“Last night somebody broke into my apartment and replaced everything with exact duplicates.” – Steven Wright
Of course it is. Of course it’s stealing. What a funny question, questioner.
A trade is a trade because both agree to it. You can show me your pen and offer a trade. If I accept the deal and we switch pens, that’s not stealing. The literal physical object which is mine, I agree to let pass out of my control and ownership voluntarily – into yours.
For you to simply take it isn’t a swap, it’s a swipe. It doesn’t matter what you replace it with. You could replace it with a bar of Spanish conquistador gold – considerable intrinsic value in materials alone, worth even more if its provenance can be established!
But that’s not your decision to make. It’s the decision of both parties. The other must agree to your taking of what’s theirs, or its theft. You don’t get to set what’s acceptable in your proposed or contemplated take of what’s theirs. They do. If they don’t agree to it, including if you don’t even consult them, it’s stealing when you take what’s theirs. None of your other munificent acts of nonsense quality – such as giving them something else on the sly – matter to the basic fact. You took what’s another’s without asking. You stole.
Now, some people don’t care – and a pen’s pretty trivial. Some will swipe a pen, use it and put it back – right in front of the person whose pen it is!
They stole, and then they gave it back. If I swipe your car and bring it back in X minutes that’s still stealing. It may not be charged as grand theft auto (joyriding, where there is no intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle, is considered a lesser crime), but its unlawful taking and unlawful driving if the owner didn’t consent.
The law always has its little fiddly distinctions, and a pen is probably not going to rise to a court case. But that’s got nothing to do with whether an act is stealing. If I sneak into your backyard and steal one of your landscaping pebbles, it’s still stealing. Whether I replace it or not with one of my own pebbles, I took yours.
It’s probably too insignificant for anyone to notice, sure. Who cares? But by the same token: why call it what it’s not? Why not call it what it is? The importance assigned to a given (or rather, taken) object doesn’t change the described nature of the act. There’s really no question about that: any time you take what’s not yours without permission, that’s stealing. It doesn’t need higher considerations to “count as stealing.” All it needs is something that’s not yours, and you take it.
Unless it’s like, out in nature. Some abandoned item, belongs to no one. Out on a windswept and glorious public beach, all alone with nature – and you spot and swipe a seashell. Whelp! As long as it’s not a national park with posted signage or regulations to the effect take nothing – that’s not stealing, then. Because there’s no one you could say that seashell belongs to. It is to all appearances and due diligence, free for the taking. In the most basic sense, you did not take what’s not yours. It was yours: yours free for the taking. It belonged to no one else, and there you were.
Hey, while you’re out there on the beach, maybe you’ll see my pen! I left it there accidentally. It dropped out of my pocket, someplace along a long walk. It’s there for the taking now; it’s anyone’s. I don’t even consider it my own, anymore. Feel free to swipe it!
The magnitude of stealing.
Stealing is an act of totally-scalable magnitude. At the bottom of the scale – stealing someone’s pen or stealing their penny – probably no one may care about the theft. But if they catch you doing it, they may care about that. They’ll have learned something important about you.
You don’t even care that it is theirs. The fact this thing belongs to someone else is inconsiderable to you. No, it doesn’t matter if they see you’ve made a substitution – the point is, you didn’t even care to ask. You entitled yourself to make the swap, and whoever else’s stuff was involved did not matter. You lack a certain basic trust and respect. To you it doesn’t matter if something is someone else’s. Only if it’s “important enough” in your view. Or only if you can take it and replace it with what you consider fair – without even giving them the chance of input or approval.
In other words, you decide what’s okay to steal.
Basically: it shows you’re someone who thinks they’re the one to determine whatever they want of another’s, when all they would’ve had to do to be sure was ask.
Problem with asking? Equals lack of basic respect and trust.
Butt-obvious caveat and disclaimer:
The question was hypothetical.
I presume it was asked out of a sincere desire to know what others think about this. Good question.
No instance of “you” in my answer refers to the question-submitter. I don’t know them. I don’t know a thing about them. My use of the 2nd person singular is the indefinite you. It applies to the doer specified: the one who does the act described.
The act described is not complicated or nuanced.