Is It Ever Morally Permissible to Kill an Innocent Bystander
Post on 21-Oct-2015
MONASH UNIVERSITYSchool of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies
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Is it ever morally permissible to kill an innocent bystander?Why or why not? Discuss, with reference to the views of at least two authors from the unit.
Word Count: 1210The killing of innocent bystanders should be held in general to be morally impermissible. The violation against someones rights, bodily autonomy and the consequences are shown through an adaption of the arguments presented by Judith Thomsons Self Defense and Hobbes Leviathan. However, in the pursuit of an ideological purpose for the greater good of humanity, the permissibility of killing innocent bystanders can be permitted when governed within specific parameters. This notion is built on the premise that we exist within an objective and flawed world; the morality of killing an innocent bystander therefore cannot simply be seen as black and white or right and wrong.It is imperative to examine the notion of rights and autonomy of an individual and its relevance to an innocent bystander. Every individual has a right to life such that they have a right to a future, to live, eat, sleep and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Equally, individuals, or people, are deserving of autonomy: the freedom and liberty to make personal decisions without restraint. In this essence, there seems to be imbalance and an unequal use of personal authority when one chooses to kill an innocent bystander to save their own life. The bystander has not done anything to you, but you have done something to the bystander. For simplicity, well adopt Judith Thomsons description of a bystander as involved to a situation that consists in Xs being at risk of death[footnoteRef:2] in which the bystander has no direct involvement to a particular situation, if not, extremely minimal. Well use an example of Thomsons case[footnoteRef:3] in which there is a villain who is trying to murder you, and the only way to save your own life is to run across the bridge. The bridge can only carry one person and coincidentally, there is a man on the bridge. If you run off the bridge, he will fall into the river and die. Consequently, your life will be saved as you will escape from the murderous man. Here, Thomson demonstrates that the innocent bystander has not threatened, violated or endangered your right to life. But, we have threatened theirs and in fact, violated it. There is no justification to permit an act that someone should simply resign their life without consent and thus to preserve your life. In this situation, when all things are ceteris paribus, the bystander does not deserve such an unfulfilling demise. They have not committed any acts to deserve it. In this sense, a bystander is truly innocent - they are clean from any fault or guilt. No moral permissibility can be granted where an innocent bystander is inherently blameless of the situation. [2: Judith Jarvis, Thomson. Philosophy and Public Affairs: Self Defense (1991), pg 298] [3: Ibid pg.290]
Now, if there is some form of permissibility or grounds to kill an innocent bystander, the costs of such actions will not only adversely affect society but also individuals. Suppose hypothetically, that every individual on this earth is held at gun point by another. Incidentally, in all of these situations, there is a passerby. The gunner says that to remain alive, you have to kill the passerby, who effectively becomes an innocent bystander. You kill the bystander. Now imagine that every day, an entity places a curse on particular individuals to become this sort of gunner and people are informed of this. If there is permissibility, people begin to realize that their life can potentially be endangered and become bystanders to be used. They then doubt in their confidence to trust others. This seed of doubt manifests and turns to mistrust and what originally should be co-operation to combat this curse inevitably turns to motivated self-interest to remain alive. Eventually this leads people to become cautious of one another and to adopt self-defense against even trivial of problems. This is akin to what Hobbes describes in Leviathan as a state of nature.[footnoteRef:4] Within this environment, every man is not governed by law, is in continual conflict with one another and exists in a state of war[footnoteRef:5] in which justice and injustice does not exist. If the preservation of the rights of an innocent bystander is not respected, it seems impossible that there is a possibility of social cohesion and the ruling of justice and law. In fact, allowing the permissibility of killing an innocent bystander, the rights forfeited by every individual as Hobbes describes in order to seek peaceand to be contented with as much liberty against other men as he would allow men against himself[footnoteRef:6] is violated. It would seem plausible that there should be this moral impermissibility of killing bystanders when the interests of society and its social fabric is threatened and is at stake. [4: Thomas, Hobbes. 1651 .Leviathan. Edited by Jonathan Bennet and reprinted in Philosophy Introduction A: Life, Death and Morality, Semester 1 2012, pg 152-153] [5: Ibid p.152] [6: Ibid 153]
However, in times of war, where there is a pursuit for an ideological idea, or greater truth, for the prospering of humanity is so great, the morally permissibility should be held true. This is because the idea or cause itself transcends the importance of peoples right to life, or physical life, in which its purpose holds great significance and importance in bringing peace and harmony to the world. But, it can only be permissible where war is held as last resort. All other alternatives are completely exhausted. Intention is also necessary. It is a view similarly shared by Judith Thomson and Michael Waltzers Just and Unjust Wars, though they adopt a more broader approach, in which the killing of an innocent bystander is permissible when it is necessary for the accomplishing of a morally acceptable wartime purpose[footnoteRef:7]. We will adopt a simple case between two soldiers who are shooting against one another[footnoteRef:8]. The bad soldier is the commander in chief of the evil army. However, the good soldier is equipped with a grenade. By chance, a child walks in the middle of the conflict. The grenade will kill the child and the bad soldier. If the soldier doesnt throw it, the soldier knows he will be shot and surely die. So far, we have been discussing an innocent bystander involved within previous discussions as simply means to an end[footnoteRef:9]. Here, the childs death is seen as an end to itself[footnoteRef:10] in which regardless of whether the child was there or not, if it meant killing the bad soldier together with the child with a grenade for his/her ideological purpose, or truth, then it is morally justified. But, suppose that the child was a means to end in which the child could save him and that the good soldier would definitely die without the child being there. It would seem permissible to kill, though tragic, for an idea or notion in which will reward prosperity for future generations - a greater cause than simply living life itself. [7: Thomson, op, cit p. 297] [8: Tutor, an example given by Tessa Jones, PhD candidate] [9: Immanuel, Kant. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785), pg 428-429] [10: Ibid 428-429]
The elements concerning the morality of killing an innocent bystander are difficult. It is true that the right to life and to preserve life should be held in highest regard. The consequences of not respecting a persons autonomy can have adverse social effects. At the same time, the discussion has attempted to show for the pursuit of an idea/truth, where all other measures have failed, killing can be morally permissible. The reasons illustrated are delicate and intricate. But to suggest that killing an innocent bystander is completely morally impermissible falls short of the complexity that lies beneath the issue.
Bibliography:Thomson, Judith Jarvis. 1991. Self Defense. Philosophy and Public Affairs 20:283-310Hobbes, Thomas. 1651 .Leviathan. Online:Early Modern Texts. Edited and arranged by Jonathan BennettRachel, James. 1989. Morality, Parents and Children. In Person to Person, edited by G.Graham and H.Lafollette.Philadelphia: Temple University PressWalzer, Michael. 2006. Just and Unjust Wars, New York: Basic Books.