Friday, January 02, 2009

The Tyrannicide Problem

Audiences are flocking to Valkyrie, a pretty good movie about one of the true heroes of the twentieth century, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg. The critics on the other hand seem to be suffering from some kind of irrational reaction to the fact that Tom Cruise plays the hero. He really seems to throw them into a tizzy. Personally, I almost never either like or dislike a movie because some mime appears in it, and so I regard this one as worth seeing. Actors are sock-puppets, and (now that Pauline Kael is gone) critics should be ignored. Except for me, of course.

Anyway, when Bryan Caplan saw this movie recently he was moved to comment on an interesting problem posed by the practice of tyrannicide. No, it isn't how could it be justified? He rightly takes that to be obvious (how could you not kill Hitler if given the chance?) but why isn't there a lot more of it? People seem to have a deep-seated aversion to killing evil authority figures. (Notice that Dante puts Brutus on the same level of Hell as Judas -- the lowest.) Why?

His rather disturbing answer (other than that people are afraid of the consequences): there is a high correlation between moral virtue (as conventionally understood) and obedience to authority. Most of the people who care enough to fight evil are the very ones who have a gut aversion to going up against the big boys. This of course is exactly what Nietzsche would have said.

If Caplan and Nietzsche are right, it probably means that the ways of thinking and acting that most ethical theories recommend are actually very rare. Most are, after all, instances of what you might call epistemological individualism. Whether your favorite theory is utilitarianism, Kantian rationalism, or Randian individualism, they tell you that the way to act is to apply principles, ideals and algorithms to the problems of life, using the powers of your own mind. If there is a high correlation between morality and obedience to authority, the most likely explanation for that would be that people's obedience authority is the source of their "morality." In that case, the theory that actually describes the way such people act is relativism, which tells you to follow the lead of ... whoever or whatever makes the rules that actually govern society.

And that, to me, is very disturbing, for a number of reasons. One is that it means that if the person making the rules is Hitler, you may be stuck with him. The only people with the guts to take him out will tend to be the ones who don't care. In fact, they may be working the system for all its worth, and making out like bandits. Is that what actually happens, I wonder?


Peter L. Winkler said...

I think the question devolves to one of a personal cost-benefit analysis. Is the risk of being killed or tortured and killed outweighed by the benefit of killing a tyrant, especially as the assassin probably won't live to benefit from the tyrant's death and any improvement in social conditions will benefit people the assasin has no personal connction to.

Tyrants are often well protected and retaliate mercilessly against threats. After all, look how Hitler dispatched von Stauffenberg and anyone even suspected of involvement in the conspiracy to kill him. It's a strong deterrent to further assassination attempts.

Jeremy said...

"His rather disturbing answer (other than that people are afraid of the consequences): there is a high correlation between moral virtue (as conventionally understood) and obedience to authority. Most of the people who care enough to fight evil are the very ones who have a gut aversion to going up against the big boys. This of course is exactly what Nietzsche would have said."

I believe Aristotle said something to this effect in either "Ethics" or "Politics". Aristotle is one ancient philosopher whose ideas would fit in quite well in today's world.

Lester Hunt said...


That must part of the story, but I don't think that can be the whole explanation. When you consider how much misery and injustice tyrants cause, it's still a problem why more people aren't willing to die to take them out. Note how many people are willing to die in order to blow up shopping centers or crash planes into buildings. Terrorist suicide bombers seem to be much, much more common than people who do what Brutus and von Stauffenberg did. Then there is the issue that Caplan thinks is part of the same problem: why are there so many more serial killers than vigilantes (like the fictional Dexter)?


I've always thought Aristotle is a good psychologist (though only if I get to interpret him!). BTW, he was one of the first people to argue that tyrannicide is not only permissible but virtuous.

kellie said...

Interesting - but your post seems to be missing a link to Caplan's post on tyrannicide. Where should I look in Aristotle for his thoughts on tyrannicide? I'll start with the index!

I spent some time on these issues over the holidays - happily only in writing.

Lester Hunt said...


Thanks for alerting me about the missing link. It's been fixed.

As to the relevant Aristotle passage, I wrote the above under the influence of this passage, but I notice its authors give no source.

Rummaging through my Loeb edition of The Politics, the closest I can find right now is 1295a23, where Arist. says, of the purest form of tyranny, that "no free man willingly endures such rule."

Jeremy said...

"there is a high correlation between moral virtue (as conventionally understood) and obedience to authority. Most of the people who care enough to fight evil are the very ones who have a gut aversion to going up against the big boys."

I must apologize for my vagueness but i am almost positive Aristotle says almost exactly this - translated of course- in the Politics. Unfortunately, my notes and book are still in madison and i am at home. I just took Poli Sci501 - a great course and John Zumbrunnen is an excellent lecturer - Development of Ancient and Medieval Western Poltical Thought. The great thing about Aristotle is that he even included a section on how to remain in power as a tyrant. Once again im dumbfounded as to the passaged numbers but he ennumerate some Machiavellian ideas such as lopping off your enemies heads. But, he does go on to list some more nuanced ways to maintain tyrannical regimes such as appearing to act just while being a tyrant. I will be retrieving my notes shortly and will have a more comprehensive and better cited post.

Anonymous said...

"Most of the people who care enough to fight evil are the very ones who have a gut aversion to going up against the big boys."

There's more than one way to go up against the big boys. Raoul Wallenberg took them on in his own quiet, methodical way. He was obviously no moral relativist, and it took great courage to do what he did. What's more, he was remarkably successful. I suppose he might have plotted to assassinate Hitler, but almost certainly he would have failed. Instead, he performed acts of resistance that were immediately available to him.

On the whole, I think his efforts are more estimable than Herr Stauffenberg's. Political assassins tend to be dreamers who pin everything on one-stroke solutions. They're somewhat like revolutionaries in that respect. They think: if the tyrant is killed, the world will be transformed. How often does that happen, I wonder? Probably not very. Caesar is killed, then Octavius succeeds him; then Tiberius; then Caligula, who in turn is killed; then Clau-Clau-Claudius. No great gain there. Had Hitler been killed, some other monster would have taken over until the war played itself out in the same way.

Why aren't there more Raoul Wallenbergs in the world? More selfless nuns hiding away victims? More underground railroads? These are the examples of resistance that most impress me.

Lester Hunt said...


I guess your idea is that, even if moral virtue (standard variety) is linked to traits that inhibit violent responses to authority, that is okay because non-violent and constructive responses are always superior alternatives to it.

I have a lot of sympathy with that view -- hiding Jews in your attic is very often better than the exploding-briefcase response. But I can't follow that line of reasoning all the way. Applied consistently it would seem to rule out revolution.

Also, I think killing Hitler would almost certainly have been a good thing. His replacement by that time would have been Goebbels. Goebbels was just as fanatical as Hitler but he was also a lot less popular and thus less able to do damage and more vulnerable to a coup. One of the things that made Hitler such a formidable foe was his extreme (indeed, bizarre) popularity.

pappy d said...

This is a fascinating subject. The whole idea of good vs. evil is usually a feature of an in-group morality, i.e., we are good, they are evil. Reasoning from this simple premise, you might conclude that the leader is especially good or that he represents the essential goodness that characterises your society. In feudal times, the monarch himself was the organisational principle of the state.

I think the epistemology (can't wait to use THAT one in conversation) of conventional morality is a deeper & more fundamental problem than rational actors taking the path of least resistance. If people can't identify someone who enjoys a moral right to be obeyed, they will create God(s) to invest with that power over them. Some really scary individuals believe that without God, there is no morality at all.

To me, morality is never more relative than when it claims to be absolute. By the moral conventions of their own society, the 911 hijackers were heroes who gave their lives for God & country. They succeeded in driving the infidel army from the holy land of the Arabian Penninsula. They are absolved of sin because God is at the top of the organisational chart. Maybe it's better to say that conventional morality is absolute but only within a relativistic context.

Aristotle seems to leave it up in the air as to whether the free man should slay the tyrant, hang himself or endure UNwillingly but, to be fair, he probably lived under one at one time or another.

Anonymous said...

No, I would not want to preclude revolution, although history shows it to be a risky undertaking with a high likelihood of taking a very wrong turn. Similarly, I wouldn't want to categorically forbid assassination. But like revolution, assassination can be just a feckless shuffling of the deck to see if fortune will deal a better hand. That's especially true when the tyrant assassinated is the head of a modern totalitarian state.

The modern tyrant is backed up by an elaborate party organization that includes a security apparatus whose police and informers pervade every nook and cranny of society. Not only is it nearly impossible to gain physical access to today's tyrant, but even if one succeeds and kills him, nothing happens to the tyranny he sponsors. The party apparatus and the secret police continue to operate as before, and the would-be successors to the tyrant collaborate with one another at least long enough to stamp out external threats to the party -- because if the party goes, they all go.

Had Hitler been killed, I imagine that something like this would have happened in Germany. The party honchos would have come together and arrived at some accommodation to save their collective neck. As to the lack of a charismatic leader and the effect that might have had on the masses, a martyred and suitably deified Hitler (engineered by the wizardry of Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl, perhaps) might have been enough to keep the Volk fixated on their collective Teutonic destiny.

But don't get me wrong. If someone has a straight shot at a Pol Pot and turns to me for permission to shoot, I will of course say, "Be my guest." Pol Pot is a case, by the way, in which any successor to him would probably not have followed up on what seems to have been a very private delusion, so that killing Pol Pot might have made a real difference. Hitler's lunacy -- sad to say -- was very widely shared by those who would follow him and almost certainly would have been perpetuated by them. In Hitler's case, the "revolution" was the total eradication of the Nazi regime, and it would have been completed even had Stauffenberg succeeded. Hence my conclusion that his efforts, however noble, were quixotic and insubstantial compared to Wallenberg's. He probably would have done better to join the resistance or defect to the other side.

None of this speaks to the bigger question you raise, which I honestly don't understand. But I'll have to save that for another time.

Lester Hunt said...


I see that your position would not lead to opposing revolution per se.

I think the difference between us is possibly a matter of degree. In my view, assassination has very limited value as a political tool, if only because the results are so chaotic and unpredictable. Most assassinations either don't advance the assassin's political agenda or actually work against it.

Where I think I do disagree is that you seem to assume that states work as systems, not as the tools of some individual, so that if you take an individual out the system will simply replace them. This assumption fits a lot of the facts, but by no means all of them. Eg., when Lincoln was killed, he was replaced by someone who was much weaker, politically, and that made a big difference (for the worse, of course, but that's another matter).

Anonymous said...

I suppose the models I have in mind are one-party states like the Soviet Union. In such cases, the system is indeed able to replace the leader while still maintaining a tight lid on society at large. The intra-party rivalries that ensue can of course be very serious, but all the rivals know that the party must be secured first before they settle their private scores. That's why the rivals must appear in public together, waving bouquets, grimly resolute, and apparently of one mind. Huzzah! Strike up the band! Roll out the tanks! One thinks of the transitions between Lenin and Stalin and between Stalin and Khrushchev.

Another good example would be how the creepy little Kim Jong-il successfully followed his father Kim Il-sung, who had charismatic presence and was for decades Korea's virtual God Almighty. The Party, with its police and propaganda organs no doubt working fiendishly, managed to secure the implausible transition with very few problems visible to the outside world. Now, amazingly, Kim Jong-il has emerged as an Adored Leader in his own right.

While historical generalizations are always tricky, it's not difficult to imagine Hitler's successors performing a similar sleight-of-hand. Then again, events were moving very swiftly, so it's possible that the do-over could not have been completed before the avenging hordes of the East broke through.

Lincoln? Sorry, but he strikes me as a confusing example for what I thought we were talking about. He wasn't a tyrant in the relevant sense (if in any sense) but an elected official in a multi-party system. However much power he may have exercised during the war, he and his successors were ultimately subject to the Constitution. If Lincoln was succeeded by an inferior man, that man could be (and was) replaced through normal democratic procedures. That would not happen in a one-party state. The inferior man would be propagandized into a Great Man, all weaknesses airbrushed away, his image expanded to fill the skies.

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding?