The cost of killing is not measured in lives ended but in lives diminished, made less joyful and vibrant by the loss of a valued friend, relative, or colleague.
As implied by the title, I believe that killing is morally neutral. This might seem like a strange thing for a humanist to claim, though for those familiar with utilitarian moral systems, it won’t be hard to figure out what I will argue to support it. My goal here is not to foment bellicosity or, humanity-forbid, some form of objectivism, but rather to suggest that we should focus on the consequences of violence rather on its essential character. To put it another way, if we are to use the principle ‘life is sacred’ in any meaningful way, it’s not the biological processes sustaining our bodies that should be called life but rather the social and psychic bonds between ourselves and others, where the death of one produces suffering in others.
First, I want to raise an example familiar to me based on my academic research: military assassination. Imagine a situation of civil war, perhaps very similar to what began to unfold in Libya last year, in which the death of a single tyrannical leader could produce a peaceful end to the conflict, with thousands of live spared. Imagine that you have the intelligence and technology to assassinate him. This would not be an execution – he is not being punished for being a tyrant, though his tyrannical past might certainly help us predict what would happen if he remained alive – but a military action designed to reach a legitimate political outcome via minimum force necessary.
Suffice it to say, few people reading those would express moral discomfort with killing him.
This is a complex example, of course. There are many reasons why people who see killing as essentially wrong might nevertheless sanction it in this case: the leader is a threat to the lives of many people, he has a history of brutality, a state of war entails different moral categories than peacetime, and so on.
Let’s consider a different example: a spy who has information that will start a war. If we kill them – for let us assume that we have no other option to keep the information the spy carries from getting out – the war will not start and, all other things being equal, the outcome will see thousands of lives saved. To complicate things, let’s say that this spy thinks that the information they are carrying is simple industrial espionage, and is unaware of its implications. This spy isn’t even a combatant, and probably wouldn’t pass on the information if they knew what it was.
We’re still in favour of killing the spy, aren’t we?
These examples show that there are cases in which we could treat a killing as good rather than bad, but they don’t necessarily show that killing is morally neutral. Even if you endorse the sacredness of life and therefore the wrongness of killing, you could still be in favour of killing in these examples because they are cases in which the lesser of two wrongs must be chosen. But I offer them to show how most of us think consequences matter, and that even violence can be a tool for producing a better outcome.
As a utilitarian, I consider good outcomes to be those that make people happy, and bad outcomes to be those that make people unhappy or that cause suffering. In other words, subjective experience is what carries moral judgement. I certainly think it is wise, for heuristic purposes, to find principles or character virtues that, if accepted, are more likely to produce better outcomes. Behaving as though life is sacred in most cases is one of them. But in the end, what matters is what people feel.
Dead people don’t feel anything.
Making someone dead removes them from the category of moral subjects. Nothing will make them happy or sad or anything else. They don’t matter anymore.
But the people they leave behind matter. When someone close to me dies, I feel very bad. I miss their presence: their personality, their affections, their contributions to my understanding of myself and my world. If they died violently or painfully, as some close to me have, I am disturbed by imagining their last moments. It makes me very anxious to imagine that they died feeling distress or fear.
This is the cost of killing. The cost of killing is not measured in lives ended but in lives diminished, made less joyful and vibrant by the loss of a valued friend, relative, or colleague.
In the realm of the hypothetical, the implication of this could be that the killing of someone so isolated and alone that their death would produce no consequence in anyone’s life could be considered neither bad nor good. My argument certainly entails that, as counter-intuitive as it would seem for most of us to accept it. But the discomfort we feel in imagining this thought experiment even if we are inclined to accept utilitarianism in general itself illustrates something else: we cannot help but feel as though every life could be valuable even in the unlikely event that it could be ended without present consequence to the lives of others. Because we think in terms of heuristics, even were we to invest ourselves completely in consequentialism I doubt we could avoid generalising to cases which lie outside of the category of dilemma for which our heuristic is designed to facilitate fast judgements.
Another reason might be the opportunity costs that the death of any person might entail. What about the happiness they could bring, were they to have remained alive? We’re naturally optimistic, and its reasonable to expect that without even thinking carefully about the probability of a killing now producing a net decrease in human happiness, we’re inclined to treat death as a loss and find it morally wrong.
So if you’ve followed my argument, and you think it’s been a good one, you should now see killing as morally neutral and, if this conclusion bothers you, you should be understanding your aversion to it as a predictable consequence of human psychology rather than an objection to my justification for it. You might ask, though, whether there is really any advantage in bothering to overcome your aversions, and even whether doing so actually is dangerous, as it could make killing more palatable or likely.
I actually think the opposite is true. I think that my argument should lead us to additional conclusions which will make us consider killing far more carefully, and to be mindful of far more variables:
- The moral character of the target should never matter in the decision to use lethal force – it doesn’t matter what their misdeeds have been, or for that matter, whether they’ve repented of them – but the expected outcome of their death. Who loves them and who will miss them when they’re gone? Will their suffering outweigh whatever good may come of the target’s death?
- The moral character of a killing should be understood within a broad social and temporal context: it could change the willingness of other people to carry out further killings, or destabilise political and civil society.
I doubt anything I’ve written here will seriously alter anyone’s moral perceptions, but I do hope that even a small shift of focus from the character of the act to the character of the outcome in considering something as awful as violence will encourage more care and reluctance in considering its use.