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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.

Can Shoplifting Be Activism?

photograph of women shoplifting makeup

Our culture is both fascinated with and repelled by shoplifting. On the one hand, we scoff at the cast of archetypal shoplifters; the materialistic teenage girl, the shifty hoodie-wearing teenager, the bored housewife looking for a thrill. In whatever form they take, shoplifters are considered defectors from the American Dream, which loudly proclaims the value of honest backbreaking labor (though it doesn’t necessarily decry the obsession with material wealth that purportedly rewards such work). At the same time, theft is glamorized on the big screen. Movies like The Bling Ring, Ocean’s 8, and Hustlers plumb the moral implications of theft while wrapping it up in a glamour veneer.

Our cultural fascination has bled into a scientific quest to unmask the motivations of shoplifters. What kind of person would do something as seemingly irrational (in that it goes against the logic of working hard for material wealth) and potentially dangerous as shoplift, we want to know, and why? Women are generally thought to shoplift more than men, because women are thought to shop more in general, but a 2008 study conducted by The American Journal of Psychiatry demonstrated that men actually are more likely to shoplift than women. A recent paper, “The Psychology of Shoplifting: Development of a New Typology for Repeated Shoplifting,” which was published in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology in 2019, makes a more rigorous effort at pinning this elusive figure down.

The researchers conducted a survey of around two hundred self-professed kleptomaniacs, which measured their shoplifting behavior (the strategies they use to avoid detection and the objects they gravitate towards), the emotions they experienced before and after shoplifting, their mental health, level of impulsiveness, and history of trauma. From this data, the researchers determined that there are six kinds of shoplifters, each with a specific personality profile and motivation for theft. The most common type, making up around 25% of the participants, is the Lost-Reactive type, who are “characterized by generally law-abiding behavior, stability in mental health, and the preponderance of lifetime loss and trauma.” These types may be shoplifting out of a subconsciously desire to compensate for a past loss or trauma, the researchers suggest. The Impulsive type is generally financially well-off, and tends to steal only when the opportunity presents itself. They were found to feel the least shameful about their actions. The Depressed type shoplifts to alleviate the pain or numbness of mental illness, possessing both the highest amount of shame and the strongest moral compass of the six types. In a sharp contrast to that, the Hobbyist, views theft as not only a fun activity but a component of their identity. According to the study, “These individuals had a high orientation to traditional ethics and yet did not experience distress, guilt, or shame, indicating that they may see themselves as above, outside, or exempt from the law,” and also receive the highest enjoyment from stealing of the six types. The last two types, Addictive-Compulsive (the thrill-seekers) and the Economically Disadvantaged (those who steal to survive, and almost always stole on a more regular basis than any of the other types), tended to feel low shame.

But there is a seventh type of shoplifter, unmentioned in the study and yet present in the spaces between each profile. This type professes a unique motivation for shoplifting; political activism. The activist borrows elements from nearly all the categories, never fitting fully into any single group. They are hobbyists, in that they view stealing as fun and commiserate with other shoplifters in an online community, much in the same way that a hobbyist who builds miniature trains might do. Many claim to enjoy the thrill of the steal, but many more cite economic disadvantage as their key motivation. But the characteristic that most sharply distinguishes them from the other categories is that their shoplifting is rooted in feminist and anti-capitalist theory, which could perhaps point to a strong rather than weak ethical compass.

These political shoplifters are surprisingly visible online. Journalist Tasbeeh Herwees interviewed teenage girls who participated in “Liftblr,” an online community of shoplifters who swap tips and share pictures of their hauls on Tumblr. A study on the Liftblr community conducted by Northumbria University, identified a cluster of three themes that made up the entire body of shoplifting blogs; tips and advice (how to find the blind spots of security cameras, what kind of purses can hide items the most inconspicuously), resistance and activism (which includes social justice, feminist theory, and anticapitalist theory), and storytelling/community building (personal stories about shoplifting that reify a sense of a shared identity between members, as well as jokes about the Liftblr community and general humor related to shoplifting).

Not all members of Liftblr are explicitly political, but the Northumbria study found that social justice was a central focus on the blogs of of the most vocal members of the community. One girl, who went by the handle PrincessKlepto, wrote to Herwees that,

“Being a teen girl is hard—you have to be skinny, attractive, put together, well dressed, etc. Society teaches girls through media and the beauty industry that they need to be perfect. I’m sick of handing my money over to corporations that profit on this bullshit…so if i have to put up with this kind of stuff, i’m [sic] certainly not going to pay for it.”

Like the Lost-Reactive type, these teens cite trauma (the broad trauma of living in a capitalist society, the more specific trauma of being a teenage girl) as a motivation for theft, though the trauma described in the Lost-Reactive profile seems more of an unconscious than conscious motivator. Another lifter, pretty-little-lift, wrote, “I 100% support women stealing beauty products instead of throwing every spare penny she has away chasing after an impossible pipedream sold to her since the moment she was born.” Some users take it farther than just makeup. Tumblr user ptsdhamlet posted in 2016,

“I’m not going to get too deep into the Shoplifting Discourse but I will say that ‘stealing for survival’ encompasses a lot more than just food. You could be stealing makeup (which is already always absurdly expensive) so strangers read you as a woman, or stealing a toy so your kid doesn’t feel like she’s a bad person because Santa didn’t bring her anything, or stealing tampons or toilet paper because everybody deserves basic hygiene, or stealing nice clothes for a job interview, or stealing school supplies so you can study, or stealing any other number of things that are truly necessary but you won’t immediately die if you don’t get them.”

So is it possible for shoplifting to be activism, and if so, how effective a form of protest is it? In her 2012 book The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, Rachel Shteir describes the work of journalist James Trimarco, who researches the subject of shoplifting as activism. His work isn’t focused on determining the moral implications of stealing, but the metric by which we should judge the validity of shoplifting as political activism. He asks, “Does [shoplifting] keep a sense of direct action alive? Does it develop skills that can come in handy in other forms of political work? Does it provide a kind of ‘euphoria of disobedience’ against private property that’s not easily found elsewhere?”

David Graeber, a cultural anthropologist who teaches at the London School of Economics, was also interviewed by Shteir for her book. He told her than when shoplifting,

“One doesn’t destroy (or steal) people’s personal property, in the sense of things they own to use themselves. One doesn’t deprive people of their means of livelihood. Almost all anarchists I know don’t feel it’s morally wrong to steal from a large corporate store, but wouldn’t think of stealing from a mom and pop grocer […] It’s really hard to imagine a scenario where we can overcome capitalism without breaking or taking anything that the law says doesn’t belong to us. So then it comes down to a question of tactics: When is it helpful and when isn’t it? […] Who gets to say? Is there some central authority that can dictate what are appropriate revolutionary tactics?”

Both Triamarco and Graeber bring up interesting points. Shoplifting is arguably the most accessible form of civil disobedience. As superstores proliferate, it becomes easier and easier to swipe items from big businesses. But when we consider whether or not it provides the euphoria of disobedience or develops the tools needed for protest, the issue becomes more complicated. As demonstrated in the 2019 study, shoplifters are still a heterogeneous group, whatever their professed motivations. They may not even consider their actions political at all. Furthermore, not everyone who shoplifts actively develops a revolutionary toolkit or participates in community-building, as the Impulsive type attests to.

There are few forms of protest that are as difficult to interpret as protest, that don’t explicitly make themselves known as civil disobedience. Shoplifting, uniquely, is inherently silent rather than overtly loud and disruptive. Does that mean it only becomes protest when we think of it as protest, and the action itself is inherently neutral? Or do such actions carry political significance regardless of intent? The Economically Disadvantaged shoplifter, for example, might not think about their actions as political, but one could argue that their need to shoplift arises from and is a direct response to political or economic marginalization, so the action is political whether or not they think of it that way or not.

At the same time, some researchers have argued that the act of shoplifting is inherently harmful, regardless of professed motivation. A 2008 study conducted on over 43,000 people demonstrated that those who shoplifted were more likely to be diagnosed with mental illness, and tended to score lower on social, mental, and emotional health surveys. The same study showed that high school students who admitted to shoplifted had lower grades, higher drug and alcohol use, and more feelings of sadness and hopelessness when compared with those who hadn’t shoplifted. However, one could argue that all of this data doesn’t necessarily reveal a cause and effect relationship. In other words, it doesn’t tell us if shoplifting is a cause or symptom of emotional and mental problems, and how factors like economic disadvantage shape these lived experiences. A much smaller 2012 study conducted on over 100 teenagers found that nearly 25% of those diagnosed with kleptomania reported attempting suicide at least once. 93% of those cases reported that the attempt was “directly or indirectly due to their kleptomania symptoms (e.g., shame over the behavior; legal or personal problems resulting from shoplifting).” This study comes much closer to establishing that link, but the sample size is relatively small, and once again, the study doesn’t address the social and economic forces at the root of many shoplifters’ trauma.

Thinkers like Graebar bring up the difficulty in labeling an act like shoplifting, which may spring from any number of motivations, as inherently anticapitalist or revolutionary. It’s worthwhile to reconsider the various forms civil disobedience can take, and what stereotypes about shoplifting impact our cultural response to it.

Is Stealing Really Wrong?

In this video, Kate Manne, a philosophy professor at Cornell University,  offers a critical examination of the traditional notion that stealing is inherently wrongShe focuses on the case of The Barefoot Bandit. He grew up in dire straits, and he worked his way up from stealing bread to stealing planes. He committed over 100 burglaries, but for silly things. He’d sneak in to take a bubble bath, or eat a pint of ice cream. Sometimes his thefts were very large, but he was never violent and never confrontational. He ended his spree by stealing a plane and going to the Bahamas. Upon being arrested, the 18 year old was hailed by some as a folk-hero.

After polling the audience, we discover in the video  that almost half the audience has some sympathy for this criminal. She then lists off a host of real and fictional people who achieve cult status, but are primarily known for being thieves. Consider Yogi Bear. We don’t seem to have a problem with Yogi Bear, and so Manne notes that all of these examples show that we are, in her words, “a bit schizophrenic” with our attitudes toward the maxim that stealing is inherently wrong.

She calls this feeling of sympathy The Permissiveness Intuition. The video goes on to explore the moral psychology of that intuition, and she tries to articulate why some of us might have this permissiveness intuition. She then tries to tackle the question as to whether we are justified in having the permissiveness intuition. In other words, she asks – are some of us right when we have this permissiveness intuition. (The discussion of the permissiveness intuition starts at the 14 minute mark and last for only 10 minutes).

What do you think? Why might some people feel sympathy for these kinds of thieves? Are these intuitions reasonable?