Home arrow Philo Talking arrow Are we ever allowed to kill?

Are we ever allowed to kill? PDF Print E-mail

3rd July 2012:  John Scanlon  Are we ever allowed to kill?


A question that is bound to raise controversy, John Scanlon's talk outlined the different definitions of killing to allow the audience to consider the subject from several different perspectives.  The extension of the debate to euthanasia and abortions has been tantalising deferred to another talk later in the year.  

Some  definitions

“We” in the title of this paper refers to human beings, either as individuals or as members of associations, institutions or nation states.

Allowed” implies the question -- who or what does the allowing?  It might be the law of the state, or majority public opinion, or the external moral code of a religion, or the internal forum of an individual conscience.  I suggest each of you inserts the one or more of these four that seems appropriate to your own way of thinking.

To kill” will in this paper be restricted to the killing of living human beings.  There are valid questions that can be discussed with regard to the killing of non-human species, but time does not allow for them tonight.  We must also decide whether tonight’s discussion includes life prior to birth; while I recognise that there are some groups who regard abortion as a particularly egregious instance of killing, I want to restrict this discussion, for reasons of time, to humans already born.   Therefore “killing” will be defined for this discussion as a deliberate act that results in the ending of the life of an individual, born human being, at a time prior to that at which natural death would have occurred.

“Justifications” / Excuses for Killing

Throughout the history of human thought, the act of killing seems to have been regarded in general as not a Good Thing.  Accounts of episodes of killing are mostly disapproving of the act.  If not disapproving, there are normally justifications or excuses advanced to explain why this particular killing should be spared the normal disapproval.   An illustrative, but not necessarily complete, list of killings that have been supported by some groups, on some occasions, is given below.

 Genocide:  This is killing in which the victims are selected on the basis of being members of a particular racial or religious group, which is regarded by the killer(s) as being sub-human and a threat to the existence of the racial/religious group that the killers represent.  The development of international courts to deal with genocide as a crime has been one of the important events of the last 70 years.   It is most unlikely that one could find a defender of genocide except among its perpetrators.

 “Terrorist” Bombing:  This is killing by the introduction of explosives into civilian environments with the aim of killing, on a random basis, as many people as possible.    I distinguish this from the crime of the bomb-throwing anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose primary targets were heads of state or political leaders; these bomb-throwers are more properly grouped with those who have assassinated public figures.  The true terrorist bomber is normally part of a group, and has a politico-religious motivation.   Examples covering a range of politico-religious groups from the last century are the Stern Gang, the IRA and its offshoots, and al-Qaeda.   As with genocide, it is inconceivable that one could find a defender of terrorist bombing outside of its perpetrators and their close ideological affiliates.

 Honour” Killing:  This is defined as the homicide of a member of a family or social group by other members, due to the belief of the perpetrators that the victim has brought dishonour upon the family or the community.  The primary victims are normally women and girls, and in some cultures homosexual men.  Behaviour resulting in honour killing can include: dressing in a manner unacceptable to the family or community; wanting to terminate or prevent an arranged marriage; desiring to marry by own choice, especially if to a member of a social group deemed inappropriate; engaging in heterosexual acts outside marriage and engaging in homosexual acts.   Women’s groups in the Middle East and Southwest Asia estimate that more than 20,000 women are killed each year in honour killings. 

The claimed basis for honour killing is not grounded in religion, as it has been committed or justified by Moslems, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians.   Authentic leaders of all of these religions condemn the practice, although some poorly educated Islamic leaders have claimed to find support for it in the Koran.  It seems to be a cultural phenomenon most prevalent in an area reaching from Eastern Turkey through the Arab countries of the Middle East to Central Asia, Pakistan and Northern India.  As a cultural practice it seems to pre-date the foundations of all the major religions.  A new and horrifying development is that the practice has become more frequent among members of communities from the above areas who have migrated into Western societies, particularly Britain, as a result of conflicts within families arising from the clash of the cultures in which they live.

Legal codes in many of the countries listed above explicitly allow honour killings to go unpunished or to be very lightly punished.    While this has been of little direct concern to Western countries until recent times, the incidence of honour killing in immigrant communities does add to the disruptive stresses in culturally mixed countries where there is no legal toleration of this crime.

Eugenic Killing:  This is killing of those whom the perpetrators consider to be physically and mentally defective, in order to ensure that they will not reproduce, or become a burden in some way [including economic] on society or the family.  While eugenic killing of adults has been associated with some campaigns of genocide, it is more commonly practised as killing of young children and the newborn.  In some cultures at some times, the “defect” that leads to the killing is simply being the undesired sex.  The desire to kill off unwanted girl babies is still strong in some Asian cultures today, although advances in technology now commonly lead to children of the unwanted sex being avoided through selective abortion.  A recent example of the advocacy of eugenic killing was the article published earlier this year by two Melbourne-based Philosophy academics, which discussed the justification of killing severely handicapped babies, immediately after birth, by classifying them under the logically challenging title of “post-birth” abortions.

Assassination of Public Figures:  This is a type of killing that has been with us since the dawn of written history.   In any society at any time, there will inevitably be a number of people whose resentments against the powers in society become fixed upon leading public figures – monarchs, presidents, religious leaders, even prominent entertainers – think John Lennon.   Most perpetrators in this group are fairly obviously detached from reality to the point of insanity.  However there remains what one might call the “von Stauffenberg dilemma” after the man who tried but failed to assassinate Adolf Hitler: is it acceptable to assassinate a cruel, apparently irrational dictator who is dragging his country to military defeat or into a total breakdown of society?  Many of us will feel that if the target figure is sufficiently depraved and/or irrational, assassination can be justified.  However I think we must also consider an opposing view that says there is a fundamental problem with a private citizen, or a small group of private citizens, appointing themselves to all the roles of prosecutor, judge, jury member and executioner.

Capital Punishment:  Unlike the assassination case we have just discussed, capital punishment poses no problems in terms of the legality of all of the roles involved; normally we are talking about the outcome of investigatory and judicial processes carried out under the rule of law, and the executioner is an appointed officer of the state.  If we regard capital punishment as unacceptable, it must be on one or more of the following grounds:

First, that it is not prudent, in view of the possibility that any judgment might later be shown to be mistaken, to carry out an irreversible punishment.

Second, that the death penalty is an unacceptable form of punishment because it is too “cruel and unusual” to satisfy the moral conduct norms accepted by a particular society at a given time.

Third, that every human being has an absolute right to life that bars the taking of his or her life under any circumstances, even when the killing is approved and carried out by the state and when it is inflicted as a punishment for crimes committed by the victim.

I would guess that virtually all opponents of capital punishment advance the first of these arguments, and most would accept the “cruel and unusual” argument as well.  The rigorist argument of an absolute right to life would have very few supporters as an argument against capital punishment, but at least has the virtue of total consistency.   One does see a great deal of inconsistency in discussion of the morality of killing; the most outstanding example can be found in contemporary American politics, where a large slice of the Religious Right attack legalised abortion on the ground of the universal and absolute right to life.  Yet the very same people are normally enthusiastic supporters of capital punishment, and also are very largely keen supporters of their country waging wars.  And this brings us neatly to our next form of killing.


War:  Attempts to impose some sort of moral framework on the behaviour of states and individuals during the conduct of war have been going on for at least 1,600 years.  Nowadays there is a well-developed corpus of just war theory, as well as international agreements [the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and subsequent Protocols] to define war guilt and acceptable behaviour of combatants towards each other.  The formulation of moral theory tends to run well behind the growth in destructive power of emerging technology; it is typical that the Geneva Conventions deal only with the behaviour of official armed forces towards each other, and have nothing to say about the injury or killing of civilians in war theatres.  Concern for proportionality [in this era of weapons of mass destruction] and discrimination between combatants and civilians should be major considerations when making judgments about killing in the course of war.   When we hear the dreadful euphemism “collateral damage” being used, we should be aware that a moral morass is close at hand.


Self-Defence:  The last of the specific forms of killing that I want to consider is killing in self-defence.  Even the most absolutist protector of human life will have to concede that in an either/or situation, one’s own life can be preserved at the cost of the attacker’s life.  However self-defence cannot be stretched to cover pre-emptive aggression.  A recent and notorious misapplication was the killing in Florida of a black youth by a white vigilante, which the Florida legal authorities were initially disposed to class as self-defence under the state’s recently introduced “stand your ground” law.   True self-defence must be near to being a last resort.


Analysis of the Justification Process

I suggest that when any of us examines an instance of killing, we normally make an instinctive identification with either the killer or the victim.   To put it another way, becoming aware of an act of killing causes us to divide humanity into an in-group with which we identify, and an out-group with which we instinctively resist being identified.    In some cases our identification will be with the killer, and the in-group that we instinctively define will ally us with the person or group that has done the killing.   When we are members of the group of highly intelligent, law-abiding and right-thinking people who come to Philo Agora evenings and we have identified a killer as part of our in-group, we can be very sure that the in-group will be a very large slice of humanity.  Such an in-group might, for instance, be the proportion of the population that is in favour of capital punishment.  Or it might be the peoples who are on our side in a world war.  In such cases we believe that, by virtue of being part of this very large in-group, we [or our agreed representatives] are allowed to kill.


When we are part of such an in-group we do not necessarily have the same feeling about all the persons who are part of the corresponding out-group.  For instance, when the killing concerned is an act of capital punishment, we will not have the same attitudes to principled opponents of capital punishment as we do to convicted murderers on Death Row.  At least, I hope not!


This tendency to bond together with others who are physically or emotionally close to us, in opposition to the rest of humanity, is a very primitive one indeed, and almost certainly derives from pre-human animal behaviours.  The same behaviour pattern is evident in chimpanzees.  How the in-group is defined will vary from one incident to another, depending on the specific nature of each case of killing, the cultural conditioning each of us has received, and perhaps peer pressure.  This variability in composition of our in-groups is the source of the apparent inconsistencies that I mentioned earlier.  The variability is summed up well by the old Arab saying:

“I against my brother; I and my brother against our cousin; I, my brother and our cousin against the world.”


When we nominate a particular person or group as deserving of killing, I submit that what we are doing is de-humanising the opponent; that is, we are withdrawing our recognition of them as fellow human beings.  It is this exclusion of them in our minds from the rest of humanity which removes an instinctive barrier and allows us to proceed to the action or approval of killing.  If you are inclined to dispute this, think how often you have heard it said [or said yourselves] that the perpetrators of a particular killing have acted in an “inhuman” or a “sub-human” way.


My personal View

I am now going to give my own answer to the question “Are we ever allowed to kill”, but not because I claim any right to define or prescribe how you should think.   I feel I should give it because you have the right to the information; you have the right to consider it while you are making up your own minds about what I have been presenting tonight.


With the exception of self-defence, I cannot conceive of any circumstance in which I would be prepared to kill.  With that one exception, my in-group is consistently the whole of humanity, and I personally could not agree to put any other human being outside it.  I realise that I am in an extremely small minority – possibly even smaller than the Vegans in our population largely made up of omnivores.  However I can claim for my side the poet John Donne when he said “No man is an island.”  When a human being has been killed, I say with John Donne, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; for it tolls for thee.”


< Prev   Next >