Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Murder and theft


  1. To murder is to intentionally kill a juridically innocent person.


  1. To steal is to intentionally appropriate something that belongs to another.

Here, I am bracketing questions of special divine authorization, starving persons taking food for themselves, etc. Instead, the question I am interested in is this: What is the scope of “intentionally” in the two accounts?

There are killings where the killer intends to kill a juridically innocent person. For instance, a particularly evil terrorist organization or invading army may specifically choose to kill children in order to more effectively terrorize their enemy by killing the innocent. Similarly, someone might rob an enemy not just in order to have the enemy’s goods at their disposal, but may do so maliciously in order to dispossess the enemy of something the enemy owns.

But in many cases, the juridical innocence of the victim is not a part of the murderer’s reasons. Suppose Alice kills her rich uncle Bob in order to inherit his property. If it turned out that Alice was an agent of the state and Bob a guilty party whom Alice was supposed to kill, Alice’s killing Bob would serve the end of her inheriting the property just as well. Thus, Bob’s juridical innocence is not relevant to Alice’s reasons.

In fact, even Bob’s personhood may be irrelevant to Alice’s reasons. Imagine that Bob snores so loudly that his neighbor Alice can’t sleep. So Alice fills Bob’s apartment with chlorine gas. If it turns out that Bob is just a dog, Alice was still successful in her action. Thus, Alice’s intention need only have been to kill Bob, not to kill a person.

Similarly, often a thief is interested only in acquiring some item but does not care about dispossessing its rightful owner. Imagine that when Alice is turned away, Bob swipes the apple that was lying in front of her and eats it because the apple looks so delicious and not out of any malice towards Alice. If it turned out that the apple did not belong to anyone, Bob would still have fulfilled his intention, because his intention was to appropriate the apple. Bob may have thought that the apple belong to another, but the fact that the apple belonged to another was irrelevant to his intentions.

In particular, it follows that while a murderer or a thief has to intend to kill or appropriate, they need not intend to murder or steal. And if to attempt to ϕ entails intending to ϕ, as seems plausible, it follows that a murder or theft attempt need not be an attempt to murder or steal. For the the attempted murderer or thief, just as the actual murderer or thief, need not intend murder or theft, but may simply intend to kill or appropriate, while believing, correctly or not, that the victim is innocent or an owner, respectively.

It seems more precise to say:

  1. To murder is to intentionally kill someone whom one believes to be a juridically innocent person.

  2. To steal is to intentionally appropriate something that one believes to belong to another.

But I think that’s not quite right. If Bob takes the apple that he thinks belongs to Alice, but the apple is ownerless, then Bob hasn’t stolen. And if Alice kills Bob whom she believes to be a person but it turns out that Bob is a dog, then Alice hasn’t murdered. In both cases, the agent has done something wrong, something morally on par with theft or murder, respectively, but the thing wasn’t theft or murder.

Here is another suggestion:

  1. To murder is to intentionally kill someone who actually is a juridically innocent person.

  2. To steal is to intentionally appropriate something that actually belongs to another.

But I am inclined to think that’s not right, either. If I take your pen thinking you’ve given it to me, I haven’t stolen. And if Carl intentionally kills Dave while thinking Dave to be a deer and not a man, Carl hasn’t murdered.

Perhaps we need to combine the above two suggestions:

  1. To murder is to intentionally kill someone whom one correctly believes to be a juridically innocent person.

  2. To steal is to intentionally appropriate something that one correctly believes to belong to another.

This is my best bet. But I don’t like its messiness. (Note that replacing “correctly believes” with “knows” will narrow things too much. If I take what I correctly believe to be your pen, but my reasons for believing that the pen is yours are fallacious, I am still a thief.)


Angra Mainyu said...

Hi Alex,

Regarding 7., ISIS members might stone a woman to death for adultery, or throw a gay man from a rooftop for having sex with another man, etc., believing that they deserved to be executed in that fashion. But their actions are still instances of murder. Maybe some of the 9-11 hijackers believed that the people who worked at the WTC were guilty for their participation in the American society, and for that reason, deserved to be killed, so they thought they were only killing guilty people and people they did not intend to kill perhaps (e.g., some children that might be there), but it's still murder. Similarly, a KKK member might believe that Black people are subhumans and not persons, etc., but if he intentionally kills a Black person because he doesn't like the way he looked at him, that's murder.

In my assessment, 8. has similar problems.

Heath White said...

I think the point of the "juridically innocent" rider is to rule out state executions as murders. So maybe what we want to say is

To murder is to intentionally kill someone whom one has no authority to kill.

This does not handle the cases in which the killing is in some sense an accident, but maybe those can be ruled out by suitable specifications of the 'intentionally' adverb. I think that is the point of saying it.

Mutatis mutandis for stealing.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I am not sure what to do about these cases. It is hard to see a structural difference between:

R1. x is a racist who incorrectly thinks members of race R to be non-human and kills them

R2. x is a hunter who incorrectly thinks Bob to be a deer and kill him.

I am strongly inclined to say R2 is not a case of murder. What is the structural difference in the case of R1?

Of course, in both cases, the agent could be guilty of manslaughter, recklessness, negligence, etc., if their justification for their false belief was poor.

Moreover, I suspect that in most cases, a racist killer has had to suppress their conscience's testimony to the humanity of the victim, at least the first time around, unless they were insane to start off with.

Or consider the difference between:

T1. x, who is a terrorist, incorrectly thinks himself to be authorized by a divine authority (but in fact the authorization does not come from God, but from a misinterpretation of a text rightly or wrongly held to be sacred) to execute all Americans for their capital crimes, and does so

T2. x, who is a legal executioner, incorrectly thinks himself to be authorized by a judge (but in fact it's not a judge, but judge impersonator with fake documents) to execute Bob for his capital crime, and does so.

Again, I am inclined to say T2 is not a case of murder. And once again, there could be manslaughter, recklessness or negligence in both cases.

Another case in the vicinity is whether abortionists are murderers. Many of my fellow pro-lifers say so, but I am inclined to think (or maybe I am just hoping) that typically abortionists just have a false belief that the fetus is not a person, and hence are like the hunter.

On the other hand, the more I reflect on it, the more I am pulled to say that R1 and T1 are cases of murder. But I can't distinguish R1 from R2 and T1 from T2 morally (except through contingent differences, like my view that most racist killers at some point violate conscience).

Maybe, thus, I should say that R2 and T2 are cases of murder as well, but cases where the agent is more likely to be exculpated by reasons of ignorance.

One might also distinguish R2 from T2. Maybe in R2 we can say that it's not the agent's intention to kill Bob, but to kill the deer, while in T2 it really is the agent's intention to kill Bob. So maybe T2 is a case of murder, likely with exculpation by reasons of ignorance, while R2 is not.

I don't know. I feel very confused by all this.

Alexander R Pruss said...


(In addition to state executioners, there is the case of soldiers and police officers killing aggressors when no lesser violence can defend the community.)

I think "To murder is to intentionally kill someone whom one has no authority to kill" has the same scope issues as the definitions I've played with. Is "whom one has no authority to kill" in the scope of "intentionally"? If yes, then this is implausible, because a murderer need not care whether they an authority to kill. If not, then the executioner who kills the person that the fake judge tells him to kill is a murderer.

Angra Mainyu said...


In re: racist murder vs. killing a deer, I think a relevant difference is the amount of information available to the racist and the hunter. The racist lives in a society where there are Black people. On the basis of his interactions with them, he should realize that they are the kind of entity he should not kill a Black man because of the way the Black man looked at him. This is beyond the question of species. He should not similarly kill aliens with similar capacity for language, interaction, etc., given the same amount of info. Moreover, not only should he realize that, but this is not a mere error of negligence (as it might happen with the hunter). It requires repeated failure to behave as a human being normally would do, which seems to require active animosity for no good reason (save for some form of mental illness, other than just being evil if that's an illness).

Now, I don't think that the racist killer has to suppress testimony as to the humanity of his particular victim. It would suffice (for example) that he suppresses testimony about the humanity of Black people for years, and then he already is like that, before he feels like killing a Black person and does it because he thinks he can get away with it. Even if he suppresses testimony as you say "the first time around" (or, say, 10 times), new victims constitute new acts of murder, even if he no longer has to suppress anything.

Regarding T1 and T2, I think we're going to disagree on this one, but I think a relevant difference is the degree of failure required to believe that God authorized him to do that. In fact, it seems to me that any belief that an omnimax (i.e., omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect) person is behind any scripture demanding killing (or flogging, maiming, or whatever), with enough firmness to carry out the deed would require in some way or another an epistemic failure so big that it would require a willful suppression of his conscience at least for a while until it becomes easier for him, unless his moral sense is too badly damaged by indoctrination perhaps.

Now, if none of the above makes the relevant difference, then I would say the relevance difference is something else, but whatever it is, the word "murder" seems to apply. On that note, in the case of the hunter or the case of the legal executioner, we reckon by our intuitive grasp of the terms that those are not cases of murder, we similarly reckon intuitively that the two others are, so I don't think the alternative cases change that assessment - it would instead mean the difference is hard to pin down, but that's common.

But let's say I'm wrong about all of the above, and those are not cases of murder. I'd raise two other objections, the first a modification of the religious killer objection:

1. What if the religious killer does not believe that the authority comes from God, because his religion does not have the concept of God - like most religions so far, they posit some superhuman beings that are not omnimax. For example, he's a believer in Aztec religion. More generally, how about the executioner follows a pretty evil religion, and does the killing in accordance to it, believing that that is morally obligatory, that the victim deserves to be executed, etc.? Would Aztec executioners (and all similar religious killers, even in the present) not commit murder?

2. The killer is a moral error theorist (he actually believes in the error theory, at this point), who believes that no one is juridically innocent or guilty. Would then any killing committed by him not be murder? Alternatively, "innocent" might be interpreted as "not guilty" rather than as a stand-alone condition, in which case, the error theorist believes everyone to be innocent. Would he commit murder if he intentionally kills a person, no matter the reasons, the circumstances, etc.?

Helen Watt said...

Doesn't personal culpability have to be more sharply distinguished from what is needed to identify morally wrong acts? To identify these acts, I don't think we need to talk about the individual's promptings of conscience at any stage as opposed to a minimal level of factual information the person had that would lead a morally well-informed and virtuous person to act otherwise.

If the racist is mentally ill and/or brainwashed from early youth, perhaps he's not (or not fully) culpable for murder but is still responsible for murder unlike the more grossly factually-misled hunter. That's provided the racist has enough information about Black people to know they are not like deer, but can speak and think (or in the case of infants, are the kind of being that does this). So it's not so much about whether the racist 'should have known better' as about whether he 'did actually' know enough facts to prevent a morally well-informed and virtuous person acting in that way.

As regards what the Aztec human sacrificer sees as instructions from Aztec gods to kill innocent people, couldn't an OmniMax theist object that the gods the Aztec thought he had instructions from did not have the characteristics (perfect wisdom and goodness) of the Deity who alone has the right to determine when an innocent person dies? This would then be like the executioner who thinks he's had instructions to execute someone from a horoscope-writer (as opposed to a judge who's found the person guilty of a capital crime).

Again, this is not so much about apportioning blame to the person - blameworthiness will often be present but will vary even among culpable murderers. I think it's more about identifying the act itself and the minimal intention-plus-factual-background-knowledge required.

Angra Mainyu said...


With regard to the Aztec human sacrificer, yes, you're right in that case. I see I was not clear, and the Aztec choice wasn't a good one. What I'm trying to get at is that someone might execute a person that they believe deserve to be executed because some superhuman entities (let's call them "the gods") declare so, even though those are not omnimax. So, it seems that the action would not meet the criterion in 7. for murder, though it seems intuitively that it is murder (to me, anyway).

That aside, I don't think there are immoral behaviors that are not blameworthy (I think excuses make the behavior not immoral), but I think you raise a good point about what it is we're trying to determine here.


You earlier said that "the agent could be guilty of manslaughter, recklessness, negligence, etc." But "manslaughter" seems to be a legal term, not an ordinary term, whereas "murder" has usages both in colloquial speech and in the law. But we're not trying to ascertain what murder is in a legal sense, so it's an ordinary sense; in an ordinary sense, I don't know whether the term is precise enough for this sort of analysis. Maybe it has different usages depending on context.

Helen Watt said...


I suppose a polytheist might believe that the gods, though not omnimax, are nonetheless qualified to judge human beings and indeed, better qualified than human judges who are more likely to make mistakes.

If we want to call this murder, isn't that simply because we don't ourselves believe there are non-omnimax beings who are proper sources of authority - any more than the horoscope is a proper source of authority for the state executioner (as opposed to a human judge who the executioner might wrongly think has signed the execution order).

Of course, the polytheist does mistakenly believe in these non-omnimax beings and may also believe that human judges hold their authority from them in some shape or form (though that won't necessarily work if the non-omnimax beings are very like humans - judges get appointed but that doesn't necessarily mean their authority can be bypassed by the human beings who appoint them).

If we're using the word 'murder' in the everyday sense, I'm not sure it necessarily implies personal culpability. In crime novels, you might find the 'murderer' was insane and was simply trying to send people to a better world by killing them (he knows they are innocent but thinks he is doing them a favour).

And don't we say ourselves of less serious things 'I shouldn't have done that - it was wrong' without necessarily admitting that we were culpable for not seeing that at the time? After all, some moral problems are pretty abstruse (think of complicated complicity dilemmas for example) such that perhaps most people would be unable to think through them successfully, especially under pressure of time. We can still ask things like 'Was what I did immoral formal cooperation in evil'?

Angra Mainyu said...


I would call that "murder" if I go by my intuitive grasp of the term "murder". The fact is that I consider the same is the case if they believe it was ordered by an omnimax person, but I modified the scenario because I was trying to see if Alex found that case more persuasive, so I think you'd have to ask him.

As for the ordinary meaning of "murder", I don't know if it implies culpability. My position is that it does iff it implies immorality.

I'm not sure what you mean by 'Was what I did immoral formal cooperation in evil'? I wouldn't ask that (because I don't know what it means!), but no, I don't think immoral behavior can be non-culpable. Rather, I think behavior might be non-culpable due to a lack of knowledge of some facts. However, the scenarios involving murder do not hinge on this, so if I'm wrong about that, I still think they raise a significant challenge to 7.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Angra and Helen:

Of course, there is a massive failure to see evidence that one has had for years in the case of the racist killer who thinks his victims aren't people. But I don't know that the difference between murder and non-murder should rest on the history of how one acquired an erroneous belief. It seems to me that the difference between murder and non-murder should rest on the intentions and beliefs involved in the act of killing, not on history of how the beliefs were formed.

By the way, here is something on three legal cases from Canada related to our discussion, with different decisions (two were convicted and one wasn't):

Angra Mainyu said...


I think it might not be just historic: they do have memories of interactions with Black people for a long time. They need to keep being irrational (and perhaps willfully so) until the last moment, else they would say: "Wait a minute; that's a person". That aside, I would ask you whether you mean "murder" in the legal sense, or in a colloquial sense. I understood the latter, but you also used the term "manslaughter", which seems to be a legal one. Or do you think there's also a colloquial one? Maybe there is one also...

Regarding the cases, the acquittal was on a manslaughter charge, and the judge ruled the prosecution failed to proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim was not the aggressor. Maybe that alone would have sufficed for a non-guilty verdict, so I think that one is unclear in terms of what Canadian law says about sincerely held beliefs like the religious zealot example, the racist, etc. In the 2018 conviction, the defense was an insantity plea, which seems to make it different from the case of the racist or the religious zealot (who generally aren't insane).

Angra Mainyu said...


Sorry, I realize you already considered cases in which they keep being irrational until the last minute (i.e., the testimony of their conscience), and I raised the matter of those cases in which that does not happen. I don't think that that would make it not murder, though. For example, imagine a racist killer who has to suppress the testimony of his conscience but one day decides takes a drug that will likely remove those inhibitions, and then goes on a racist killing spree in which he does not need to do any further suppressing because of the drug. Wouldn't the killings be murdered?

But now suppose instead of taking a drug, he suppresses his conscience for years, until he no longer has to - now it comes easy to him. Wouldn't further killings be acts of murder?

We can modify the scenario a little bit: now the racist does no killing (just other racist actions, but not including killings) until he takes the drug/until he no longer needs to suppress his conscience. Would the killings not be acts of murder?