How bad are they?
When the Crosdale family discovered a cash machine
that wouldn't stop giving out money, they withdrew £134,410.
Now three of them are in prison. Was their crime really
that bad? Philosopher Julian Baggini considers their
Friday January 17, 2003
Free unlimited cash. Along with consequence-free sex,
it has got to be the ultimate dream of the contemporary
consumer who wants it all and wants it now. And it's
what the Crosdale family of Coventry thought that they
had found when they, along with many others in their
neighbourhood, discovered an obliging cash machine that
just couldn't say no. On repeated visits to the machine,
the four of them took out £134,410, and with a
shopping list straight from Alan Partridge, they splashed
out on an Alfa Romeo, a Jamaican holiday and a sofa.
The first reaction of many people to this story is,
I suspect, like mine. I laughed. Indeed, the chance
discovery of unearned loot is a feel-good comedy staple,
from Whisky Galore to Waking Ned.
But if you begin to think about it you can start to
feel like the ashamed schoolchild who has just been
caught drawing smutty pictures. For why should theft
be funny? These people were thieves. We are much less
likely to laugh along with people who take money from
cash tills in shops, or who walk out of department stores
with digital cameras stuffed down their trousers.
And let's be clear that this is theft. If you walk
past a shop and the window has been smashed, you know
it is theft to reach in and take what you want from
the display. The fact that the merchandise was readily
available and all you had to do was take it does not
make it a gift. The broken cash machine is just like
the broken window. Due to mechanical failure, accident
or vandalism, what usually separates you from the booty
has disappeared. But it is still theft if you go ahead
and take it.
That is what the courts have decided, and now Mr Crosdale
and his daughter are to serve 15 months in jail, while
his son will spend 12 months behind bars and his wife
awaits sentencing. More Shallow Grave than Buster.
Theft it may be, but these sentences are absurd. In
the light of Lord Chief Justice Woolf's guidelines,
issued last month, that first- or even second-time burglars
should not face custodial sentences, they just seem
perverse. And the Crosdales are very unlikely to reoffend,
unless, of course, lightning strikes the same cash machine
twice. So a slap on the wrist and a modest fine or light
community service would seem much more appropriate.
But given that this was a crime, why do we instinctively
find this kind of theft less serious or even harmless?
There are two types of reason. One is purely psychological.
We can imagine what it is like to be in such a situation,
and once in it, all of the social conventions and cues
that help to prevent theft just disappear. You are not
confronting a person but a machine. You don't have to
make an effort to deceive anyone, you just put your
card in and take the dough. It doesn't feel like theft
because the transaction is completely impersonal and
we do not have to be surreptitious. And the threat of
being caught does not seem real.
On this rather pessimistic account, what stands between
us and a life of crime is not moral goodness but opportunity.
Put simply, most of us don't have the stomach for the
prolonged and repeated deceptions that a life of crime
requires, nor are we willing to risk getting caught
and punished. Take away these restraints and we would
steal at will.
But there is a second, more principled explanation.
As Mr Crosdale said: "It is a victimless crime
and the bank gets its money back from insurance anyway."
This is probably how most people view taking money (or
pilfering goods) from large corporations: it harms no
one and benefits the thief. So what's the problem?
It is not quite true that such crimes are victimless.
We all pay higher prices in shops, for example, because
companies need to add on the costs of stolen goods and
security measures. Our insurance premiums would also
be lower if people never made fraudulent claims, or
insurers never had to pay out to unlucky building societies
whose cash machines go wrong.
But these reasons are not very persuasive because people
know that the cost of their individual thefts is negligible.
Society only benefits if large numbers of people refrain
from taking advantage of broken cash machines, making
bogus or exaggerated insurance claims or otherwise diddling
big business. And even then the cynics might say that
we can't trust businesses to pass on the savings anyway.
And so the "no harm done" mindset feels vindicated.
But could it be that all this shows is how barren and
inadequate a moral viewpoint is that only looks at the
particular consequences of individual acts and undertakes
a strictly utilitarian calculation accordingly? Do we
want to be the kind of people who are only willing to
refrain from doing wrong if others do the same and we
all benefit? The kind of people who, if we see wrongdoing,
shrug our shoulders and join in, afraid that if we don't
others will get ahead and we will just be mugs?
The alternative view is that leading a moral life requires
us to be the kind of person who does the right thing
without always stopping to work out if we gain or lose
by doing so. We do what is right and hope that others
will do the same because we want to be that kind of
person, not some kind of egotist who is forever trying
to work out what acts will serve our own petty self-interest.
If that sounds pious and idealistic, then perhaps the
pessimists are right and it is only prudence that stops
us all from being thieves. In any case, the Crosdales
are as much victims of bad luck as their own greed.
Many otherwise blameless people in Britain today know
that had they put their cards into the generous cash
machine, it could have been them facing a year behind
· Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers'
and author of Making Sense: Philosophy behind the Headlines
(Oxford University Press).