Is it stealing to read by the light of your neighbour’s lamp?

There is a philosophical though experiment: The Reader wished to read their book, but night had fallen and it was too dark to see. The Reader was of a miserly nature, and did not wish to incur the expense of lighting their lamp. At that moment, the Reader’s Neighbour lit their own lamp, for they too wished to read. And the Neighbour’s lamp cast light out onto the street and in to the windows of the neighbouring houses. Such it was that the Reader was able to read their book by this light. The Reader was gleeful that they could enjoy the benefit of this light without incurring the expense of burning their own oil.

Stealing is, according to one reasonably uncontroversial definition, taking something that doesn’t belong to you. But is that definition sufficient? The Reader is deriving the benefit of something which is not theirs. But, the Neighbour is not losing that benefit. The Neighbour can still read their book, and so they are no worse off. So in this context, is simply taking something which doesn’t belong to you a sufficient condition for stealing, or merely a necessary one? Must the Neighbour also be deprived of something to make this a case of theft?

Formulated a different way, is the Reader acting fairly? Using a simple Game Theory matrix, the Reader occupies the Free Rider quadrant. They are not contributing to the provision of the facility (in this instance light) but they are leeching the benefit of that facility. Societies struggle when they become over-populated by Free Riders, although that is often the position that the Rational Self-Interested Agent would choose to adopt if possible.

This riddle got a fresh airing for a new generation back in 2007 when philosopher Julian Baggini considered this in the context of stealing WiFi. If you are broadcasting something far and wide, as a way to get the benefit for yourself, do you have any grounds to object to others using it as well?

As one of the many upshots of the past year, organisations are now considering how they might operate differently after 12 months of so many people Working from Home. It’s a contentious topic, and throws up a lot of issues around privilege and preference. I count myself extremely lucky to have gone through this period with no kids, a house large enough to afford both me and my husband dedicated office space, the kind of job that transitioned easily to remote working, and an introverted nature. WFH has been pretty damn good for me. If I’d been mired in home-schooling, only had a dining table or sofa, worked in a different sector, and was the kind of person that needed the daily companionship of colleagues, I imagine it would have been hellish.

So organisations are stuck trying to reconcile competing preferences from a diverse workforce, at the same time as juggling practicalities of office management. Many places can’t operate at capacity under current social distancing guidance. Some businesses will have activated break clauses to get out of paying rent for pricey city addresses that aren’t being used. This represents a golden opportunity to cut overhead costs, and if a chunk of your human resource would prefer to say a permanent goodbye to the daily commute then win-win!

But those overhead costs aren’t just about real estate. If you entice new employees with the promise of free coffee in the break room, how do you offer a comparable benefit to your remote workers? The UK government offers tax relief for home workers at the rate of £6 per week toward the cost of utilities (heating, lighting etc) but is that a fair calculation of the expenses the employee incurs? And what about broadband? It’s probably reasonable to assume that most UK household pay for some kind of internet connectivity for personal use. Some might spring for super-duper fast speeds, some might get a basic package bundled in with something else like a phone line or television service. So, if your employee is going to have that facility anyway, then is it fair for you as an employer to derive the benefit without paying for it? The employee is the Neighbour, lighting their own lamp to read by. The employer is the Reader, rubbing their hands with glee that they don’t have to burn their own oil.

When organisations talk about remote working reducing their costs, it’s worth considering which of those costs are just being passed onto to the employee, and if that is fair.