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)?

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    See Green, Theft by Omission. In general, this is a special case of the doctrine of acts and omissions, killing vs letting die in a more dramatic example. Whether there is a difference turns on acceptance of consequentialism in ethics. However, even in a non-consequentialist Christian ethics a sin of omission is still a sin.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 10, 2020 at 6:22
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    We can easily trace this idea back to Marx. 'Exploitation' in the Marxist sense is the capitalist's refusal to give laborers a value commensurate with their actual labor; for Marx, that is the theft of labor value. You'll find versions of it running through most social theory and philosophy that engages Marxist thought (which is, frankly, most social theory and philosophy). People don't often say it outright — because the kind of people they would accuse of theft in this context are extremely rich and powerful, and those accusations have unpleasant consequences — but it's hard to avoid Commented Oct 10, 2020 at 16:36
  • 1
    Yes, the philosophical distinction is known as 'commission and omission' and is used in phrases such as lies of... and errors of commission and omission.
    – J D
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 19:35
  • 1
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    – J D
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 19:35
  • Given there are plentiful ethical differences between different cases of taking away, and also of withholding, I do not think this question can be meaningfully answered.
    – Mary
    Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 0:51

2 Answers 2


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.
  • so all payment is theft? incidentally, i am suffering deja vu
    – user67675
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 8:33

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'.


Exceptional cases:

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.)

  • The victim doesn’t necessarily know about withholding. I am supposed to get a refund, but someone keeps it.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Oct 11, 2020 at 19:12
  • "Both are the same as far as morality is concerned." That is false. Doing harm is considered equivalent to allowing harm to happen only in a consequentialist framing.
    – E Tam
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 19:53
  • @ETam:Its original implication was immorality. I think I explained this idea clearly in my answer. I used it just like we use the term ‘temperature’ to denote hot and cold. But you may argue that I should use the term ‘immorality’ for the particular case referred to in the question. But I used it as a case; that’s all. Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 8:22

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