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Prudence, private property, and stockpiling in times of crisis

In the end, we need to ensure that fear does not control our actions to the point of irrationality.

(Image: Kelly Sikkema | Unsplash.com)

Yesterday, standing in the middle of the grocery store aisle, I saw a young father with a distraught expression on his face as he look upon the empty shelves of infant fever reducers. He said, under his breath, “I guess I should have come here days ago.” Those were the words of a father staring at the shelves where infant fever reducers should have been. This was not a case of failed inventory-taking on behalf of the store manager; this is the case right now for every store in my small town in Southern Oregon. Afterwards, I thought about how there has to be a better way for citizens to come together in solidarity to ensure that necessary items are available for the community. And something needs to be done to help correct this inordinate mentality of hoarding material goods in a time of potential crisis.

In the midst of the rapidly growing COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world have begun taking measures to fight this disease as the death toll continues to rise among the elderly and others with compromised immune systems. Numerous media outlets have been featuring political, social, and church leaders implementing various rules to mitigate coronavirus transmission. Unfortunately, sensationalism and uncertainty has caused many people to panic, prompting some to rush to their local supermarket to stockpile basic necessities.

In speaking with family and friends abroad, it seems to me that this hoarding mentality has been most predominant in the United States. While there is nothing inherently wrong with stocking up on necessities so as to be prepared for a period of self-quarantining, there certainly is something wrong with overreacting and hoarding, especially when it affects others directly. In considering the moral implications of this hoarding mentality, I think it is fitting to reflect on the importance of 1) the virtue of prudence and 2) an understanding of private property and the community of goods.

The virtue of prudence enables us to consider and judge appropriately the right action to take in a particular circumstance. When someone decides to strip the shelves of a supermarket in this crisis, prudence is precisely what they are lacking. If one took time to exercise reason and consider personal need in proportion to what is to be purchased, it should be clear that buying thirty bottles of hand sanitizer at one time is not proportionate to the end being sought given the special circumstances we are currently in. (Not to mention the serious ethical problem with stockpiling 18,000 bottles of hand sanitizer with the intent of reselling them at marked-up prices!) Yes, it is good to take prudent measures to beat this virus and prepare for the worst. But you do not need a bathtub of Purell to accomplish that goal. Point being: only take what you need.

Nearly every supermarket my family and I have visited in the past week is not only sold out of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but also of crucial infant care items such as formula, infant Tylenol, and diapers. Worse, some of these items have been purchased by people who do not even have children! This points to an obvious lack of foresight on behalf of consumers in considering how their actions will direct affect others. What are parents to do if their children contract the coronavirus and experience high fevers? If there is no access to infant Tylenol, there will have countless parents in emergency rooms with sick children, waiting to see a doctor who is certainly already drained from seeing an overabundance of patients. As we see in the current situations in China and Italy, opportunities for hospitalization are few and far between due to the amount of people who have contracted the virus.

The primary goal is to prevent the spread of this disease, but how can someone prevent a virus from spreading if they are depriving others from the opportunity to destroy the virus for themselves? This time of crisis is undoubtedly frightening to many, and perhaps rightly so, but this makes it even more imperative that people are prudent and considerate of how their actions affect others in their community.

It seems evident that this panic, for many people, stems from lacking a sense of control. One cannot directly control whether or not the virus is transmitted. One can, however, generally control how prepared they are for any given disaster. The motivation for this preparation is understandable, but we cannot simply act precipitously out of fear. Fear, in itself, is not the problem; the problem lies in what we do with that fear. As Americans, we tend to be quite individualistic, but we need to understand the proper place of private property in the context of living in a community and seeking the common good.

Sacred Scripture points to the truth of private property from the commandment “thou shalt not steal” (Ex 20:15), to the command that one shall not covet “anything that is your neighbor’s” (Deut 5:21). It is also true that God has sovereign dominion over all of creation, but the human person has a natural right to material goods in the created order as God extends natural dominion to him as regards the power to make use of them (ST II-II, q. 66, a. 1, ad.1). While it is lawful for man to procure material goods for himself, since these goods are not to be considered under the aspect of absolute dominion, we must be willing to share resources with our neighbor according to need. This is why St. Thomas Aquinas taught that it was sometimes—albeit rarely—morally lawful to obtain the private property of other since it would not be properly considered theft if need renders a privately-owned material good a common one.

What does this have to do with hoarding toilet paper and sanitizer? Simply put, that it is unjust to deny others access to these basic necessities during an epidemic since it damages the common good of society. To own a garage full of toilet paper or an inordinate amount of fever reducers, beyond what is necessary for one’s own security, is morally reprehensible insofar as it deprives others of access to these means of security and overall well-being.

In the end, we need to ensure that fear does not control our actions to the point of irrationality. Take care of yourself and take care of your family, but do not hoard supplies to the detriment of your community. If we neglect to consider the needs of others, then we are acting without right reason—and it also shows of a lack of charity in our hearts, for “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 Jn 4:18). If we are to move toward a perfection in charity, we must heed to the great commandment that we are all called to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:31). May we have the wisdom to recognize that there are many people who need things just as much as we do, if not more. Let us all be good stewards of the many gifts that God has given us.


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About Paul Chutikorn 1 Article
Paul Chutikorn lives in the Diocese of Baker and writes on various topics pertaining to the theology and philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. He is a husband, father of 6, and serves as Vice President of the Theological Institute of St. Thomas Aquinas (Thomisticum), as well as Director of Faith Formation at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Klamath Falls, Oregon. He is currently pursuing his studies in both Theology and Philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.

17 Comments

  1. Allow the markets to work-if prices are allowed to rise (and fall) this kind of hoarding would be reduced. Governments, however, scream PRICE GOUGING!! and punish stores that raise their prices.

    • Kathryn,
      It’s not really price gouging, but if you’ve been in Walmart recently you’ll see higher prices this week. Some bare shelves, too.
      You know you live in the South when there’s only 2 little bottles of Milo’s sweet tea left. I was polite & only took one.
      🙂

  2. Its hard for me to imagine a saint giving the OK to stealing from others just because another wants or even needs what they have. Some stores handle this by establishing a limit on scarce goods: ” One (or two) per person”. That seems fair enough when people cannot control themselves. If the govt was not encouraging hysteria, this would not be happening. When you plan to lock people in their homes for months on end, this is going to be the result. Nobody wants to be the last one to get tylenol for their kids.

  3. My diocese announced a shutdown of Mass and the sacraments today, to last past EASTER. No Holy Week service. No Easter services. So, during the Roman persecutions when people were LITERALLY dying because they were being KILLED for being Christian, they could have simply caved and said “ok, we will stop having Mass.” They did not. Instead the church has canceled expression of the Faith for a case of the flu.They have now given the government a foothold of an excuse to control church attendance in the future if they so choose by establishing a precedent with this . This was a well intentioned mistake in judgement.

    • Mass is not cancelled. All priests are still saying Mass – the difference is the public will not be there. We are still able to make Spiritual Communions, pray the Rosary and the Divine Mercy chaplet and the Liturgy of the Hours. Offer up your suffering for those who are ill. Peace be with you.

      • Prayer is well and good as far as it goes. I do pray. And any protestant can do so too . But I am not a Protestant. I am a Catholic and was taught to believe in the importance of Communion. Bravo to the priests for still doing their private masses . What about the rest of us? This virus appears not to be any more deadly than the average flu and I fail to see what the hysteria is about. Certainly not enough to cancel Mass after all of these centuries. Tightly limited attendance at church ( to allow for social distancing) could have been tried first.Instead we gave up what was most important with barely a whimper. Pathetic.

    • Henry
      Yes, I agree he should have planned ahead. In a perfect world we all should, but at this moment do you have every single item you might possibly need in the next month? I don’t.

    • I am definitely supportive of being prepared, but the thing about medications is that they have expiration dates. It doesn’t really make sense to stockpile children’t fever reducer unless you have a child that is often sick. To do so (stockpiling) means throwing away quantities of medication after it expires – medication that another could have used. Especially when a person lives in a first world country, it makes no sense to do so.

  4. “Afterwards, I thought about how there has to be a better way for citizens to come together in solidarity to ensure that necessary items are available for the community. And something needs to be done to help correct this inordinate mentality of hoarding material goods in a time of potential crisis.”

    There can be no solidarity if there is no common identity, and thanks to mobility, immigration, and the growth of mass population centers, most people do not live in community nor do they have any sense of solidarity.

    ” As Americans, we tend to be quite individualistic, but we need to understand the proper place of private property in the context of living in a community and seeking the common good.”

    Preaching to people who do not think that they live in a community is not going to convince them to behave as if they do. The problem is not “individualism” but atomized living in mass population centers, coupled with the loss of a common morality, culture, and identity.

  5. Soap and water considered to be the best cleaning agents – soap has sodium hydroxide and a close cousin is baking soda – sodium bicarbonate ; added to water , it can be gentle enough for cleaning babies too , instead of using wipes ; also to wipe around the nose and face to relieve allergies and congestion from colds and such
    too . We are also in the season of allergies and many might get related nasal congestion and some cough as well , to worry that same is indicative of something more sinister .
    Good articles on line about uses of baking soda .
    Blessings !

    • Well-written piece, and one that should make us all ponder the question: Who is my neighbor?

      Hopefully, this young father is in a community with other young parents who might be able to help him with supplies. The flip side of hoarding is the sin of presuming supplies will always be plentiful and failing to plan.

      Proverbs 21:20 might be a good place for him to start.

    • JPG,
      I’m not a chemist but I have made soap before & sodium hydroxide is otherwise known as lye. Trust me, it’s not present in soap after the saponification & ageing process completes. If it was, you’d be in bad shape washing with it as lye’s extremely caustic & dangerous.
      Ask me about a novice who mixed up lye soap in an aluminum container years ago & what kind of chemical reaction followed…..
      🙁

  6. J.P.G.,
    Thank you so much for your comments & that link.
    Again, I’m not a chemist but I believe what the link relates is the same as what I’ve understood, which is that in a completed saponification process there is no lye chemically present in the soap product. The fat & lye have changed into another substance: soap. I remember glycerine being related to that general process also but would have to go back & look up the details.
    I’m sure someone with more understanding in chemistry could say all this much better than I can.
    Anyway, good, old fashioned lye soap is incredibly mild to your skin but wonderful for laundry- just from my experience. It made the baby’s diapers snowy white without bleach but was gentle enough to wash your hair. But-we used soft rainwater from a cistern which makes a huge difference.
    I gave a bar of my soap to an acquaintance who had some skin troubles & they said it was the only kind they’d used which didn’t cause irritation.
    In these strange times & supply shortages soap making isn’t a bad skill to acquire I guess.

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