The ethics of buying stolen bikes
November 24, 2009 7:05 AM   Subscribe

Help me figure out the ethics of buying stolen bikes (or other stolen things).

I've always believed that buying a stolen bike was the worst of sins--along the lines of stealing books from the public library or pushing your grandma down the stairs. And living in the Bay Area, my friends' bikes get stolen all the time, even if they ride theft-proof junkers, so I can genuinely empathize with the experience of losing a prized possession. But as an often-broke cyclist (who rides one of those aforementioned junkers), occasionally I'm equally tempted by those lightweight newish bikes that're providentially cheap and don't need the rear derailleur replaced, and then the front derailleur replaced, and then suddenly the hub feels crunchy and the rear brakes never have quite the right tension on 'em, etc.

There's a Saturday flea market near my house where I buy cheap wool socks and used cell phone chargers sometimes. One full corner of the market has a booming trade in obviously stolen bikes--shiny, new road bikes priced at $100-200, but almost certainly worth at least double, for example. I've been able to resist the temptation for a decade now, and my maybe-too-righteous moral stance still feels solid to me (occasionally dreaming of a bike and actually buying one are two different things!). But sometimes I think, oh why bother? There'll always be an underground economy for stolen, priced-to-move bikes: the allure's too great, and there seems to be basically no chance of getting caught. Why shouldn't I buy a stolen bike? There's no way the real owner will find it before it's gone, whether I'm the purchaser or not. Right?

For me, the biggest flaw in the "someone's gonna buy it, why not me?" argument is my own integrity: I don't want to be the kind of person who, unblinkingly, buys stolen goods. (I'm not.) But on the other hand, why should I avoid buying a locally-stolen bike but feel guilt-free about purchasing sweatshop-made socks, for example, just because I can empathize more readily with one than the other? Or avoid buying a used circular saw that might also be stolen, but might not?... To clarify, I'm not looking for help justifying anything to myself; I know it's not okay for me, regardless of how ineffectual my stolen-stuff boycott actually is. I'm just trying to put words to the sense that there's something more to this than just personal integrity (or the law). But what?
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (58 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
For me the answer would be "there is nothing 'more' than personal integrity really". I mean, riding bikes, like everything else, is largely about making sense of one's existence, of at least of filling it with content or activity. I try filling my existence with such content that I perceive as "good" and avoid going down paths that seem to me 'no good', for whatever rational or irrational reasons.
posted by Namlit at 7:14 AM on November 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

The problem with "someone's gonna buy it, why not you?" is that someone's gonna steal it, why not you?
posted by espire at 7:17 AM on November 24, 2009 [7 favorites]

I don't buy stolen stuff. I sleep like a baby.

Does that put it in perspective??

I guess what you are asking for is the reason not to do it? Well, for one thing, self worth. I don't stoop as low as those who buy the stolen goods. I know people who do. I don't preach to them, it doesn't work anyway. But, I know I can hold my head high.
posted by Drasher at 7:19 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

hey, it's called temptation. there's not a whole lot of effort to maintain your personal integrity if you don't have to give up anything for it. "they'll never find out" can be applied to almost anything that doesn't do any noticeable damage to anyone, even if you're not supposed to do it.
reward yourself by saving up the extra $2-300 (remember to allocate extra for 2 sinkin' good locks) and ride your steed proudly.
sorry for the sermon. touchy subject.
posted by gijsvs at 7:20 AM on November 24, 2009

sinkin' = stinkin'
posted by gijsvs at 7:21 AM on November 24, 2009

Oh, and as for: regardless of how ineffectual my stolen-stuff boycott actually is...
If you vote, you know how ineffectual that is, but you still vote for a reason.
posted by Drasher at 7:21 AM on November 24, 2009

How about the guilt that you would feel riding it around? Or the fact that you're encouraging thieves that live right around your area? How about the regret that you would feel looking back and never having the same amount of respect for yourself again?

And it's different buying goods that you *know* are stolen versus goods that just might happen to be stolen (anything might be stolen, the sun could fall out of the sky... those aren't wise assumptions).
posted by shivohum at 7:21 AM on November 24, 2009

If you're troubled enough to ask this question rather than just buying one of these bikes, then you're not the type of person who can buy one and cycle it guilt free.

The bike, despite being half price, is not good value. Value is judged on more than the dollar price of a bunch of manufactured components.
posted by fire&wings at 7:21 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm just trying to put words to the sense that there's something more to this than just personal integrity (or the law). But what?

Why does there have to be? Isn't that enough?
posted by inigo2 at 7:22 AM on November 24, 2009

One of the most jaw-dropping things I ever heard anyone say was in my criminal law class the first year of law school. I had a classmate who was universally viewed as odd--always sat in the back, often with the hood of his parka up, just as often with his headphones on. The class discussion came to child pornography on day, and this fellow ventured that he didn't really see what the issue was with child pornography, because the image is already out there--the child is not being abused just by someone looking at a picture in a box later, right?

Well, no. Not right at all. Aghast silence.

I don't mean to suggest buyers of stolen bikes are tantamount to child molesters (except for that bastard who stole the front tire of my bike while I was in the library as a freshman--I still loathe you, whoever you are). But the truth is, by being a consumer of an illegitimate product, you cooperate in its production. Your post shows you know this. If the stealing is wrong, then the buying is wrong. Don't do it.

As for the slippery slope, that's a personal line to draw in all things. I don't believe animals should be mistreated, but I eat meat and wear leather. You'll make your own judgment calls--as noted above, what keeps you up at night? Ask the merchant about the used saw--if you get a bad vibe about it being stolen, don't buy it. If some day you find out that it was stolen, you did your best. You are not a guarantor of an item's provenance. If you feel unseemly about buying sweatshop-made socks, buy hand-made socks from a local knitter, or make your own.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:24 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

A agree with all the stuff said so far. To add a pragmatic angle, what will you do if someone sees you riding their stolen bike and confronts you about it? Will you hand over the bike that you purchased knowing it was stolen? Or will you assert your right to keep what you knowingly bought illegally?
posted by DWRoelands at 7:24 AM on November 24, 2009

The first time you see some of your shit for sale at one of these flea markets you'll immediately understand why its wrong to make a market in stolen goods.
posted by Mutant at 7:24 AM on November 24, 2009 [11 favorites]

Ugh. "I agree with".
posted by DWRoelands at 7:24 AM on November 24, 2009

If you'd like an economic argument, the more people that are willing to buy stolen bikes, the more the sellers can charge for them, which increases the incentive to steal bikes and results in bike theft being more common.

Whether or not you buy a particular stolen bike doesn't change anything right now - it's already stolen, and the owner probably won't get it back. What it changes is the incentives for next time.

Kind of like the coaches & players who will argue with a referee about a call. It's for next time. The ref won't change his mind about this call, but maybe he'll hesitate before making the next call if he knows he'll catch a lot of grief.
posted by echo target at 7:26 AM on November 24, 2009

IANAL, but my understanding is that if you know that the thing you are about to buy is stolen, and you buy it anyway, you may have broken the law. The lawyer mefites can probably elucidate with all of the usual caveats in place.

In any case, why feed the demand? I had about $2K worth of tools stolen out of my garage awhile back and have no doubt that the ended up in a pawn shop or on craigslist, which is why I'm not keen to shop in either place for tools.
posted by jquinby at 7:32 AM on November 24, 2009

Oh, and this is a perfect opportunity for me to trot out Haddock's Law again: If you are consulting AskME on an anonymous basis before you do this, you should not do this.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:38 AM on November 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

Sorry screwed up the format, reposting:

I think it's all about your level of certainty that the bike was stolen.

If you're 100% sure, i.e. you witnessed the theft, I think everyone would agree it's unethical and in many places it would also be illegal.

If you're 90% sure, well, all the arguments above apply and it's probably wrong to buy it.

If you think there's less than a 50% change something was stolen, I wouldn't lose sleep over it.

Bikes may be a particularly emotional subject for the mefi demographic, so the real test of our intuitions should be to imagine something where you'd be much LESS sympathetic to the original owner. I'm reminded of the Roald Dahl stories about poaching ("Danny the Champion of the World" and I think "Claude's Dog").

At any rate, shoplifting and fencing are very widespread, and few of us can be confident that we haven't bought stolen property. I've bought hundreds of small items from ebay or amazon marketplace sellers over the years, and I'm sure at least some of them were stolen. I'd like to defend myself by saying "yes, but the odds in each case were low" -- however I can't honestly say that I thought about it impartially each time I ordered something that was improbably cheap ...certainly not as much as I would with a bike or some other in-person transaction.
posted by pete_22 at 7:48 AM on November 24, 2009

Leaving aside the moral issue, people tend to get very attached to their bikes, and very upset when they are stolen. If someone sees you riding around on their beloved bike, you will have some explaining to do. And quite possibly may get your ass kicked. This isn't just a theoretical issue, either. I used to work in a SF bike shop, and off the top of my head, I can recall at least three instances where this happened.
posted by zombiedance at 7:50 AM on November 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

Erm...knowingly buying a stolen bike is equally unethical to stealing it yourself. The ONLY reason people steal bikes is because they can sell them to other people for money. When you buy a stolen bike, you complete the other 50% of the unethical transaction - you are an equal partner in the bicycle theft economy. 6
It may seem like you would just innocently be taking advantage of a preexisting situation, but that's not true. You would be CREATING the situation. You are essentially hiring bicycle thieves to go steal bikes in your neighborhood. The fact that they steal the bike first, and you pay for it later doesn't matter - you're subsidizing the theft of the next bike they steal.

Don't get me wrong - on the scale of unethical acts, it's not exactly an unforgivable sin. But please don't do it - the person whose bike that used to be probably needed it just as badly.

In fact, it might be worth reporting this place to the police - feel free to do it anonymously. Depending on how careful the bike thieves have been, they might just get busted.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:51 AM on November 24, 2009

In fact, if you help the police shut these jerks down, there's a decent chance there's a police auction in your area, and you could end up getting one of those bikes for cheap anyways. Win-win! And sorry if I sounded a bit harsh - this is a sort of emotional subject - having had a bike stolen from me, it really REALLY sucks. Much more than you'd think it would.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:53 AM on November 24, 2009

I remember my first bike. I owned it for exactly 3 hours. Dad had brought it home on my 7th birthday after work, and had spent the waning daylight hours pushing me around the street in front of our house with it. He went inside at some point while I just sat there on the driveway in front of our open garage, staring at my bike in awe. At some point I was called into the house, and, with a 7 year old's understanding of the world I ran inside assuming the bike would be fine. By the time I came out a few minutes later, it was gone, forever. There wasn't a lot of money to go around and looking back, I'm sure dad stretched to buy the bike in the first place.

I remember once when I was 13, I had left my BMX bike (a Robinson) in front of the Circle K convenience store while I went in to spend my weekly 2 quarters allotted to the video game they had in the corner (The Punisher). I would park the bike just on the other side of the glass from where the video game was, so I could watch it. I had saved spare cash for 2 summers to afford it. That day, a group of about 5 or 6 guys, all a bit bigger and a few years older than me, surrounded me for 10 seconds, feigning awe at how I was playing the game. I spun around and tried to break out of the group but they wouldn't move. I started screaming for the store clerk to call the cops and they all fled. And my bike was long gone. The cops were useless when they arrived.

I won't thank you for resurrecting the emotion, but those are two particular poignant moments in my young life that I can remember feeling like absolute shit. I'm talking utter despair. My world turned on its head. Yeah, I suppose it would be a bit different for me to lose a bike at this age compared with then, but still. Can you imagine coming out to find your car not there in the lot where you left it? Is this much different?

There are 2 types of people in the world when it comes to these situations: Those willing to take what is not theirs, and those who have what is theirs taken from them.

In my book, those complicit in, or even overtly supporting the former group, are as good as the former group themselves. Who, I'm fairly certain, are getting rooms towards the warmer end of hell.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:58 AM on November 24, 2009 [8 favorites]

why should I avoid buying a locally-stolen bike but feel guilt-free about purchasing sweatshop-made socks, for example

Because sweatshop-made socks are generally made by somebody who needs that sweatshop job. Unless slavery or other coercion is involved, they're probably better off with the sweatshop job than they'd be without it. You don't buy sweatshop socks, and somebody on the other side of the world loses a (crappy) job which they need. You don't buy a stolen bike, and somebody in your area gets to keep a bike that rightfully belongs to them.
posted by jon1270 at 8:04 AM on November 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Allkindsoftime - you totally hit the nail on the head.

I have had three bikes stolen in the past two years and every single time I have sobbed like a child.

It hurts so bad, however cheap or old it was. One of the above, my dad had bought second hand for me, as I was skint at the time, and slaved over to get it in good working order. I felt so, so bad when it was stolen.

Don't encourage it one tiny, tiny bit. You know really that you don't want to. Just get a better lock, or a cheaper bike next time!
posted by greenish at 8:14 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

But on the other hand, why should I avoid buying a locally-stolen bike but feel guilt-free about purchasing sweatshop-made socks, for example, just because I can empathize more readily with one than the other?

Putting aside sentimentality about sweatshops for a second and looking at them through a coldly objective economic lens, there's a serious case for knowingly buying sweatshop-made clothes. Here's Kristof and Krugman and Kristof/Wudunn on this issue. (Or, what jon1270 said.) These are altruistic, liberal-minded critiques, not blithe rationalizations of consuming whatever we want along the lines of Sarah Palin's "If God did not intend for us to eat animals, then why did he make them out of meat?"

I don't see how the same principles would justify buying stolen goods. As other commenters have said, when you buy something, that's not just an isolated, meaningless event; you're supporting the entire industry and processes that produced it. So, if at all possible, don't buy things unless you want to encourage more of them being made in the future.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:16 AM on November 24, 2009

Are you going to be comfortable riding around and wondering if the people looking at you are thinking that you are the asshole that stole their bike? Will that stick in your craw, and spoil your ride?
posted by Mountain Goatse at 8:16 AM on November 24, 2009

Salvor Hardin brings up an excellent point. At police auctions you can buy stolen bikes for sometimes even cheaper than bike-thief prices. I have been to these auctions, and would buy a bike there.
In my area, people often steal bikes [I assume] and then throw them off of bridges into the river. I will sometimes fix and ride these bikes.

In both cases, bikes not used are going to rust and die. I don't feel bad about it. I say this as someone who loves bikes and has been attacked with a knife while trying to recover the stolen bike of a stranger. Someone whose friends have physically retrieved *my* bicycle for me from the thief who was riding it. Stealing bikes is very personal, and I wouldn't buy an obviously stolen bike, but the two ways noted at the beginning of my comment are ways to turn a bad event into something less bad.

The best way for you to find a cheap bike that will most likely be a better bike than these flea market bikes [but less shiny] is for you to find and join your local bicycle co-op. They will probably even help you learn more about maintenance and such.
posted by Acari at 8:17 AM on November 24, 2009

Buying stolen goods == hiring the thief to steal it for you.
posted by TruncatedTiller at 8:20 AM on November 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

To go along with allkindsoftime, I had a great bmx style bike. I had it for about a month, rode it everywhere. It had those velcro pads on the handlebar and on the frame for "cushioning." They were checkered, like a flag. It was red. Around the block from my house, these two guys, riding on one bike stopped me. I was in elementary school, these guys were maybe in high school. They told me that one guy's bike had just been stolen, and they wanted to look at mine to make sure it wasn't that bike. I got off of my bike, the guy started looking at it, hopped on it, and took off with his friend. Both of them were laughing their asses off. I had to walk back home, thinking about how I would explain this. I decided to lie, and say they threatened to beat me up. As a matter of fact, I don't think I've ever actually told anyone the truth until now.

Picture that, me, as a maybe 9 year old, so ashamed that the best course of action seems to be lying to my mother about what happened, since we're broke, and she really shouldn't have bought me the bike in the first place. Realize that everyone who's had a bike stolen has felt a horrifically impotent rage that has no outlet, and that lingers, possibly for years, in my case, nearly 25 years.

Your question brings back the memories of walking home, crying, getting ready to lie to my mom. Is it really worth it, knowing that someone was hurt by that loss, just to get a good deal on a bike?
posted by Ghidorah at 8:22 AM on November 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Like others here, I had my bike stolen when I was a kid, probably six or seven. Ran in the house for thirty seconds, came back, and it was gone. Luckily, my awesome neighbour saw it get stolen. He followed the kids, caught up to them, ripped them a new one for stealing a little girl's bike, and returned it to me.

Having things stolen from me in the past made me feel violated. Stop rationalizing this. You know this is wrong, otherwise you wouldn't have asked. If you buy one of these, knowing it is stolen, you are just as bad as the thief who made me cry when I was a little kid.
posted by futureisunwritten at 9:15 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

If I knew the bicycle had been stolen from my health insurance provider, I'd buy it with pleasure. That's never who it was stolen from, however. More likely, it was stolen from me. I'd better not see you riding it. How would you feel if you saw me riding a bike that had been stolen from you? Would you think, "It was just like buying socks made in a sweat shop?"
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:21 AM on November 24, 2009

Yeah, so buying a stolen bicycle isn't the worst crime ever, but I sure wouldn't do it. Like others here, I've been the victim of bicycle theft, and it's just incredibly sad. One morning you ride your trusty bicycle to school, take a difficult test, concentrate through several classes, cram lunch in your mouth when you get a minute, work hard in lab, stay late for rehearsal, and stumble outside in to freezing rain at 10 PM only to find that your bicycle is gone and your trip home just got 30 minutes longer. Plus, there's an awful feeling in your stomach for days as you wonder who the thief was. Everybody's a suspect and that's a terrible way to look at the world.

Also, on a very practical level, many of us who ride bikes do so not only for fun, but out of necessity - if my bike suddenly disappeared, I'd spend an additional $4 and 100 minutes per day getting to work - maybe that doesn't sound like much, but it's a huge pain in the ass, and over time, costly as well. Buying a stolen bike contributes to that kind of mess.
posted by Cygnet at 9:23 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've had many a bike stolen (and actually just looked out my office window to make sure my current junker is still locked up out there), and I can tell you, if I met a new friend of a friend or something who just rolled up on my old bike, I think I would explode.

It's worth not buying a stolen bike merely to avoid the nearly impossible scenario of riding it joyfully past its former owner. But all the other reasons too. If you're asking this question, you'd probably never enjoy riding it anyway.
posted by activitystory at 9:26 AM on November 24, 2009

You've separated yourself out of the question, but I don't think that works. You're saying it's not okay for you. That's the same thing as saying it's not okay period. Your moral/ethical system is the way you've determined the world should work, and your reasons are why. The reason not to buy stolen things is that you condone and support stealing when you do. You're the demand which ensures the continuing supply (assuming you did buy stolen bikes), which means your friends and everybody else would continue to lose their bikes, which sucks. I agree with you that realistically it's not like if you alone refuse to buy stolen goods, that it will make a difference in things continuing to be stolen. And it's not like you leading by example will appreciably affect others enough to cut off the demand for stolen goods. There are always enough weak, uncaring, uninformed, or desperate people to keep up the demand. But the choice is a binary one. You buy stolen stuff or you don't, because you think it's wrong or you don't care. If you think it's wrong it's because you've seen it and understood it and think that its effects are unacceptable, unfair, whatever.

As to your socks, if you consider them to be the product of immoral scenarios, you don't have to buy them. If you buy them despite deciding they're the product of immoral scenarios, you're right, there's a disconnect. Most of us are inconsistent in that way and practice some degree of doublethink or deliberate ignorance or minimizing in order to move forward in a practical way. I think you've already nailed your answer though. That lack of empathy is the difference. Our lives and experiences shape our perspectives and priorities. If your family had been ground down to nothing in sweatshops, your empathy would be much greater in that regard and your priorities would likely be different. Until then, it's a possible problem so far away and unconnected to you that it's just socks, and you need socks so you get them. It doesn't hurt anyone you know or will likely ever meet, unlike the bike situation, so you easily move on.

As for the saw example, if you think it's stolen and you don't want to buy stolen goods, don't buy it. If you think it's possible it is, you can err on the side of caution or make peace with a potential ethical inconsistency, which does kind of negate the point of having a rule. If you don't have any particular reason to think it's stolen, you've done your ethical duty and can buy it. It's not a guarantee, but a reasonable degree of due diligence is all anyone can expect.

I think we think the codes we live by are inviolate and that we're consistent, but they're kind of flexible depending on various factors such as empathy, as you've noted. And we apply them inconsistently due to some of the same factors and to things such as utility.
posted by Askr at 9:39 AM on November 24, 2009

Here's what I think you should ask yourself. Would you be okay if average joe saw your stolen things at a flea market, and bought them? If you would be, then go for it!
posted by biochemist at 10:04 AM on November 24, 2009

Buying an illegal good makes the illegal market healthy, thus encouraging thieves to steal more, possibly including your "new" bike. Also, don't assume that you won't get caught. If I saw someone riding my stolen bike on the street, I'd be on them in a second. The intermediary of the thief doesn't insulate you from the consequences of the theft.

Don't do it.

And by the way, if this is the worst sin you can think of, your imagination is defective.
posted by chairface at 10:26 AM on November 24, 2009

Buying stolen goods is bad karma, period. I've been offered the chance to buy brand new HDTVs for well under half price (hey, it, um, fell off a truck) and I just know that if I go ahead and buy obviously stolen goods, I'm going to end up repaying that discount someday in a bad way. And that's for something that people haven't even had a chance to get attached to. Bikes are something that almost become a part of the owner, and just something you don't f*ck with, period.

Someday you're not going to be so broke and you'll be able to walk into a bike shop, point to the shiny one that weighs 17 pounds, and tell 'em you'll take it. And you'll see those stolen bikes at the corner market and know that someone has had that same good feeling ripped from them. That's why I wouldn't do it.
posted by azpenguin at 10:33 AM on November 24, 2009

In 1972 my yellow Schwinn Varsity was stolen. I was 12 and I'm still pissed. The serial number is JG023387.
posted by Carbolic at 10:40 AM on November 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

A thought experiment might help:

Imagine that you were visiting a country where there was no law-enforcement. You overhear a bunch of guys saying they are going to rob a house of some people who are out of town. Since there are no police, you can't report them. You also don't know anyone in the country, so you have no chance of rallying people together to get them to stop the thieves. The victims' neighbors are all out-of-town, too, so you can't alert them.

(I'm trying to set up a scenario where the theft is INEVITABLE. If you find a plot hole, please ignore it. Let's just assume that, for whatever reason, the theft is going to happen and there's no possible way you can stop it.)

Shortly before the theft is set to take place, you walk by the house and notice that a window is open. Inside, you see an iPod lying on a table. You KNOW the thieves are going to take anything of value that they can carry, so they'll definitely take that. You've always wanted an iPod.

Should you take it?

I really don't see how your choice to take it or to not take it affects the victims. Either way, they will be without an iPod. If I were the victim, I wouldn't care. I would just want my iPod back.

So does your theft affect the victim? No.
Does it encourage the thieves to steal? No. They were going to do it, anyway.
Does it encourage anyone else to steal? No. Not unless you brag about what you did, and I'm assuming you never tell anyone.

Okay, you could have broken in and hidden the iPod. And you could have taken it but returned it to the victims later, thus doing a GOOD deed. But those are side issues. The main issue here is does the theft add more evil to the world than what would have existed without it.

If you're a pragmatist, the answer is no.

Like you, I wouldn't take the iPod. I don't want to be a thief. But I can't think of an external reason not to take it.
posted by grumblebee at 11:58 AM on November 24, 2009

The main issue here is does the theft add more evil to the world than what would have existed without it.

If you're a pragmatist, the answer is no.

Ah, but if *you* do it, then the evil is *you*. That counts for something.

Besides, I understand it's a hypothetical question but in the real world there's a non-zero chance that ipod would be saved. Even if it's 99.999% likely it will get nicked, if you steal it it becomes 100%.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 12:15 PM on November 24, 2009

Why not just steal one of the "obviously stolen" bikes from the market?
posted by hworth at 12:30 PM on November 24, 2009

Ah, but if *you* do it, then the evil is *you*. That counts for something.

I shouldn't have sloppily used the word "evil." A better word is "happiness."

Are your actions adding causing more or less happiness to appear in the world? As far as the victim is concerned, there is equal happiness (or, rather, unhappiness) whether you steal the iPod or not. Either way it gets stolen and they don't know who stole it. As far as society is concerned, same thing. There's the same amount of theft in the world either way, and your deed doesn't stand as an example because you don't tell anyone about it.

So the issue comes down to this: stealing the iPod MAY add some unhappiness to you. It may make you feel guilty to think of yourself as a thief. So that's more unhappiness in the world. On the other hand, it might make you really happy to have an iPod. From a purely pragmatic point of view, you simply need to weigh those two "happiness values." For me, the unhappiness of guilt would WAY outway the happiness of having the iPod.

Here's an example from my life, which I've discussed here before: I hate politics. It causes me pain to think about politics in general, and voting makes me anxious. Now, it's generally a foregone conclusion that my state will vote Democrat. So at least in a presidential election, the outcome will be the same whether I vote or not.

I could, in theory, cause some trouble by not voting and talking to people about it. Perhaps I would influence them not to vote, and thus derail democracy. But I don't talk politics, so that's not an issue. (And I could help the Democratic process by urging people to vote, but I'm not going to do that even if I do vote, so that has nothing to do with how much happiness/unhappiness I'll cause by the act of voting itself.)

I do have some internal feelings that I'd be a better person if I voted. So not voting causes me some unhappiness. On the other hand, voting causes me unhappiness, too. I have approached this pragmatically and decided that since (a) voting or not voting changes nothing external to me* and (b) voting causes me more unhappiness than not voting, I shouldn't vote.

Sometimes people say things like, "Well, if everyone acted like you, we'd be in trouble." I agree with that, but I don't think it has anything to do with my decision to vote or not vote. People will act the way they act and my choice won't change what they do. Since I don't talk about my decision to vote or not to vote or try to sway others in any way, my decision has no effect on whether or not everyone acts like me.
posted by grumblebee at 2:17 PM on November 24, 2009

allkindsoftime: Can you imagine coming out to find your car not there in the lot where you left it? Is this much different?

This right here. Replace "bike(s)" in the original question with "car(s)" and somehow the moral quandary just about vanishes, doesn't it?
posted by hangashore at 4:09 PM on November 24, 2009

grumblebee, your scenario isn't a valid analogy. Buying a stolen good supports the illegal market, like chairface said, and when the stolen good you're buying is $200, that's a not insignificant amount of support. It's nothing like your iPod scenario, where the outcome if you steal it is no different from what it would be otherwise.

This is especially true in the market the asker describes. If those bikes are actually stolen, then they'll probably steal another one to replace it. As the buyer, that would put you as close to directly stealing a bike as you can get without doing it yourself, which would make you a party to causing some person a non-trivial amount of grief. I don't think you can amortize that sort of assholery across the illegal market as a whole.

Keep that in mind when you make your decision, anonymous.
posted by invitapriore at 4:10 PM on November 24, 2009

Buying a stolen good supports the illegal market

Maybe. But what does "supports" mean in a nuts-and-bolts sense in terms on anon alone. Sure, if EVERYONE quit buying stolen goods, thieves would quit stealing (at least those thieves who steal in order to sell their loot). However, it's not clear to me that if anon "does his part," it will make any difference to the amount of theft in his neighborhood.

Many of us, myself included, often follow some variant of The Golden Rule. In this case it would be something like "Don't buy stolen goods, because if everyone does, there will be a huge black market." I like The Golden Rule, because it allows one to make quick moral decisions using a template that often works well and rarely does harm. The trade-off (worth making as far as I'm concerned) is that it's inexact and will sometimes lead you to making pretty-much arbitrary choices.

However, it IS just a template. If anon's actions don't cause any moral change in the world, and I'm not at all convinced that they will either way, then his actions are only going to impact him, and so, from a 100% rational point of view, that's what he should worry about.

I am trying to being hyper-rational here, because I think that might be what anon is asking for (or, at least, it's one sort of answer to his question). I am not Mr. Spock when it comes to dealing with my own choices. I waver greatly between rationality, gut, avoiding guilt, worrying about how others might view me (even when no one knows what I'm considering) and mindlessly following rules that tend to work or that I was brought up to follow.

My belief is that, ultimately, unless they are clothed in a religious (or cosmic-law) framework, moral systems break down if you examine them too closely -- if you try to defend all choices via some sort of syllogism-like system.

If you start with a set of basic principles like "the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people," and you will have a hard time defending those axioms, except to say, "because it's what's right, dammit", "because it's the sort of world I want to live in", or "because it conforms to what most people want/need" -- in other words arbitrariness, selfishness or popularism. And once you choose your rules, you will inevitably run into a few "Sophie's Choices" that befuddle your system. In the end, you won't ne able to be a rationalist all the time.
posted by grumblebee at 4:56 PM on November 24, 2009

I bought a stolen bike one day for $23, because I was sick of waiting for the late ass bus again.

It was promptly stolen from me that very same evening.

Instant karma gonna getcha.

Actually, I was kind of glad that cosmic justice came through to remind me that buying stolen shit is only slightly better than stealing it yourself and relieve me of the nerve-wracking guilt I felt all afternoon.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 5:55 PM on November 24, 2009

Grumblebee: I am trying to being hyper-rational here,

I don't think that's going so well. The impact of buying one stolen bike is crystal clear -- it creates the incentive for one bike to be stolen. Among the thousands of bikes stolen each year, this may seem a drop in the bucket, but it's entirely solid and real. Not knowing precisely who one's victim was doesn't make one any less guilty.
posted by jon1270 at 6:29 PM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

The word rationalize is actually two words -- rational lies. You take a lie and make it rational to yourself, so you can do whatever the hell you want to do and feel okay about it.

I had barely any money, I was squeaking by. I had a total garbage can Schwinn, WAY too small for me, seat post jacked up to here, etc and etc.

Amazing series of coincidence later, I've got a brand-new, beautiful molybdenum frame, and brand-new components on it, it's a Raleigh, light as my wallet was but lots prettier; I paid the local bike shop to take my wheels and put on this beautiful new frame, I've got a brand spanking new bike, as far as I'm concerned, and I'm happy as hell.

Some son of a bitch stole it off of my apartment balcony.

That was 25 years ago, give or take, but if I saw the bike today I'd know it -- I loved that bike, a huge luxury for a poor man, one of the nicest things I owned. And -- YOU'D know it too, you'd know it real fast. Promise.

If you're going to steal, go to work for a bank, or get a law degree, or run for congress, whatever; steal money that doesn't hurt real people, all numbers on a sheet of paper. It still sucks -- *you'll* still suck -- but you won't be hurting people in that same way.

Quit rationalizing this. Pony up the bread, buy a bike you'll feel good about. I'm not saying don't shop til you drop -- I AM saying shop til you drop, be patient, your bike is out there, sure as the sunrise tomorrow, get the best bang for your buck; now THAT feels good. And no ones getting hurt, everyone's walking away happy, you're not walking around with dogshit on your shoes, feeling like a mope.
posted by dancestoblue at 6:39 PM on November 24, 2009

The impact of buying one stolen bike is crystal clear -- it creates the incentive for one bike to be stolen.

I don't get it. Someone has to steal the bike BEFORE you can buy it. So how does you buying create the incentive for someone to steal it?

I suppose a thief might say, "Cool! Someone bought the bike! Since that worked so well, I think I'll steal another one." But I don't see how buying something has already been stolen creates incentive in the directly causal way you're suggesting. (Or am I misunderstanding you?)

If I buy a Coke, does that create the incentive for the Coca Cola Company to make one more Coke?
posted by grumblebee at 7:04 PM on November 24, 2009

If I buy a Coke, does that create the incentive for the Coca Cola Company to make one more Coke?


Think of it this way - let's say that the Coca Cola company only makes one soda a month, sells it on the street and grumblebee's friend buys it. One month, grumblebee walks by and says 'Hey, I'll have that for a change', buys the coke. The Coca Cola company realizes that now TWO people want to have a coke, produces two cokes next month. Next month, both grumblebee and grumblebee's friend buy a coke each. It's basic supply and demand.

Sure, if EVERYONE quit buying stolen goods, thieves would quit stealing (at least those thieves who steal in order to sell their loot). However, it's not clear to me that if anon "does his part," it will make any difference to the amount of theft in his neighborhood.

Just because the amount of incentive you are contributing to the stolen goods market by buying a stolen bike is relatively minuscule does not mean that your actions are meaningless. Little by little, you are increasing the demand for these stolen goods, which means that the supply will probably grow to match it.
posted by suedehead at 7:50 PM on November 24, 2009

I actually run a site to help combat bike theft (gratuitous self-link, sorry) so let me help answer the But what? part of this question. Because I get emails from these people, daily, about their stolen-bike recovery fantasies.

But what? = most people will happily violently fucking kill anyone they find riding their stolen bike without a second thought. Possibly with a U-lock.

So there's that.
posted by bhance at 8:00 PM on November 24, 2009

You are assuming a kind of economic fine-tuning that I don't think exists often in real life. Yes, if the Coke company was only selling a tiny number of colas, they would notice and be affected by every purchase. But they sell so many of them that they are affected by averages, not by individual sales. And there's NOTHING I can do by myself -- solely through purchasing or not purchasing a single coke -- to affect that average. Whatever I do will not affect their business decisions in any way.

I think you have a point depending on the thief. If the thief is some kid who steals just a bike or two a year, buying from him may have a big impact. On the other hand, if it's an organized business that sells hundreds or thousands of stolen bikes a year, it will be very hard for one person to make a dent in their business by choosing to purchase or not purchase one bike.

If you said, "I hate that stolen-bike company, and I'm going to fuck them up by refusing to buy from them," I'd tell you that you're attempt is ineffective. (Well, I wouldn't really tell you that, but I would if I always said what was on my mind, regardless of how it might hurt someone's feelings.) I'd suggest that if you wanted to affect them as a single person, you should report them to the police or get a group together to oppose them.

This sort of reasoning is complicated and, in my mind, a waste of time (life is short). I still say it's better to follow The Golden Rule, even if doesn't apply in this situation. Save your brain cells for more important things.
posted by grumblebee at 8:07 PM on November 24, 2009

hundreds or thousands of stolen bikes a year

Thought experiment! They sell 1000 bikes per year. That's ~20 bikes a week, and let's just say they have the very human tendency to want to have the same number of bikes available at all times, within reason. If you buy a bike one week, it's likely that the proprietors of Asshole Bike Thieves Inc. here will procure another one for their next open house.

Your point about the scale of Coca-Cola's market is valid, but I really don't think the size of this operation is such that they're dealing with huge sales numbers that they have to analyze with statistical methods to yield any sort of meaning. I think if you buy a bike from these folks, you will share a large and direct part of the responsibility of a bike getting stolen from someone to make up for it.

This may seem like nitpicking, but it's relevant to any situation where the amortization rationale gets brought up, possibly wrongly. From the OP's description, I think it's being applied wrongly.
posted by invitapriore at 10:42 PM on November 24, 2009

I guess you might be right. It hadn't occurred to me that someone with 100 stolen bikes might sell one and say, "Shit! I only have 99 left. I'd better get one of my guys to steal another one." Were I an stolen-bike-seller, I wouldn't think that way, but I guess it's just a mindset I don't understand. If you're right, then I'm wrong.
posted by grumblebee at 5:05 AM on November 25, 2009

Actually, now that I think about it, I am not convinced I'm wrong, even if buying a stolen bike leads directly to the thief stealing another one.

I am DEFINITELY wrong if you subscribe to a Deontological system of ethics, which is probably the most popular ethical system. According to that system, it's ACTS that matter -- not consequences. For instance, if I kick a dead dog under the mistaken impression that it's alive, my behavior is morally wrong, even though I'm not hurting the dog. What matters is my intent.

In this thread, I've been arguing a Consequentialist view, not because I endorse it, but because I think it's a valid ethical system -- valid in the sense that it is consistent and workable. It does fly in the face of many people's gut feelings, including mine. But I have no interest in imposing my gut on the OP. I am just trying to answer the question. I think the answer depends on what ethical system he subscribes to.

According to Consequentialism, one's act is meaningless on its own. What matters is how it changes the world. If it brings about a change for the better (e.g. more happiness), it's morally good. If it brings about a change for the worse, it's morally bad. Under this view, when making decisions, you only need to think about how your actions will change the world.

Based on the OP's post, I'm assuming that where he lives, there's a THRIVING economy of stolen bikes. This means that under normal circumstances, if a thief steals a bike, he WILL be able to sell it, because there will always be sufficient demand. Once he has sold his bikes, he will steal more so that he'll always have bikes to sell.

IF I'm right about the circumstances, then according to a Consequentialist system, buying one stolen bike is morally neutral. It will lead to no change in the world, for good or ill. The thief WILL steal more bikes when his stock gets depleted. His stock WILL get depleted because there are many people willing to buy stolen bikes. Whether or not the OP buys one won't affect anything.

Of course, if I'm wrong about the circumstances -- if somehow buying a single stolen bike (in the economy described by the OP) will bring about change in the world that wouldn't have happened anyway -- then I'm wrong even under Consequentialist guidelines. I think some people here are suggesting that. They may be right, though they haven't convinced me that they are.

If you read all this and say, "Come ON! Buying stolen property is WRONG and you KNOW that!" then you are a Deontologist. For the most part, I am too. But I can't really defend Deontology, other than to say that acts and intent are important to me.
posted by grumblebee at 6:37 AM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Based on the OP's post, I'm assuming that where he lives, there's a THRIVING economy of stolen bikes. This means that under normal circumstances, if a thief steals a bike, he WILL be able to sell it, because there will always be sufficient demand. Once he has sold his bikes, he will steal more so that he'll always have bikes to sell.

IF I'm right about the circumstances, then according to a Consequentialist system, buying one stolen bike is morally neutral.

I'm not convinced, even assuming consequentialism is true. Yes, we can assume for the sake of the hypothetical that there's a "thriving economy of stolen bikes." But part of the reason it's thriving is that people like you participate in it (if you do). Even if we can assume for the sake of the hypothetical that a thief is guaranteed to be able to sell any given bike to someone, there's still an open question of how large the overall industry is -- i.e. how many bikes are stolen (and sold). When you buy a stolen bike, there is some greater-than-zero chance that you'll have at least a tiny effect on that variable. And I don't see any way around the fact that every time someone buys one of the bikes, it gives at least a tiny bit more encouragement to the thieves to continue their thieving ways. Perhaps the case against buying the bike is stronger under deontology, but there is a consequentialist case against it too.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:37 AM on November 25, 2009

We should, perhaps, take this to memail if we want to continue, othewise we risk detailing. My last response will be to say this: IF there will always be a buyer for any stolen bike (the OP will have to think about whether or not this is true in his particular city), then, within a consequentialist framework, it doesn't matter whether or not you give the thief "a tiny bit more encouragement."

IF all his bikes will always be bought by someone, he is going to get that encouragement one way or another.
posted by grumblebee at 9:11 AM on November 25, 2009

IF there will always be a buyer for any stolen bike (the OP will have to think about whether or not this is true in his particular city), then, within a consequentialist framework, it doesn't matter whether or not you give the thief "a tiny bit more encouragement."

It still seems to me you're simply ignoring the question of how many bikes are stolen, and only focusing on how likely the thieves are to sell the number of bikes they happen to have in their inventory. Given that the number of people in any area is finite (like, much less than one billion), there's always going to be some upper limit on the number of bikes that the thieves choose to steal. For instance, if the population of the town somehow doubled overnight, the thieves would suddenly have an incentive to increase their expenditures for getting bikes (maybe by working longer hours or trying to recruit more thieves, etc.). You can never confidently state that your purchase of stolen bikes has no such effect, even if there's a "thriving industry" to begin with.

Also, I don't think this is a derail -- we're talking about the precise question asked, aren't we?
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:21 AM on November 25, 2009

I think it's a potential derail because our debate is only an issue if you're a consequentialist, and I don't think most people are. I don't think I am, so it's a little odd for me to be taking that point of view.

I think our difference comes down to a point of psychology. Unlike you, I think that "I'm going to worry about averages" effect tends to kick in really quickly. If a bike-thief tends to sell only 5 bikes a week, he will (via my beliefs) still not be moved by the actions of one person. He will be moved by MAJOR fluctuations in that trend, that take place over many weeks. There's no way one person can cause such a fluctuation by simply making or not making one purchase.

I suspect that there's something in the above paragraph you disagree with (or something you think I'm missing), which is fair enough. I certainly can't prove anything I wrote in it (and I doubt you can prove the opposite), so we're at a stalemate. The OP -- if he's in any way a consequentialist -- will have to go with what he believes.

I do think that a smart economist might be able to come up with some strong evidence for your view or mine, via experimentation. Maybe the experiments have already been done and you know the results. If so, please share!
posted by grumblebee at 11:01 AM on November 25, 2009

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