Friday, September 17, 2010

What is the essential harm in murder?

Murder is wrong because it harms the victim in a particularly serious way. But what sort of harm does it impose on the victim? Some will say: takes away consciousness, severs connections with loved ones and interrupts projects. However, that on balance there is such a harm is far from obvious, while it is obvious that murder is wrong. For most people in our culture believe that the dead are conscious, and that many of the dead enjoy a life of bliss that include contact with many loved ones, and the continuation of at least the central project of one's life, namely the relationship with God. The wrongness of killing had better not be based on the controversial—and false!—thesis that there is no afterlife.

Now, one might say: Even if there is an afterlife, death interrupts many projects that involve other living people. Maybe. Yet on some views of the afterlife, the dead contribute at least as significantly to the lives of the living as they did when they were alive, for instance by praying for them. And even if death does interrupt many projects that involve other living people, that can't be central to what makes murder wrong. For consider Joe. He is a nice guy and has below average intelligence. Joe has no close friends, but he does have acquaintances. He lives a decent day-to-day life, but has no significant earthly projects that would be interrupted by death. He longs for heaven, but enjoys his daily life. By nobody's standards is he a candidate for euthanasia. Killing him would be a clear case of murder. But one cannot ground the wrongness of killing Joe in terms of projects involving other living people, because Joe just does not have enough such projects to yield the kind of moral weight that the wrongness of killing him has.

If this is right, then we should not look at the central harm in murder as involving a loss of the goods distinctive of the good human life. Rather the central harm in murder is the loss to a human being of the good of life itself—it is the destruction of the human's living body.  And hence to kill a permanently unconscious human being is wrong for the same central reason as it is wrong to kill a conscious human being.

Objection: But then the central good lost in killing the human is apparently of the same sort as the central good lost in killing a mosquito, and hence it should be just as wrong to kill a mosquito as to kill a human.

Response 1: Who loses a good can be morally relevant, over and beyond the question of what the lost good is.

Response 2: While in some sense for the mouse to breathe and for a human to breathe are the same thing, even the non-instrumental value of the mouse's breathing is not the same as the non-instrumental value of the human's breathing. For the mouse's breathing does not have as its telos the support of distinctively human activity, while the human's breathing does have as its telos the support of distinctively human activity. This value in the human's breathing is present even when, in fact, the human is unable to engage in any distinctively human activity. For there is a value in a striving for an end even when the end is not expected to be achieved, and that value derives from the value the value of the end (this is related to issues in sexual ethics), and the human's breathing strives for the end of distinctively human activity.


Alexander R Pruss said...

Here's a similar point. A secularly acceptable account of the wrongness of murder should not depend on controversial hypotheses about the afterlife. But any account of the wrongness of murder predicated on losses of projects, separation from loved ones or loss of consciousness depends on a controversial hypothesis about the afterlife--a hypothesis denied, in fact, by most people in our society.

Anonymous said...

I am playing a devil's advocate, but here's another other possible ways to justify (without appeal to afterlife or any religious sense) why the murder is wrong:

1) murder is wrong, because it is bad for the society. In order for society to survice as a whole, it's individual members must be prohibited from killing each other;
2) a variation of the previous argument would be something like Kant's imperative - it is wrong to murder, because if you make murder a universal law, civilization will collapse.

Here the focus is not on the good of the victim, but on the good society as a whole. Consequentially, I would imagine, society could decide what kinds of killings would be ok to perform. It already sanctions some kinds of killings (war, capital punishment, etc.). So it could also decide that it is good for the society as a whole to kill those who are terminally ill, etc.

Nightvid said...

Glad you asked! because in fact, this demonstrates that, deep down inside, we all know that an afterlife does not exist. However, some of us don't know that we know it.

Drop the 2000-year-old superstition. It's the 21st century!