Could you be a killer?

I’ve brought this question up a few times in conversation so I thought, since I haven’t blogged in a few days, I’d put it up for discussion here. Sorry in advance to those of you with whom I’ve already talked about this (please revoice your thoughts here though if you feel so inclined, and I hope you do).

We don’t generally think very highly of critics who aren’t also actors – people who sit back and bemoan the suffering of orphans but haven’t done a thing to help them, people who complain incessantly about the state of the union but don’t vote, people who complain about the behavior of others who don’t say a thing to them in person. When we’re engaged in this sort of empty talk, we’re either being cowardly, lazy, or straight-up hypocritical – nothing admirable there. What’s the problem with it exactly? The problem is the disparity between what we’re saying (or insinuating) ought to be the case, and what we’re ourselves bringing about, or at least striving for. The core of the criticism is this: if you believe something ought to be done, and it’s reasonably within your power to do it, you should get on it. Or, more precisely, if:

1. You believe x ought to be the case
2. It is within (or seemingly within) your power to bring x about
3. It would not be counterproductive to x to attempt to bring x about
4. Attempting to bring x about would not require abandoning some greater obligation (say, saving a child from drowning)
Then, you ought to attempt to make x the case if it’s not the case already.

To see it in flesh, just take something you think ought to be the case (say, that children not starve to death) and plug it in for x.

From all this we can say something else: if some thing ought to be done, we should be the sort of people who can do it. That’s part of being virtuous – being able to do the right things. So, if people ought to be treated kindly, we ought to be the sort of people who can be kind, if people ought to be led well, we ought to be as good leaders as we can (as in parenting, for instance), and so on. Here’s what makes this interesting for me at the moment though:

Some people ought to be killed.

What do we do with that? I know some people who disagree with the statement completely and say that no one deserves to die, but that seems totally wrong to me. It seems, rather, that there are all sorts of people who no longer deserve to live, but instead deserve death – serial killers, child rapists, workers in Nazi death camps, malicious tyrants (Stalin, Hussein, Hitler, etc.), and the list goes on. It seems clear to me that these people just deserve death; that not giving them this is unjust. I imagine most people agree with me. Statistics say that the overwhelming majority do.

So take these two points, 1. We ought to be the sort of people who can bring about the change we wish to see in the world, and 2. We believe certain people ought to be killed, and what follows is that we ought to be the sort of people who can kill those who deserve death. I think that naturally follows from 1 and 2, and I think 1 and 2 are true, so I’m convinced at this point that part of being a virtuous person is being able to execute the deserving. I think most people would be repulsed at that suggestion, but it seems right to me, and further, it seems that the virtuous naturally rejoice in doing justice, and so would be glad to do it.

So, here’s the question – are you the sort of person who could kill someone who deserved it? Should you be that sort of person?


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  1. #1 by iheartfilm on 3.1.09 - 3.19 pm

    Yes, I would agree that some individuals are poisonous and wholly irreparable – you know, those individuals who openly and unapologetically announce their desire to destroy others in order to promote themselves. Killing these people is absolutely just. Why? Because killing them proves more beneficial to society than letting them live. Remember, it’s about the whole, not the individual.

    However, there are those who kill for less selfish reasons. Killing them might not prove as just.


  2. #2 by Michael Glawson on 3.2.09 - 12.16 am

    Good points. So, could you put a gun to an unashamed child-rapist’s head and pull the trigger if it came down to it (assuming 1-4 above)?

  3. #3 by Alex Marshall on 3.7.09 - 4.29 pm

    I think I agree with the argument, but I wonder if I could really do this.

    I think if I had some personal connection to the evil this person had done (they had killed my family, say) then I would have no problem pulling the trigger, but then I’m not sure my motives would be really just (maybe justice would be part of it, but I think I would be primarily acting from anger and a desire to enact revenge at that point). If I had no connection to the events, I would personally have a hard time pulling the trigger. Maybe I could be convinced this person deserved to die and eventually execute them… maybe. I don’t think I would do this gladly, though…

  4. #4 by Evan Webster on 3.12.09 - 7.44 pm

    Hmmm interesting man, would love to talk more about it but here are my initial questions.

    Do you think that everyone has the same moral discernment to know what ought to be or not to be from which they could be trusted to make such a huge judgment and decision? Furthermore to what extent is it a just punishment to kill and should individuals be given that much power?

    Have you thought about the possible ways that killing for justice could be counterproductive to it?

  5. #5 by Michael Glawson on 3.12.09 - 10.47 pm

    Evan, thanks for the thoughts.

    First, no I definitely don’t think everyone has the same skill at discerning what the just thing to do is, and so I definitely wouldn’t trust just any person to make the call. But, my main question here was what sort of people should we be. I think, in addition to being the sort of people who could justly kill another person if we had to, we should also be discerning 🙂

    For your second question, of when it’s just to punish with death, I definitely don’t have a good answer. I can only say that there are many cases where death is clearly deserved, and many where death seems far too extreme. As far as giving individuals the right to execute, that’s come up in conversations about this post a lot, and it’s partially my own ambiguity. The above post does not argue that individuals ought to have the right to execute the deserving, only the ability to do so if we were faced with the task.

    Your last question is interesting; could you give more detail on what you’re thinking there?

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