Is Robin Hood Ethical?
by Mohamed Ghassan
I am Mohamed Ghassan. I’m an environmentalist, musician and now I guess a writer. I was born in Bahrain but I’ve traveled a lot and even lived in England for five years. I enjoy reading and have a passion for philosophy. My influences are Abu Hamid AlGhazali, Emmanuel Kant and Aristotle.
Is Robin Hood Ethical?
Steal from the rich. Give to the poor. Robin Hood is one of the few fictional characters that has captured the public’s imagination for so long. We’ve had books, cartoons and movies always portraying him as the hero. But is he? He steals and I’d like to believe that most of us think that stealing is wrong. Then you say that he steals from the rich, who don’t need everything they’ve got, and gives to the poor, who need everything you can give them. Does that make stealing justified? We’re brought back to that age-old question, “do the ends justify the means?” Which in turn also brings us to a longstanding philosophical debate, that between deontological and consequentialist ethics.
Deontological ethics are based on the idea that the goodness and morality of an action is based on the action itself regardless of the outcome. An act is considered “good unto itself” meaning that it is intrinsically good. This would necessitate that an unethical act is “bad unto itself” hence bad no matter what results from it. A deontologist believes that the ends never justify the means.
Lying is unethical and to a deontologist it is unethical to lie no matter the consequence. Some deontologists, such as Immanuel Kant, have taken this view to its extreme. Kant asks his readers, in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, to imagine that a friend is hiding from a murderer at your house. The murderer knocks on the door asking for the whereabouts of your friend. Common sense would dictate that you lie and don’t tell him where your friend is. Kant would argue that lying is morally wrong so you have to tell the killer where your friend is hiding. Adherence to deontological principles to such an extent dives headfirst into the realm of the illogical. Only an automaton would do as Kant says. I doubt that even he would follow his own advice. This means that the consequence of an action does impact whether it is considered ethical or not.
Consequentialists believe that it is not the nature of an action that determines whether it is ethical but rather the results of that action. Let’s use an example to understand the difference between the two schools. Imagine that you live in a neighborhood where every house has a garden. Your neighbor has a fruitful fig tree that you can reach from your garden. Is it ethical to pick the figs from the tree? To the deontologist the answer is clear. No because it is stealing. On the other hand your neighbor wouldn’t even notice if a few figs go missing because the tree produces so much fruit and you would get the health benefits of eating figs everyday. A consequentialist would see no problem with you stealing the fruit.
Completely stripping the nature of an action from analysis and only looking at the results it produces puts us on a slippery slope. As the old saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” To only focus on the results of an action ultimately gives us the permission to act as vile animals while declaring we only do so for the greater good. History is littered with individuals who committed great atrocities in the name of the greater good. This means that the nature of an action, not only its consequence, impacts whether it is considered ethical.
The two philosophies are lacking and unbalanced. We have to decide how to balance them if we’re to decide if an action is ethical or not. It’s my opinion that a person should act as a deontologist in most aspects of life. Their actions should be “good unto themselves.” To do otherwise would give us the permission to do great evil. It starts with stealing a fig from your neighbor and then for some it evolves into something more sinister. While I would like to imagine that this wouldn’t be the case for most people, I remember a quote by Jordan Belfort, the Wolf of Wallstreet. “The lanes of a highway are clearly marked by white lines. There’s no mistaking—you’re in this lane and not that lane over there. When you change lanes you know it because those lines on the road don’t move. Ethical lines are very different. Cross an ethical line and the line does move with you. So at first you might feel a little uncomfortable doing something you know in your heart that you shouldn’t. But it doesn’t take long for that line to follow you and soon you’re back in your comfort zone, doing something that’s wrong, but not feeling so bad about. You might even be able to justify the bad thing and see it as a good thing.”
The only situations which a person should act in a manner that isn’t strictly speaking ethical is when to do otherwise would have dire and cataclysmic consequences. To understand this further let’s return to Kant’s example, we know that lying isn’t ethical but we also know that we have a responsibility to protect human life. The protection of human life is a higher duty than telling the truth. This means that it becomes our duty to lie. This does not mean that lying is somehow ethical. Rather it means that when a person is put in the unfortunate position of choosing between two duties, a person has to choose the higher duty and neglect the lower one.
Even if we are to say that Robin Hood’s actions are ethically justifiable, we still have not looked at the intent behind these actions. To know if a person is acting ethically we must first look at the action itself to see if it is ethical, which we’ve already done, then if it is found to be ethical we must analyze the intent and motive behind the action as many people throughout history who acted virtuously did so only for unvirtuous ends. Thus if an act is virtuous in nature but it’s intent is unethical then it is deemed an unethical act i.e.
to be ethical = ethical action + ethical intent
The actions of Robin Hood can be considered the result of many differing motives. He could have genuine sympathy for the poor but we can’t be certain of that. There is the chance that he has an addiction to the thrill of stealing and justifies it morally by ‘stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.’ Alternatively there is the chance that Robin Hood is giving to the poor to gain their support in order to consolidate power away from the aristocracy of the time and take it for himself. This may feel unlikely, however we cannot be certain that his intentions are pure.
Ultimately Robin Hood is not in the position that his stealing directly saves lives nor are his actions remedying the problems with the socioeconomic structure that has led to the rise of poverty nor are we expressly certain that his motives are pure. Is Robin Hood ethical? The answer is no.
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