Lying, Stealing and Empathy


What mental line do you have to cross to think it is okay to lie and steal? What does it take to feel empathy for the liar and the person who steals? My friend, whom I’ll call Robin, was upset because a woman she had hired to help with her four kids was dishonest. The woman, whom I’ll call Karla, was driving the oldest child to and from gymnastics so my friend could take her younger kids to their activities. Robin paid Karla by the hour, and Karla would lie about the time she picked up and dropped off the car from Robin’s house. My friend knew the truth because her garage had a sensor that told her when her car entered and exited the garage. She and her daughter Jessica both liked Karla, so Robin found a way to deal with the issue of Karla’s overstating her time in a way that would not embarrass Karla. Robin observed to Karla that the trip was taking longer than Robin expected and suggested that Karla take a faster route to and from gymnastics. Karla got the idea that Robin was paying attention to the time and started reporting her hours accurately.

All seemed to be going well until Robin asked Karla to get gas while Jessica was at gymnastics. Robin gave Karla more money than the gas would cost, but when Karla returned the car, there was no change. Robin asked for the receipt, but Karla said she didn’t have it. Karla acted as if all the money had gone to filling the tank, but Robin knew that there should have been change based on the cost of gas, the amount of gas the car needed, and the amount of money she had given Karla.

“How could she lie like that?” Robin asked. We talked for a while, and we decided that Karla had convinced herself that it was okay to take money from Robin because Karla needed the money and Robin seemed to have so much of it, that Karla thought lying and stealing were justified given her life circumstances. Karla was from Puerto Rico but living in New York to earn money to support her family back home. Her family was struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, living with relatives in a cramped house without running water or electricity. Even before the hurricane hit, Karla’s family had been struggling to make ends meet. We understood that Karla was in survival mode and getting money to support her family trumped ethics and honesty for her.

Robin decided that she could not have Karla help her around the house because Karla had shown herself to be someone who would steal, but Robin was comfortable with Karla continuing to drive Jessica to gymnastics. My friend decided that she could work around the issue with the gas money by requiring a receipt when Karla got gas. Robin understood how much Karla and her family needed the money and wanted to find a way to keep Karla employed. Karla was a kind person and a safe driver.

How can we view a person who lies and steals with empathy? The answer is that we must try to understand the person’s circumstances and what it is like for that person to walk in his or her shoes. We cannot view someone’s behavior through a black and white lens of right and wrong. We must be able to see nuance.

The Ten Commandments say “Thou shalt not steal.” Do you think there are circumstances when lying and stealing is understandable, if not justified?