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’ (https://nlcsethicsproject9fsilviasicheri.weebly.com/).

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’ https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/).

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.

What is duty and what is instinct?

Brigette asked:

What is the difference between acting out of duty and acting out of instinct?

Answer by Paul Fagan

There may be no difference in the actual actions performed, but deontologists, as one example, may make a distinction based upon the motivations causing such actions. In order to demonstrate a distinction we may accept the deontological standpoint that persons should be treated as ‘ends’ and not ‘means’, and we should consciously act out this proposition in our daily lives.

For instance, if you saw someone starving in the street then you may have, what we may call, an instinctive reaction to help this person and you may buy her some food: this is a comprehensible response if we consider human beings to be entities who have evolved in groups and who instinctively wish to help other members of society. Although you may think that you have acted dutifully, here the problem for some deontologists may be that they do not consider it to be a dutiful act as you were not conscious of performing a duty.

Contrast this first situation with a second situation. You may see a person starving in the street and you may experience, what we may again call an instinctive reaction, but this time to avoid helping the person: as you feel that the person in question has not done enough to help herself and remedy the predicament she now experiences. Again this is a comprehensible response if we accept that people often learn the reactions they experience form their host society. However,  if you treat this person as an ‘end’ and buy some food for her, as you are consciously aware that you should do your duty, then the hardened deontologist would be more likely to consider your actions as being dutiful.

Although a duty may coincide with an instinct as in the first instance, the deontologist may claim that the second instance more truly demonstrates what comprises a duty.

The internet provides much food for thought concerning ‘duty’, but for further reading a good place to start would be a very readable article by the BBC entitled ‘Duty-based ethics’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/introduction/duty_1.shtml). And should this have whetted your appetite, then the reader may like to move on to the more comprehensive ‘Kant’s Moral Philosophy’ in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/).

Morality and moralities

Fabricio asked:

What’s the difference between moral subjectivism and moral pluralism? How do I know which one I follow? I do agree that Stalin was both evil and not evil… but utterly, there is no truth.

Answer by Paul Fagan

I will concentrate on the spirit of your question, in an attempt to describe the two branches of moral classification that you have highlighted; I hope this gives you enough pointers to pursue your own research.

A good place to start in this area is provided by James Rachels in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy, where one chapter is entitled ‘Subjectivism in Ethics’. Basically, if you found an action such as abortion to be reprehensible or you found homosexuality to be disgusting, and you rested your dislike only upon your intuitions, then you would be enacting a form of ‘moral subjectivism’.

However, most of us, when given a choice, change our minds about many important aspects of our lives: our religion; our politics; our diet; and our conduct towards others. The very fact that there are other opinions that we may adopt, should give us a strong hint that being morally subjective is often not the most rational way of living our lives, and we may query whether there are other more cogent moral approaches.

Often such questioning of one’s own opinions is a precursor of accepting, what may be termed, ‘moral pluralism’ (and one definition may be found in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/moral-pluralism/v-1). Moral pluralism generally acknowledges that there is a variety of viewpoints, but moreover, one may be encouraged to apply a selection of these viewpoints to problems to find a solution.

The example of the twentieth century soviet leader, Josef Stalin, provides a focus where both moral viewpoints may be demonstrated. Firstly, if you think that Stalin was a ruthless, political ideologue who would stop at nothing in order to introduce his politics to the world, and nothing will shift your opinion from this, then you are possibly prone to moral subjectivism. However, if you accept this first stance as only one opinion, but at the same time, would also consider that Stalin liberated oppressed peasants by industrialising the Soviet Union and provided the dynamism for the creation of a world superpower, then you are possibly a follower of moral pluralism.

To conclude, if you are set in your ways and have a dogmatic opinion on the most important aspects that affect people’s lives then you may consider yourself to be a moral subjectivist: but if you are likely to change your mind about such things, after due deliberation, then you may be a follower of moral pluralism.

Is having lots of money wrong?

Nigel asked:

What’s so wrong about having lots of money?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Depending upon which philosopher you ask, having ‘lots’ of money may not necessarily be a bad thing. That said, it is argued here that current liberal societies should be wary of too few people having enormous amounts of money.

For libertarians, one should ideally be able to own all of ones produce without interference from anybody, and if this includes lots of money, then being wealthy represents a natural state for some (and for more detail, the reader may like to visit my recent article on this site, entitled Nozick’s libertarianism and self-ownership).

The libertarian position may expect to be opposed by various factions, and this would include communitarians. They may argue that a person is not an entity that can be separated from their surrounding society, and for this reason, an individual cannot expect sole control over wealth, which is in fact society’s wealth. They may further elaborate this argument by noting that individuals learn their skills from society and owe society a debt for their enrichment; additionally persons are dependent upon society in which to exercise and benefit from their skills (and for more discussion, the reader may like to visit one of my older articles on this site, entitled Man is semi-autonomous). Hence, the individual may be considered to be enmeshed within society.

That said, most societies in practice, such as liberal and socialist ones, occupy a position in between these two extremes. In order to prevent suffering within their populaces, or because they feel society would benefit if money was redistributed, most societies value some form of redistribution between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.

However, the modern age may have brought a new phenomenon. It would appear that with the advent of globalisation and the free movement of capital, greater and greater amounts of money are being concentrated in the hands of fewer people. In 2017, the following statement came to light:

‘…the world’s richest one per cent […] own more than the other 99 per cent combined’

This was published by Oxfam (Oxfam. 2017. ‘Press Releases’. https://www.oxfam.org.uk/media-centre/press-releases/2017/01/eight-people-own-same-wealth-as-half-the-world), and admittedly, there have been those who query its accuracy. Nevertheless, if we accept for the purposes of argument, that it is roughly correct, then it may contain the seeds of problems for some societies.

This may be particularly true of liberal societies, which generally exalt the freedom of the individual and encourage personal aggrandisement (and a definition of liberalism may be found here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/liberalism). To explain, if a few people own enough money to control manufacturing, then they may limit the goods a person may buy, and if a few people own the media, then they may attempt to dictate how people should think. Hence, a paradoxical situation may be arising: although liberalism extols individualism, there may actually be less individualism in practice where a mere handful of individuals dominate the resources.  Liberal societies may be inadvertently limiting liberalism, and when this is realised, they may decide to take remedying action. Hence, from a liberal viewpoint, if too few persons have so much money that they confine liberalism, then it may be considered ‘wrong’ for these individuals to have too much money.

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.

Kant on organ donation

Elisabeth asked:

What would Kant say if keeping a promise or fulfilling a duty, and using oneself as an end, conflicted? For example, someone selling their kidney in order to use the money to buy life-saving surgery for their child?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Here we are faced with a conundrum that pushes us into the world of contemporary medical ethics. However, by just concentrating upon Kant’s opinion, the fact that Kant was never faced with such a situation would mean that we would be foolish in assuming that we would know what he would ‘say’ with complete certainty.

Nevertheless, by applying a very reduced version of deontology, we may say that we should never be using others as a ‘means’ to an ‘end’. And in the example provided, voluntarily using oneself as a ‘means’, by selling a kidney would seem to be acceptable. Moreover its status as a dutiful and moral act would seem to be reinforced as it allows two others, the child and the recipient of a kidney, to be treated as ‘ends’. Hence, I cannot see any conflict here: of course, all of this rests on there being no risk in any surgery involved, the kidney’s donor retaining a working kidney, and the kidney’s recipient being easily able to afford her purchase.

That said, there may be other reasons why this situation would fall foul of Kantian reasoning, and this may be unveiled by focussing upon a famous line from Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

Following this, we may ask, could the aforementioned organ-swapping scenario ever become a universal law by which we could all live? I am not sure that it could. Furthermore, I am immediately reminded of a thought experiment, referred to by some as ‘The Eyeball Lottery’, that may provide strong intuitive arguments against instituting such a law.

The thought experiment goes as follows. Imagine that a completely, safe operation is developed to transfer eyes from the sighted to the blind allowing the latter to see. A society that wished to give all of its blind citizens some sight may then institute a lottery whereby all two-eyed citizens donate an eye when their number comes up. Although, some persons would willingly donate eyes, others may recoil at being forced to donate an eye, and would consider any forced ‘donation’ to an assault (and at  least two interesting websites are available for further reading concerning this matter: https://www.theadvocates.org/2014/12/eyeball-lottery-powerful-argument-self-ownership/ and https://mises.org/library/self-ownership-freedom-and-equality-ga-cohen).

Hence, although benefitting two persons by a personal sacrifice may seem laudable, many may feel that attempting to engender widespread acceptance of such a sacrifice is distorting any duty we have to others. Even where medical procedures are totally safe, any theorising promoting the normalisation of organ transfers from living donors would have its detractors and could not possibly expect to gain unanimous agreement. At present, the provided scenario is one area where medical ethicists may hope to make progress and set tentative norms.

Nozick’s libertarianism and self-ownership

Joshua Asked:

How does self-ownership relate to Nozick’s libertarianism?

Answer by Paul Fagan

In order to answer this question a reading of Robert Nozick’s work from his Anarchy, State and Utopia of 1974 is presented here. It will be ventured that self-ownership is an integral part of Nozick’s libertarianism and that his theorising is also very dependent upon accepting his notion of individuals’ rights.

To understand Nozick’s self-ownership, one must first accept that individuals own their talents absolutely; and such talents must never be considered to be a ‘collective asset’ held by society (p. 228). After this, one may accept that persons are ‘entitled to’ the products of those exercised talents and all of the holdings that subsequently arise (pp. 225-6). Following this, one may consider one’s produce as an extension of oneself, over which one has the full rights of disposal.

With regard to individuals’ rights, Nozick believed that persons should be recognised as ‘ends’ rather than ‘means’ (p. 31), and that individuals may never be used by others (pp. 31-2).    By applying these tenets to the extended self, as described above, then it is akin to a violation of one’s rights to have any of one’s produce expropriated. This recognition of the rights of others should ideally ‘constrain’ one’s own behaviour in one’s daily life (Nozick 1974: 29), as not to violate others’ property, and by doing, respect others’ extended selves. Hence, Nozick’s notion of rights may be interpreted as being a protecting guard for the concept of self-ownership.

At first glance, all of the above may seem both logical and intuitively sensible: people should be allowed to accumulate holdings, and naturally they should enjoy rights that protect their property. However, Nozick’s arrangement has been subjected to some very deep-seated criticisms and examples of arguments that attempt to undermine his theorising will now be provided.

Firstly, communitarians may maintain that before a talented individual may exercise her talents, a supporting society must exist in the first place. It is therefore, illogical to view a talented individual and her produce in isolation. Individuals and their produce are best considered to be an integral part of a community. Although, libertarians may claim that individuals constantly test their surroundings and therefore should not be considered to be cogs in a machine, it is apparent that the continued existence of varying, identifiable cultures would indicate that peoples’ values are strongly influenced by the greater society enveloping them (similar arguments may be found in Will Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy (2002, Oxford: OUP), pp. 225-6; although a wider discussion is provided in a section entitled ‘The Unencumbered Self’, pp. 221-8).

Secondly, some may argue that the untalented do not really have rights under Nozick’s arrangement as it effectively licenses starvation for the least talented who do not have enough ability to produce goods or sell their labour (Kymlicka, p. 119). Although Nozick would expect charity to prevail (p. 267), within a stringent regimen of self-ownership, it is a transparent fact that no one could ever be compelled to assist the least talented.

As presented here, self-ownership is at the heart of Nozick’s libertarianism and it is also protected by his notion of individuals’ rights. That said, it should be noted that convincing arguments, which weaken the perceived importance of either self-ownership or individuals’ rights, can threaten to discredit Nozick’s libertarianism.