Is Theft Wrong?

27 Pages Posted: 21 Oct 2012 Last revised: 24 Dec 2013

See all articles by Kieran Oberman

Kieran Oberman

University of Edinburgh - School of Social and Political Science

Date Written: October 21, 2012


Most people think that the actual distribution of property poorly reflects moral entitlement. Were wealth to be justly distributed, some people would have more than they currently possess; others, less. Theft is one means by which a more just distribution could be pursued. Those who currently have less than their due could take from those that have more. Yet most people also think that theft is wrong, even when it redistributes wealth in the direction of justice. This article investigates why. It examines three arguments against redistributive theft: that (1) has bad consequences, (2) is illegal, (3) disrupts legitimate expectations or (4) is undemocratic. The article finds none of the arguments wholly convincing. Of the four, the first is the most successful. Redistributive theft is wrong if it entails such large costs that the costs outweigh or negate the redistributive benefits. Perhaps many instances of redistributive theft are wrong for this reason. But as long as there are some instances in which the benefits of redistributive theft outweigh the costs we need to ask a further question: what is wrong with redistributive theft that is effective and proportionate in advancing distributive justice? The other three arguments are potential responses to that further question. But as this article shows, none provides a satisfactory answer. The article thus concludes with the same puzzle. While everyone seems agreed that the actual distribution of property does not represent genuine entitlement, everyone also seems agreed that, outside of emergency cases, theft is always wrong. It remains unclear why this is so.

Keywords: Theft, Distributive Justice, Egalitarianism, Property Rights

Suggested Citation

Oberman, Kieran, Is Theft Wrong? (October 21, 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Kieran Oberman (Contact Author)

University of Edinburgh - School of Social and Political Science ( email )

United Kingdom

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