Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Mary asked:

When is it ethically acceptable to rob Peter to pay Paul?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Often, this saying is used where distributions of wealth are considered to be a zero-sum game: nobody really benefits from an act of ‘robbery’ as resources are merely moved around. However, if one or more parties could benefit from an act of redistribution then this becomes an easier question to answer: under certain circumstance, some political philosophies would not hesitate in redistributing Peter’s property in order to make Paul’s life, or the lives of both parties, better. Some simple examples are provided to demonstrate this.

For instance, imagine Peter and Paul live quite happily on a desert island. Peter is the island’s landlord, and using his own efforts produces two bushels of corn with the land, and this provides enough for both parties to subsist.

However, if all of the land were given to Paul, he would be able to produce four bushels of corn. This would enable the island to subsist, produce some surplus grain and allow the island to trade with nearby islands to acquire other goods. Now, if Paul could not come to an arrangement with the landlord, whereby he could lend or lease the land, then some utilitarians, seeing how this second scenario benefits the island materially, would wish to see Peter’s landholdings given over to Paul.

A third scenario may be favoured by egalitarians who would wish to see equal holdings of land. They may favour a situation where Peter’s property in land is distributed equally between the two islanders. This would be likely to yield 3 bushels of corn and although more productive that the initial arrangement, would not be as productive as the second. However, if you value the equal distribution of land over everything else you would be content with this this arrangement.

So there you have it, some political philosophers would be quite ready to ‘rob’ Peter to pay Paul. That said, one should be warned that other political philosophies would vehemently oppose the enforced distribution of any goods held by an individual, and some libertarians may even consider a redistribution of a person’s goods to be akin to an assault upon the person (and the reader may like to visit my recent article on this site, entitled Nozick’s libertarianism and self-ownership). The libertarian Robert Nozick was adamant that only voluntary donations should ever be redistributed: in his Anarchy, State and Utopia Nozick felt that the vast majority of persons would voluntarily contribute to schemes to rid society of an ‘evil’ such as poverty for example, as people desire to be part of the solution to such problems (Nozick 1974: 265-7).

Although this may seem to be a very simplistic question to ask, it actually opens up a hornet’s nest for political philosophers and yields a variety of answers (and should the reader have time to spare, then a visit to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on ‘Distributive Justice’ may prove to be enlightening: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice-distributive/). However, in concluding, as most societies continue with some form of redistribution between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, then it may be a deeply held ethical view amongst human beings that acts of redistribution, similar to those demonstrated, hold great value.

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