Was Robin Hood a Good Guy? Was He Altruistic?



Here is a short synopsis of my version:  Robin Hood has a band of Merry Men, who steal from a usurping tyrant king (Prince John) who takes property forcefully from the citizens through a “tax.”  Robin and his band then distribute the loot to those who in fact earned it in the first place.  In the end, a new king (King Richard) returns and everyone is happy because he is a “just” ruler (what life is like after King Richard returns is unknown…in any case, he represents a more fair government).  Oh…and there is Robin’s love interest as well (Maid Marion).

Which means I agree with the blue text of this image, which I recently posted on Facebook:

Note: The red text is actually a false statement about the story.  In fact, Robin did steal from the rich and give to the poor.  I’ll provide a better caption below, but read on…

So anyway, I posted that photo above on facebook.  Well, I now know that at least one of my friends read my blog, because sure enough, based on my previous Altruism post one of them asked, “but was he altruistic?”  Well that is a darn good question, but it also leads to another question, “Was he good?”

So, let’s start with the second question first.  Is Robin Hood a good guy?  More precisely, in the context of the story, is stealing from whom he was stealing a good or a bad action?  First, let’s check the premise.  Does Robin Hood steal from the rich and give to the poor?–Yes.  Did these rich obtain their wealth through their own hard work and by providing value to someone else, or did they steal their riches through force?  I say the latter.  So, assuming Robin Hood is taking from the rich ruler who obtained his riches by threatening force upon a populace (i.e. robbery), then I would say that indeed Robin Hood’s actions were noble.

Notice that my judgment is based on looking at the issue at hand deeper than a topical news media headline:  “Robin Hood Works for Common Man, Takes from Fat Cats and Gives to Poor!”  In fact, when you look a degree or two deeper, you find that, “Robin Hood Locates Thieves of Citizens’ Riches, Returns Goods Back to Rightful Owners!”   Language is very powerful, more powerful than even logic.  Most of the time, most of us (including me), don’t take much time to evaluate a situation.  Most of the time, we can be manipulated by slogans and catchy words.

OK, according to my version of the story (not that he simply stole from the rich to give to the poor, but that he returned to the citizens what an oppressive ruler took from them), Robin performed a good act.  So, assuming his actions are good, were they altruistic?

I would argue that he is not altruistic for these reasons.

  1. In many versions of the story, Robin benefits from the patronage of King Richard, The Lion-Hearted (the “good” King).  He may be looked upon as holding down the fort until Richard returned and brought a just society.
  2. The citizens are immensely grateful for his services.  He can feel good about the service that he performs for them.
  3. This “gratefulness” gives Robin a type of defacto power (power is a big incentive for many).  He is an elder of the people.
  4. Maid Marion – his actions get him the girl (our reproductive drive is a HUGE motivator…somebody should remind me to post on that later)
  5. I’m sure there are more, can you think of any?

I would like to return to the “steal from the rich give to the poor” moral of the story.  If indeed Robin Hood was stealing from a rich person just because they have “too much” and those who are poor “deserve it,” this would not be a righteous action without knowing the premises (for example, the premise that the “rich” were actually “criminals”).

So here’s my suggestion for a more truthful caption to the image above:  Pay Attention!  While Robin Hood did steal from the rich and give to the poor, what made his actions justifiable were that he took people’s stolen stuff BACK from an oppressive CRIMINAL GOVERNMENT and gave it to the people that produced and OWNED the stuff in the first place!!  The fact that his victims were rich and benefactors were poor, did not justify his actions!!

And now you see, why I have no future in writing headlines or political slogans.

What are your thoughts?

4 thoughts on “Was Robin Hood a Good Guy? Was He Altruistic?

  1. I think your stated motivations for Robin Hood are fuzzy. The power in point 3 is an incredible motivating factor, and I clearly allow that it is a non-altruistic motivating factor. To claim it so does require that R.H. make sure his beneficiaries know of his deeds, which he does. It is helped significantly because R.H. capitalizes on his power, receiving aid from the citizens in evading Prince John and crew. Getting the Girl does deserve more study, not the least of which is that Marion is not found in the oldest versions of the tale, but very consistently in later, and modern, ones. This inclusion, too, could be noted as our strong reproductive drive enforcing itself in our collective understanding of the story.

    The other points, however, I don’t think fit the non-altruistic pattern well. Point number 1, that Robin Hood benefited from King Richard, is only non-altruistic (greedy) if it is reasonably expected as a reward. There are versions of the story where R.H. is a noble, and in these it can be argued he expected a reward at the return of the rightful king. But most versions, and yours above, place him as a commoner. There would be no grounds for a reasonable expectation of anything but death at the hands of any foreseeable government. An interesting twist would have been if R.H. were being revolutionary, but he is not agitating for a new government, just against the current one. That he is rewarded fits our sense of right and wrong as we tell the story, but it is not to be reasonably expected.

    Point 2 needs more. That he may “…feel good about the service that he performs” does not depend on their knowledge or acknowledgement of his service. Robin Hood simply feeling good is altruistic. The purity of the altruism could be debated (does simply the fact that one feels good, by itself, count as a reward for the action?) but I don’t think you were headed for a debate of the existence of altruism.

    A better possibility would be moral obligation towards the community. R.H. stands as a member of a community that has great injury inflicted upon it by an outside source, and in the Disney incarnation, faced starvation, injury and death. (I claim the government, and its agents, as non-members of the community, and in all likelihood they existed in a significantly different social realm with little interaction). R.H. is then acting in defense of “us”, his extended self, and fighting against an aggressive “them”. This is very strongly a selfish action. Not only is it clearly selfish, it is easily justifiable in most moralities that would permit violence to be justified.

  2. Chad,
    Yes, many facets to this story. …and many themes: violence begetting violence, generosity, justice, risk vs reward, love (in later versions), might makes right. Moreover, enduring stories are enduring because each of us superimposes our own morality upon it. Great stories answer the question “What does this story mean?” in an infinite number of ways depending on the reader. In fact, this story has LITERALLY been changed over the years to fit the mold of the morality of the adapter.

    I will concede that if you use “because it makes me feel good” as reason to say something is not altruistic, then it’s pretty easy to say that nothing is altruistic. In the end, humans have a series of multiple contracts with other humans to behave, help, serve in return for certain benefits, quid pro quo.

    As far as altruism is concerned. A truly altruistic act is definitely rare, and a truly altruistic real-life person might well be non-existent. With good reason. As I have stated here–>(http://www.heroicstoic.com/the-evil-of-altruism/), altruism has some pernicious side effects.

    As I run it through in my mind, altruism very well might be admired in an individual. It is the appeal to altruism on the societal level that is so dangerous. This appeal creates a mindset of quid pro…nothing. Sorry, I don’t no the latin.

  3. I have to disagree with what seems to be your definition of Altruism through the link. I understand that an action that is obliged, through morals or other reasons, cannot be altruistic. To be altruistic there really have to be no strings, carrots or sticks.

    I like the quid pro… nothing. It defines it very well.

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