The inadvertent thief

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When you don't even know you're an accomplice.

The inadvertent thief is a thought experiment which asks how we should respond when an injustice is committed, and everyone directly involved is dead, but those indirectly involved are affected unfairly.

Police just solved a 20-year-old case of theft involving the parents of Lawrence and Rebecca. The evidence is clear: Lawrence's father robbed Rebecca's mother of her entire life savings and used the money to buy a house. Lawrence was raised in that house his whole life never knowing it was purchased with stolen money, and, when his father died, he willed the house to Lawrence. Since her mother was robbed, Rebecca grew up very poor, and things only got worse after her mother died. When news of the theft reaches her, Rebecca demands the house be given to her. She argues that, since the house was bought with her mother's stolen money, money that certainly would have been willed to her, she is the rightful owner of the house. Lawrence refuses, arguing that he hasn't done anything wrong, so why should he have to lose the home he's been maintaining all these years? Rebecca responds saying she hasn't done anything wrong either, and, because of Lawrence's father, she doesn't even have a home. Lawrence is unimpressed and says Rebecca had the past 20 years to get a job and buy her own house so she shouldn't expect a handout from him. Rebecca points out that a handout is precisely what Lawrence got when his father willed him the house, only his handout was stolen! Who deserves to get the house?

This thought experiment illustrates how, even if a person didn't commit a crime, they can still, through no fault of their own, benefit from the crime. Likewise, even if a person isn't the victim of a crime, they can still incur damages from the crime. When a similar scenario occurs in real life, how should we handle it?

While this scenario may seem contrived, it actually happens very frequently, but at the level of whole nations or cultures. Consider the Nazi genocide of Jews. All of Germany was held accountable and expected to pay reparations, even those Germans who opposed the genocide, and those who weren't even born at the time. It may not be fair to them, but it was certainly more unfair to the Jews. Consider also the genocide of the natives of the Americas at the hands of Europeans. Should European descendants have to pay reparations for what their ancestors did to the ancestors of the natives? Is money enough, or should huge swaths of land be returned as well? What about the descendants of the victims of the Atlantic slave trade? Do they deserve slavery reparations in the form of money or ownership of some of the land their ancestors were forced to work for centuries? What about affirmative action programs? Aren't they essentially a less-intrusive way of trying to correct past injustices?


More or less time

The original thought experiment is purposely designed to have a significant length of time between when the crime was committed and when justice is sought. You can see the reasoning behind this when you shorten the time elapsed between the two events to the extreme.

Lawrence's father stole money from Rebecca's mother and immediately used it to buy a house. The next day, both Lawrence's father and Rebecca's mother died, and the house was willed to Lawrence. However, just after signing over the deed, Rebecca arrived with the police to confront Lawrence. She demands ownership of the house since it was bought with the money that was stolen from her mother only yesterday. Should Lawrence be expected to give it up?

In this case, it seems far more acceptable to require Lawrence to surrender the house. In fact, if we didn't force the surrender of such ill-gotten gains, we would expect to see a massive increase in theft committed by people with terminal diseases hoping they will succumb and will the stolen goods safely to their children before the law catches up to them and takes them back. Of course, lengthening the elapsed time to the extreme creates an equally obvious scenario.

While researching a 500-year-old house, Rebecca discovers that it was actually purchased by money stolen from a direct ancestor of hers 25 generations ago. She also discovers that the current owner of the house, Lawrence, is the direct descendant of the thief, 25 generations prior. Should Lawrence be forced to give the house to Rebecca?

At some point, it becomes unreasonable to expect people to have to pay for the crimes of their ancestors. Can anyone seriously argue a present event is definitely the result of a single cause from 500 years ago? Imagine if we allowed this. Greece would have to pay reparations to Egypt because of Alexander the Great's invasion in 332 BCE, but, before Egypt could spend the money, they would have to give it to the descendants of the Hittites because of the battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE!

Most legal systems solve problems like this by instituting a statute of limitations, a deadline for how long justice can be sought after a crime is committed. The length of time for each type of crime is arbitrarily decided, but it can be made known to everyone, and the culture can always change it to suit their needs.

Immeasurable damages

One of the problems in the original thought experiment is that its pretty easy to measure the value of a stolen object. Something like a house has a fair market value, so, when a problem of ownership arises, you can simply sell the house and split the money 50/50 to call things fair. To eliminate this easy solution, consider this variant:

Lawrence's father stole all the money Rebecca's mother was saving for Rebecca's college tuition and used it to send Lawrence to college where he got a first-rate education and met powerful contacts securing his future. If his father hadn't stolen the money, he couldn't afford to send Lawrence to college, and, because he did steal the money, Rebecca's mother was too poor to send her to college. However, the money by itself didn't earn Lawrence's education, he had to work hard to obtain it, but that same opportunity was robbed from Rebecca. When the crime has been solved, what should be done to make things right? A college education can't be transferred or sold and split 50/50. Should Lawrence have to pay Rebecca reparations? And, if so, how much?

Here, even though the same injustice — theft — is committed, the value of the theft is further abstracted away and it becomes even more difficult to agree upon what is a fair outcome.