How to Solve the Ethical Dilemma of Stealing a Loaf of Bread to Feed Your Family

Many modern systems of justice combine utilitarian and deontological ethics.

The classic problem often posed as, "Would you steal a loaf of bread in order to feed your family?" is what is known as a moral dilemma. In ethics, this is any situation in which an agent has a moral reason to do each of two actions but cannot do both. To solve this problem, you can combine approaches from deontological, utilitarian and virtue ethics.

Use deontological ethics. In this approach, moral responsibility is seen in terms of duties or obligations. This includes the range of actions between those that are absolutely prohibited and those that are morally required. The agent in the moral dilemma being considered has a duty not to steal and an obligation to feed his family. Unless there are other means available, this approach would likely yield the conclusion that his obligation to feed his family overrides the moral prohibition against stealing.

Take a utilitarian approach. In utilitarian ethics, an agent is required to do the action that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. Because stealing a loaf of bread would cause relatively little harm, and preventing his family from starving would be a great good, the action of stealing the bread would be morally justified.

Use the perspective of virtue ethics. This framework focuses on whether an action builds moral character. Does the action produce virtues such as fortitude, temperance, prudence and justice? Does it demonstrate courage, resilience, fairness, moderation, a sense of equality and respect for life? Is it sustainable in the long term, making wise use of resources? Although the action of stealing bread does not seem to maximally demonstrate these qualities, its effects in terms of character are likely superior to the given alternative of allowing innocents to starve. Therefore, the action would be morally justified.

Colby Phillips' writing interests include culture and politics. Phillips received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Oregon and a Master of Arts in philosophy from Boston College.