Robin Hood’s moral tendencies

Julia asked:

How did Robin Hood act if one judges his motifs according to the ethical models of Immanuel Kant, the principle of usefulness of J. Bentham and J. Mill?

Answer by Paul Fagan

The actions of Robin Hood, in particular his ‘robbing the rich to give to the poor’, have provided many philosophers with food for thought for many years. In particular he provides a dilemma for deontologists such as Kantians; often leaving the way for many to claim that his actions were utilitarian in nature, providing actions that Benthamites and followers of the Mill family may promote. In fact, before reading this piece, the reader may initially like to visit an interesting and succinct website entitled ‘Moral Dilemmas – The Robin Hood Problem’ (

For deontology, the dilemma may be briefly described here. Robin Hood’s actions would satisfy notions of Kant’s ‘good will’ as they are directly acting out a moral obligation by assisting those in need: nevertheless, the act of robbing a person is using that person as a ‘means’ to produce a result, when according to Kantian theory, people should only ever be used as ‘ends’.

Such dilemmas have generated a seemingly continual stream of discussion and have necessitated Kant’s original work to be adapted and modified (and should the reader be interested the pros and cons of deontology, further reading is provided by Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy’s entry entitled ‘Deontological Ethics’

That said, the dilemma leaves room for the individual observer’s own feelings to be exercised and show partiality: if a person values the act of helping the needy they would favour the first horn of the dilemma, while those upholding the notion that persons should always be considered as ‘ends’ would favour the second.

Moving to look at the situation form a utilitarian perspective, then such difficulties would not expect to be as pronounced. Immediately, a redistribution of goods in the manner of Robin Hood, would cause an increase in overall happiness, or utility, in society. Of course, the persons being robbed would suffer some grief but if they were robbed of goods that they could spare, then the utility value of these goods when given to the needy would be enormous. To elucidate, if Robin Hood robbed five coats from a man with a wardrobe full of coats, and distributed the proceeds of the robbery to five shivering persons, then the whole of society benefits! Five persons may now go about their business, and although the victim may be upset, on balance the asset of five coats being used in society, rather than residing in a wardrobe, should really benefit of all.

Additionally, utilitarian acts may often be judged by their long term results. For instance, if the persons newly equipped with coats, now produce long lasting goods as a consequence of their warmer life, such as building houses that may be used in the future, then an aggregating amount of utility benefits society.

To conclude, Robin Hood’s actions are problematic for deontologists but he may be viewed far more favourably by utilitarians.

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