Hero or Thief: Evaluating the Morality of Robin Hood’s Actions

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by Alexander Vincenti, Freelance Writer

The legend of Robin Hood is a fixture English folklore about a heroic outlaw and master archer who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. He is often depicted as a hero and a morally good person, but was he? Were his actions, which in today’s world (and his) would be seen by many as theft, moral? Helping the poor and those in need is a noble cause, but armed robbery and theft are immoral actions. This combination – an immoral action for a moral cause – makes the morality of Robin Hood’s actions harder to evaluate. Nevertheless, three schools of thought have developed over many years, each of which offer their own views on Robin Hood’s actions. The first school of thought is Virtue Ethics, developed around 400 BCE by well-known philosophers, such as Aristotle and Plato in the West, and Confucius in the East. The next school of thought is Deontology, which was developed by German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the mid 1700s. Lastly, Utilitarianism (also known as Consequentialism), was developed by Englishman Jeremey Bentham in the late 1700s. These three schools of thought provide some insight on how to evaluate the ethics of Robin Hood’s actions.

The main theory of Virtue Ethics is that, when evaluating the morality of an action, it does not matter whether the action itself is morally right or wrong, but rather the person’s character. Essentially, if the person committing an immoral action is virtuous (hence the name Virtue Ethics), then the action is ethical. Yet, how do we determine whether a person is virtuous? Would Robin Hood be considered a virtuous person? In his work Ethics, Aristotle defines a virtuous person as someone who is able to perform the act of being a person well. A virtuous person avoids extremes, which are vices (the opposite of virtues), and possess virtues (positive character traits), including honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, and others. By this definition, Robin Hood is a virtuous person. He is courageous and definitely compassionate and generous. Therefore a Virtue Ethicist could argue Robin Hood’s actions are ethical, because Robin Hood possesses the traits of a virtuous person, and therefore the immoral act of theft is excused. However, another argument could be made that armed robbery is extreme and excessive, and therefore a vice. This means Robin Hood would not be virtuous and therefore his actions would not be moral. Judging Robin Hood’s morality through Virtue Ethics is complicated and different people may look at the situation differently and arrive at different conclusions.

The Deontologists look at ethics differently, believing that actions should be evaluated alone, which means that even if an immoral action is being taken for an moral cause by a virtuous person, the action is still unethical. German philosopher Immanuel Kant set out three rules that must be followed for an action to be ethical. First, an action is only moral if it can act as a universal moral law – in other words, it cannot be moral for just one person, everyone must be able to do it, and regardless of the situation. Next, Kant says that actions must be done for the right reasons. For example, Kant used the anecdote of a shop keeper who treats his customers fairly and sells his goods for fair prices because he doesn’t want to lose business. A Deontologist, like Kant, would say that this is still unethical because the shopkeeper is doing the right thing, but for self-interest and not the moral reason. Lastly, human beings must always be treated as ends, and never as means, i.e. people should not be treated as instruments to be used in order to achieve a desired result, but should be the focus of the desired result, with the aim of making their lives better. Using these rules, we can test whether Robin Hood’s actions would be considered ethical by a Deontologist. Robin Hood does follow the second rule, because he has good intentions of improving the lives of the poor, but he does not follow the first and third rules. Stealing cannot act as a universal moral law, because if everyone stole from each other, society would devolve into anarchy and chaos. Also, Robin Hood is not treating the people he robs as ends, but rather as means. He is using them for their  money, food, and other belongings to help the poor. Because of this, Deontology deems Robin Hood’s actions as unethical. A potential criticism to the Deontologist logic is that because the rich made their money off of over taxing and abusing the poor, the money does not really belong to the rich, and therefore Robin Hood is not stealing. Just as with Virtue Ethics, different people may have different interpretations of the situation and may arrive at different conclusions, despite looking through the same ethical lense.

Lastly, there is Utilitarianism. Utilitarians believe that the best actions are those that produce the greatest good and the greatest happiness. This is similar to the well-known maxim, “the ends justify the means.” As long as an action increases the overall happiness in the world, that action is moral. Therefore, in the case of Robin Hood, while he may be causing harm to those he robs, he is making those who he gives to very happy, and he is undoing the wrongs committed by a tyrant. Therefore he is increasing happiness and overall he is doing good. Unlike a Deontologist, who would take issue with the immoral action of theft which was taken to produce a desirable and just outcome, a Utilitarian would argue that this action was a necessary step and that it is compensated for by the good which results from providing wealth and goods to the poor.

After looking at Robin Hood’s actions through three different ethical lenses, it is ultimately up to each person to determine what they ultimately believe. I personally agree with the Deontologists because I believe that the three criteria for a moral action make sense. It is easy to determine what should be considered moral or immoral which means the line between the two is clearly defined, which is important in ethics. The rules of ethics should not be changed as people see fit. Deontology provides a clear definition of what makes an action moral. Virtue Ethics and Utilitarianism leave a lot up to interpretation. In Virtue Ethics, it may be difficult to determine whether someone is virtuous or not, and then one must consider whether an immoral action should be excused by the nature of a person’s character. An immoral action should be immoral regardless of who carries out the action. Utilitarianism is also a slippery slope because it justifies the use of immoral actions in order to achieve greater happiness. Overall happiness in the world is hard to measure, which means that horrible actions can be justified because it would be hard to prove that the overall happiness in the world was not increased. Therefore Deontology provides the best set of rules for determining what is moral and immoral, and these rules state that Robin Hood’s actions are unethical. Virtue Ethics, Utilitarianism, and Deontology all have their flaws, but they all contain important concepts. I do not believe any one system is perfect. Perhaps the system would be one which combines principles of all three schools of thought. This was just a thought exercise where ethical principles were applied to a fictional story, but they can also apply to everyday life and can guide our moral compases, setting us on a course to live an ethical life.