Grapes of Wrath, Indeed.

In last week’s New York Times Magazine, columnist Chuck Klosterman (“The Ethicist”) answered a reader question that started out about whether it was ethical to take and eat a grape at the supermarket, without paying for it. The letter writer, however, ended up asking a much bigger question, “Why is stealing even unethical?” So which part of Klosterman’s answer was worse: First, the part where he argues that a society in which “people just took whatever they wanted” would devolve into a nightmare of “constant fear” and ubiquitous violence. Klosterman himself calls this “a ‘Mad Max’ scenario,” so I won’t bother to invoke the title of that or any other postapocalyptic film to lampoon him. The problem is that Klosterman does not seem to envision any alternative, besides either a society ruled by private property or a Hobbesian war of all against all. Surely, it is not too much to ask him to imagine a society in which resources are held in common, so its members partaking of them, subject to the rules governing these commons, is not “stealing” at all, but sharing. Second, and in my view, the real howler in the piece is Klosterman’s comment that “the man who harvests the grapes can’t earn a living if those grapes can be freely taken by whoever wants them.” (Remember that the original question was about taking grapes in the supermarket.) Well, today, the man—or woman or child—who harvests the grapes can barely earn a living anyway. It’s quite a different story, of course, for the people who own the grape harvest. That would actually be a good starting point for a rumination on the ethics of contemporary capitalist societies. Someone at the Times actually subtitled the column, for the paper’s website, “And the grapes of wrath.” I suggest Klosterman look over the John Steinbeck classic, and think about how its message applies to the present day.

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