8. No Stealing

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You shall not steal. —Exodus 20:15

It is hard to imagine a society with no sanctions on taking for your own use what does not belong to you. Some have tried, but even the wildest flights of fancy cannot come up with a sustainable culture that has absolutely no regard for personal property. I think the closest we come is in imagining cultures without individuals, such as the Borg in Star Trek: Next Generation. Each of us has a property in our own body, and much of our law is predicated on the notion that our bodies are our own and that we have certain rights bound up in our bodies that cannot be taken away by governments or other human institutions. The rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” specified in the Declaration of Independence are such rights. They pre-suppose individual freedom and personal accountability. They pre-suppose that each person has a property in their own body, that they have a right to sustain, protect, and defend that property against those who would try to take it. So the right to property—to own things and keep them for your own use while excluding others from having or using them—is an extension of the right to be secure in your own body.

But is stealing taking what does not belong to you, or is it taking what does belong to someone else? A lot of our history in the United States is predicated on the notion that taking what does not belong to you is not stealing, but taking what does belong to someone else is stealing. Consider the First Nations who were here when Europeans first arrived. Many of them did not consider land something that could be individually owned. It was a common property, owned by no one and everyone. Europeans, however, regarded land as a principle form of wealth. If the land belonged to no one, it was free for the taking.

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