It's a dark winter night, and only a threadbare jacket separates you from a frozen death. And that isn't your biggest concern. The rumbling of your stomach echoes through your hollow insides, keeping you awake as your body wastes away from the inanition. Your eyes start to close. You wonder if they will ever open again... For many, this may seem a far-fetched narrative, but for around 690 million¹ people across our world, it is their dreadful reality. For them, stealing food is a matter of life or death.
Regarding stealing, there are largely two perspectives – one legal, and one moral. Depending on varying legislation and local jurisprudence, the legality differs. Roman Ostriakov, a homeless man in Genoa, who stole food worth €4.07 in 2011, was convicted for six years². However, the Italian Supreme Court later argued that he was acting “in a state of necessity,” ³ and thus, it was not a crime. In May 2016, Italy's highest court of appeal ruled that stealing small amounts of food to stave off hunger will not constitute a crime citing the Italian legal doctrine 'Ad impossibilia nemo tenetur' ('No one is expected to do the impossible')⁴. Yet, in other state jurisprudence, such as the UK, people living in poverty are still unjustly penalised⁶.
But, what if a $500 steak was stolen instead of a cheap loaf of bread? One could argue that no matter the food stolen, the consequences should never change, so long as the purpose behind stealing is the same – to feed a ‘starving family’. Moreover, what defines starvation itself is subjective. Nonetheless, this essay will not delve into its norms, but will assume that the theft is performed under the assumption that the thief’s family is indeed "starving".
From a moral perspective, the deontological approach⁶ focuses on the link between duty and the morality of individual actions. Here, the agent in this moral dilemma has a duty not to steal and a responsibility to feed his family. This approach leads to the conclusion that his need to support his family takes precedence over the legal and moral prohibition against stealing in general. An alternative approach stems from utilitarian ethics⁶, which supports the action that creates the greatest good for the greatest number. Consequently, theft would be morally permissible in this case, because it would cause relatively little harm to the party from which the bread is stolen, and would protect the thief’s family from dying of hunger. Both these viewpoints agree that stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving family is morally permissible.
Additionally, this question relies on a red herring that "stealing" denotes ownership of the item, and, therefore, its deliberate ‘withholdment’. The question's phrasing detracts from a far more significant question: "Is it moral to withhold food from a starving person?"
In conclusion, in a case where a man is truly in dire need and steals bread to save his family from starvation - there has been no theft. The poor man is simply taking what is due him in justice. Following a utilitarian and deontological approach, the right to survive should always prevail over property. Hence, it is unthinkable that the law does not take note of such adverse, human realities.
1. “World Hunger: Key Facts and Statistics 2021.” Action Against Hunger, 19 July 2021, https://www.actionagainsthunger.org/world-hunger-facts-statistics#:~:text=About%20690%20million%20people%20globally%20are%20undernourished.
2. News, BBC. “Italian Court Rules Food Theft 'Not a Crime' If Hungry.” BBC News, BBC, 3 May 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36190557.
3. Roman Ostriakov - Innocents Database of Exonerations, http://forejustice.org/db/Ostriakov--Roman-.html.
4. Hengel, Livia. “In Italy, Food Theft Is Not a Crime If You're Poor and Hungry.” Culture Trip, The Culture Trip, 30 Oct. 2016, https://theculturetrip.com/europe/italy/articles/in-italy-food-theft-is-not-a-crime-if-youre-poor-and-hungry/.
5. Patrick , Ruth. “Is It Really Criminal to Steal Food When You're Destitute?” The Conversation, 16 Oct. 2019, https://theconversation.com/is-it-really-criminal-to-steal-food-when-youre-destitute-59190.
6. Phillips, Colby. “How to Solve the Ethical Dilemma of Stealing a Loaf of Bread to Feed Your Family.” Synonym, 30 June 2020, https://classroom.synonym.com/solve-loaf-bread-feed-family-8605955.html.