Ok the US has ~325,000,000 people. Assuming that everyone has exactly 1 bank account; someone steals 1 cent from every bank account exactly one time in their life time, and he is the only person that could ever do that). The thief will have $3,250,000 more but it will not have any impact on society or each bank account holder (That cent if ever spent, will not make any difference in society or each of the bank account owner's life).

Should the thief be punished in any way? Why? What kind of moral/ethical analysis applies here?

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    Welcome to Philosophy.SE. The question in the title, and the first question in the body of your post, are questions for Law. I suggest that you edit your post to focus on the second question about moral guidelines that could be violated by such an action.
    – user2953
    Commented Oct 16, 2016 at 12:15
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    I would just like to note that this scenario corresponds to the plot of The Ladykillers by the Cohen brothers - youtu.be/BVL6AjybCZ0
    – nir
    Commented Oct 17, 2016 at 13:00
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    @nir Minor sniggle : That is a remake of an old Ealing comedy written by William Rose.
    – nwr
    Commented Oct 18, 2016 at 2:36
  • "What kind of moral/ethical analysis applies here?" -- The same moral/ethical analysis that applies to everything else.
    – elmer007
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 14:47

2 Answers 2


The problem is solvable in practical terms, because something like this already happened. A group of crackers altered the accounting program of a credit card service in order to create "rounding errors".

Arguably, the amounts were higher than 1 cents and the number of people defrauded was lower than the US population. But this can be extended, as a mind experiment.

In order to solve the problem, you would have to look at who suffered most from the actions. Obviously it is not the credit card holders, who may have lost a couple of bucks each.

The damage was done to two entities:

  • First the company that was running the card system, since that such a scandal could damage their reputation badly and even put them out of business.
  • Secondly, as you noticed, the Federal Trade Commission intervened, because such a fraud was endangering the general working of the economy (see purposes of the FTC).

Hence the answer to your question is: stealing one cent to every American citizen would hurt the reputation of the agency that did it (voluntarily or unvoluntarily). It would also hurt public confidence (in the problem you are asking about, 325 million people would be affected, so this would be a scandal of vast proportions). This might then slow down the economy, since they would start watching out in case something else is around the corner. The result could in colossal losses to the economy (out of proportion to the 3.25 million dollars stolen).

Hence that would be a seriously immoral thing to do.

This could be abstracted as an issue of political (and/or econonic) philosophy that a civil society -- even if heavily oriented to market economy -- needs to have regulators (with enforcement) to protect its communications and the fairness of trade. In the absence such things, the society might collapse.

Note: As is obvious, this offense is using money as a principal medium and money needs to be protected from fraud. See this remark of Montesquieu : "But, where money is established, [people] are subject to that injustice which proceeds from craft; an injustice that may be exercised a thousand ways. Hence they are forced to have good civil laws, which spring up with the new practices of iniquity." (The Spirit of the Laws, Book XVIII, Chapter XVI)

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    There's a lot written here, but there's not much (if any) philosophy in the answer.
    – virmaior
    Commented Oct 17, 2016 at 1:16
  • I am rather suprised of your remark. Is Montesquieu not philosophy? Unless you consider that philosophy of science, or political philosophy, are not philosophy? Or does practicality preclude philosophy?
    – fralau
    Commented Oct 17, 2016 at 18:25
  • Montesquieu didn't write anything about the FTC, etc. above...
    – virmaior
    Commented Oct 17, 2016 at 22:32
  • I understand. In your sense, "philosophy" is what others wrote. Is it allowable for us to get out of dotage, in order to think for ourselves (expanding when needed on what others wrote in the light of our horizon of experience), or does that require first a state-approved license (and preferably a published thesis)?
    – fralau
    Commented Oct 18, 2016 at 10:03
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    This is more a meta discussion than about this question at this point. I don't know what you mean really. (1) I don't know any SE that is for research ergo I don't know anything with freedom of research (2) Regarding scope, are you allowed to just say random things at say mathematics.SE? i.e., things that are not built in what we generally call math. Can you give answers not primarily based on elements, orbital theory, bonding, and quantum mechanics at the chemistry.SE ? I expect and hope for every SE to have a scope. In this case, it's philosophy.
    – virmaior
    Commented Oct 18, 2016 at 22:44

"That cent will not make any difference" is obviously wrong.

Because if it was correct, then that cent and another cent wouldn't make any difference. And that cent and another cent and another cent and another cent wouldn't make a difference. And that cent and a million more cents wouldn't make a difference.

Now assume I am hungry, I enter McDonalds, and I have just the right amount of money in my pocket to buy a cheeseburger and fries. Except someone stole a cent from my pocket. Now I don't have enough money for the food I want to buy, and you can bet that they won't let me have that food with enough payment.

Also, I have an agreed overdraft at my bank. I can overdraw my account by exactly X dollars. If I overdraw my account by X dollars and one cent instead of X dollars, that will cost me a lot of money. You can bet that among 325 million US citizens, there will be hundreds or even thousands who have overdrawn their account by exactly the maximum amount, where one cent more would be very expensive.

What does this have to do with philosophy? I think "phil" is greek for "friend" or "liking something" and "sophy" stands for "thinking", so you should think before you make statements like "this will never make any difference".


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