We know that stealing is wrong. We also know that individuals can own things. But is taking from someone always stealing? If not, then when is it stealing? Clarification of these issues is necessary to further understand the nature of ownership. Taking is not always stealing. Sometimes, taking what belongs to another is morally permissible. This means that no one has an absolute right to property.
Property can be divided into three classes. Some property is necessary for survival. This includes such things as clothes, food, water and shelter along with medical supplies for immediate needs. Some property is necessary in order for individuals to continue to do their work, support others and fulfill any obligations they have. This includes long-term medicine, tools for a trade, educational support and many other things. The final category of property includes all luxuries. A luxury is simply something that is does not fall within the first two categories.
Let’ s suppose that there exists a rich man. This man is someone who owns luxuries. Let’ s also suppose that there is a poor man. This is a man who lacks enough food to survive. The poor man has come to the rich man to request a meal. The rich man refuses to give him a meal. There is no one else that the poor man can reach with the strength he currently has. So the poor man takes food from the rich man and eats it. My contention is that the poor man did not steal. The rich man did own the food and the poor man did take it against the wishes of the rich man. However, the poor man needed the food to survive. The poor man was not able to get food from anywhere else. So there are only two options available to the poor man. He can either get food from the rich man or he can starve and die. Since he did try asking for food and was denied, there is only one way for him to get the food now. He must take it. If taking was always morally wrong, then it would be morally required that he die. Since he is innocent and human is it impossible that he be morally required to die. Therefore, taking the food must be morally permissible. Since stealing is never morally permissible, taking is not always stealing.
This shows that taking is not always stealing. It does not cover all of the circumstances in which taking is stealing, nor does it explain why taking is sometimes morally permissible. What it does show is that no one has an absolute right to property. If we did, then it would never be acceptable for another to take it. Since it is acceptable at some times for our property to be taken, then we cannot have an absolute right to it. This also means that any kind of control we have over property cannot be so absolute that another cannot ever take it.