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Is Shoplifting from Grocery Stores Morally Permissible?

woman with backpack and cart standing in front of produce

No. Right?

Loblaw – one of few major Canadian grocery retailers – recently released its third-quarter earnings report, which boasted a profit of $621 million, up from $556 million compared to the same quarter from last year. This is during a time when grocery prices are increasing faster than the rate of inflation, and when people are switching more than ever to discount and dollar stores to try to cut down on their bills. In my home town of Toronto, grocery prices have gotten so out of hand that 1 in 10 Torontonians now make use of food banks. While there have been many arguments about why, exactly, food prices continue to increase, the majority of Canadians find fault with the grocery stores themselves, accusing them of profiteering (major food retailers in Canada are prone to blame suppliers, instead).

Should the record profits that grocery stores are making and the immense pressure that increased prices are putting on consumers cause us to rethink our answer?

That depends. After all, there are circumstances where it seems clear that theft from a grocery store is impermissible. For example, if you comfortably have the means to purchase groceries and the store in question is a small family-operated establishment, then you shouldn’t steal from them. There are also circumstances where it seems clear that theft from a grocery store is, indeed, permissible. For example, if you risk starvation and have no other means of acquiring food, few would think you worthy of moral criticism if you stole a loaf of bread.

Although these edge cases seem intuitive, there are challenges even to them. The deontologist – the person who believes morality is about following a certain set of rules – may very well find theft of any kind outright impermissible, starving or not. On the other hand, a moral consequentialist – the person who believes the moral permissibility of an action depends on the consequences of that action – may find theft even from the “ma and pa” establishment to be permissible under certain circumstances (or, at the very least, they not rule it as outright impermissible without digging deeper into a calculus of harms and benefits).

But let’s put the edge cases aside and instead focus on your average (in whatever sense you take that to mean) grocery shopper, and your standard (in whatever sense you take that to mean) corporation-owned grocery store. Is it morally permissible for this person to shoplift from that kind of grocery store?

It is easy to come up with some arguments that say it is. For example, one might think that given that the cost to the store is almost certainly barely noticeable given how much money these stores tend to make, the benefit to the shoplifter far outweighs the cost to the store – call this the “it won’t make any difference” argument. Or, one might argue that corporate greed (and potentially profiteering) justifies small acts of redistributive theft – call this the “Robin Hood” argument.

Indeed, it may seem as though many people have decided that, in fact, shoplifting is largely acceptable these days. Much has been made about an apparent recent increase in the amount of shoplifting in countries all over the world, especially from grocery stores. One would be forgiven for thinking that the consequentialists have run amok, roaming in gangs, and stealing anything that’s not tied down.

However, while many companies and commentators in the media have claimed that there is a “shoplifting crisis,” the extent to which such a crisis actually exists has been disputed. Furthermore, looking at the data shows very different results. For example, a recent study from the U.S. has found little reason to think that shoplifting has increased in any significant way at a national level, at least when considering the country as a whole.

So even if it’s easy to come up with such arguments in theory, using them to justify actual acts of shoplifting does not seem to be terribly common, or at least no more common than it used to be. This is perhaps surprising: if the “it won’t make any difference” or “Robin Hood” arguments ever had any force then they surely have even more force now.

Instead, one might even provide a new argument for the permissibility of shoplifting, namely one of retributive theft. The argument might go like this: employers are stealing from their employees and face little to no punishment for their actions. As such, shoplifting from those employers is justified.

Is this a good argument? There is ample reason to think that employers are, in fact, stealing from employees: numerous reports over the past few years have found many major companies culpable for committing wage theft, a category of employer behavior that includes paying below minimum wage, failure to pay overtime, denying employees’ legal rights to breaks and meals, the diversion of worker tips, and unpaid labor before or after shifts. A 2017 report found that more than $203 million had been stolen from workers in New York, while Home Depot recently settled a class-action lawsuit over wage theft for $72.5 million. And, of course, major grocery retailers have also been accused of wage theft.

Whether these factors justify an act of shoplifting is up for debate, and will no doubt depend on the circumstances. Despite what might appear to be a gluttony of reasons in its favor, it’s also simply difficult to defend shoplifting by appeal to theory, and it seems unlikely that many would be convinced in any practical sense. However, given the increasing financial pressures on consumers, that may very well change.