Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Suicide can be murder

Joe thinks chess is an evil game and creates a killer robot tasked with killing the greatest chess player on earth, whoever it might be. The robot succeeds with the task. Joe is clearly a murderer, not merely an attempted murderer. But suppose Joe is the greatest chess player on earth, though he had no suspicion of this fact. Then Joe has committed suicide. And is a murderer. Hence a suicide can be a kind of murder.

(I actually think suicide is generally murder. But that's a stronger claim.)


Christopher Michael said...

So I think this debate is going to ride on whether you are an internalist or an externalist about what goes into the determination of the moral species of an act. If you are an internalist about moral species, you believe that all the facts that determine the moral species of an act internal to one or more of your mental states, whereas if you are an externalist about moral species, you believe there can be some facts which determine the moral species of an act even though they are wholly external to one's mental state at the time of the action.

Thus, if you are an internalist, Joe's murderous intent (along maybe with some other facts about Joe's mental states) determines the moral species of his act as murder, and the further, external fact that he is identical to his victim just makes no difference to the species of the act on this view. But if you are externalist, finding out that Joe's victim is Joe will make a difference in how you describe the act.

Of course, one could still be an externalist about the moral specification of acts and still think that Joe committed murder, so long as one rejects that the distinct moral principle that it is impossible to do injustice to oneself, but in that case, there is no need for an elaborate alleged counterexample such as this. This putative counterexample relies, as far as I can see, on the internalist/externalist distinction I drew above, which as far as I am aware, nobody has yet distinguished in the literature. It's probably going to be relevant to the moral luck literature as well.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Suppose Bjorn comes from a shame culture and believes that members of his family who have shamed the family should be killed by him. Bjorn knows that (a) he is a member of his family and (b) he has shamed his family. So he kills himself.

Bjorn, unlike Joe, of course knows that he's killing himself. But are Bjorn's intentions relevantly different from Joe's? Bjorn's intention is to kill a family member who has shamed the family. Joe's intention is to kill the best chess player in the world. It's true that Bjorn can put a name to the victim--"Bjorn"--while Joe can't. But that only establishes that Bjorn's intention is to kill Bjorn, not that Bjorn's intention is to kill himself.

Intentions are explanatory of action. That he himself is Bjorn need not contribute to explaining Bjorn's action of killing Bjorn. Bjorn could be entirely impartial about this. "Bjorn has shamed, so Bjorn must die. Too bad for me that I'm Bjorn." Given such impartiality, Bjorn's intentions with respect to this killing are exactly like the intentions he'd have if he were murdering another member of the family.

On an internalist picture on which intentions are central--and that's the best internalist picture--Bjorn is a murderer (he has the relevant intentions, and he succeeds in fulfilling them). But it also seems clear to me that Bjorn is committing suicide. It may not be a typical suicide, but it is a suicide nonetheless (and surely but sadly there have been actual suicides very similar to this case).

I am inclining to an internalist (plus a success condition) picture of murder. But a murder can be further qualified. For instance, it might be a parricide or a fratricide or... a suicide. What makes a murder a parricide is that the victim is in fact the murderer's father. What makes a murder a suicide is that the victim is in fact the murderer. When the murderer knows that the victim of the parricide is his father, that increases the gravity of the offense. I don't know whether the murderer's knowledge that the victim of the suicide is himself increases the gravity of the offense.

bethyada said...

Does he intend to kill the greatest chess player even if it is him? Or the greatest chess player assuming it is not him.

A man digs a hole and covers it intending for people walking across his property to fall in and die (because he hates trespassers). The 3 who fall into it are his victims and he murdered them. But I daren't say he murdered himself when he fell into it because he temporarily forgot about its proximity to where he was otherwise gardening.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yeah,I was assuming this is his intention, which is why I italicized "whoever".