Opinion //

A treatise concerning the moral permissibility of umbrella-stealing

You wouldn't steal an umbrella?

Art by Ava Broinowski.

It was a clear morning. You had a less-than-productive day of study at Fisher (we’ve all been there). The balmy morning weather lulled you into a false sense of security, and now the heavens have unleashed a deluge onto the hallowed streets of Sydney. You’re umbrella-less, and have no way of leaving the premises without being soaked to the bone… or do you?

The Uni’s best and brightest are often stranded on the steps of Fisher without any adequate protection from the elements. Considering how much the government has fucked students in recent times, it seems intuitive that the Bureau of Meteorology can’t be trusted either. So, your next step is obvious: take your pick from the array of umbrellas that surround you, and make your merry way home in relative dryness.

Of course, this view may be problematic to some. In fact, many traditional arguments would state that umbrella stealing is an abhorrent, immoral act. But the likes of Kant, Bentham and Aristotle are wrong.

Let’s take the former, for example. Kant, a staunch deontologist, would have me believe that “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law”. In plain terms, Kant wants everyone to be judged by the same standard of behaviour.

Let’s analyse umbrella-stealing according to Kant’s Categorical Imperative. If everyone stole someone else’s umbrella, then there wouldn’t be any umbrellas left to steal. Further, people would stop bringing umbrellas to campus at all, and instead explicitly intend to steal one.

Consequentialism, pioneered by Jeremy Bentham, is a moral theory concerned with consequences as opposed to actions by its very definition. Umbrella-stealing sits squarely as a wrong in this category. When you steal an umbrella, you are condemning a fellow student to get caught in the rain despite the fact that they had the foresight to bring an umbrella.

By contrast, Aristotle’s virtue ethics is an approach that concerns moral character above actions or consequences, which we’ve seen play out in the approaches above. Every action we perform allows us to develop as virtuous moral agents (i.e. to become better people), so theft doesn’t look too good from this perspective either. Virtue ethics does allow for some wiggle room; a broke uni student stealing an umbrella is not held to the same standard as a prestigious university stealing wages from staff, for example.

People who are bereft of the foresight or common sense that prompts others to bring umbrellas on clear mornings are vulnerable, and we shouldn’t condemn the act of umbrella-stealing without first considering their disadvantage in the genetic lottery. If you bring an umbrella to campus, you need to check your privilege.

The three main approaches to ethics all paint a bleak picture for morally justifying umbrella theft, so I suggest we pivot to the legal discipline.

Disclaimer: Isabel Formby is currently enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts and Advanced Studies. Her highest legal qualification is a Band 5 in HSC Legal Studies, which she completed in 2017. Take any and all of her legal advice with a hefty grain of salt.

To me the answer is obvious: Strict liability. According to Wikipedia (which I know lends to my logos as a reputable student journalist), “Strict liability is a standard of liability under which a person is legally responsible for the consequences flowing from an activity even in the absence of fault or criminal intent on the part of the defendant.” You, kind umbrella-bringer, are legally responsible for the consequences flowing from leaving your umbrella outside the library. Your intent wasn’t to donate your umbrella to a student in need, but that’s too bad. Engaging in ultrahazardous behaviour has consequences. 

Not to victim-blame, but if you leave your umbrella outside Fisher Library on a wet day, you’re almost asking for it to be stolen. Be responsible for your belongings; bring your brolly inside if you care about it that much. Make like Taylor Swift and Shake It Off.

The fact that the steps of Fisher become an umbrella orphanage after every rainy season suggests to me that people don’t care much for their umbrellas anyway. If you leave your umbrella out there, you are inadvertently making a generous contribution towards less-fortunate students, which is quite virtuous in my opinion.

Those who leave their umbrellas outside are responsible for any theft of their belongings that take place. Plain and simple: stealing umbrellas is not wrong.

Author’s comprehensive guide to stealing umbrellas in the least offensive way possible:

1. Look for an umbrella that you see multiple versions of. If you take one of these, the owner may not even realise theirs is missing.

2. Bunnings and USyd umbrellas are off the cards. People are very protective of these prized possessions; best to go for a cheap, replaceable option.

3. Always return any umbrella you take, except in cases where they are broken.

4. Pay it forward: bring an extra umbrella to donate to the vulnerable student body. You’ll never know who will need it

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