The story of Robin Hood was a favourite of mine as a child.

But as an adult, I am beginning to change my mind for a couple of reasons.

The first being that if we assume a free market exists, regardless of how he redistributes wealth, a disparity will return over time based on competitive behaviour determining the most cunning individuals, so his efforts were in vain even despite them being misguided.

The second reason, is that he did not spend any amount of time assessing the morality of the lower class he endowed with wealth. I reference the many studies conducted concerning the decisions made by low income earners after having won the lottery as a means of demonstrating why Robin's point of view is somewhat inept.

Thirdly, despite personally not agreeing with the existence of a monarch, to suggest the elimination of any such thing is to suggest the elimination of nepotism, which I believe to be impossible.

So to summarise this into one question, was Robin Hood's point of view ethically sound?

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    Robin Hood, if he existed, was not Jesus, he did not teach morality, no was there any free market at the time of the Crusades. In the early ballads, he is not even giving to the poor. Those who did champion wealth redistribution under capitalism, like Karl Marx et al., proposed something much more elaborate and radical, including their own ethics, transformation of human nature, and elimination of free markets. So if you are asking about morality of wealth redistribution you'll have to specify: according to whom?
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 9:24
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    Inept at what? I mean, if we pretend Robin Hood was real, then presumably he won popularity, personal wealth, legendary fame nearly 1000 years later, and... if we're real about this, the dude was a famous, athletic outlaw with access to a lot of expensive jewelry he stole from noble women, so gotta assume he would've ended up having a lot of children, so successful in a biological sense. Then it seems reasonable to assume he enjoyed what he did, and the stories claim he had a lot of friends, and... well, inept at what?
    – Nat
    Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 11:25
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    "If we assume a free market exists..." - This premise isn't fulfilled in reality, either at present or in Robin Hood's time, so this is where the reasoning goes wrong. Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 10:01
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    Robin Hood wasn't trying to eliminate the monarchy. To the contrary, in most versions of the story he's a strong supporter of King Richard, and is trying to prevent Prince John from usurping him while Richard is off fighting the Crusades. Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 13:33
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    "If we assume a free market exists"... Why? What is the point to that assumption? Considered in its historical context, a free market explicitly didn't exist during that era - the "Rich" from whom Robin Hood would have stolen in the stories gained their wealth via a combination of Taxes, exploitative Monopolies on goods, services or land, and "claiming" the lands and properties of those who had followed King Richard on Crusade. You may as well start questioning the JFK assassination with "If we assume that teleportation exists..." Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 14:10

16 Answers 16


One of the most fascinating and unexpected questions I have come across on PSE. But I have in an entirely friendly spirit some criticisms to offer:

Free markets and cunning

if we assume a free market exists, regardless of how he redistributes wealth, a disparity will return over time based on competitive behaviour determining the most cunning individuals, so his efforts were in vain even despite them being misguided.

Nozick uses this style of argument in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) but he does not attribute 'cunning' to his free-marketeers. Nor is there any need to do so. In a free market there are winners and losers, hence 'disparity'.

Also what is the status of 'disparity will return over time based on competitive behaviour determining the most cunning individuals' ? Is it is necessary or contingent truth about humankind, an empirical generalisation about the distinctive behaviour to expected in a free market, or ... what ?

Anecdotal inductive generalisation

he did not spend any amount of time assessing the morality of the lower class he endowed with wealth. I reference the many studies conducted concerning the decisions made by low income earners after having won the lottery.

Morality - or prudential self-interest ?

There is simply not enough organised and analysed data to support a specific link between winning (presumably substantial or mega) lotteries and subsequent behaviour - moral, immoral, sensible or foolish.


The idea, I take it, is that even if disparties do or did not arise through free-market transactions, they would still do so through nepotism. You appear to assume that an inclination to nepotism is intrinsic to human nature but (whatever my own views about nepotism or even human nature if there is such a thing) you state that the elimination of nepotism is impossible and present this assumption as, here at least, an unsupported 'belief'. I don't contest the belief or endorse it either but would appreciate, as I'm sure with others, some indication of its grounds.

But hey, this is a good question !

  • you would have to win the wednesday uk lotto (at odds of 45,000,000 to 1) jackpot 100,000 times to be the richest person in the world. this does not mean the lottery winners are working class, only that we are not all working for them
    – user64448
    Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 8:14

Leaving aside the accuracy of Robin Hood, I'll address your points directly.

The first being that if we assume a free market exists...

There was no free market in England in Robin Hood's time. The disparity in the usual telling of Robin Hood is due to oppressive taxation by a corrupt usurper.

...regardless of how he redistributes wealth, a disparity will return over time based on competitive behaviour determining the most cunning individuals, so his efforts were in vain even despite them being misguided.

What you're describing is wealth and income inequality. This is not a foregone conclusion of a free market. "Free market" is too broad a category to say specifically, but regulations, progressive taxation, and organized labor can prevent such inequality from getting disastrous as is depicted in Robin Hood.

But let's accept this view that despite Robin Hood's best efforts inequality will ultimately return. To provide even temporarily relief from suffering is noble. To choose to deny relief now to others because, in your judgement, it will not be forever is, in my opinion, immoral.

The second reason, is that he did not spend any amount of time assessing the morality of the lower class he endowed with wealth. I reference the many studies conducted concerning the decisions made by low income earners after having won the lottery as a means of demonstrating why Robin's point of view is somewhat inept.

Linking economic aid to "moral" judgements is in and of itself of questionable morality. Deciding a priori that someone will misuse wealth, and that they're better off poor, is hubris of the highest order. That would be the height of a "nanny state".

Such moral-testing is open to self-serving prejudices about who is worthy of aid. These can be racist, like the debunked idea of "welfare queens". Or they can be circular moral judgements: "if they were a good, hard working person they wouldn't be poor". Or "they'll drink it away" while alcoholism and drug abuse are diseases exasperated by poverty.

On the other hand, Robin Hood does assess the morality of the people he is robbing. It's less "rob from the rich" than "rob from the corrupt and ultra-rich". This is practical utilitarianism. The few ultra-rich will not miss a bit of money while it will bring happiness and relief from suffering to many of the poor. It can also be justified that to amass such wealth they must have exploited more than a few people; and to have not provided alms and charity voluntarily they have closed their hearts to the suffering of those around them.

Simply dumping a bag of cash on someone is not likely to solve their problems. While it may provide temporary relief, like paying off a crippling debt, not knowing where the next is coming from means a likely return to the previous situation.

Instead, people need economic stability. It turns out money can buy happiness... up to a point. Freedom from financial hardship can relieve many stressors in one's life. Knowing you can pay the rent, feed and clothe your family, pay medical bills, deal with emergencies, and have some left over for savings and a bit of fun can give one peace of mind.

When we take this to its logical conclusion we come to Guaranteed Basic Income wherein everyone is guaranteed enough to live on as a right. Studies have found this increases happiness, decreases inequality, and reduces dependence on other means-tested social programs without significant impact on productivity.

It turns out if they're not stressed out about their basic needs, people like to work and better themselves.

Economically, redistributing wealth being horded from the idle ultra-rich amongst people who will use it to buy goods and services is demand-side economics. This, it is argued, will grow a stable domestic economy; if there is a demand, businesses will hire people to supply that demand creating more jobs putting more money into more people's hands creating more demand requiring more supply creating more jobs. Lower and middle class people will spend more of their money on basic needs employing more people. From this point of view, it is the ultra-rich hoarding wealth and spending it on luxuries who are the drag on the economy.

Was Robin Hood doing this? Most Robin Hood tellings don't go into the details of his wealth distribution. I think it's important to provide a counter-point to the very relevant "rich people make jobs, poor people are lazy" economic morality tale.

Thirdly, despite personally not agreeing with the existence of a monarch, to suggest the elimination of any such thing is to suggest the elimination of nepotism, which I believe to be impossible.

First, the misconceptions about the Robin Hood story.

In most tellings, Robin Hood agreed with monarchy. In some he himself is a member of the aristocracy. He considered John a usurper against the right and noble King Richard I, John's brother, while Richard was a way on crusade and was working to restore the monarchy.

Historically John did attempt to seize power while Richard was away. Richard was not a fantastic king, he was absent fighting wars or being prisoner most of his reign. Eventually Richard and John made peace and John became king upon Richard's death... and a bit of war with his other brother Arthur.

Now to the ethics.

It's a fallacy that if you can't solve all of a problem, or solve it permanently that you shouldn't try to tackle it at all. This is clearly not true. Do we stop arresting criminals because we can't stop all crime? Do we stop curing illness because we can't stop all illness?

To quote Churchill,

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Life is a series of attempts at making things a little bit better, or at least making them worse more slowly.

A theme running through your concerns is that Robin Hood's is only a temporary solution. Indeed, literally robbing from the rich to give to the poor is very temporary relief. But it is relief from crushing poverty, and that is moral.

But you neglect that while he's doing this Robin Hood is also working on a more permanent solution: overthrowing the corrupt ruler and restoring a just one.

Robin Hood simultaneously deals with the real problems of the real people around him while still going after the ultimate goal. Human suffering is not an abstract. To turn away from real, immediate suffering because it won't solve the "big picture" is immoral.

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    @CramerTV The OP didn't make that objection, but let's talk about it a bit. You present theft in terms of absolutes, but we must look at the circumstances. For example, killing is cold-blood is murder. Killing to protect yourself and loved ones is self-defense; the ends (safety from an imminent threat) justify the means (killing). There are systemic threats as well. If an unjust system is stealing from you and your people, keeping you in poverty, is stealing from those who enrich themselves off that system immoral? Is Robin Hood a bandit or a revolutionary or both?
    – Schwern
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 16:29
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    @Schwern, Is killing in self-defense moral? It is legally defensible but I think you'll find people who disagree that it is moral. To me, we are each responsible for our words and deeds. Nothing anyone else does can change the balance of my moral/immoral scale. Now, if someone were threatening my family I would absolutely defend them. But that doesn't make my action moral. The same applies to a soldier - there are many people who would not kill a fellow human being just because they are a current enemy. Of course, this is just my personal definition of morality - everyone has their own
    – CramerTV
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 16:44
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    @CramerTV Yes, it appears we disagree over the definition of "moral"; that's fine, it's slippery. Perhaps "necessary given the situation" is better? I will note that "two wrongs don't make a right" is generally in the context of revenge, not defense nor in redressing a wrong. "The ends don't justify the means" is generally about justifying harming innocent 3rd parties in pursuit of a goal, not a requirement that every individual step must stand-alone. Morality, and acts such as violence and theft, is contextual.
    – Schwern
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 16:59
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    I dispute the point concerning economic aid and that it should not be subject to moral qualifiers. I could reference a great number of times economic aid has been provided and this has, in the long run, turned out to be an unwise choice, but doing so would bring a political bias into discussion that is off topic. Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 23:44
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    @Adam There's no doubt economic aid can backfire, especially Robin Hood hit-and-run style. There's an important distinction between "I will not help you because I think you'll abuse it" and "how do I ensure my aid has the desired effects?" The latter encourages communication, understanding, and cooperation. For example, maybe Robin Hood talks to people and finds out they can't fence the bags of stolen jewels. Planting season is coming and what they really need is farming equipment, could he get them some? Or their wealth keeps getting stolen, could he supply some guards for the village?
    – Schwern
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 0:13

Disclaimer: I just skimmed a bunch of Wikipedia articles and old stories. I think I got the gist of the history about right, but can't claim this to be authoritative.

tl;dr- Robin Hood was never really meant to be a good guy. Instead, he was a brigand who ran a criminal enterprise, much like Al Capone. Early stories noted how the criminal enterprise's interactions with the community did end up helping some of the poor, and his stories became more-and-more subverted over time until he was an edgy anti-hero while those who he hurt were recast as villains to match. Because of this, Robin Hood isn't really meant to represent a consistent moral/ethical philosophy, but rather he's a consequence of iterative reformations.

Robin Hood's transformation seems analogous to how undead monstrosities like vampires have been subverted into edgy romantic characters in the Twilight series, a pirate captain was softened in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, etc..

Robin Hood was a mobster who later writers tried to subvert.

Wikipedia lists three early stories about Robin Hood:

  1. "Robin Hood and the Monk";

  2. "Robin Hood and the Potter";

  3. "A Gest of Robyn Hode".

These stories make Robin Hood sound like an early-1900's mobster, e.g. Al Capone. For example:

  1. Robin Hood has a criminal organization that helps him to commit crimes, evade law enforcement, break out of jail, etc..

  2. Robin Hood takes what he wants by force, killing those who get in his way.

  3. Robin Hood kills witnesses, including children.

  4. Robin Hood seeks to have an "understanding" with law enforcement, where they're to stay out of his way (or pay the price).

  5. Robin Hood has people kidnapped to entertain him when he's bored.

  6. Robin Hood does people major "favors", but it seems to have a mobster-vibe to it, where he expects the favor-recipient to repay him at a later date when called upon.

  7. Robin Hood blatantly lives off his criminal lifestyle, without any pretense of having any sort of honest profession.

  8. Robin Hood smacks around his subordinates for no good reason, but they take it because Hood's their "master".

I think any reasonable person would conclude that Robin Hood's an evil character. Robin Hood really sounds like an early Al Capone.

Early works point out that Robin Hood's criminal enterprise helped some.

All that said, mobsters try to have a relationship with their community, and Robin Hood seems to be no exception. So, all the blatantly evil acts like child-killing aside, someone could try to see the good in Robin Hood. One of those three early stories, "A Gest of Robyn Hode", starts off by calling Robin Hood a good outlaw, then concludes:

For he was a good outlawe,

And dyde pore men moch god.

"117A: The Gest of Robyn Hode"

, which I'd translate as:

For Robin Hood was a good outlaw who did poor men much good.

While stressing that I just skimmed this stuff, I think they're saying that a mobster like Robin Hood can still be a good force because his lifestyle, while criminal, has a redistributive effect that ends up transferring wealth to the poor.

The big point here is that it seems like Robin Hood enriching the poor was more of a side-effect of his mobster lifestyle and criminal code. And that, while Robin Hood did kill law enforcement, witnesses, and even innocent children, he still has an "enlightened self-interest" that compelled him to do good-ish deeds when doing so suited his purposes, which had a positive effect on many.

Tangentially, evil-people-doing-good-for-some seems to be a theme that could be recognized. I mean, if you think of just about any evil character throughout human history, it seems like most of them at least tried to benefit those in their inner circle. Likewise, Robin Hood sounds like he was (mostly) beneficial to his associates, if we ignore stuff like smacking them around.

Writers may subvert tropes to be more ethical.

A recent (2019-08-20) question from SE.Writers,

asked about including fantasy races seem like they may racist caricatures. For example, apparently there's a concern that big-nosed, money-grubbing goblins could've been an anti-semitic caricature.

But, given that fantasy races like goblins can be popular, what's an author to do when they want to write a narrative without perpetuating immorality? One answer seems to be subversion: to keep much of the same old story, but subtly transform it into something less undesirable.

Robin Hood's stories seem to have become increasingly subverted. He went from being a violent mobster to being an edgy anti-hero. He stopped killing so many innocents, and when he fought law enforcement, it was because they were evil, and all to ultimately help the poor through charity.

Conclusion: Robin Hood was never really a good guy.

Modern childhood fables of Robin Hood stealing from the rich to give to the poor seem like a consequence of a legendary mobster getting reformed rather than being truly about an ethical stance.

Much like how pirates have been reimagined, e.g. a less-evil Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series (2003–current), Robin Hood seems to have been a reimagined brigand.

In short, I don't think Robin Hood was ever meant to represent a moral/ethical philosophy; instead, he's a subverted brigand.

Pop-culture trivia: This was parodied in The Simpsons.

A common theme in reflecting on America's founding fathers is that, for whatever good one might attribute to them, they founded a country in which slavery thrived for a time. For example, Epic Rap Battles of History: "Frederick Douglass vs Thomas Jefferson" has Frederick Douglass chiding Thomas Jefferson for this.

The popular Broadway play, "Hamilton: An American Musical", tries to protagonist-ize Alexander Hamilton, and we end up with that apologist tone in "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story", where, in eulogizing Hamilton, his wife, Eliza, reflects:

I speak out against slavery
You could have done so much more if you only had—

, suggesting that Hamilton would've tried to do more good, like fighting slavery, if only he didn't die prematurely. This point seemed almost necessary to address the elephant in the room, where a racially diverse cast was a-historically reenacting a predominately racially white narrative while honoring a historical figure who was involved in founding an institution popularly criticized for having allowed racism including slavery.

Some folks seem to have found this awkwardness ripe for parody, such that in The Simpsons, Season 30, Episode 20, the Simpsons family ends up analogously honoring their hometown's founder, Jebediah Springfield, who they note for racism:

an out-of-town'er [Jebediah Springfield]
was our found'er
despite his latent bigotry

So that, at the end of the Hamilton parody, they reproduce this apologism:

I didn't fight for equal rights, I wish I'd done more for non-whites..
..but no more time for Jebediah...

This is a recent main-stream pop-culture recognition of the tenancy for writers to subvert historical characters toward being more sympathetic.

At the same time, Hamilton's primary rival, Aaron Burr, ended up lamenting his actions, self-describing himself as having become the villain:

I survived, but I paid for it

Now I’m the villain in your history
I was too young and blind to see...

"The World Was Wide Enough"

This seems analogous to how the Sheriff of Nottingham becomes villainized over time, making Robin Hood's opposition more sympathetic (and, apparently, some would find arguably heroic).

There're tons and tons of examples of this sort of thing, but dunno how to concisely exemplify them. But, that above example shows a case of an American founding father in a major play, musical, and soundtrack, tying in a popular YouTube channel and then a major television series, so... that's my attempt at showing a modern example of this process happening.

With the point being that this seems to be what happened to Robin Hood, rather than Robin Hood having been originally imagined as a moral/ethical character.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 17:35

Wanted to register a small framing challenge here with a few tiny notes (please do try to understand this as a good faith attempt to clarify the concern!)

It seems somewhat ill-fitting to import any of our contemporary economic concepts onto the feudal context. We can leave aside the early premonitions of a burgeoning mercantilist class capable of acting as a dynamic force. What we are dealing with is landed lordships, micro-kingdoms: feudalism. Any feudal-era economic “idea” about wealth would not likely try to measure individual skill endowment or profitability of collective enterprises directly, but rather in terms of the state — but even this is something of a hastily imported modern frame. The wealth of nations is not yet really even a concept; rather the personal wealth of individual feudal lords or monarchs was the core economic “concern”, the sense of wealth and its use as a means of social stratification.

Perhaps it might be useful to catch sight here of one of the points of political-economic continuity between the feudal age and our own: that is the brutal fact of stratification or the plain injustice of the dominant social order; the poor treatment of the “huddled masses” of peasants (workers who have nothing to offer but their labor) as disposable assets “belonging” to a lord; the naked hierarchy of valuation of human lives.

So: as Conifold suggested, Robin Hood is not Christ, nor is he Marx or Spinoza; he has neither a theological, politico-economic, or metaphysical program. Rather it is something like a social program whose dimensions encompass some of the others, or hint at them: resistance to injustice, the embodiment of fraternity and charity and “kindness” alongside a rebellion against the local structures of oppression. It is a story of how the rebel gains popular support and demonstrates his difference from the outright bandit; he is a bandit but “for” the people. Robin suggests some of the paradoxical affects needed to be a “people’s hero”, “one of us” but also “working for us all”, his banditry hinting at the transgressive and perhaps regressive elements that seem to typify populism...

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    Dunno if I agree with all you say (or even understand!). Still, +1 for the presentism correction!
    – Rushi
    Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 13:11
  • Ok, so how would your answer differ, if say we were speaking of a modern day robin hood, a "psychotic and deranged version of Lisbeth salander" perhaps? I really am not being nice to poor old Robin tonight. Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 13:29
  • This answer ends on a particularly strong point, with "his banditry hinting at the transgressive and perhaps regressive elements that seem to typify populism...". The populist-rationality behind it seems fundamental to the story's evolution.
    – Nat
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 1:43

While this is not a philosophy question, it raises a few points.

First, I don't personally know of any version of Robin Hood where he takes from riches who got rich because of their cunning and entrepreneurship. Usually they are rich because they harass peons with taxes that are justified by no service (as opposed, for example, to tax paid against police protection or a proper sewage system) nor representation (it is after all, XIII century England...). Such taxes can be seen as extorsion by means of force, and Robin Hood's action as a way to repair the damage caused.

In fact, I am afraid that the assumption of a free market you make is a gross anachronism, and ignoring entirely the context of the tale. Also, assuming the market is free while on the other hand asserting nepotism can't be eliminated is a contradiction.

If we consider the action of the Hood from an utilitarian perspective, and assuming, as it is a tale for children, that he steals by cunning alone and does not kill nor harms his victims, he is creating a small disagreement to the wealthy and a great improvement to the poors. The people from who he steals don't see their primary needs put in danger. Maybe they will have to order only one silk costume this year instead of two. On the other hand, people he provides to are described as being in the darkest of misery, and the money they receive probably saves their lives.

A small dissatisfaction for a few people balanced by a huge satisfaction for many is a good improvement of the overall happiness in a utilitarian's perspective.

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    What happens to the people who make those silk costumes? And the people who make the silk? You're still talking about hundreds or thousands of livelihoods that are impacted, much of those people being poor themselves. This is a critical problem you need to discuss when dealing with any kind of wealth redistribution, whether it's taking from the rich and giving to the poor or encouraging kids to break windows :) If you want to make Robin appear an ethical figure, you need something else - like saying that stealing from thieves is okay, and that priests and landowners/nobles are thieves.
    – Luaan
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 6:53
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    @Luaan The people who are loosing their time making useless luxury stuff like silk garments will just have to reconvert, for exemple into doing useful work like producing everyday garments, lowering the price of those necessary comodities and benefiting the population as a whole. More people doing productive work means less work has to be done per individual, maybe now they have free time to study, innovate, do poetry contests if they feel like it.
    – armand
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 7:17
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    @armand But they couldn't do that. You couldn't just change your profession willy-nilly. Of course, that's a bad thing, but it was the reality of the day. If their profession stopped supporting them, their only recourse was unqualified work - all the qualified work was barred through guilds etc. And unqualified work usually meant working at someone's farm, probably for food and shelter and not much else. In a free market, your argument would work, of course - but then again, in a free market, you wouldn't have those nobles in the first place.
    – Luaan
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 8:05
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    @Luaan We are in a free market, and yet we have plenty of "nobles". Of course Robin Hood's plan is far from perfect, but the theory of trickle down economy has shown enough of it's invalidity for the idea that if riches are made less rich it will deprive the economy of their luxury goods demand to not be considered a real objection.
    – armand
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 8:19
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    @arman We have some approximation of a free market, but there's still tariffs, regulations, subsidies, licenses etc. You can argue those are good things, but that's besides the point. You get "nobles" because some people get special treatment (just look at how many of those "nobles" get their money from susidies or by having the government exclude any competition). I'm not saying money that was used investing in luxury goods couldn't be used better - I'm no Keynesian :). I'm just saying that it only looks so appealing to you because you ignore the plight of the clothier (et al.).
    – Luaan
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 8:38

He was definitely force of good from historical perspective

Robin Hood lived in feudal society. According to some versions of the legend, he was disgraced feudal lord (Robin of Locksley). In feudal society all political power and most of the wealth belonged to nobility . On the other hand, majority of population (peasants, serfs) had no political power, little wealth, could not do much to improve their situation (could not move at will, in some cases could not even marry) . Privileges that nobility had were inherited, i.e. most of the nobles didn't do anything to deserve their power.

In such society, talking about property rights is ludicrous. Property rights are not natural rights, they stem from organization of society. Feudal society was so organized that those at the top (feudal nobility, especially higher nobility and monarchs) could easily take away any property of a serf, and often even more of that (his wife, his children, even his life) . What would be really natural for lower classes in such society is to oppose such system of property rights whenever they can, i.e. in practical terms to rob nobility and share spoils just like legendary Robin Hood did.

Equally ludicrous is idea of free market in feudal society. Not only majority of the population did not have chance to produce anything to offer to the market, even those who did often faced harassment of feudal lords, arbitrary taxation and confiscation of goods (which is a sort of legalized robbery) . Therefore, we could say that in such system Robin Hood simply organized some form of tax returns to those most in need. Btw, concept of free market is seriously disputed even in modern times, with many countries implementing system of tariffs and taxes to help some and hinder other producers.

Finally, labeling him as a criminal is meaningless from modern perspective. To quote Thomas Jefferson :

...when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government...

Thomas Jefferson and all other Founding Fathers were considered criminals, traitors and what else not by the British. Do we consider them as such now ? Same would be true for Robin Hood. He didn't live in our society and didn't break our laws. Feudal laws are not binding us any more, therefore we should not use them to judge someone living in those times.

  • It's funny that you mention "abritrary taxation and confiscation of goods" as a bad thing in the same paragraph you also say "free market is disputed, countries implement tariffs and taxes" as if it were a good thing. Make up your mind :) As for Robin Hood not breaking our laws... really? Murder, thievery, burglary, extortion, intimidation... are these no longer crimes where you live? :P
    – Luaan
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 7:24
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    @Luaan In the modern version of Robin Hood, besides theft, he's rarely doing anything we would consider illegal. The original stories are likely not relevant to the question, since it's likely that the question is not based on those stories. I suspect Disney's version is the dominant factor in people's perception of Robin Hood.
    – Clearer
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 17:09
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    @Luaan Even possibility that free market could exist is disputed by some authors. Breaking laws set up by thugs (i.e. nobility) is not unethical per se. Killing murderers is not unethical, stealing from thieves is not unethical.
    – rs.29
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 17:22
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    @Clearer Differentiate between unethical and unlawful. Laws could be written by very bad people, happened lots of times in history.
    – rs.29
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 17:23
  • @rs.29 Whether Robin Hood is doing ethical things or not, is not relevant to my comment. Whether killing a murderer is ethical or stealing from thieves is ethical or not, is up for debate.
    – Clearer
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 7:11

You have missed the fact that this is happening during a feudal period. A lord’s job was to protect and provide for the needs of his people. If he didn’t do that, someone else would. In this case, while the King was away, the mice did play —- including Robin Hood.

His redistribution of the wealth, wasn’t a socialist impulse, but rather an attempt at climbing the social ladder.

According to the standards of the day, quite ethical.

  • Some stories also added the bit where he was the good guy noble that the bad nobles took everything from (presumably because he was such a good guy, and they were such evil oppressors), and he essentially continued his feudal duties (and perks) in illegality.
    – Luaan
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 7:29
  • @Luaan: making it even more ethical.
    – jmoreno
    Commented Nov 26, 2023 at 20:22

Your summary doesn't really match your longer-form thoughts. You seem to have at least two questions here:

  • Supposing Robin Hood had some historical existence, what would have been his goal in taking from the rich and giving to the poor?

  • Any sufficiently ambitious goal is impossible (corollary: any goal that is possible is insufficiently ambitious). Suppose this hypothetical Robin Hood had in mind an ambitious goal, which he did not achieve. Was he foolish to have lived his life as he did?

I'm not sure what to make of your "second reason." It doesn't seem to have much to do with the rest of the topic. Sounds like maybe you're asking "Is it moral to endow immoral others with wealth?" but that's just a slight variation on the problem of evil, right? "Why do good things sometimes happen to bad people, and is it my moral duty to ensure that good things never happen to bad people?" Talk about impossible goals!

I don't know much of anything about the historical Robin Hood (if he existed), so I'm working mostly off of fond recollections of the Disney movie. In the movie, Robin Hood seems to be motivated by (A) kindness, care, and sympathy for the common folk; and (B) fun-loving-ness.

For (A): When Robin, let's say, delivers money to Friar Tuck, that means that the church won't be closed down, and that Friar Tuck won't be beaten or imprisoned by the Sheriff's men. Robin seems to value both of these things. Tuck certainly values them! That puts a smile on Tuck's face, which makes Robin happy too, because Robin is his friend.

For (B): Sure, for the most part Robin is just stealing from the taxman so that he can give the money to the poor and then the poor can pay the taxman and Robin can steal the money again. If you follow the money, it goes in a big circle. But accounting isn't everything! Why does Robin Hood risk his life runnin' through the forest? Because it's so much fun, Jan!

Suppose you saw a person walking alongside a stream with a garbage bag, picking up litter and leaving the stream cleaner than they found it. Would you say that their actions were foolish, or "ethically unsound," or whatever, because there would be new litter in a few days?

Heck, the same argument would apply even to garbagemen, right? Is it ethically sound for the trash truck to take away my garbage every morning? "To suggest the elimination of any such thing is to suggest the elimination of human-generated waste, which I believe to be impossible." Nevertheless, those guys are helping to counter a process which would be even worse for the community if it were left unchecked.

"Ah, but garbagemen get paid for their labors." Sure; and you think Robin Hood didn't pay himself? :)

TLDR: Help your friends, slow the good world's decline, have fun, earn a living. What's "ethically unsound" about any of that?


Considering Robin Hood primarily as a literature character, we can ask into which genre he falls, what type or even archetype he represents.

To me it is clear that he is not the hero of a morality tale, but rather the rogue archetype. That explains his fame as well, because well-written rogues are very popular with readers. The concept touches upon not the morality of a situation, but the desire to do what we personally feel is right without regards to morality, or at least with limited regards. The typical rogue is a good character accomplishing mostly good ends with mostly not so good means. He is the character we sometimes wish to be, but our fear of reprisal and the rational understanding of his immorality stop us.

As such, no, Robin Hood is not moral. The ambiguity about the morality of his actions is exactly what makes the character interesting and successful. Pure, straightforward morality is typically boring and uninteresting and very, very rarely successful as the core concept of a story.

  • +1 for "primarily a literature character"
    – Rushi
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 5:56

The irony of this post, of course, is that Robin Hood is one of the early heroes of the Liberal Enlightenment, a kind of transitional figure between the enlightened nobility of the Arthurian legends and the reasoning freeholders of high classical Liberalism. Robin Hood evoked all of the principles that we find in later Liberalism: resistance to unjust taxation and expropriation, an opposition to cruel and arbitrary governance, a broad respect for the common people, a deep sense of egalitarianism...

What's happened, of course, is that the people who would have been firmly in Robin Hood's camp back in the 15th century have largely displaced the old aristocracy and taken on the role of a new oligarchy. As oligarchs they have also largely taken on the elitist, arbitrary, cruel, disrespectful, and expropriative tendencies that the old aristocracy showed, and now these oligarchs are worried that some new Robin Hood type figure will rise up and steal from them. And so they must perforce echo the sentiments of the Sheriff of Nottingham.

What goes around comes around, as they say...


If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.
Winston Churchill kinda-sorta

You just collected a few gray hairs dear😇

Doesn't mean that I – past middle age – agree with your Robin Hood disagreement.

There is ample reason to believe that massive wars, failed states generate equality. Also see the great leveller

And the refusal to recognize the above ineluctably generates the above.

Let me end with an exception to the Churchill quote. Noam Chomsky is 90 years young and he equates USA instituted violence to Genghis Khan. But then Chomsky is exception rather than rule on so many fronts...

  • yeah, because the countries with the worst inequalities statistics, South Africa, Haiti, Botswana, Colombia, Venezuela... are totaly peaceful and clearly don't have a failed state... ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality )
    – armand
    Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 7:50
  • I can understand why Churchill made this statement but not why he didn't append his view on his death bed Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 8:28
  • @adam append? Means what?
    – Rushi
    Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 8:34
  • 1
    Also from first impression this Walter Scheidel sounds like a terrifying psychopath Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 8:34
  • Add to the original statement what his political stance was on his death bed. Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 8:35

Rational choice theorists suggest that government is by the "best" organized criminals to succeed in ruling the people. Organized crime and government are more closely related than we choose to believe. So, a criminal leader may be unethical (ethics is more about individuals) but this can have moral (morals are about society) results. Remember, there is no monopoly over force and the legitimacy of that force may vary from person to person. Does this result in amorality? Political policy involves portfolios of governing instruments (Hood's nodality, treasure, authority, and organization). It might legitimately be used by a variety of groups and organizations. Or, illegitimately. Who pays and who benefits and whether harm is involved and what the remedies may be can be generally part of justice.

  • Insightful. But some references would provide a reader some further reading opportunity...
    – christo183
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 5:51

I concur with the OP's thrust.
There is no correlation between poverty and goodness although, it's worth noting some crimes committed by the poor are out of desperation (starvation). Robin Hood's crimes are mitigated by the circumstance his lot were in - he was a reluctant baddie.

Also stealing is not exactly a solution to the problem of wealth disparity. Do two wrongs make a right? In addition, resorting to such Robin Hood tactics means the system remains flawed and all that implies is a string/series of Robin Hoods.

  • 1
    what about anarchist illegalism "Participants viewed the movement differently, roughly along the lines of the distinction between those who ascribed to notions of "individual reappropriation" and "propaganda by the deed" and those who did not. Illegalists such as Clément Duval and Marius Jacob, who can be deemed proto-illegalists, aligned themselves with and were motivated by these ideological justifications."
    – user64448
    Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 8:07
  • 1
    @not_me_either, absit iniuria I don't know how to answer your question.
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 8:16
  • it wasn't really a question, more of an assertion that not all robin hoods are morons.
    – user64448
    Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 8:18
  • 1
    @not_me_either, true. However, stealing for whatever reason is a bit daft, wouldn't you agree?
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 9:11
  • 1
    @not_me_either, no, I no speak pidgin. Anyway, if you have a valid point to make, do so. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King come to mind ... they feel relevant somehow.
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 9:32

If I had a magic wand that would allow me to take $1bn from each of the world's 50 richest people so that I could give it away to the world's poorest, I would find it hard to image a slam-dunk ethical argument against using it.

  • 1
    It is easy to imagine such an argument — one might begin by recognizing that giving $50 in cash to a billion people maybe does a lot less to produce ongoing value (utility for someone…) than running a profitable hedge fund. And in practice you may find after all actually delivering cash somewhat challenging without a universal dispersal mechanism, costly to implement obviously but once running perhaps a useful means of doing this. (A genie/magic wand could do this “instantaneously” once but I’m not sure how repeatable it might be!)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 18:36
  • @JosephWeissman very well said! Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 19:58

First, there was no free market at that time. It was a feudal society. Secondly, Robin Hood's main motivation was to restore the rightful monarch and restore his own social position. The morality of the peasantry was irrelevant to him. In any case, that was the purview of the Church at that time. Your comment about nepotism is cryptic. If you asking generally about whether wealth redistribution is justified, then many political philosophies regard it to as efficient, pragmatic, necessary, and moral. Ethically, Robin was mostly motivated by his own interest and tangentially helped others. He did no harm, and did some good.

  • did i not say hypothetically speaking? I wasn't using the folk tale with the intention of historical accuracy I mean he was a fox and the King was a lion for crying out load neither of those things can talk and if they did the lion would speak an African language Commented Nov 25, 2023 at 1:39
  • And i would have to argue that stealing property from others is quite a potentially harmful act Commented Nov 25, 2023 at 1:42
  • You did not use the word "hypothetically" in your question. Robin Hood was a legendary character. Some philosophers would argue that the unrestricted ownership of property is unethical in itself. Ethical redistribution of wealth is not theft.
    – Meanach
    Commented Nov 25, 2023 at 13:02
  • Well I was genuine when I asked if i had in fact stated that free market scenario, i really don't recall, and it is very typical of me to omit pertinent details, so despite my facetious sense of humor in my Disney related commentary you'll have to accept my apology and assurance i will edit things appropriately when my maturity levels are congruent to such vigilance Commented Nov 25, 2023 at 13:55
  • Apology accepted. Your question has merit and raises some important points of political philosophy.
    – Meanach
    Commented Nov 25, 2023 at 14:14

In your third sentence you seem to suggest that a disparity of wealth is a bad thing, an ugly consequence of a free market rather than an innate quality to it. But you also seem to imply that Robin's endeavors were wrong because they were futile, an argument of morality from utility.

I agree with your claims about the lower classes making poor decisions and being the victims, ultimately, of their own cultures. Its pretty well documented. But need I point out that winning the lottery really isn't particularly capitalist either? No effort or strife goes in, nothing is produced, no investments are made. You could risk only $2 on the first and only lottery ticket you'll ever buy, or be given one on a birthday, and be lucky enough to win. Lottery is a sort of socialist welfare program operated by a corporation, who makes a hefty portion off the top, and who distributes not to the needy but to the lucky. It's a corrupted form of corporate greed and gambling, a lust for quick dollar with little effort. Nothing about it is adherent to capitalist principles. It's capitalist the way prostitution or child pornography are in free market demand. It's kind of a sickening corruption that only the morally depraved would participate in. The lottery is capitalist the way welfare is capitalist - people want to maximize their earnings while minimizing their costs, to great the largest possible benefit-to-cost ratio. It's the leaching of society by the non-contributor. The modern liberal wants to scorn the uber rich for not "paying their fair share" (which is a false claim anyway), but they also refrain from scorning the lower classes for not "doing their fair share".

Robin may have done a lot of things wrong, including not introspecting on motives, or giving to those who didn't deserve and who don't earn, etc. But you should also keep in mind that the local nobles were unjustly taxing. Not taxing, but unjustly taxing. The people were being stolen from, in a way. Robin stole it back. The wealth that was redistributed to the poor was essentially rightfully theirs in the first place.

It's like in the modern day when you sue for damages, or the police return what was stolen from you. I'd hardly call that a "redistribution" when it should have been yours anyway, and I'd hardly call it free market. I wouldn't say its a correction of a "disparity" either.

There is also nothing wrong with nepotism. We all do for our own families first, then friends next. Strangers come last. It's natural. It's biological. Animals in nature do it. When you have to allocate your own resources to help out another, it's best they be blood first - to ensure the perpetuation of the genes - or else someone who is in your social circle and might reciprocate that assistance later. We write our wills to bestow our estates to our own children, not to strangers'. The people who are opposed to nepotism are the ones who don't trust family, or who have poor-choice-making family without wealth. Either way they are resentful and envious of the haves because they are a have-not. But when/if the tables are ever turned in life, I bet they will sing a different tune.

Historically power and money go together. If you have money, you have power. Money buys land. Land buys influence, resources, and the people living on that land are in some sense under you. Wealth grows exponentially if it isn't squandered.

  • Whoa. Lots of things to disassemble here. "Its capitalist the way prostitution or child pornography are in free market demand." Did you just equate those two? And lottery? Wth? "There is also nothing wrong with nepotism. We all do for our own families first, then friends next. Strangers come last. Its natural. Its biological. Animals in nature do it." Actually, there is a lot wrong with nepotism. And natural =/= moral. "but they also refrain from scorning the lower classes for not "doing their fair share"." Of course Because they might lack the ability to do so, may be retired etc.
    – jo1storm
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 7:21
  • Absolutely not my point was that in his holier than thou stance that he considered himself of statute to redistribute wealth as he pleases, he was equally as immoral as his oppressors, diminishing the freedom of the market Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 17:41
  • again, as I stated, I do not believe nepotism to something that can ever be erased from our societies, and for things I see impossible to change I don't cast moral judgement upon, that would be hypocritical of me Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 17:43

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