Looting for necessities (and only for necessities) under certain conditions following a natural disaster should be either a legal, or at least an almost automatically pardonable act, not subject to punishment for theft.
The conditions required for such looting to be pardonable are the following:
• 1) There is no other legal, legitimate, or more reasonable way for those who loot to obtain necessitiesThe presumption behind these six conditions’ justifying looting is that life is more important than property, and that an interdependent society that has a mechanism for sustaining life under normal circumstances – a mechanism upon which people in the society are dependent – should still sustain life when that mechanism temporarily breaks down due to a circumstance beyond the society’s control. To put it succinctly, the economics can be fairly and reasonably sorted out later, but the life threatening emergency measures should be taken care of, insofar as possible, as they arise.
Expressing it another way, though this may not say quite the same thing or have the same consequences or entailments: the consensual or conventionally accepted right to private property in an interdependent society is based on being part of a mechanism that meet the needs of as many people as possible who acquiesce to the system, and when the system of which “private property” is a part breaks down through no fault of victims of a disaster, the right to ownership of necessities does not extend to what is tantamount to hoarding them for sale later. It especially does not extend to hoarding what will spoil while conditions are still disastrous.
The sixth condition is problematic when owners of stores try to prevent looting by hoarding necessities for sale later instead of distributing them voluntarily in some way, and cannot be peacefully dissuaded from that position nor overcome without force that leads to harm. It seems wrong to me to prevent people from having necessities, particularly for their vulnerable loved ones, simply in order to assert a property right – especially a property right over property whose loss will be reimbursed in some way after the disaster. And while I do not condone violent theft, I do not condone violent, particularly pointless, hoarding either. It seems to me that property rights are not operative or binding, in an interdependent society, under the conditions described above. This does not mean that under such conditions the basis for “civilized society” has disappeared; it means the basis is different under conditions of disaster from under normal conditions. Certain kinds of property rights are part of the basis of social order only under normal conditions, not dire ones.
Notice this does not mean that outside of an interdependent society property rights do not apply under dire circumstances. One cannot simply steal from others what one wants or even needs, if one has not been part of a system for the owner’s acquiring those goods in the first place, and if there is not a surplus for those who produced the goods. That is, if someone on his own out in a wilderness, or the people of a small isolated community, have independently produced things for themselves, which they will need, through their own labor, one does not have the right to take it from them, even if they ought to be willing to share under dire conditions. One may deserve charity, but one cannot demand it or take it by force. In terms of the “Grasshopper and the Ants” fable by Aesop, the ants have no obligation to feed the grasshopper through the winter with food they have gathered and stored through hard work without any help from the grasshopper who has also done nothing to store his own food. And the grasshopper has absolutely no right to take it.
(The morality of the situation is more difficult to determine when someone in need comes upon a surplus of goods produced by others, or when one comes upon a cache of goods one does not know is a surplus or not and there is no way to find out.)
In an interdependent free market society during normal conditions, services
are often contracted on an unequal basis whereby those in greatest need
are at a disadvantage in negotiating a fair wage. That is not always
the case, but it is often the case. When people employ others for
an unfair return of the profit they help produce, just because they can,
that is often tolerated because it is not a matter of life and death.
Or when a society progresses at the expense of those who produce much of
the labor, it is tolerated because it is not then an immediate case of
life and death or of totally involuntary slavery or servitude. But
that does not mean that the financially wealthy and materially well-off
have generated their wealth or material comforts independently of others.
They have done so at the expense of others in many cases, particularly
when they have not rewarded those who work for them any more generously
or any less miserly than they had to. Looting of necessities that
meets the above conditions is then not really taking something one has
no moral right to take because one did nothing to help produce the goods
one is taking. In an interdependent society, everyone who works and
helps the society progress, is at least in some small measure contributing
to all that is produced and acquired, and under circumstances of life and
death, ought to be able to take what (and only what) s/he needs if it is
available (and if there is no more deserving person who ought to have it
when there is not enough for both).