who fail to comply are liable to a maximum fine of $5,000 [US$645; £388] and 3 months imprisonment.You may choose to submit a fraudulent insurance claim, buy cigarettes on which you know excise duty has not been paid, cheat during a game of poker, or sell worthless pieces of paper on the grounds that they represent a sound investment, but this is a moral rather than a practical decision, even if the morality behind such a decision is questionable.
However, given that minibus drivers, as a group, are among the worst in Hong Kong—they routinely drive too close to the vehicle in front (I’ve seen one collision involving this practice), they change lanes without warning, and they even jump red lights—why anyone would ignore this notice is baffling, yet on most occasions I’m the only person in the minibus to avail myself of this obvious safety measure. And it isn’t because I don’t want to be sent to jail that I comply; it just seems like a sensible precaution, and why anyone would consciously risk imprisonment for such a trivial matter is beyond my comprehension.