I have recently been reading Friedrich Schiller's fantastic Drama William Tell, in which he not only relates the folkloric-mythological origin of Switzerland upon its liberation from the yoke of the Habsburg dynasty, but also posits how a rebellion — I imagine, in contrast to the Jacobin Reign of terror after the French Revolution — should be organized.

The popular insurrection that Schiller describes in his work does not leave any deaths behind, except for that of Geßler, the despotic tyrant murdered by William Tell. Also, at the end of the play, Johannes Parricida assassinates his uncle, King Albrecht, and asks Tell for a safe haven from persecution. To convince him, he claims that they have both killed two nefarious people who abused their power, to which Tell replies that the cases are not comparable. He acted in defense of himself and his family, while Parricide wanted to satiate his lust for power and greed:

"Parricidas Erscheinung ist der Schlussstein des Ganzen. Tells Mordtat wird durch ihn allein moralisch und poetisch aufgelöst. Neben dem ruchlosen Mord aus Impietät und Ehrsucht steht nunmehr Tells notgedrungene Tat, sie erscheint schuldlos in der Zusammenstellung mit einem ihr ganz unähnlichen Gegenstück, und die Hauptidee des ganzen Stücks wird eben dadurch ausgesprochen, nämlich: ‚Das Notwendige und Rechtliche der Selbsthilfe in einem streng bestimmten Fall‘" (cf. Alexander Geist, Wilhelm Tell. Inhalt, Hintergrund, Interpretation.)

"Parricida's appearance is the keystone of the whole. Tell's murderous deed is morally and poetically resolved by him alone. Next to the nefarious murder out of impiety and ambition now stands Tell's act of necessity, it appears guiltless in the composition with a counterpart quite dissimilar to it, and the main idea of the whole play is expressed by this very fact, namely: 'The necessary and legal of self-help in a strictly determined case.'"

It is the right to self-defense and to resistance where Tell presumably finds his justification. However, other sources suggest that Tell's decision to kill Geßler had little to do with Swiss independence and self-defense, but rather pure revenge (Gessler forced him to risk his son's life in the famous apple-shot scene).

Thus some questions arise.

  • Regarding William Tell: Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate? (I know this is not incredibly general, as you should be familiar with the work in order to be able to answer it, but was curious. I would be very glad if someone could share their opinion and might probably award a bounty if I find it interesting :))
  • If we abstract on a more general level: When is tyrannicide legitimate from a moral point of view? Which philosophical currents (or philosophers) — I am thinking above all, of authors such as Hobbes or contract theorists, but also utilitarianism — would have supported/rejected it? And why?

Thanks in advance.


I would turn for guidance, to Darwinism, and game theory. Taking this approach, we have to act in the interests of the unit of selection, the gene - unless we sacrifice that for the wellbeing of kin, able to replicate that behaviour, to the betterment of the entire community.

This framing sees the true nature of despotism and authoritarianism, as a free-rider problem, when any individual is asked to sacrifice their own children, it infringes a right they cannot give up, the premise by which they exist at all. When a leader asks such sacrifice, but will not make it themselves, they are insulated from the mechanism of selection (eg war, or firing an arrow into an apple), while parasitising on those who have undergone selection. This will given time, create an unstable game-theoretic equilibrium, where the tyrant class is insulated from selection, while the non-tyrant lineages continuously improve through selection.

Of course this doesn't refer to rights, or what is moral, it only echoes the lesson of history, that tyrants must fall.

Game theory should always include an additional option for all players, at all times. When is destruction preferable to continuing to play? This is the basis of the social contract. Those with nothing left to gain, have nothing to lose. So they will spin the wheel, of revolutionary chaos, in the hope of something new. Usually everyone loses, so it is in a political system's and community's interest, to flex rather than stay inflexible, when the community of those with nothing to lose grows too large. The Baron's Rebellion, The Peasants Revolt, The English Civil War, the Jamaican Slave Revolt, and the Peterloo Massacre, are examples that affected the development of the British State, where such groups grew substantial enough to effect lasting impacts. Their right to act, was when they felt they had nothing left to lose.

  • 1
    Although this was not exactly the answer I was expecting, I must admit that it is the most interesting one!! I didn't think that Tell's Tyrannicide could be approached from game theory — and the result is great!
    – Dr. Mathva
    Feb 6 at 19:24

The extra-judicial killing of a tyrant, for the crimes they have committed in their abuse of power, is the sort of moral question that moral philosophers tend to shy away from. There are, however, methods by which one can work through this sort of question.

First -- one must recognize that there are multitudes of moral stances that one may adopt, and the answer can vary significantly between them case-case. To do valid moral thinking, one must therefore think through amoral question from many of these stances, and should only adopt actions that are supported by all or most of the "best" of them.

Second -- there are worse and better moral stances. All of them are endorsed by advocates. But a reasonable standard for "worse" is peer opinion. The "worse" ones, are those which the non-adherents think they lead to particularly bad moral outcomes much of the time. Among these worser ones would be Legalism (in which the Tyrant would, as lawgiver, always be "in the right" whatever offenses he committed); Darwinian rationalizations for "alpha" behavior; and references to theological or cultural legalism. Under many of these worser stances, tyrranicide is always wrong. But as worser stances, their views are mostly irrelevant.

Third -- some moral stances are simply too diverse to be of much use. "Wisdom traditions" often encode good pragmatic wisdom, but they are very culturally specific, and some cultures will have useful guidance on a question like this, and many others will not. The historical Virtue Ethics have the same problem -- there are too many virtue sets that have been followed, and the answer depends on the specific set one is working from.

There are three primary stances that are widely seen as "better": Utilitarianism, Rights Ethic, and a pursuit of Truth and Love as overriding virtues. One can examine these three stances, and arrive at a pretty good understanding of how to behave in a particular instance. In addition to these three, there are two darwinian-inspired perspectives that are less objectionable to non-Darwinians, which can also be examined -- Eusocial ethics, and Deep Ecology.

Rights Ethic is simplest here, as outcomes and motives do not matter. Self defense, and defense of others from abuse, justifies Tells tyrranicide.
Rights Ethic also advocates for a We the People justification for governance, which Gessler was violating, so Gessler was also guilty of violating his social contract with the governed.

In Utilitarianism, it matters what happens NEXT. IF tyranny was just the nature of governance of the time, then there was not a crime or a problem on Gessler's part, just SOP bad governance. BUT -- if there was particular opportunity to institute much better governance, which apparently from history there WAS, then EVEN IF Gessler was not a particularly bad ruler, EVEN THEN, his murder and overthrow would be morally justified. utilitarianism therefore endorses his tyrranicide.

Truth is not a big driver of appropriate action in this case, but Love ethics has a lot to say. Killing someone is almost always wrong in Love ethics. The goal should always be to reach out and try to establish a caring connection, and try to convert Gessler to a better person through a transformation of the heart. Love Virtue ethics seem to work better if one accepts personal immortality, and the relative unimportance of exactly when one dies in this world. Under Love virtue, tyrannicide is wrong.

Under Eusocial Ethics -- it matters what happens to the stability and effectiveness of the society with or without the tyrranicide. The Swiss system became stable and highly productive, much more so than the feudal systems around them, hence eusocial ethics would endorse the tyrranicide.

Under Deep Ecology, the health of Gaia is the key question. As humans are the reasoning arm of Gaia, we are needed to protect Her from events She cannot predict or prevent without planning. The outcome of a governmental dispute in a tiny corner of Gaia, and the possible deaths of a few humans in the process, is of little import in Deep Ecology. BUT -- the principles of unchecked power with no moral or other consequences, which is exercised by Gessler, is anathema to Deep Ecology ethics. Overturning them, and the development of a Canton government with a concept of Responsibility to Constituents -- THIS matters a LOT to Deep Ecology. Deep Ecology would endorse the application of moral consequences to Gessler.

Four of these five better moral stances all support Tell's Tyrranicide.


Although it’s an interesting idea the question presupposes that there is a standard reference of ‘moral legitimacy’ which, considering we are in a philosophy forum, is a very dubious proposition.

There are several possibilities:

If there can be no fixed standard then the question is invalid, i.e. lacks meaning.

If there may be a fixed standard, akin to a monist truth, but unprovable by humans as we are all dwelling within Plato’s cave to varying degrees, then the question is indeterminate.

If there are no fixed standards but there might be relative standards depending on time, space, culture, environment, etc... then the question is too open ended. According to whose preference for ‘moral legitimacy’?

If there is a fixed standard as to which we can ascertain ‘moral legitimacy’ then the question is answerable.

As proof of such a construct is yet forthcoming in the realm of human knowledge in all likelihood there can be no final answer.

  • Moral reasoning is not, and cannot be -- closed form proofs. This is also true of many of the practical problems we need to solve in life. Your premise that only closed form proofs are legitimate forms of argument is -- very clearly wrong.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 31 at 2:43
  • @Dcleve “Your premise that only closed form proofs are legitimate forms of argument” Did I say that? I am pretty sure I did not. In fact in all likelihood there an infinite number of valid answers which implies the opposite.
    – M. Y. Zuo
    Jan 31 at 19:53
  • Your answer rejects the possibility of use of plausibility, usefulness, judgement, and wisdom in evaluating non-closed-form solutions -- therefore declaring them unevaluatable, and therefore not relevant. Hence only closed form satisfies the criteria you set for a relevant argument. And your very first sentence makes a false claim about the question -- the question does not "presupposes that there is a standard reference of ‘moral legitimacy’". That is a necessity for a rationalist approach to philosophy, but not for pragmatism nor judgement.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 31 at 20:34
  • @Dcleve “... therefore declaring them unevaluatable, and therefore not relevant” Ah this is where you have gotten confused, evaluability does not automatically imply relevancy nor vice versa, nor the opposite. There are of course situations where unevaluable ideas can still be relevant. Note that I explocitly state the possibibility of an unlimited number of unevaluable but potentially relevant answers. There just cannot be a final answer indepedent of enviornment and so on.
    – M. Y. Zuo
    Jan 31 at 21:25
  • You appear not to have understood that non-closed-form solutions ARE evaluatable, and the development of those evaluation standards involves pragmatic judgment and wisdom.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 31 at 21:43

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