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Metaphysics / Psychology

When Taking is Not Stealing

So far, I have discussed the nature of ownership and the justifications for ownership. I had mentioned before that understanding these objections would enable one to understand exactly when taking is permissible. Taking is permissible under two general circumstances. All of these circumstances are ones in which that is the only way to preserve the same things that justify ownership. The two general circumstances are ones in which individuals act for individual goods and ones in which those in authority act for the common good.

The first thing to say about taking is that it is only justified when three conditions are met. First, taking must be the only way to achieve the goal at hand. Second, taking must occur for the purpose of preserving those goods that justify ownership. Third, taking must treat those goods that preserve ownership according to their true value.

Taking when there is a way to achieve the goal at hand without taking is automatically immoral. To suppose otherwise is to deny the very nature of ownership. That assumes that ownership is not morally relevant. Yet ownership is a moral right. Therefore, taking is not permissible if there is a means to achieve the goal at hand without taking.

Taking is not justifiable if it is not done for the purpose of preserving those goods that justify ownership. If those goods justify ownership, then ownership cannot be taken to apply to situations under which those goods would be denied. So if taking is done to preserve those goods, then that may be acceptable. Whether it actually is or not will depend on whether or not the other two conditions are met.

Finally, taking is not justifiable if it treats the goods that preserve ownership in any other way than according to their true value. For example, freedom and the natural needs of human beings both justify ownership. However, living is required for human beings to exercise freedom. So if a person has an abundant source of food, the needs of their starving neighbors ought to be considered before their right to exercise freedom in buying and selling.

All of these conditions must be met at once in order for taking to be morally permissible. I should point out that forced selling, forced buying, restrictions on buying and selling, and anything that restricts one’ s use of one’ s things are all examples for taking. The specific case of taking without paying is merely a narrow case of this.

Now we come to the two situations at hand. There are two kinds of groups that take from others. One is individuals. Individuals sometimes take to protect or help themselves, their family or a third party. In order for someone to count as an individual involved in taking, they must act outside of the authority to act for the common good. The other group involved in taking is governments. Governments take from individuals and groups of individuals under their authority to act for the common good. Such examples of taking include zoning laws, laws against private ownership of nuclear weapons, laws governing contracts between individuals (labor laws) and eminent domain laws. Governments also must claim that copyright laws fall into this category as well.

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