The Butler’s Dilemma

A moral dilemma taken from the Dilbert Blog by newspaper cartoonist, Scott Adams:

Let’s say you’re the butler to a billionaire who lives alone. The billionaire dies in his sleep. You know he owns a large piece of jewelry that no one else has seen, and you have access to it.

If you steal the piece of jewelry, sell it, and give the money to an African charity, you can feed an entire village for a year. The village would otherwise starve. If you don’t steal the jewelry, it will go to his surviving family who has so much money they won’t care about it.

Obviously it is illegal to steal the jewelry and feed the starving village in Africa. But do you have a moral obligation to commit the crime for the greater good?

And if so, do you likewise have a moral obligation to steal anything else you can get your hands, from dead billionaires or living neighbors, if you can use the stolen property for the greater good?

The problem becomes much simpler within a halachic framework. A person who stole to feed his own children is still violating the prohibition against geneivah. It is only when one deals with mitzvos like “ve’asisa hatov vehayashar — and you shall do the good and the just” that one is called upon to make one’s own moral choices. Otherwise, the choice is on a legal level — and charity doesn’t trump theft.

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  1. I assume the halakhic/Jewish thing to do in the butler case, then, would be to tell the heirs about the jewelry and guilt them into selling it and donating the money themselves? 🙂

  2. I assume the halakhic/Jewish thing to do in the butler case, then, would be to tell the heirs about the jewelry and guilt them into selling it and donating the money themselves? 🙂

  3. Barzilai says:

    Yes, in BK 117b and 60b it says that one may not save oneself with the possessions of others, but necessity is a pretty strong defense. Who in his right mind would not do so? You’re pursued by a homicidal maniac, and you can only save yourself by breaking the door of your friend’s house down and getting in. What, you stand there and say vidui? Of course, one is obligated to make good the damage or theft; but even then, in Choshen Mishpat (I’ll find it, bl’n) it talks of a doctor who has a medicine that will cure a deathly ill patient, and he is demanding a ridiculous sum, that the patient may promise to pay the high amount in order to get what he needs, and then actually pay fair market value.

  4. micha says:

    Would piqu’ach nefesh be docheh/matir geneivah?

  5. Barzilai says:

    I am not even going to look for the rishonim that say that the gemora only means that one must pay when he steals to save his life, and that the expression “assur l’hatzil atzmo b’mamon chaveiro” only means that the chiyuv tashlumin remains. How could it not be muttar??? Real life question here, what would you do? And who would not do so to save his family? I do, however agree, that this would not be muttar to save a stranger, though I can’t think of a theoretical structure that would defend that position, other than the fact that if it were muttar, society could not exist at all.

    Oh, alright. I’ll check for the mer’ei mokom, bli neder.

  6. Barzilai says:

    See Bava Kama 60b, Tosfos, the Rosh, and the Meiri, all say the same thing, that Assur L’hatzil Atzmo B’mamon Chaveiro only means that one must pay when he does save himself. Further, the Rosh towards the end of the Masechta says that when one destroys private property in order to save others, neither he nor the beneficiary has to pay.
    See Yoreh Dei’ah regarding a physician or a pharmacist that attempts to profiteer from a life threatening situation, that one may promise large sums but pay fair market value.

  7. Barzilai says:

    Sorry, I forgot to put the citation in. Yoreh Dei’ah 336:3, in Hilchos Rophei.

  8. Shlomo says:

    In addition to the sources he brought, Barzilai’s view is supported by the fact that theft is not yehareg veal yaavor (although I think there’s an opinion somewhere, which we don’t accept, that disagrees).

  9. micha says:

    Yeihareig ve’al ya’avor is about lehatzil atzmo. The butler’s dilemma is for A to steal from B to save C.

    BTW, the litmus test doesn’t work that well, as there are other mitzvos beyond those three for which one must risk their life rather than avoid. Milkhemes mitzvah, for one.


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