Has anyone in contemporary ethics discussed whether or not there is a difference between (1) taking something away (e.g., stealing $100) or withholding something (e.g., refusing to pay $100 of taxes)?
Is there an ethical difference between taking away and withholding?
The difference is in ownership and action:
- A is taking away from B -> B owns and A is "stealing".
- A is withholding from B -> A owns and B is "stealing"
It's a matter of perspective.
A perverse way of thinking about it is torture:
- Those who torture are trying to take information.
- Those who are tortured are withholding infomation.
Both are the same as far as morality is concerned. But most people think the latter is less offensive. I doubt they are not aware of its roots.
Usually, we pay the bill amount before or after the purchase of an item. If you refuse to pay after purchasing a commodity, it is fraud (in broad daylight). But we never (can't) call stealing because it's in broad daylight. Instead, we call it cheating. The change is only in the terms.
From your example we are likely to consider only withholding of tax. But we must consider all the similar things related to withholding. ('Taking away' also can be done in broad daylight. Let's not forget that.)
In 'taking away', somebody's effort has already been transformed into money/something. But in 'withholding', often, the effort has yet to be transformed into money/something.
When you steal something, often the victim doesn't know the thief. But in the case of withholding, the victim knows the thief. Any way the victim gets no benefit. In either case he/she will have to suffer.
So, if your thought is in the right path you will realize that 'practically/ETHICALLY also, the latter one can't be placed in a higher position'.
Some people might say that taking away of money or things that is made illegally and refusal of paying tax are ethical. Although illegal, not everyone has the right to seize it from the wrongdoer. If so, the person's (who seizes) act also becomes unethical. We can decide the ethics of such cases only by judging the doer and the purpose of that action. Sometimes we could treat 'the counter attack for saving the downtrodden, nation etc., when all other possible routes are blocked', as ethical. 'Salt satyagraha' that was conducted during the freedom struggle in India was one such act.
(This exceptional case is not a comparison between the two. To get a clear picture about ethics, knowledge about its 'lateral roots' should also be mentioned here.)