When is it morally right to kill another human being?

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13 December
12:13
December
2016

We could adopt the brave stance of insisting that it is always wrong to kill another human being —yet also sometimes right. That is, in the realm of morality, maybe an action can be both right and wrong. Often, when faced by a moral dilemma, we may correctly feel that whatever we do will be wrong, but maybe one of the actions could at least also have some elements of ‘rightness’. By shooting at the child who is the human shield used by a terrorist, I kill the child, yet capture the terrorist and prevent the bomb going off, killing and maiming hundreds. 

Perhaps we ought to resist the silver-tongued, though, who sit back complacently saying that, “well, we did not kill anyone, but yes, we foresaw that they would die”. This often is covered by the euphemism of “collateral damage” which may simply mean killing some innocent people as a side-effect of achieving something considered worthwhile. Consider the many bombing campaigns in wars and terrorism where the leaders knowingly demand actions that will lead to thousands of deaths of the innocent. 

"By shooting at the child who is the human shield used by a terrorist, I kill the child, yet capture the terrorist and prevent the bomb going off, killing and maiming hundreds."

Consider the many luxuries we experience instead of contributing more to helping people in need of food, water and medical provision, and who will meet with suffering and death. Consider the many well-off who oppose tax increases and hence prevent more help for the elderly who will die of cold because of lack of heating; they prefer having their bigger cars, second homes or yachts over helping the poor to live longer. 

Of course, we may wonder whether, in the end, there is any justification at all for protecting the life of an out-and-out thug, who wallows in torturing and killing others, and who shows no remorse, no regrets for what he does. Should his life be valued? Should we pity him for what he is? Moral dilemmas abound — but that does not mean that there are never any clear-cut cases. 

Peter Cave is the author of The Big Think Book: 'Discover Philosophy Through 99 Perplexing Problems' www.amazon.co.uk

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