The Ethics of Stealing

Recently I have been starting my philosophy sessions in the 5th grade with the students raising questions they want to discuss that have come up since I’ve last visited. This afternoon, the students mentioned that they wanted to discuss an event that had happened in the classroom.

One boy’s iPod touch was stolen this week and, after a long class meeting, the boy from whom it was stolen stated that if the person just put it back in his backpack by the end of the day, there would be no questions asked. At the end of the day, the iPod touch had been returned to the boy’s backpack. The students were still feeling unsettled about the event and wanted to explore it.

“Why did the person steal it?” one student asked.

“Because they wanted it,” a second student responded.

“Or maybe they wanted to get back at me for something,” ventured the child who owned the i-touch.

I explained the principle of Occam’s Razor to the students, which states that the simplest explanation is usually the best one. We concluded that while it was possible that someone was plotting an act of revenge, it was more likely that someone saw the i-touch and just wanted it. We talked about the income disparity in the community, where some children come from families who can afford to buy lots of things and others live with families who have trouble paying for food, and the way in which this created temptations for someone to take something they wanted and couldn’t afford to buy.

“We all make mistakes,” declared a student. “Here the person made a mistake and then thought the better of it.”

Does it change how we see an act if it is later regretted?

“Well the person still stole it and that was wrong,” asserted a student.

What makes stealing wrong?

“It hurts other people. It takes something from them that belongs to them.”

“It can also hurt their feelings. You could have something you really cared about and then someone takes it away from you, and it affects you emotionally.”

“Stealing hurts the thief too. You can become someone who steals all the time, and all of a sudden you’re not the kind of person you want to be.”

We talked about what it means to be the kind of person you want to be, and the way in which your whole view of yourself can change based on something you’ve done. We also talked about the effects on the classroom community of this event.

“I felt like this was such a great class and all of a sudden it wasn’t anymore.”

The students talked about suspecting other students of being the thief, and the way in which the classroom environment changed during this time. We discussed whether, one the item was returned, it mattered who had stolen it.

“We’re talking about this person, who is probably in the room,” reflected a student. “I think it’s harsh for us to keep talking about this because even though the person did steal it, they returned it. If I was the person who stole it, and there was all this talk about how horrible it was, I would feel really shriveled inside.”

“If you regret stealing something and give it back, you should be forgiven,” agreed another student.

We talked about forgiveness and who has the power to forgive the person who stole the i-touch. Could the fact that the student regretted his or her act and returned the item actually be a sign of the strength of the classroom community? Perhaps upon reflection this event was an ethical plus, in that someone made a mistake, thought the better of it, and decided and was able to fix it.

We spent the entire 45 minutes talking about this, and so the planned discussion about the nature of time will have to wait for our next session!