Was Robin Hood a Utilitarian?

What is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a teleologial ethical approach, which supports the consequences of an ethical decision, rather than the actions. According to Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian principle is the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number‘.  Utilitarianism could, therefore, allow killing if it lead to the best possible outcome for the most people.

Was Robin Hood a Utilitarian?

Robin Hood’s basic ethical principle, to steal from the rich and give to the poor, appears to be a utilitarian approach. This is because he is doing an action that may not be intrinsically a ‘right’ action. However, the result of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor does create the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This is because in Robin Hood’s time and place, there would have been many more peasants benefitting from Robin Hood’s acrtions than rich people suffering from it. In this sense, yes, Robin Hood was a utilitarian!

Robin Hood

Robin Hood Memorial (Nottingham)

Creative Commons

What are the Criticisms of Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a strong ethical theory, but is more difficult to apply in practice. Jeremy Bentham developed the Hedonic Calculus to try to measure pleasure and pain on several different levels. However, this still proves difficult to put in place, as it is subjective (based on opinion). The main problem with utilitarianism, is that any action under this approach, including stealing and killing, could be permitted.

What is the difference between Act and Rule Utilitarianism?

Act Utilitarianism is the first type of utilitarianism, and this fits in with Jeremy Bentham’s approach. In Act utilitarianism, the principle should be applied, without rules, to any given situation, ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number. Again, this poses the problem that it allows any ‘wrong’ action to take place.

John Stuart Mill developed Rule Utilitarianism, which aimed to overcome the problem of Act utilitarianism. It meant that you could apply the utilitarian principle whilst still following a certain rule.

Utilitarianism

What is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a type of normative ethics*. Put simply Utilitarianism aims to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people in a given situation. For a Utilitarian an act is deemed good or bad by the outcome or consequence not by the act its self. To put this in real terms – Robin Hood stole from the rich, the act of stealing is deemed wrong in modern society, however as Robin hood gave what he stole to the poor a utilitarian would deem this a morally just act as the consequence has helped the poor and maximised happiness.

*Normative ethics – This is typically the questions you may ask ones self when trying to make a moral decision.

Types of Utilitarianism

There are two types of Utilitarianism:

Act – maintains that a good act is one that creates the greatest good or happiness.

Rule – maintains that an act is good if it conforms to the rule that leads to the greatest good.

Utilitarian Philosophers

Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are the two main thinkers in Utilitarianism. Mill was Bentham’s student therefore they have the same grounding in Utilitarianism yet in practice they differ.

Bentham

During the 1780s Bentham wrote the book ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’ in which he highlighted his thoughts on Utilitarianism:

‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do’.

Principle of Utility – To determine if an act is moral, Bentham believed that you should consider how much pleasure and pain resulted, he referred to this as the principle of Utility. Bentham would deem the ‘usefulness’ of an act by how much pleasure or happiness is created, such that an act is right if it creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Hedonic Calculus – Bentham created the calculus to provide a fair and consistent method of deciding whether an act maximises good or evil, seven questions were formulated:

–       Intensity – How strong is the pleasure?

–       Duration – How long will the pleasure last?

–       Certainty/uncertainty – How likely or unlikely is it that there will be pleasure?

–       Propinquity/remoteness – How long will it take for there to be pleasure?

–       Fecundity – How likely is it that the action will be followed by more pleasure?

–        Purity – Probability of the action been followed by pain?

–       Extent – Number of people affected by the action?

John Stuart Mill

Mill thought that Bentham’s method was too simplistic so developed the concept of higher and lower pleasures. Mill thought that some pleasures were more desirable than others, such that intellectual pleasures were intrinsically better than physical pleasures. In his 1861 book ‘Utilitarianism’ Mill stated that:

‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied that a fool satisfied’

Mill noted that the even those who are capable of higher intellectual pleasure often become tempted by the lower physical pleasures.