Thursday, December 1, 2022

Against a moderate pacifism

Imagine a moderate pacifist who rejects lethal self-defense, but allows non-lethal self-defense when appropriate, say by use of tasers.

Now, imagine that one person is attacking you and nine other innocents, with the intent of killing the ten of you, and you can stop them with a taser. Surely you should, and surely the moderate pacifist will say that this is an appropriate use case for the taser.

Very well. Now consider this on a national level. Suppose there are a million enemy soldiers ordered to commit genocide against ten million, and you have two ways to stop them:

  1. Tase the million soldiers.

  2. Kill the general.

If you can tase one person to stop the murder of ten, then (1) should be permissible if it’s the only option. But tasers occasionally kill people. We don’t know how often. Apparently it’s less than 1 in 400 uses. Suppose it’s 1 in 4000. Then option (1) results in 250 enemy deaths.

So maybe our choice is between tasing a million, thereby non-intentionally killing 250 soldiers, and intentionally killing one general. It seems to me that (2) is morally preferable, even though our moderate pacifist has to allow (1) and forbid (2).

Note that a version of this argument goes through even if the moderate pacifist backs up and says that tasers are too lethal. For suppose instead of tasers we have drones that destroy the dominant hand of an enemy soldier while guaranteeing survival (with science fictional medical technology). It’s clearly right to release such a drone on a soldier who is about to kill ten innocents. But now compare:

  1. Destroy the dominant hand of a million soldiers.

  2. Kill the general.

I think (4) is still morally preferable to causing the kind of disruption to the lives of a million people that plan (3) would involve.

These may seem to be consequentialist arguments. I don't think so. I don't have the same intuitions if we replace the general by the general's innocent child in (2) and (4), even if killing the child were to stop the war (e.g., by making the general afraid that their other children would be murdered).


Walter Van den Acker said...


Doesn't you post here entail that we should murder Putin?

Alexander R Pruss said...

One should never murder anyone. Killing, on the other hand, can sometimes be justified.

One question about killing the leader of an invading country is whether the leader counts as a civilian, since the killing of civilians is forbidden by the Geneva Convention. There is also some worry about the Geneva Convention's killing by "perfidy", which is taken to rule out at least some assassinations. So, as a matter of positive international law, it seems a difficult question.

Were there no international law on the matter, I wouldn't see a significant difference between killing a political leader and killing a general, if both are giving orders to fight. Morally speaking, but not necessarily in international law, both seem to me to be equally combatants.

Besides the moral and legal questions, there is also a prudential question. In my post I assumed that killing the general would stop the invasion. I got to assume that because I was making up the case. Whether in actual fact killing a leader would stop an invasion is less clear. Indeed such a thing might be seen as such a serious attack on the country that the retaliation might be really horrific.

Walter Van den Acker said...


Of course one should never murder anyone, but the question is: would killing Putin be murder?