A person buys merchandise and pays fair value, only to suspect that the seller may have stolen the goods. The buyer feels guilty about keeping the goods. Throwing them away does not right the situation. Selling them to someone else is no better. Reporting the seller seems hypocritical - there is no evidence. What is the buyer's obligation according to Jewish values? (This question is based on an inquiry appearing in the "New York Times Sunday Magazine" The Ethicist column.)
There's a technical aspect to this question, in terms of whether the buyer has the right to keep it, and I think that sheds light on the broader question. In Jewish law, the combination of the original owner's despairing of recovering his or her stolen items and a change of possession, makes the item no longer the original owner's. That is, if Jack's car is stolen, in such a way that Jack loses hope of ever getting it back, and then is sold or given to a third party, even if Jack then sees the car, by Jewish law it is no longer his (restitution has to be made, of course, and who pays what is a whole different discussion). That doesn't mean it's ok that this happened, it means that when it comes to possession of items, Jack's claim on the car ended when it was taken from him, he despaired of recovery, and then it changed possession.
I bring this up because it shows that in the case here, there would be a good likelihood that the item itself could belong to the buyer even if his suspicions were true. It might be that he'd have to make some kind of financial restitution to the original owner (although that is really supposed to be the thief's obligation), but the item itself has been removed from the owner's hands (and not by the buyer). Such technical details are usually not relevant to parsing moral questions-- I wouldn't, for example, recommend buying from a "fence" because of this rule-- but the complication that the buyer only has suspicions makes this aspect of it another mitigating factor to consider.
What's also not clear in the question is what fueled the buyer's suspicions-- a queasy feeling, the fact that the seller had greasy hair, or because of an overheard phone call where the seller said "yep, just got rid of the hot goods now."? If there's truly no evidence, such that the buyer has no grounds to even alert the authorities, I wonder whether these suspicions have much justification.
Assuming they do, assuming that something happened that makes it fairly clear these items were stolen, we still don't know who stole them, nor do we have any ability to figure out from whom they were stolen. If we did, we could recommend tracking down the original owner and returning it, as a good deed. Since that seems to be impossible, it would seem the buyer has, through no fault of his or her own, come into legal possession of items with an unsavory provenance. The question is how to salve a conscience that knows it has some connection to, but no guilt for, a wrong that was done.
One possibility is that the item is the problem, and then selling it might be more comfortable even if it doesn't alleviate the moral problem. A better solution might be to donate the item to someone in need-- this does nothing for the original owner, but we can't do that anyway. This way, the buyer doesn't have to see the stolen item all the time and can feel that at least some good came out of it. If the item doesn't bother the buyer except insofar as it leaves a nagging feeling, the buyer could donate the value of the item to a charity; not that I believe we can "buy off" our wrongs, but in this case, the buyer hasn't done a wrong, he or she has only come to feel connected to someone else's wrong. This would be a way to ease that conscience. And maybe having the item around will be a spur to avoid questionable activity of all sorts going forward.
Theft is certainly one of the worst sins in Judaism. According to the Rabbis, the generation of the flood was punished because of thievery. There was a total disrespect for personal boundaries: if a person saw something or someone they wanted, they just took it. This essential sin led to a complete breakdown of moral society such that God then destroyed all but Noah and his family. At the end of B. Sanhedrin similarly there is a comment that what makes someone wicked? Theft. So first of all, I commend you on your thoughtfulness and concern for this issue.
Similarly, one can only legitimately acquire an item from someone who actually owns the item. Thus a stolen item still claimed by its original owner can not become the property of a third party. I believe American law is identical in this regard. A third party can then be compelled to return the item at a later date even if acquired unknowingly.
In this case, however, there is a question of timing and doubt. If the doubt occured prior to the sale, the purchase should not be completed. If you are engaging in business dealings with a questionable merchant, you become party to the theft by encouraging economic gains from the theft. So at a minumum you should not again transact business with this seller if you have substantive reason to suspect they are selling ill gotten gains.
If you uncovered the doubt post purchase, your obligation is much less. Jewish law puts no obligation on you because you aren't sure of what happened. It is your responsibility to avoid known thieves, but not your responsibility to research the provenance of everything you purchase. You may choose to donate some equivalent value to a meaningful charity, but have no responsibility to do so.
If however you KNOW that it was stolen, you ought not use the item and should search for some way of either returning it or donating some equivalent value to charity.
The buyer in this case has an obligation to right his or her own actions, even if s/he cannot do anything about the suspected theft. S/he apparently did not purchase the merchandise from a store or some other ordinary commercial source, and therefore had an obligation, according to Jewish legal values, to take special care. A buyer has an obligation to avoid purchasing goods in any situation where it is likely that the seller could be selling stolen goods. If there is any way possible, the buyer must return the merchandise to the rightful owner.
If it is impossible to identify or locate the rightful owner, it is still forbidden for the buyer to derive benefit from a crime. Why did the buyer choose to buy from this source rather than from a regular store, or an authorized seller of such merchandise? The buyer claims to have paid “fair market value,” so apparently the benefit was not in getting a low price. If the price was not exceptional, then the merchandise itself must have been exceptional. Did the seller offer some particular merchandise that the buyer coveted? If so, the satisfaction of a covetous desire is the benefit that the buyer may not enjoy. The buyer must not keep the merchandise, because the very fact of possessing it is the buyer’s crime. The buyer must dispossess him/herself of the goods.
Contrary to the buyer's assertion, throwing the goods away would "right the situation" in that the buyer would no longer possess the coveted object. However, even without knowing the nature of the goods, the sheer wastefulness of such a solution mitigates against it. If the goods really have absolutely no distinguishing mark and therefore absolutely cannot be traced to the rightful owner, then the rightful owner from whom they were possibly stolen will have been compelled to give up on recovering them. Ordinarily a person may legitimately claim a lost object with no identifying marks, after a period of time. If these particular goods absolutely cannot be returned to their rightful owner, then this particular buyer can legitimately dispose of them in any way other than by gratifying his or her own covetousness. This buyer could, in good conscience, donate them to a charitable organization that could sell them and use the funds.
In that case, however, the buyer would lose both the goods and the purchase price. While this double loss may salve the buyer’s conscience and serve as a reminder not to do this again, there is another acceptable possibility. If this buyer’s conscience is satisfied that s/he paid “fair market value” for the goods, s/he could even obtain a receipt for that amount as a tax deduction, and thereby recover part of the purchase price. (If this buyer did, after all, get a good deal on the goods, s/he must not claim a higher value for them for tax purposes.)
Finally, while the buyer must be careful not to make unfounded accusations against the seller, if there is any way to remind other prospective buyers to check the legitimacy of any goods offered by this seller, the buyer should do so.
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