Thus conscience doth make honest men of us all

or, The border between “scrounge” and “steal.”

(Once again this got kind of long. It’s just a meditation on why I shouldn’t steal an absent neighbor’s stuff, no matter how much I need it.)

Ever since starting the planning process on the Secret Lair, I’ve honed my scrounging skills. Often with the help of friends, much of the Lair is built with non-virgin material. That’s great, and I highly recommend it for free-livers on a strict budget. But…

Scrounging is an activity often practiced without permission. There’s a slippery slope there, plain for all to see.

I make it a policy to avoid that slope. I am not a thief. But sometimes I am tempted to become a thief. Lately – as in for the past few months – great and recurring temptation has practically tormented me. This is brought to mind this morning by the discussion with Bear about my wood stove, in the post below this one.

My stove is scrounged – I got it free, with permission of its previous owner. It works, sort of, but it’s home-built and far from perfect. Last winter its inadequacies tried to burn my cabin down, and I haven’t forgotten it.

I know where there’s another stove. (I said I’m not a thief, but I never said I’m not nosy.) It’s in a tiny cabin on a parcel which has been unoccupied for years but which is clearly not unowned. I want that stove. It practically calls to me. But I’m not going to take it.

Oh, I could come up with all sorts of justifications. Oh, yeah, Hamlet’s got nothing on me. I’ve got a very active devil on my shoulder, and he tells me incessantly that the land is crap, the cabin is crap, the owner will never sell it no matter how many signs are planted in front of it. He hasn’t been seen in years and he clearly doesn’t care about it. It’s just going to waste. You hate waste, don’t you, Joel? Cleaned up, that stove would look awfully good in the lair and it would work ever so much better than what you’ve got now.

All this is true, or might be true. And if I hadn’t already told the story of that stove to my friends, nobody would ever know I’d taken it. I could spin a tale about a flea market or a labor swap, and they’d accept it. Or they would have if I hadn’t already told them the real story.

And I told that story in self-defense. I told it because I can’t get that goddam stove out of my head. I’m not a thief, and I have no desire to become a thief. But life on the economic edge promotes ethical compromise and ethical compromise is bad. When you find yourself making excuses for yourself, you’re moving into wrong territory.

Under other circumstances I wouldn’t even hesitate. I know where there’s an ancient cast-iron and porcelain bathtub that’d look awfully good on its own little deck in my yard, and someday, if I can ever get Superman or the Incredible Hulk to help me move it, it’ll be mine. But that tub is sitting on a junk pile next to a gutted trailer on a clearly abandoned plot of land. If I hauled off everything there it would be to the sound of applause from my neighbors. That’s the difference between “scrounge” and “steal.”

I have, right here in a drawer at this desk, the keys to two mostly-absent neighbors’ properties. I have those keys because sometimes they need somebody willing to go into their buildings, and they trust me to do that and leave their possessions alone. That trust has never been misplaced. I would never take a pin belonging to them without permission and they know it.

But the guy who owns that stove, in that crumbling little cabin, on that creepy plain of mud, I don’t know him from Adam. I don’t owe him anything except what one human being honorably owes another – which includes that I should leave his stuff alone. His property is unoccupied and for sale, but it hasn’t been abandoned. The sign and the fence make that clear. He’s got more chance of being elected Pope than of selling that parcel, and I’ll probably never see him again. But it’s still his.

And so I leave that expensive stove where it is. I’m not writing this in any effort to find new justification. I’m just saying, when you put yourself on the economic edge you will face low temptations. How you deal with those temptations is an indication of your character. I like my character too much to compromise it that much.

But oh, sometimes it calls to me.

About Joel

You shouldn't ask these questions of a paranoid recluse, you know.
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21 Responses to Thus conscience doth make honest men of us all

  1. Johnathan says:

    Joel–the integrity you demonstrate places you above a large majority of the population and certainly above any politician in office. I could almost buy you a new stove just to say thanks for setting a good example.

  2. Joel says:

    If I were really a good man I’d be able to dismiss the temptation instead of just constantly resisting it. Nobody deserves praise for not being a thief. I didn’t write that to show what a great guy I am, on the contrary. A truly honest man would never have considered it in the first place.

    But I don’t know how many people like that there are, and I do appreciate the thought.

  3. John says:

    Hey Joel-

    Call the number on the for sale sign. Work a deal, do maintenance, security, fence, clear, anything and see if mr stove owner wants something for his stove. Why not? Worst case is he tells you to do something you have been told to do before, right?

  4. LJH says:

    Yup, what John said. I have done that exact thing in the course of my own scrounging career with generally good results.

  5. Brian Dunbar says:

    You appear to be an actually honest man. You see temptation, you take steps to mitigate it. That’s honesty.

    To not feel temptation in these circumstances you’d have to be a Vulcan.

  6. Bear says:

    I considered making a “turn to the dark side” joke, but if it accidentally worked I’d feel bad. [grin]

    What John said: Offer a caretaker deal in exchange for the stove (maybe offer to clear out other junk, too).

    Temptation and honesty: Never feeling temptation may be good, but _knowing_ that giving in is wrong and _choosing_ to resist is the real test of ethics. A little like being fearless vs. brave. A man who conquers his fear to do what has to be done is brave. One who never feels fear at all is a lunatic, or at least damned stupid.

  7. I guess a problem with contacting the owner of the property and the stove is in accounting for what led you to know that there is a stove there in the first place… trespassing – were ya’?

    Still – the excuse of looking for a wandering dog or such could get you past that matter.

    I’ve had pretty good luck in bringing up deals just by having the temerity to ask – and there’s probably no harm in bringing it up.

    Have you heard of Freecycle? Even if there’s not much activity on that network in your area – maybe some of your co-residents who live near larger cities could help source a stove (and all kinds of other goodies) there.

    Something I figured out a long time ago… stealing is actually a lot like work – and often pays less on the overall! Plus there’s the matter of eventually getting caught – and there’s a lot less trouble from being ‘caught’ as an honest man.

  8. Damn those low temptations. Try real hard not to think about Dr. John singing “If I don’t do it, somebody else will. If I don’t do it – you know somebody else will.”

  9. staghounds says:

    All the experience of employee loss prevention professionals tells us that some fraction of people, maybe 10%, of people just will not steal.

    About the same proportion will steal no matter what.

    The rest will steal if, first, they think they can get away with it, AND they can rationalise the act so it “isn’t stealing”.

    The company owes me, they were going to throw it out eventually, I was going to pay it back, etc.

    That tub is somebody’s, too. You’ve just been able to rationalise it so it’s not stealing.

    To my mind the only thing that can be legitimately taken without express permission is something set out for trash collection, or already deposited at the dump.

  10. Not to feel temptation in these circumstances is equivalent to not feeling fear when facing a strange, snarling dog. The test is overcoming the emotion, at which you are succeeding. Bravo!

  11. Kevin Baker says:

    Mr. Claypool beat me to the punch, but I’ll reiterate: “Nobody deserves praise for not being a thief. I didn’t write that to show what a great guy I am, on the contrary. A truly honest man would never have considered it in the first place.”

    The man who doesn’t know fear isn’t brave, he’s an idiot. Bravery is facing fear and overcoming it. The man who doesn’t know temptation isn’t “truly honest,” he’s not human. Honesty is facing temptation and overcoming it.

  12. Ed Foster says:

    May I ask, without getting foolishly specific, what part of the country you’re in? I’ve been working on a little retreat here in Connecticut, but the property taxes add a certain level of unease, especially after next April and the possibility of disastrous financial times.

    Perhaps that sea of mud needs a covering of alfalfa and clover, along with a few head of Dexter cattle to add fertilizer, and some well trained Dobermanns as backup security to Mr. Winchester.

    It seems the good neighbors are already guaranteed.

  13. Heh – as someone familiar with the piece of land in question, I think I can safely say that alfalfa and clover are not in the cards. 🙂

  14. Chocs says:

    I extend my sympathies and commiseration on the antics of Zoe. My little Chloe is driving our entire household beserk at the moment (maternal unit who is a dog-person, Chloes’ “big brother” – the black labrador, and the senior cranky calico cat).
    With the heating situation, I bring along links, and I will be building myself one shortly, which is why I had the links handy, so I would be interested to your opinion 🙂


  15. George Rosenkrans says:

    Virtue in the absence of temptation is no virtue at all.

  16. If you want it bad enough, try to contact the owner and get permissionno, then no touchie. If he says ok, then HEY! He’ll either give it up, or be advised he’s got something va.lueble that’s not secure. Either way, you’ve treated him with respect.

  17. Joel says:

    Hey, Chocs! I never really paid any attention to rocket mass heaters, but now that I have they look pretty interesting. I’ll look into it more when I’ve got more time and sun. Thanks!

  18. Matt says:

    My father has a wood stove similar to yours. He traded a mostly good golf cart for it. The stove doesn’t burn worth a damn either. Has that same plate inside. So far he has had the internal plate cut back (needs an experienced welder) and rebored the air intake holes. Still doesn’t burn well. It to looks like it was desiged for forced air, might of come out of a fancy mobile home or such. Good luck on your stove, Dad might trade his for a hand full of magic beans. You are a good man not to give in to temptation.

  19. NotClauswitz says:

    And so does Chocs turn devilish temptation into alternative motivation! Maybe that’s not *really* the stove you want after all, it just resembles the shadow of one cast by firelight upon the cave wall.

  20. R. Nobles says:

    Oh but you are an honest man, exceedingly honest. An honest man recognizes the fact that there is indeed a “low” side of self, yet manages to overcome it. For someone to tell me that they are 100% honest and pure in all their thoughts makes me very nervous! And for you to openly acknowledge said “struggles” is right in line with the teaching of one of the great masters. I believe he said; “discuss freely with one another your “sins”, repent, and move on” (paraphrased). Funny that there is no mention of being “cured” , but left open ended for the next occasion, I am sure. Side note: “Sin” in Latin means without. This seems to be the best word that could be found in translation from Hebrew-Greek-Latin for the original Hebrew meaning – to act and be without. Perhaps that meant without conscience?

  21. Mosin says:

    Joel God will get you a stove…and save you a place in heaven sir. You are a Man among animals in the Wilderness.

To the stake with the heretic!