Sunday, January 31, 2010


In an article he wrote for the Web site True/Slant, Jerry Lanson - a colleague of mine at Emerson College - took issue with The New York Times for referring to "looting" at a collapsed grocery store in Haiti after the recent earthquake. Lanson questioned whether it counts as looting if you're acting to feed yourself and your family by taking food "that will rot in time from the shelves or floor of a collapsed grocery store." He went on to write, "One man's looter is another's humanitarian or mother or father."

Is it wrong to refer to those who took food from collapsed grocery stores in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake as "looters?" Or does the word accurately describe the action, regardless of the circumstances?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at

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Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

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S. said...

Perhaps the article was revised after Lanson wrote his piece; the only reference to "looting" there now goes as follows:

With reports of looting and scuffles over water and food, President Obama promised $100 million in aid, as the first wave of a projected 5,000 American troops began arriving to provide security and the infrastructure for the expected flood of aid from around the world.

There doesn't really seem to be enough information in that to provide grounds for assuming that "looting" is the wrong word. (In particular, I see no grounds for the assertion that it refers only to food that will otherwise go to waste.) This is especially true considering that the clause seems intended to imply that there isn't enough food and water to go around at present, leading to breakdowns in the social order. So as far as the available wording goes, I don't think there's a problem.

But of course the available wording differs from the wording Lanson decries. Presumably we're meant to assess the latter. So, is it ethical to post a poll asking about the wording in a New York Times article when the original text of that article isn't available to be judged on its own merits? (I'm assuming here that Lanson didn't make it up... otherwise, there's an even more obvious ethical question here.)

Jeffrey L. Seglin said...


Thanks for pointing this out. The original wording in The New York Times article that Jerry Lanson refers to appears here: I've corrected the link in the body of the column post on the blog.

Phil Clutts said...


This is reminiscent of your January 17 "Sound Off," where your first respondent stole my thunder with her first comment, namely, “Old story, anyone read ‘Les Misérables’ lately?” Assuming there is no store owner around to discuss options with, it is not looting if you are in a survival mode, competing with others in a desperate situation, and take food to feed yourself and your family and maybe even share with someone even more desperate than you are. On the other hand, if you take food primarily for the purpose of selling it to others, it IS looting.

Phil Clutts
Harrisburg, NC

Bill Jacobson said...


I don't think looting is an appropriate term. Looting is indiscriminate taking of goods by force and the taking here is hardly indiscriminate.

US law treats this situation as a private necessity and the individual is privileged to take the food without criminal repercussions but he remains civilly liable for the value of the food taken (although good luck collecting).

This isn't the US however and with the breakdown of law and order in Haiti, it certainly isn't unethical to do what is necessary to feed your family but really amongst all this tragedy we are stopping to argue semantics? Both semantics and ethics take a backseat to survival.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Gossip_girl said...

To me, the ethical thing would be for the people who used the food to return later and pay for the food and/or help the owner rebuild the store.

Unknown said...

I'm in complete agreement with Maddy. What is being taken is a matter of survival for many and if they are truly good people, they will feel compelled to offer just compensation.

If one recalls people taking TVs and other electronic items during the disaster of Katrina, it could be said those were trulycrimes of opportunity, i.e. Looting, vs. necessity for survival.

john said...

Looting=stealing; unless you believe in 'situational ethics'

Quirkybutsmart said...

Situations do dictate ethics-- anf morality.