Utilitarianism and Robin Hood – are they ethically correct?

Sarah Suleman (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania)

Utilitarianism is the popular doctrine that an action is righteous if it promotes happiness and benefits a greater majority of people. English Philosopher and political radical Jeremy Benthan termed the basic principle of utilitarianism to be ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. In Philosophy, it is termed as a branch of Teleological Ethics, which is a consequential ethic and so states that the morality of an action depends on the consequence it gives rise to (this potentially suggests that if killing someone will create greater joy, that action is morally correct.)

Utilitarianism (the branch of Teleological Ethics as discussed above) has always been a controversial topic in Philosophy and remains to be so. It was divided by researchers into two types; Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism. Act Utilitarianism means that the principle “greatest good for the greatest number” is applied and no other factors are considered. On the other hand, Rule Utilitarianism suggests the idea that the righteousness of an action is independent of the consequence it triggers and is instead decided by the conformity to a rule that leads to the greater good.

Childhood friend of all and heroically skilled swordsman Robin Hood portrayed traits of a utilitarian whose ground rule was ‘robbing from the rich to give to the poor.’ Upon analysis, we realize that during folklore character Robin Hood’s time, there may have been many more peasants benefiting from his principle than moguls suffering from it. This could then be seen as a form of Rule Utilitarianism as discussed above because his actions are catering to the instance they are carried out in; thus following a rule before benefiting a greater good. But even so, were his actions ethically correct?

In the modern environment that we live in, it is not as simple to proportionate the number of people benefiting from our action and those suffering and this is typically because happiness (the aim of the utilitarian approach) is subjective and will depend on the kind of people we approach. A similar dissension is experienced in businesses whereby it is challenging to gain objective reviews for a service during market research if a sample is not chosen correctly. In Robin Hood’s little village, it is portrayed that the majority’s happiness was more than visible because the rich were oppressors. If we were to adopt his ways, and steal from the rich to give to the poor, would it be beneficial? Logically speaking, no. Because in our time, not all of the rich are tyrannic and many have earned their wealth by insurmountable hard work.

Keeping the  skepticism of ‘the greater good’ in mind, utilitarianism might cause more harm than good by widening the rift between the rich and the poor because of the domineering nature of this doctrine. The rich will feel threatened by the poor and will despise them further while the poor will adopt the mentality that their only source of wealth is by usurping it from others.

While utilitarianism (the balance of good over evil) has its’ downfalls, it also has a number of strengths. A writer from Santa Clara University offers an introspective example, “Imagine that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency gets wind of a plot to set off a dirty bomb in a major American city. Agents capture a suspect who, they believe, has information about where the bomb is planted. Is it permissible for them to torture the suspect into revealing the bomb’s whereabouts? Can the dignity of one individual be violated in order to save many others?”
Most of us would answer yes. As a matter of fact, we make this decision frequently throughout our day as parents opting to harshly discipline our children; lawyers when accepting non-guilty clients that are generally bad role models; businessmen investing in a dicey product and so on. We weigh out the negatives and the positives of a certain action, like a cost benefit analysis conducted by a governing body and usually, the decision is in favor of the greater good. This bears an awfully familiar semblance to utilitarianism, doesn’t it?

No, not entirely. This is because utilitarians also differ in the questions they ask themselves about something being ethically correct. Act utilitarians ask themselves, “‘What effect will my doing this act have on the general balance of good over evil?” In this case, a student whose parents are suffering from extreme poverty and don’t know if they will live to see the next day is permitted to cheat on a scholarship examination. Think about it: he cheats today, he attains the scholarship, he’s credible enough to secure a well paying job, and he can dispel worry from his parents’ lives. His action has resulted in the greater good but only for his individual situation. Additionally, he has ignored the harms that may include robbing a more deserving student (that refuses to cheat) the chance of a good life.
Rule utilitarians ask themselves a more dialectical question and as written by a student at Santa Clara University – claim that we must choose the act that conforms to the general rule that would have the best consequences. They question, “What effect will everyone’s doing this action have on the general balance of good over evil?” Using the same scenario that we did above, this student will now wonder what the stakes will be if everyone begins to cheat to secure a happy life for their families. Will it still be for the greater good? If every single student begun to cheat on their exams, what would life look like, for the rest of us? In analysis; they cheat today, they attain the scholarship, they’re credible enough to secure a well paying job – but they may never be passionate or professional about their fields of work. So our doctors, lawyers, pilots etc, may not actually be qualified at their job. What has this yielded in? Greater good? Or greater evil?

In Islamic perspective, ownership is respected to its’ fullest extent and ‘Robin Hoodic’ actions are considered usurping the rights of others. Act Utilitarianism becomes similar to stealing which is prohibited in Islam. In other words, ‘the end does not justify the means.’ You may now be questioning why Islam doesn’t see the need to diminish poverty and doesn’t ask the rich to share from what they own. Except, it does. Zakat is not a charitable pay, it is mandatory and a portion of every believers’ property. Zakat is used for the poor. In addition, charity is highly recommended and rewarded magnanimously. Think of it in the way our Aimmah aimed to turn Non Muslims to Islam; they never persuaded, never threatened, never compelled. Their way was gentle; consistently warning and advising, but never bullying.

It is fair to conclude that Act Utilitarianism is disproved of in Islam because of its’ thoughtlessness and irrationality in perspective of the entire population. Weighing the greater good over evil by confining to a rule seems to make much more sense. I believe all of us are utilitarians in some aspect. What are your views on what makes an action morally correct? Ask yourself if you know how you weigh good over evil and if you’re able to justify it because when challenges befall, you’ll need your principles stronger than ever.


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