Killer argument

“Why,” asks Severian in a thought experiment, “is murder wrong?”

“Stopping citizens from murdering other citizens” seems like a core task of The State, whatever that turns out to be. But why? Don’t worry about what the answer is supposed to be — this isn’t a midterm; I’m not grading you. Just go with what you feel.

Christians have an answer (“it violates the Fifth Commandment”), and so do legal positivists (“it breaks a clear law promulgated by a legitimate legislator”), but since modern people wouldn”t know the Bible if King James slapped them upside the head with it, and even fewer people know what “legal positivism” means, those answers are no good. I’ve actually asked undergrads about this, and the answers are … interesting, by which I mean horrifying:

Lots of them want to get hypothetical. They want to know just why Person X murdered Person Y. This, they think, will let them off the hook for making a moral judgment (moral judgments are of course always and everywhere wrong on campus). If I say “Because X wanted Y’s new pair of Air Jordans,” for instance, the students come back with “Then it’s wrong because a human life isn’t worth a pair of sneakers.” If I say, “Because X is a psychopath who thinks Y is Hitler,” then they come back with NGRI — it’s wrong because Y isn’t Hitler. But neither of those is a satisfactory answer, I point out. In the case of the sneakers, by saying “they’re not worth a human life,” we’re implying that

  • human life has a value; and
  • we all know exactly what that value is; and
  • there’s some threshold above which “murder” IS worth it.

Which feeds nicely into the second student answer, because killing Hitler is still murder if a private citizen does it. The hangmen who did for the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg weren’t guilty of murder, but someone who walked in off the street and put one in Hans Frank’s head would’ve been. It doesn’t matter if you know what Hitler was going to do, any more than it matters if you know what Hitler did. If you shoot him on April 9, 1932, it’s murder, just as it is if you shoot him on April 29, 1945.

This is where the kids turn away: how can it be wrong to kill Hitler? He is, after all, Hitler. And it’s only a short step from there to “We should kill so-and-so, because he’s just like Hitler.” Which explains why we have maladroits like Antifa, who are basically the Ku Klux Klan with a wardrobe upgrade.

1 comment

  1. McGehee »

    5 July 2019 · 6:17 pm

    Though I wonder if Antifa can match the choreography of the Klan rally depicted in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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