Last week I was at a church camp as a counselor and lecturer. I was also given a job. I was to handle collecting offerings at the nightly services and make sure they got into the strongbox at the office.

We had a good week, and collected several hundred dollars for the Deaf Reformed Ministries group. I got a couple of kids to help me take the offering. They’d pass the hats, then meet me out back and hand the money over. I’d hold onto it until after the service, count it there in the hall and then carry it over to the office.

It was night, it was dark and I was alone, on three different occasions, with several hundred dollars. I could have easily pocketed five or ten dollars each night.

I thought about this at the time, because of the conversations I’d been having lately on the nature and origin of morality. The modern rationalist impulse seems to be to take reason as the source for all knowledge. And I tried to think about a reason why I shouldn’t take that money.

I would definitely benefit, if only in a small way. Over the course of the week, I would have been $20 or $30 richer, with almost no effort. So there was something to gain.

There was, as far as I could see, nothing to lose. My chances of getting caught were pretty close to zero. I was alone in the dark with several hundred dollars. I was the only one who knew how much money was there. A small theft would never have been noticed. The camp director was surprised by how big the offerings were, making it even less likely that anyone would have noticed. So, society would have suffered almost no negative results, and certainly no negative results that it would have been aware of. If the Deaf Reformed Ministries had not yet even received the money, could they be said to have been hurt because they received a tiny amount less than they would have in a hypothetical situation that did not exist? And why should I be obliged to think of the good of society over my own good anyway?

If I felt the need, I could even provide justifications for taking the money. “Muzzle not the ox that treads out the corn”, the Bible says, and “The laborer is worthy of his hire”. I had worked hard to collect those offerings, and a tiny skim off the top would hurt no one. I deserved it.

The only reason why I didn’t take the money was that it would have been wrong.

You might say that guilt prevented me from taking it, but if the guilt was simply an internal feeling, then it would have been weakness that prevented me from taking it. It would have been me allowing society’s subjective disapproval keep me from doing something that was good for me.

You might say that the overall weakening of society’s moral structure should prevent me from taking the money. But society would have to be aware of it in order for its moral structure to decay as a result, wouldn’t it?

You might say that my own moral sense would suffer as a result. But that’s just moving the question back a step. Why should I have a moral sense that forces me to hurt myself?

Most people, I think, would agree that it would be wrong for me to take that money. My question is, apart from a God who declares it to be wrong, what objective reason could be given for why it was wrong for me to take that money? This is a non-hypothetical situation, and one that people find themselves in all the time, and any moral theory, it seems to me, needs to have answers to questions like this.

Some possibilities-

Utilitarianism- fails since I would benefit and nobody else could meaningfully be seen to be harmed. From a pure welfare perspective, I would gain, the people who gave the money would still get their good feelings from having given the money, and the Deaf Reformed Ministries would never know they lost anything.

Objectivism- I ought to respect the property of others, but I was only taking a very small part, and that properly compensated me for my efforts. If nobody knew I had done anything, how could my theft hurt me, the only benchmark of harm in an objectivist system? It was immoral to guilt-manipulate me into doing work for which I was not properly compensated, anyway.

Deontology- probably the strongest case would be the categorical imperative- I should act as I would want everyone else to act. But I think I could honestly say I wouldn’t care if everyone in the same position as I was in skimmed an equally small sum off the top, and no-one noticed, _from a pure welfare perspective_. And why should I be asked to consider the good of society rather than my own good? And again, how would society suffer if they never knew about it?

Update: On reflection and re-reading this, I think some of my objection to a deontological approach weren’t quite accurate. A deontological approach based on the categorical imperative wouldn’t be asking me to consider harm or good to society, but simply the obligation to follow my duty. But the first objection still holds, and if it’s an absolute duty we still get back to where that duty comes from. And if you accept the criticism that deontological arguments are really just consequential arguments in disguise, then the objections I gave still hold. If a deontological argument is truly rooted in the nature of God then I wouldn’t disagree, but if it’s not then I would have to question where that duty comes from, and if it’s not just another consequentialist argument calling itself something else.

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