Monday, April 08, 2013

Robin Hoodery

Robin Hood is a popular figure: stealing from the rich, to give to the poor -- what could be more just?  So consider a modern-day Robin Hood, who hacks into your bank account (you do realize that you're extremely rich by global standards, right?) and transfers your life savings to GiveWell's top charities.  Do you think that Hood acts wrongly, in this case?  Would you consider him blameworthy?

It's a nice test case, I think, of whether you really think you have a stronger moral claim to your holdings than the desperately needy do.  (I find that I don't.  Of course, I don't want to lose all my savings.  But I couldn't honestly blame an agent of the global poor who simply took them.  It'll make much more of a difference to them than to me, after all.)

If you're worried about Hood breaking the law (or generally accepted rules of social cooperation necessary for the flourishing of society), suppose that he's an outsider -- a Martian -- rather than a fellow member of our society.  Would Martians have any (non-instrumental) moral reason to respect our property claims?  Do you really deserve your great wealth, in any deep sense?  I find such claims hard to believe.  But I'd be curious to hear others' reactions...


  1. I agree with your main point. But. . .

    I'm curious, do you believe that you have non-instrumental moral reasons to respect the property claims of Martians? Would you feel free to redistribute their property as you saw fit?

    What about a remote tribe living in the Amazon? Respect their property claims? Some of these tribes have apparently never made contact with the outside world, which would make us nearly as much of an outsider to them as our hypothetical Martian is to us. Maybe more so, since the Martian understands us well enough to understand the role of bank accounts in our society, and the way in which we customarily represent our bank accounts as long strings of 0's and 1's recorded on small pieces of silicon.

    There was a group of popular kids in my high school that certainly treated me as an outsider. Perhaps I had only instrumental reasons to respect their property claims? Oh, if I had only known at the time!

    1. Bear in mind that there are significant instrumental reasons for caution here. Individuals rely on their property in various ways, basing their plans on the assumption that they will have access to it in future; to violate those expectations may prove extremely disruptive to them, so to outweigh this predictable harm you'd need strong reasons for thinking that the beneficiary of your theft would benefit much more from their holdings. (We have this in the global poverty case; not so much in everyday self-interested theft!)

      So yes, I think that all systems of property rights are ultimately only justified on instrumental grounds, rather than having intrinsic import. But they may be significant, for all that!

  2. I agree with the conclusion, but there seem to be good reasons for thinking that I ought not take it upon myself to enforce another's moral obligation.

    First, we might think not doing so is an exercise of humility. Given that we should possess some doubt regarding the truth of moral claims that it would be presumptuous to act otherwise in many cases (but certainly not all).

    Second, it might be a matter of respect. To steal from someone in order to redistribute assumes that others will fail to live up to their obligations and while we know that most of us will fail it is a failure of respect to think that the person I am stealing from will fail as well.

    Third, there might be a value in individual's fulfilling their own moral obligations that my stealing from them prevents. This might be merely instrumental in the sense that if they do fulfill this obligation then it will be correlated with other acts of kindness. But, it does not strike me as strange to say that a world in which an agent fulfills their own moral obligations is intrinsically better than a world in which their obligations are forced on them. Of course, we should worry whether they actual will live up to their obligation as above but stealing from them possibly robs them of a performance of value.

    Some rough ideas I hope that you find interesting.

    1. Hi Bradley, I think you're right that there are at least some good pro tanto reasons here, though I expect they're outweighed by the demands of beneficence.

      The "respect" issue is curious, though. Does respect require us to believe against the evidence: if we know that most (all?) of us will fail to meet our obligations, can we not conclude that any given individual will most likely fail in this way too? Suppose I bet someone else that this person would not give X% of their wealth to effective philanthropic causes. Would it be wrong for me to make such a bet? Or is it just that respect requires that I not interfere with this person in various ways, or on certain grounds?

    2. I think the betting scenario is disrespectful in a thin sense of the word but I was thinking of respect here in closer to the Kantian notion: it is disrespectful to treat someone as incapable of adopting the end as his own.

      Stealing his possessions to give to another treat's him like a thing that is incapable of responding to reasons. In stealing and deciding from him, I treat him as a thing that will morally fail rather than a deliberating agent capable of choosing the right but who might fail in the same way that we all often fail.

    3. Yeah, that's what I'd been thinking: that it's the treatment rather than the belief (or "assumption") that is being objected to here.

      Though it's still a curious argument -- why think that Robin Hood's interference treats us as "incapable of responding to reasons". Why not just ("a deliberating agent capable of choosing the right but who" is) unlikely to respond (fully) to reasons? And if this latter characterization is accurate (as indeed it surely is), then how could it be "disrespectful" to act on it?

  3. I understand your aim in introducing Martians, but it might needlessly complicate your example (for me anyway... Martians might have radically different psychologies from ours, and thus their reasons might differ radically from ours, according to internal reasons theorists.)

    To answer your question, firstly I'd say it depends: some morally relevant details are left out of your description of what Robin Hood does. If he takes only from my bank account, and not from those richer, I'd think it was unfair and that I was robbed. But if he were to redistribute according to my favored distributive principles of justice society-wide, I'd think it was an act of justified revolution, not unjustified robbery.

    Secondly, in the requisite sense of 'deep' (that is to say, at the level of depth required by your argument), does anyone deserve anything? Here it seems to me that a lot of the rewards and benefits enjoyed in society are the outcomes of individual actions, and that an important incentive for individual agents is enjoying those rewards and benefits that are the fruits of their own labors. It would be madness I think to separate the distribution of rewards and benefits entirely from the actions of an individual. So I'd say our Robin Hood must act on a distributive principle which respects that.

    1. Right, let's suppose that Robin Hood only has access to your bank account and no-one else's. (Or maybe he has a small selection, and chooses you as being his richest available target.) So there's no obvious "unfairness" in his failure to instead target someone even richer -- he had no such options. (Though maybe you think it is unfair anyway -- despite this limitation not being Hood's fault -- such that it'd be morally better for him to refrain from this "redistribution" altogether rather than taking a single lone step in a better direction?)

      Being an isolated incident, suppose nobody else would ever find out about it, and hence the general incentive structures are unaffected. (Important instrumental considerations in general, I agree!)

      And yeah, I'm skeptical of all desert claims at this "deep" level, though obviously there are deontologists (including natural rights libertarians) who would disagree!

  4. Richard, as I see it, it is primarily a question of fairness or justice, though there is also the important issue of beneficence. You seem to understand the question of fairness in consequentialist terms.

    Your redescribed Robin Hood case still seems unfair to me. It is quite unclear in exactly in what sense it is unfair, but I suspect it has to do with inconsistent treatment of like cases.

    Taking cue from Clifton's example, suppose that there are a group of students bullying other students in the classroom. The teacher (or more analogously with Robin Hood, another fellow student) is only able to punish one of the bullies and not the others (because the other bullies are too strong, or do not heed the teacher at all, etc.). This act of punishment seems to me unfair, because it is not administered with consistency.

    But that's not all of the sense of fairness involved. Suppose now that the bully who is punished is also one of the bullied, not bullied as much as the most pitiable cases, but bullied to some extent. This makes the punishment even more unfair, in a sense that goes beyond unequal treatment of like cases. The punished bully is among those who have suffered wrongs that need to be redressed, and punishing him alone not only ignores this cause for redress, but also adds to it. Similar considerations, perhaps, apply to your revised case.

  5. Interesting thought experiment!

    I wonder what the mean worldwide income is? I'm guessing it's much higher than the median. It might even be OK by western standards.

    1. I had a quick Google, apparently it's about $18,000 according to one study. They used some kind of big mac dollars measure rather than actual dollars though. Oh, and it didn't include the unemployed, which will obviously raise the average.

      So income earners in NZ DO generally earn a fair bit more than the mean global income.

  6. So do you think you have *any* moral claim to your holdings or is all property theft?


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