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: 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: and

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.

Acting dutifully and acting well

Dzmeb asked:

To act out of duty, is it necessarily to act well?

Answer by Paul Fagan

In order to answer this, I would hold that some philosophers are of the opinion that one may do one’s duty without necessarily acting well. I will attempt to demonstrate this by using an example inspired by the philosophical creed of deontology.

Now, imagine you are in Calais and have just bought some lovely croissants from a boulangerie. Then, you come across a starving refugee in the street. You give a croissant to the refugee and thereby save her life. Here, I would think that most people would agree that saving another’s life is acting out of duty.

On the face of it, you have acted well. But the question remains, have you actually acted well? To explain, if you gave a croissant to the refugee because you felt sorry for the refugee and it makes you personally feel better, then you have really used the refugee as a ‘means to an end’: you have used the refugee in a process that gratifies your own needs.  In essence, you have acted well but only because your self-interest accidently coincided with acting well.

For some philosophers, it would be better if you intended to consistently treat others as ‘ends’ in their own right: in the scenario described, this would occur if you appreciated refugees as persons, wished for them to flourish, and donated a croissant to contribute to this. Therefore, for some, treating people as ‘ends’ and acting accordingly would constitute living ‘well’. That said, it should be noted that this reasoning has its detractors as those adhering to this sort of reasoning are often criticised for being impractically rigid, not providing a theory sophisticated enough to prioritise between differing situations, and also attempting to distance persons from their intuitions and emotions.

Overall, an enormous amount of literature has been written on this type of thinking and the most perfunctory surf of the internet will uncover many situations of this ilk with accompanying discussions. However, if this has whetted your appetite for such philosophising, then the reader may like to visit the entry for ‘Deontological Ethics’ in Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy (

In concluding, I would hope that a point has been made quite clearly: that according to some philosophers, one may act dutifully whilst not necessarily acting well.

Morality and one’s own desires

Sasha asked:

To act morally is it necessary to fight against one’s desires?

Answer by Paul Fagan

This all depends upon what desires one has and what moral background we are comparing them with; but in general, I would say that one does not necessarily have to wrestle with one’s own desires to act morally. About a month ago I answered the question ‘What is a Moral Society?’ and I would reassert part of my answer: that it is a society or at a lower level a community, that sets a shared code of conduct, that is agreed by the majority of its inhabitants, that we may term ‘morality’. As most of the inhabitants of a society would agree upon its values and live their lives by them, then it follows that the seemingly presupposed notion that persons have to restrain themselves to live morally would be fallacious.

I suspect that the majority of persons do not need to restrain themselves in society as they have a desire to be part of a community, or in other words a sense of belonging, which outweighs any other desires to better oneself through antisocial acts that harm others. Additionally, one’s conscience would ensure that one’s behaviour aligns itself with the prevailing morality. Either reason may be enough to ensure that most individuals behave themselves but the combination of both ensures all but the most errant individuals cannot be considered to be moral actors.

With regard to persons needing a sense of belonging, this may be a facet that has evolved as living in social groups has been beneficial to humanity’s survival; and without it society would undoubtedly crumble. I would think that there is a deep-seated, innate desire to belong to groups and this entails absorbing one’s community’s standards. Hence, most persons’ desires would coincide with others’.

Accompanying this, most persons also have a conscience and this facet is often called into play when persons are tempted to commit antisocial acts. In fact society exercises so much disapproval over persons who do not believe or adhere to its standards that this phenomenon alone may guide persons’ actions and ensure compliant behaviour; although disincentives are also provided by punishment established through criminal justice systems. Hence, persons with antisocial desires often align their behaviour with moral standards; and the more they align their behaviour the easier this process seemingly becomes.

The commonest schools of philosophy have realised that persons wish to live lives attuned to their society’s standards. Virtue ethicists wish to channel this phenomenon by educating persons from a young age to behave compliantly and rely upon heightening a person’s sense of belonging to ensure this; whilst deontologists or utilitarians may set boundaries by which persons actions may be judged and therefore seemingly place more reliance upon invoking a person’s conscience.

Hence, I would conclude that for the majority of persons, for the majority of the time, they do not have to restrain their desires as they either coincide with society or become aligned. Furthermore, in general, all persons in a society are judged by the same standards although there are times when the logic fails: for instance, those with prestige, talent or even illness may be offered more latitude when they are judged by others.

As a coda, I would add that there are always those who cannot comply with society’s morality and often must be punished. Hence, since the times of early Greek philosophy, much debate has occurred as to why persons intentionally refrain from acting morally and for further reading, one may seek entries in philosophical dictionaries concerning the conundrum of akrasia.

What is a moral environment?

Jessica asked:

What is a moral environment?

Answer by Paul Fagan

A moral environment, here interchangeable with a moral community or society, for me, should encapsulate both of the qualities of longevity and a shared code of conduct that is agreed by the majority of its inhabitants. Initially this may seem to be an obtuse answer but I will attempt to explain my standpoint.

With regard to longevity, I would not expect an amoral community to be long-lasting. Even if all agreed that the correct code of conduct included lying, thieving and cheating; the element of cooperation that I believe persons need, as beings that intrinsically belong to a community, would not be present. Society would reduce to a few individuals leading lives that are ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

This leaves the problem of just exactly what are the values and practices that inhabitants of a moral environment would need to agree upon. This is very tricky to answer and is an intense area for debate as human beings have a tendency to adhere to differing philosophies.

There is often the tendency to imagine what a moral society would look like by adopting a particular political philosophy and then extrapolating it to all areas of life. Plato’s Republic and John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice represent just two of them. They are often interesting academic activities and quite good reads; but their problem for me is that living persons are often influenced by, what may be termed, ‘cultural relativism’ and would find it difficult to jettison the identity, history and baggage that comes attached with their own culture. I have written on this before and now borrow from my earlier piece entitled ‘The Consequences of Cultural Relativism’:

‘…the culture that a person inhabits, sets norms and standards, that inculcate a person. This may become a ‘mindset’ that a person is either unwilling or unable to reject. This affects many obvious aspects of life such as the clothes persons feel comfortable wearing or the food they prefer: however, it should be appreciated that the process sinks deep into a person’s psyche reaching areas that one may not be aware are affected…it causes problems when assessing whether persons from other cultures have behaved rightly or wrongly. Generally, one’s own inculcated variant of cultural relativism would be expected to encourage criticism of other cultures; with more criticism generated the further a culture is distanced from your own…ideally, the good philosopher should be able to dispense with their own cultural relativism when judging others.’

Hence, cultural relativism discourages the understanding of other environments. To explain, just say a society had practised infanticide as a way of birth control (as attributed to the ancient Spartans by Plutarch in his Life of Lycurgus:*.html): then most modern persons would consider this to be an immoral society. However, if the majority of inhabitants of this society felt this to be agreeable conduct; and the society in question had flourished for centuries, then it would also seem to contain the longevity that made it a moral society.

Hence, I would conclude that a moral environment is in the eyes of its beholders: which may not be a satisfactory answer for many, but one should understand that we have a high tendency to judge others by our own cultural relativism.

Most good books concerning ethics have sections concerning ‘cultural relativism’, but it is described in greater detail by James Rachels in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy; where one chapter is entitled ‘The Challenge of Cultural Relativism’ (1993 (New York: McGraw-Hill), pp. 15-29).

What’s the difference between rule-based utilitarianism and deontology?

Robert asked:

What’s the difference between a rule-utilitarian and a Kantian? Is there really a difference?

Answer by Paul Fagan

This question is really a big area for debate and a small article such as this one, will never do it justice. However, I will attempt to give the questioner a few helpful pointers.

At first glance, rule based-utilitarianism and deontology (of which Kantianism is a famous variant) may seem to be similar because they both seemingly need ‘rules’ to operate: but there are differences and a major one will be explained.

For me, the difference lies where each particular school of thought places value. For instance, the utilitarian, as a consequentialist, will wish to achieve an end-state which may require rules to achieve this. However, the Deontologist, who may value wholesome interactions between people in their daily life, would wish for codes of conduct to be applied continually. Hence, there may be both a noticeable time difference and a geographical difference when each of the valued goods is realised: the utilitarian’s goal may be realised eventually and distantly, whilst the deontologist’s goal should be realised universally and constantly.

When giving examples of how utilitarians and deontologist differ, often very ludicrous examples are offered; and self-confessed utilitarians or deontologists are prone to use such examples even though they are unlikely to face such dilemmas in their own lives. A typical example is as follows: Sharon wishes to kill Tracey and one may avoid an act of murder by pretending not to know Tracey’s whereabouts. Here, the utilitarian may lie about the matter without any qualms; viewing murder as a potentially wrongful end-state. Contrast this with the deontologist who may believe that one should always act honestly as lying to another person is reprehensibly using them as a means to an end (although it should be noted, that in these cases like this, some variants of deontology will allow some acts that save a potential victim’s life).

Examples like this are often aired and may be found to be quite irksome as they strictly define persons within a single philosophy and do not reflect reality: when faced with this situation the hardened deontologist is likely to momentarily become a utilitarian.

Concerns for realism aside, for me, the important point is what one values the most: an end-state or rightful behaviour. To this end, deontologists and utilitarians alike may construct as many ‘rules’ as they desire to ensure the attainment of their respective desiderata and so focusing upon ‘rules’ is relatively unimportant.

Here, I have attempted, in a very simplistic, manner to demonstrate an important difference of two schools of philosophy. For further reading, in a similar simplistic vein, the reader may like to refer to Ben Dupré’s 50 philosophy ideas you really need to know (London : Quercus); which features a very good section introducing ethics. After this, the reader may like to peruse James Rachels’ The Elements of Moral Philosophy (London: McGraw- Hill). I hope this helps.