Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Honest Theft

Yesterday I mentioned the case of my friends who save money by living at MIT. They sleep on couches in the common rooms, break into the showers in the gym, and steal food and drink from the cafeterias. They use the money they save on necessities to promote the public good. I suggested that they’re actually behaving more morally than the average citizen. This seems shocking, so let’s look at the objections in depth.

There’s the obvious argument that by taking these things without paying, they’re actually passing on their costs to the rest of the MIT community. But for most of these things, there are no costs: no MIT students use the couches or the showers at night. And while it’s true that taking MIT food and drink probably does increase the university’s costs slightly, this concern doesn’t seem too consistently applied. Do you think it’s wrong to take one of the free refreshments at an MIT event? The consequences seem about the same.

Even if they were costing MIT money, it seems this could be justified. MIT receives enormous sums from the wealthy and powerful, more than they know how to spend. Much of it gets spent on unneeded luxuries for their already-elite students. Redistributing it to the town’s poorer residents seems potentially justified.

Others claim that this lifestyle results in increased security costs. I don’t see how that’s true unless the students get caught. Even if they did, MIT has a notoriously relaxed security policy, so they likely wouldn’t get in too much trouble and MIT probably wouldn’t do anything to up their security.

A more serious complaint is that this “erodes the social contact.” Peter Singer (no contract theorist he!) puts this more clearly in his book Democracy and Disobedience: In any society people are going to have disputes. Everyone’s better off if these disputes are resolved without resorting to force. Thus in most societies there are governments to help resolve disputes peacefully. Resorting to force when you don’t like their resolution could tip things back to the bad state of people resolving things through force in general.

I don’t think this is a particularly plausible concern. My friends (understandably) keep quiet about their lifestyle. If anyone, I am the one undermining the social contract by publicizing it. But let’s keep me out of this analysis for a second. It’s hard to see how sleeping on MIT couches will lead to violent revolution.1

It’s possible there are other objections to this style of life. Or perhaps some objectors are right — and not only shouldn’t we steal from MIT, but we shouldn’t take advantage of their largesse either. But thinking about these questions — as opposed to blindly following rules — is what it means to be a moral person and instead of eroding the social contract it seems much more likely to strengthen our moral sense.

  1. Singer identifies one other concern, particular to democracies. (He thinks the previous concern is especially relevant in democracies, since there’s not much improvement revolution can lead to, but in the end he decides this isn’t too relevant since modern “democracies” aren’t actually democratic.) He suggests that it’s wrong to participate in politics and vote like everybody else, but then refuse to follow the rules when the decision ends up being something you don’t like.

    I think this is a fairly silly objection and basically impossible to justify on utilitarian grounds. (The book is Singer’s doctoral thesis and is weirdly agnostic on utilitarianism. It’s also not particularly well-written, so my apologies if I’m missing part of Singer’s argument.)

    Imagine it’s a presidential election year and the major issue is that candidate A has promised to make kids in public schools wear uniforms while candidate B opposes it. (Imagine also that the president has the power to accomplish this rule change by simple executive order.) Whatever happens, you refuse to send your child to school wearing a uniform — you plan to keep dressing them as you do now. You have two choices: vote for candidate B or not cast a vote for president.

    Singer suggests that if you vote for B and A wins, you ought to make your child wear the uniform. It’s hard to see how this helps anyone. Nobody knows whether you voted for president or not (it’s a secret ballot), no good (as far as I can see) comes from not voting. Indeed, if you vote for B, you make it more likely that everyone avoids this unjust law and you make it more likely you won’t have to resort to civil disobedience and erode the social fabric.

    It’s hard to see how any intuitive notion of obligation can trump this. 

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September 15, 2009


But what if everybody acted as your friends did? Maybe a few guys stealing some leftovers is no big deal, but what if the entire population of Cambridge showed up searching for a free meal?

I always kind of liked Kant’s idea on ethics: act in the way you wish everybody did.

posted by steve minutillo on September 15, 2009 #

Sounds an awful lot like the end justifies the means. When does it become not okay? The fact that you are working to justify says something.

I would also guess a lot depends on the passibilty of the perpetrators. Not only do they get away with this because they can pass well at MIT, but I wonder if outrage is missing because these folks could otherwise pass.

Put a less well off & shabby person in this situation, and the how would the reactions be different?

posted by KiltBear on September 15, 2009 #

Well, that certainly goes over the second order effects. I’m inclined to agree with you in this case, I never really meant to disagree (having none of the details) just to make a point about the possible counter balancing utilities.

A couple nits:

When you write, “It’s hard to see how sleeping on MIT couches will lead to violent revolution” I can’t help but think “It’s hard to see how driving to work can cause global warming.”

In response to your footnote, I don’t believe Singer would agree that by not voting in the election you have earned the moral right to defy the executive order. By living in a democratic society at all you’re probably participating in it and benefiting from it.

If you were a true vagrant who didn’t pay taxes, vote, etc. you might be free of such obligations to obey the law, but similarly the society which surrounds you has no special obligation to you as they would to citizens.

posted by Alex on September 15, 2009 #

Don’t buy it, Aaron. Honest theft is an oxymoron. Your pals taking advantage of MIT are thieves. Their choices are not exempt because of their defense that they convert their theft into public good (your defense of them is void of economically valid analysis of their value added to society in exchange for their theft of services. Where is the analysis?). Surely, public safety and ethics would argue that the paying client is entitled to a free-loader free shower and sofa snooze, whenever he or she desires it. Not to mention that the intrusion of free-loaders into the society also provides for the entrance of lawlessness and disorder, leading to chaos, leading to criminality and dangers to public safety.

I’d think more highly of your vaunted examples had they organized as a legitimate non-profit and managed to pay for their own living expenses. There is no quid pro quo. No one owes them a place to live.

As a person who gives a great deal of my own money and time to non-profit causes, yet pays my own way in life, I object to the premise of your argument and find it specious, at best.

posted by ixnay on September 15, 2009 #

Do you have a couch and a shower? Do you sometimes leave the house? Then why not let other people use the couch and the shower while you are away? You might even be reimbursed for the costs for water and heating - it would be cheaper for the city than providing real shelter for the homeless.

posted by Bjoern on September 15, 2009 #

Your argument might work while it is only a few people behaving this way. The problem is that it never stays that way. Today your friends make use of the MIT facilities this way, and they rationalize it by saying that they are using the money they save to help someone else. Tomorrow, some less “ethical” person will come along and do the same thing, with the exception that he/she will not pass on the cost benefits to the lesser priveleged. And that person would rationalize it saying that these guys were doing it before I did and no one said anything to them. No one ever goes into a full analysis of another person’s actions before deciding to imitate them - which is why the followers of any religion, any social leader end up doing lip service by following what they see rather than trying to achieve the intended result.

This is the old means vs. ends argument. It does not matter how honest, how sincere the expected ends are, the means do matter, since that is what is observed. If you

posted by Divya on September 15, 2009 #

Like the others in the comment thread, I find your logic puzzling. Where do you draw the line? Does the end justify the means? There seems to be a level of self importance that borders on scary and is at the very least disillusioned. One hates to pass judgement on those you don’t know, but in this particular case, the justification of the behavior seems to warrant some judgement.

There are other options, and obviously these people are resourceful, and will likely be able to identify those options.

posted by Deepak on September 15, 2009 #

I have to comment again. Isn’t the crux of your argument this: “Much of it gets spent on unneeded luxuries for their already-elite students. Redistributing it to the town’s poorer residents seems potentially justified.”

So it is just the plain old hating of the rich again (rich people are thieves, so stealing from them is not stealing)? That is a particular judgment you pass on the rich, but how can you elevate that to a universal judgment??

The argument for free refreshments at MIT events also doesn’t hold up. MIT likely stages these events for a purpose, for example to attract good students or new sponsors, so they receive something in return for the free refreshments. I would indeed consider sneaking into events where I wasn’t invited and eating there to be stealing.

Also what if because of your friends actions, the “elitist” students stay away from MIT, or the atmosphere of openness is lost, because people feel they can’t trust their environment anymore? This could damage the research - one of these students might have discovered a cure for HIV saving millions of lives, but now it won’t never happen. Because MIT is not attractive anymore, that person perhaps decides to just stay at home on his mom’s couch and watch TV. Or go to a bad college instead where he doesn’t meet the right people and ideas.

As another comment pointed out: how big are the “savings” from stealing into MIT, compared to the cost to society? I am not sure that the benefit outweighs the cost.

In any case, don’t presume you are arguing universal values here. If some people think it is OK to steal, let them do it - but don’t complain if the people being stolen from shoot back.

If your friends are so concerned about the waste going on at MIT, why don’t they apply to MIT the official way. Once their they could probably start a student union with the aim to redistribute some of the wealth to the poor.

posted by Bjoern on September 15, 2009 #

These are MIT students, right? The article implies they are by their behaviour. The comments suggest they are skateboarders, slackers, unemployed and homeless.

I’m assuming these are MIT students and we’re straining to use the word ‘theft’ which entered into the discussion because we needed a topic.

When I went to University I ‘stole’ a lot from the university, despite having my own place and government grants. You work late, you sleep on the couch; you scrounge food; you go to art shows for the free beer (and free art!).

posted by brad on September 15, 2009 #

brad, see the previous post: “I have friends who, to save money, break into buildings on the MIT campus to steal food and drink and naps and showers.” The folks mentioned aren’t MIT students.

Aaron, this is the “ends justify the means” with a dash of “Robin Hood” thrown in. Both are crap arguments because the end can justify any means and despite the “romance” of Robin Hood, he was still a criminal. Why don’t your friends just up and ante and steal from banks? Or mug “rich” people in the streets to help the “public good”?

I find it very interesting that so many people who say they want to “help others,” do so by putting themselves above the system that supports them.

posted by DDA on September 15, 2009 #

Ouch, guess you won’t find much support for your viewpoint in the comments. I like these ethical posts and the resulting discussion, though, so keep it up.

posted by Alex on September 15, 2009 #

Isn’t “the ends justify the means” the same argument the Bush administration gave for using torture — sorry, I mean “enhanced interrogation techniques”?

posted by ged on September 15, 2009 #

One could argue that it’s less about the immediate effects than about how you would skew the perception that people have of a “normal”, “moral” or whatever behaviour. Even if you think you can trust everyone in your community or country to be wise in their trespassing right now, everyone will have its own definition of what just is, and since the law is “optional” well you know what happens next, a big mess of conflicts where everyone justifies its actions with the past wrongdoings. In brief your model will slide easily into chaos. The interesting thing about law is that it provides stability, prevents drastic shifts (of course you can still provoke them if your a “skilled” one, see FUD).

I think that even if I can side with some civil desobedience actions, I wouldn’t argue it’s lawful or “innately” just to use this way of fighting. More like a last resort because you can’t agree with the society, democratic or not, as they trespass on values you can’t reliquish no matter what.

posted by Hmmmm on September 16, 2009 #

Aaron, this is the “ends justify the means” with a dash of “Robin Hood” thrown in.

I’m very curious about this claim that “the ends don’t justify the means”. What does it mean? The naive reading is that we should never do something bad to accomplish something good, but surely you don’t really believe that. (If you were hiding a Jew and the Nazis came to your house and asked if you had any Jews there, would you tell the truth? After all, lying is bad and the ends don’t justify the means.) So I hope you can tell me what you mean.

I think there are practical problems with robbing banks and mugging people in the street, but I don’t think wealth redistribution is morally wrong. Nor do most people, I think — after all, that’s why we have progressive taxation with a negative income tax.

These are MIT students, right?

I believe they’re MIT dropouts. I.e., they once were students but not anymore.

Do you have a couch and a shower? Do you sometimes leave the house? Then why not let other people use the couch and the shower while you are away?

That’s a good idea. If there was a good way to do that, I would consider participating.

I don’t hate the rich; I think everyone would be better off if they had less money and the poor and more. And even if I’m wrong about everyone being better off, it seems pretty clear that more people would be better off that way.

posted by Aaron Swartz on September 16, 2009 #

If it’s the Nazis you won’t feel any obligation to respect the state they represent right ? So, you don’t recognize the state and disobey accordingly. Now if “not lying” is ingrained into your brain like a robotic law, then you’ll have to reject nazis as a class that doesn’t deserve some particular rights, which sounds interestingly bad.

posted by Hmmmm on September 16, 2009 #

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