Thanks to a little encouragement here—and the fact I can’t seem to get the idea out of my head—I’ve started plotting out some ideas behind the novel I want to write. I’ve a rough bullet-point outline of the first four chapters, and have already run into an interesting moral theme that I’ve run into in similar stories, that of stealing, looting, and scavenging.
In everyday society, theft is discouraged and treated as a criminal act. Law enforcement officers are tasked with catching people who steal, and when they are successful in apprehending them, the thieves are processed through the court system. Depending on the severity of the theft, the charges can be misdemeanors or felonies, with the penalties paid ranging from warnings through fines and imprisonment.
We tend to separate looting into a different class of theft, and treat it more seriously. Without resorting to a dictionary to define it, I think most of us would agree with the loose definition of looting being the opportunistic theft of valuable items during a time of social upheaval, other than those items needed from basic survival. Looters are given less leniency as a result by authorities, and face stiffer criminal sentences if caught. There is also the distinct chance that other members of the society will interject themselves to stop looters, sometimes with threats or physical force.
The line gets fuzzier when we try to separate looting from scavenging in a longer-term event, and seems to be far more contextual. For example, raiding a pharmacy for drugs to get high during a storm-caused blackout would seem to be fairly clear-cut cases of looting and few would argue that those caught doing it should be punished severely.
But what if instead of a thunderstorm-caused temporary blackout, we’re faced with a week-long hurricane-caused blackout, and the pharmacy is raided for drugs to heal the sick? Then the lines of morality become far less clear. It would be viewed by most to be more moral to commit the crime of theft in order to prevent serious injuries or death that could result from infection or illness.
If we speak of an even longer term event of some sort, where there is little chance that the pharmacy would reopen and that the drugs would go bad if they aren’t taken to be placed in a more hospitable environment, one could make a solid argument that scavenging the entire stock of salvageable medical supplies and drugs is the most morally correct action one could take. The morality of taking what doesn’t belong to us is turned on its head.
But where do we draw the line as individuals, small groups, and larger societies? And what happens if society factionalizes and becomes more tribal, with one group attempting to loot items scavenged by another, and neither group has legal claim to the property? If group has need of a item, is it moral to take it from an individual or smaller group?
This inherent conflict and interpretations of values makes an excellent theme to explore for a novel based upon surviving in a post-apocalyptic world.