Murder

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 30, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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A few weeks ago, Luke posted a video in which Scott Clifton attempted to argue against a God-centered theory of morality in favor of a theory he asserted was fully objective and avoided the problems of theistic ethics.

In doing so, he accused his opponents of playing fast and loose with definitions to get the conclusions they wanted.

In the course of his discussion he spoke about the wrongness of murder, and defined murder as “intentionally terminating the life of another human being without their consent.” He went on to argue how his theory of ethics can better account for the wrongness of murder than any religious ethical system.

But, let me see if I get this right.

If my son’s little league coach, in a violent rage, takes a baseball bat to my 8 year old son, and I shoot him as he stands over my stricken boy winding up for another swing, I am guilty of intentionally terminating the life of another human being without their consent. This means I have committed murder. And murder is wrong.

Right?

Clifton has two options here. Either he will have to change his definition of murder so that my shooting the little league coach is not murder. Or he will have to change his conclusion that murder is wrong.

He is also going to have trouble with acts such as killing enemy soldiers in wartime – which qualifies as the taking of another person’s life without their consent.

And there is the issue of capital punishment.

Note that, on Clifton’s model, whether capital punishment is morally permissible is not a matter of debate. The very concept of “morally permissible capital punishment” is incoherent. Capital punishment is intentionally terminating the life of another human being without his consent. Intentionally terminating the life of another human being without his consent is murder. And murder is wrong.

By definition!

If we use Clifton’s definitions, no coherent English speaker could ever used the term “permissible” and “capital punishment” in the same sentence.

So, I object to Clifton’s definition of “murder”.

I say murder is the intentional wrongful killing.

Is murder wrong?

Well, is wrongful killing wrong? It’s a nonsense question.

The real question to ask is not whether murder is or is not wrong, but whether any particular act (capital punishment, killing enemy soldiers in war time, killing the little league coach attacking my son, killing the person having sex with my wife, killing my daughter for talking to boys and dishonoring the family) counts as murder.

When a person asks, “Is X murder?”, I take them to be asking whether people generally have many and strong reasons to use praise and condemnation so as to weaken those desires that would motivate an agent to engage in intentionall killing of type X, and strengthen those desires that would motivate an agent to opt against an intentional killing of type X.

The vast majority of our desires require our continued existence. For example, if I were to be killed tomorrow, that would have a serious adverse impact on my ability to work on the Morality in the Real World podcast with Luke. I suspect that Luke would quickly discover – and would likely even be able to predict – that my demise would seriously lower my productivity in that project.

I want to be around for the first discovery of an earth-sized and earth-temperature alien world with significant oxygen levels in its atmosphere – something that strongly indicates plant life. There’s a good chance we’ll discover something like that by 2020.

And I want to see civilians going into space in larger numbers without being a part of NASA or any other country’s governmental space program. Which will help to ensure the survival of the human race and its evolutionary descendents into the far future.

Other reasons for promoting such an aversion include the fact that I do not want my wife to be killed, or my friends, or my friends’ children, or my friend’s children’s friends.

Furthermore, I fear that if I lived in a society where people lack an aversion to taking the lives of others, it would be virtually impossible to have a functioning economy that provides a number of desire-fulfilling goods and services. Instead, I would likely find myself eeking out a subsistence living on a patch of dirt and scrub until I die, watching as those I care about are killed off, one after another.

Desires such as these provide me with many and strong reasons for promoting an aversion to killing in others.

And I strongly suspect that I am not unique in this respect. Reasons to encourage an aversion to killing are extremely common and extremely widespread, so it is possible to say that generally there are a great many very strong reasons to promote an aversion to intentionally taking the life of another person without their consent.

But let’s not be fools about this. We cannot expect that this aversion to killing will take with everybody. Wanting everybody to have an aversion to killing will not make it happen. And the tools we have available to move in that direction are imperfect. They will make such an aversion stronger and more common, but making it universal is not within our power.

So, we need to promote an aversion that works in a world where we will still have people around with a particularly weak aversion to killing. That is to say, we have many and stronger reasons to promote an aversion to killing peaceful individuals than we have for promoting a blanket aversion to killing.

It may also be the case that we get fewer desire-thwartings in society if our aversion to killing is refined so as we have no such aversion to killing those who have killed. A willingness to kill those who have killed may provide deterrence against others becoming “people who have killed.” Thus, capital punishment for murder may be justified.

However, there is evidence that suggests that states and countries without capital punishment tend to have fewer murders than those that allow executions. So the above justification for capital punishment might not work.

One possible reason for this is that children growing up in a society that celebrates the killing of powerless individuals might acquire a weaker aversion to killing generally. And this weaker aversion to killing generally may well make it more likely that those children will grow up to commit murder when frustrated or angry. Whereas the stronger aversion to killing in a society without capital punishment raises the barrier against killing that keeps angry and frustrated people in check.

I am not going to defend which option is correct here. I am using this merely to point out what types of arguments would be relevant in a debate over whether capital punishment is justified or not, at least within a desirist framework. And I suggest that it very closely matches much of the evidence that is brought forth in actual debate on these types of matters.

This model, unlike Clifton’s model, would not call the shooting of a little league coach beating your son with a baseball bat “murder”, and may well justify the killing of enemy soldiers in times of war. Nor does it make the claim, “capital punishment is wrong” true by definition. The wrongness of capital punishment would be determined by answering empirical questions about whether we have reason to promote or to discourage those desires that would motivate agents to practice capital punishment.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Joel September 30, 2010 at 5:22 am

The crux of the post:

When a person asks, “Is X murder?”, I take them to be asking whether people generally have many and strong reasons to use praise and condemnation so as to weaken those desires that would motivate an agent to engage in intentionall killing of type X, and strengthen those desires that would motivate an agent to opt against an intentional killing of type X.

The issue is, as always, that people may have a desire X for object Y, and so use praise and condemnation to alter some desire Z that has some effect on the production of Y – but that does not mean Y ought to be desired (i.e. is Y desirable?). Even if you analyse “ought to be desired” as “desire that fulfills other desires”, this all ultimately involves only hypothetical value, not categorical (objective) value. And if only hypothetical motivations exist, in what meaningful sense does morality exist?

Even if we accept that morality in a meaningful sense can involve mere hypothetical imperatives, there is a further problem. Whose desires are of relevance to my desiring? Could I possibly desire some X that tends to satisfy some other people’s desires? Not unless I desire their desire satisfaction. Their desires are not prima facie reasons for my action, since they are not my desires (and are thus motivationally impotent in regards to me, unless I desire their fulfillment). So the hypothetical imperative would be limited to myself and to my desires (possibly including my desire to fulfill others’ desires) and cannot be used to generate a universal system of presciption.

These are the main problems with desirism, I think. One, there is no movement from hypothetical and subjective value to objective value (if it exists). Two, others’ desires are not in themselves of any relevance to an individual’s motivations.

I would be grateful if Alonzo Fyfe himself answers these questions, since Luke says that he is still searching for answers to these questions.

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rvkevin September 30, 2010 at 5:29 am

Clifton has two options here. Either he will have to change his definition of murder so that my shooting the little league coach is not murder. Or he will have to change his conclusion that murder is wrong.

He conceded this point over three weeks ago. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RqkskhzRCc&feature=channel @11:13)

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Zeb September 30, 2010 at 5:54 am

Alonzo, spot on, but for one quibbling objection. Suppose we find that we do indeed have more and stronger reasons to desire to kill murderers than to desire to let them live. Yet there may be a subset who have some value to offer that overrides our desire to prevent murder through deterence; an evil scientist who discovered a way to prolong life indefinitely (killing many innocent, unwilling people in his research) and whose secret will be lost if he dies, or one who has rigged a doomsday device to detonate if his life terminates prematurely. Granted, you have provided a successful theory prescribing the condemnation of killing these two people, but I don’t think their killing would be called murder even though it would be wrongful.

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nate September 30, 2010 at 7:04 am

^sematantics is fascinating

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Hermes September 30, 2010 at 7:45 am

Zeb, why is it always an evil scientist and not an evil public official? It seems that we have many problems with the latter and few to none of the former. [ goes off to grumble in a corner and invent an evil death ray -- of Science! ]

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Zeb September 30, 2010 at 8:20 am

Hermes, What public official has ever come up with an idea brilliant enough to justify not killing him?

OK, there was that one patent clerk, but otherwise… ;)

Nate, if you are making fun, I agree it’s just semantics and not that important, especially since Alonzo often reject debates about definitions, but this post was specifically about the definition of murder, and I don’t quite think he gets it.

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Alonzo Fyfe September 30, 2010 at 9:17 am

Joel

all ultimately involves only hypothetical value, not categorical (objective) value

Only hypothetical imperatives exist. If we cannot have morality in such a world, so be it.

I would dispute your assumptin that a hypothetical propositions are not objective. “If I were to drop this ball, then it would shatter” is as objective as any claim made in science.

Would you really want to say that a hypothetical staement of the form, “If you were to apply a force of F on a mass of m, then it will accelerate at rate F/m” is not objective?

So, hypothetical propositions are no barrier to objectivity.

If morality requires categorical imperatives, then morality doesn’t exist – because categorical imperatives do not exist. But that does not bother me since the claims that I make are still true. I am not asserting the existence of cagetogircal imperatives.

Whose desires are of relevance to my desiring?

Relevant in what sense? For the most part, I have come to consider this a nonsense question. Or, more precisely, the phrase “of relevance” contains a whole stack of question-begging assumptions that make it impossible to answer, like “Do you still beat your wife?”

Could I possibly desire some X that tends to satisfy some other people’s desires? Not unless I desire their desire satisfaction.

Sure you can.

Let’s say, I like to build bridges. A bridge will satisfy other people’s desires. My desire to build bridges tends to satisfy their desires. But I don’t care about satisfying their desires. That’s just a side effect of me doing what I like. But these types of side effects are not impossible. In fact, they are not even rare.

Their desires are not prima facie reasons for my action, since they are not my desires (and are thus motivationally impotent in regards to me, unless I desire their fulfillment).

This is true, and everything I wrote is consistent with this fact. So, it raises no objection to what I wrote.

So the hypothetical imperative would be limited to myself and to my desires (possibly including my desire to fulfill others’ desires) and cannot be used to generate a universal system of presciption.

What do you mean by a “universal system of prescription”? Depending on what you say by this, I may well answer, “I agree. But why do you care about a ‘universal system of prescription’” If we can’t generate one, then we can’t generate one. But what CAN we generate?

These are the main problems with desirism, I think. One, there is no movement from hypothetical and subjective value to objective value (if it exists). Two, others’ desires are not in themselves of any relevance to an individual’s motivations.

If what you call objective value does not exist, then why is there a “problem” with a theory that does not move to something that does not exist?

And why is it a problem that others’s desires are not in themselves of any relevance to an individual’s motivations?

In the real world, I accept both of these claims as being true. Non-hypothetical (or desire-independent value) does not exist. Desirism says that it does not exist, so desirism gets the facts right. How is that a problem?

Other people’s desires are not in themselves reasons for an agent to act in a particular way. Desirism says that other people’s desires are not in themselves reasons for an agent to act in a particular way. Desirism gets this fact right. How is that a problem?

Unless you can show me that desire-independent value DOES exist or that other people’s desires ARE reasons for an agent to act in a particular way. THEN desirism would have a problem.

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JS Allen September 30, 2010 at 10:51 am

Why do you hate little league coaches?

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puntnf September 30, 2010 at 1:58 pm

“Zeb, why is it always an evil scientist and not an evil public official? It seems that we have many problems with the latter and few to none of the former”

Because the term ‘evil/mad scientist’ is more intimidating, and commonly exchanged with the idea of the ‘evil-genius’.

And well…evil public officials.

(Public official = genius?)

((j/k))

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Jake de Backer September 30, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Luke/Alonzo

I wanted to ask if there were going to be any discussions of abortion. I’m interested in any arguments you or any of the regulars around here have for or against. Thanks.

J.

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Hermes September 30, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Jake de Backer, I don’t have any arguments about how abortion should be handled. I don’t think I’ve heard any good ones. Gut-level, it should be as infrequent as possible, and available at a minimum during the earliest stages of pregnancy. Where to draw the line is difficult for the reasons mentioned earlier in this thread.

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Joel September 30, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Alonzo,

I do not think that hypothetical imperatives are objective, in the sense that they do not objectively prescibe actions. I appreciate the fact they do objectively exist, but having objective presciptive powers are a different thing. Objective prescriptive powers can motivate me by their very fact of existence; subjective prescriptive powers are your basic hypothetical values whose motivational powers depend on me being the person owning these desires. I can disagree with a hypothetical imperative, and in this sense it is agent-dependent and subjective. And if these is no objective value in the sense, in what meaningful sense does morality exist?

Desirism says that a good action is something that would be performed by someone with good desires, while a good desire is one which tends to fulfill other desires. My problem with this is that these “other desires” do not include others’ desires. Others’ desires are only included in a roundabout way through society pressure (i.e. praise and condemnation). So this does not seem to address person X (who has a desire to kill innocents, and is unaffected by society pressure) the question of: Why ought I not kill an innocent person, when I can get away with it? So desirism as a moral theory seems really to be a theory of social organization.

Nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t morality as defined by most people, which would be something along these lines: 1) objective (in the sense that it prescribes objectively, whether through intrinsic value or something else) and 2) able to account for various problematic situations like the “when no one’s looking” situations.

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Garren October 1, 2010 at 12:37 am

Joel,

“So this does not seem to address person X (who has a desire to kill innocents, and is unaffected by society pressure) the question of: Why ought I not kill an innocent person, when I can get away with it?”

If that question can only be answered by pointing out that person X has a reason for action not to kill innocents, then we can’t truthfully tell person X that he ought not kill innocents.

However, if “ought” is allowed to express a factual distinction even when motivation is absent, then person X himself can coherently state, “I ought not kill innocents but I have no motivation to refrain from doing so.”

I take legal “oughts” to be of this nature, for example.

“Nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t morality as defined by most people”

It’s hard to make that claim with certainty because in most situations there is in fact a connection between moral distinctions and at least some degree of motivation to act morally. Even if this does break down in extreme cases of indifference (through psychology or through power), the distinctions made in the usual cases are still applicable.

I think we can still have true moral facts even if they are sometimes impotent (because they aren’t accompanied by a fitting desire to act on them). This is, after all, how facts operate in general.

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Alonzo Fyfe October 1, 2010 at 6:58 am

Joel

I do not think that hypothetical imperatives are objective…Objective prescriptive powers can motivate me by their very fact of existence;

Yes. I know all this. On this definition, desirism says that objective values do not exist.

We already went through this.

I also say there is a second definition of ‘objective’. Not that this definition is wrong. It is just not the only one.

The second definition is the sense in which ‘I have a scar on my left arm’ is objective. It is true, and anybody who says that it is false is mistaken.

‘I like chocolate cake’ is a perfectly objective statement in that sense. Anybody who says it is false is wrong.

It doesn’t say that chocolate cake has ‘objective value’ in the first sense. It doesn’t say that everybody else like or should like chocolate cake. Just as the first statement does not say that everybody does or should have a scar on their left arm.

But it is still objectively true – as objectively true as any claim in science.

If moral statements can be shown to be statements in this second sense, then they too will be as objectively true as any claim in science.

This still will not prove objective value in the first sense. But, since objective value in the first sense does not exist, so what?

So desirism as a moral theory seems really to be a theory of social organization.

Call it what you want.

I am not concerned with what you want to call it. I am concerned about whether the claims it makes are true.

If you want to refer to desirism as “A theory of social organizatation that Fyfe wrongly claims is a theory of morality when ‘morality’ refers to categorical imperatives and Fyfe instantly agrees that desirism is not a theory of categorical imepratives,” then . . . knock yourself out.

Nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t morality as defined by most people,

I disagree with you on this.

To settle this disagreement we can conduct a survey of people’s use of the terms and see if your theory of meaning accurately predicts their use of the term.

I will assert that desirism will do a lot better job of conforming to how people actually use these terms than any type of – “categorical imperative” theory.

I would argue that the mere fact that desirism refers to things that are real, ‘categorical imperatives’ are not real, and people use moral terms as if they refer to something real, is a significant mark in favor of desirism as better capturing how people actually use moral terms.

However, in the end, I do not think this is a debate worth having. If I am wrong, and you are right, and since people will almost certainly continue to use moral terms as if they refer to something real, then at worst this implies they should change the meanings of their terms slightly, as they did for ‘atom’ and ‘malaria’.

It certainly would have been a waste of time to argue that since most people use the term ‘atom’ to mean ‘without parts’ (which they did), that we can’t talk meaningfully about a theory that says that atoms are made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons.

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Alonzo Fyfe October 1, 2010 at 7:00 am

Joel

2) able to account for various problematic situations like the “when no one’s looking” situations. Joel

Oh, I can account for that one.

Look to this site, Common Sense Atheism, on Tuesday, October 5th, for the 4th episode of Morality in the Real World.

It will be all about motivating agents to act under conditions when nobody is looking.

Which is all about motivating agents when nobody is looking.

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