Imagine that a person steals money from a rich company without the company noticing and gives it to charities that give food to refugees. I can argue that since the money that is stolen from the company is more valuable to the refugees than the company (e.g. one dollar to a refugee is more valuable since he can get a meal with it but is not as valuable to an employee of that company) this act increases the overall utility of all of the people in the the world because it increases the overall life satisfaction.

How can a utilitarian avoid drawing this conclusion?

  • "How would you argue" is no good fit for this site. Instead, you could ask for established/accepted counter arguments that have been brought forward in the literature. As it stands now, this question invites people to write their own philosophy, and that often goes not so well.
    – Lukas
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 21:40
  • I've modified your title based on the assumption that you're asking for utilitarians (based on your tag).
    – virmaior
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 22:20
  • But "do you think this is a good argument" is generally off-topic...
    – virmaior
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 22:22
  • @virmaior I removed the sentence.
    – Didami
    Commented May 24, 2016 at 0:43
  • In order to avoid valid criticism, utilitarianism is often reduced to such ambiguity that it is useless (i.e. Alex's response). So the utilitarian is faced with a trilemma: Favour stealing from the rich, claim that we are too limited in knowledge to make the right decision, or abandon utilitarianism. Commented May 24, 2016 at 4:56

2 Answers 2


One problem here is that you are acting outside the structure everyone else relies upon to make decisions and create efficiency. The fact this may be an unfortunately corrupt and inefficient mechanism to begin with does not prevent you from making it worse.

Even if your intention is good, the odds are that you are encouraging enough institutional waste to offset your net effect. And it may be pointless. After all, it may be perfectly possible to simply get the money given voluntarily by the corporation. PR pays off in spades.

I would argue from the Agile principle that lack of transparency ultimately displaces energy from the task at hand into power-mongering.

If this is something that happens -- employees simply reallocate funds on purpose to what they prefer -- then money might go missing from any part of the enterprise for no reason at any time. So the company cannot trust its control of where its money goes, and it has to pad allocations to many areas, lest they get stolen from at a bad time, causing delay or missed opportunities.

But then that is money that is sitting stagnant in reserve, in case something bad happens. It cannot be stored and leveraged, because its use cannot be planned. And it does not flow out into the economy. So it does not create employment opportunity that might eventually propagate out to create positions for those refugees if they want to establish residence in their new host countries.

One of the main reasons companies are larger and more rigid than necessary is to provide ballast meant to forestall risk. By creating unseen and unpredictable risk, you are encouraging them to be larger and for more of the bulk to be waste.

  • What if you are the head accountant and know everything that cause the problem and you can consider them? And furthermore you are the only one who can relocate the money without leaving traces?
    – Didami
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 22:40
  • @didam If you have that power, then you can just allocate the funds to charity yourself. How is that theft?
    – user9166
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 22:51
  • Well, I mean that your are an accountant and you are not supposed to relocate the money, however you know the knowledge of how to avoid the problems you mentioned (e.g. how much money should be taken from which account) and you also know of ways of how to steal the money and removing and traces. Lets say the latter is an extra skill you are not supposed to use.
    – Didami
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 23:10
  • @didam Then the overall notion of how much money the company needs to make will be wrong by the amount you steal, and it will strive to be bigger than it needs to be and therefore less efficient. Lack of transparency still prevents the ability to properly plan, whatever level the planning takes place, within the company or across the holdings of a larger concern.
    – user9166
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 23:15
  • (I realize the potential scale makes this argument kind of silly unless you steal a lot, but even in small amounts, and even at the top where waste is just normal, corruption in general just raises people's estimate of the cost of doing business, encouraging despair and cheating and looping back to excessive defenses against crime.)
    – user9166
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 23:27

You can answer that by asking the question that Kant's ask: Can this course of action be made universal? Kant's categorical imperative says that:

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction." -- Kant, Immanuel [1785]. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals.

In the case of stealing from rich companies and giving to the poor, how do you draw the line between companies rich enough that you can steal significant amounts from them without them noticing and those which aren't rich enough or big enough? It is impossible. If you are willing to steal from a large company, then per the categorical imperative, you should be willing to steal from a small Mom & Pop business as well - but that would cause immediate harm to the small family that owns that business and depends on it for survival.

So as you can see, your principle can't become a universal law, and per Kant's categorical imperative, is therefor unethical.

  • Eh, I am not sold. Kantian arguments involving balance points generally fail. In this case, owners generally do give away some of their profits for PR and other reasons. If we universalize, who cares who makes the call as to how much and to whom, unless they are wrong? If they do kill the business, the employees often suffer as much as the owner, so there is also not a point in claiming risk and responsibility should be related. There may be some general Kantian way to frame 'one should coordinate use of information', but if so, ownership kind of fails to honor that to begin with.
    – user9166
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 20:53
  • 1
    I think you're just deliberately choosing the wrong level of specificity to make the rule fail the categorical imperative. You can do that for any proposed rule. Is "you should eat when you're hungry" invalid by the categorical imperative because you shouldn't eat when you're not hungry or when you're only very slightly hungry? Commented May 24, 2016 at 4:12
  • @DavidSchwartz (which, the argument or the comment) I agree this fails the CI, from Kant's own lemmas, deception when there is any other option is un-universalizable, this is deception, and there are other options that might work (like just asking the company or its owners to give through proper channels). But the argument can't depend upon the scale of the institution. 'Sorites problems' almost always break Kantian arguments. Making a move scaled to some measure is not an option that can be universalized, as my right move and others' might happen together and add up to the wrong scale.
    – user9166
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 3:54
  • @jobermark Again that's only happening because of the precise arbitrary location you have chosen to draw the border around the argument. You can always add "coordinating with others if necessary" or "unless the simultaneous actions of others cause this to produce an atypical result" to the rule and it's again universilizable. I defy you to produce a rule that I can't argue is not universilizable with this technique -- all I'll do is slightly adjust what is and isn't part of the rule until it fails. Commented May 25, 2016 at 15:57
  • @DavidSchwartz Simultaneous actions cannot be known unless you are omniscient. But besides that, adding all these corollary limitations keeps the maxim from being categorical. I can always add so many details that there is only one case, and then 'universalize' it, proving every action is moral in its own exact situation, if I take the overall rule entirely out of context. But that is not what Kant means by 'Categorical' or 'Maxim'.
    – user9166
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 23:02

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