Is there ever a time to kill? Is there ever a time when one may be justified in denying existence to another?
Death is a natural part of the circle of life. It is the end result of time spent on this giant spinning rock. Death is normal. To die is normal. It is a part of life. To live is to die.
Death will occur naturally without any outside intervention. Our life can be extinguished simply by time. People die of old age. We die due to change and the normal wear and tear of our biological systems. Death can also come to us by accident. Life is fragile. There are so many innocent ways one can meet death.
So I ask again, is it ok to kill?
Killing is to cause the death of another beyond the natural process that will only eventually kill them anyway. Killing is just expediting the inevitable.
In nature killing occurs all the time. Animals kill for food and to protect themselves among other reasons. The animals are not held to answer for their actions. The wolf is not then shunned by the members of his pack. It is an accepted part of life. And in some instances it is a necessary part of life where it is kill or be killed. This is where us humans would be if we lived as the beasts.
Thomas Hobbes referred to the state of nature as “the war of all against all”. In describing the natural existence of man in Leviathan, Hobbes said:
In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Hobbes was describing how human life would be if we lived as the animals do. He painted a picture of an existence that was very different from the one many of us presently know; especially those of us living in the developed nations of the world. Hobbes claimed that it was only through our leaving behind our animalistic ways that we could then grow as a species and create a society where life could achieve a reasonable level of comfort.
It is from this perspective that the idea of a social contract came into being. Somewhere in our history, we humans decided to band together and create organized groups that promoted mutual shared benefits. We began to live communally and work to support others beyond ourselves and immediate kin. Over time this led to larger tribes and clans to eventually villages, towns, cities, and then nations. These large communal groups provided us with a more comfortable lifestyle. No longer was it a war of all against all. We began working together instead of constantly against one another. We gave up our naturalistic ways to obtain security and comfort. This was the aforementioned social contract. In order to live in the society and receive its benefits we had to put aside our natural animal ways.
As a quick aside it is here that my thoughts go to Benjamin Franklin. In his 1755 letter to the colonial governor on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly he wrote the now famous words, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” While this quote is often taken out of its original context, it is an interesting quote nonetheless. I wonder what Ben’s thoughts on that social contract would have been. Taken to the extreme, maybe he was at heart a naturalistic anarchist.
But anyway, back to the point of this rambling.
According to the idea of the social contract, when we began to live as an organized society we agreed to not cause disruption to that society or act in any way that would be contrary to the interests of the society. This means that we agreed to not kill our fellow humans; or at least not the ones that were members of our specific group. And it was only the killing of humans that was prohibited. Society still allowed us to kill plenty of animals and in most cases, especially where hunting was necessary for food, it required us to kill.
Throughout history society not only limited killing to animals, but society even created exceptions for when it was ok to kill another human. Human history is filled with examples of this in war, capital punishment, and even self defense. These are all example of when it has been considered acceptable to kill another human.
Is killing wrong? If the world was black and white and only “yes” or “no” answers allowed, the response to this question would almost certainly be no. If killing is wrong, it is wrong all the time. No exceptions.
This becomes a difficult philosophical question. If killing is acceptable in nature it must not be wrong there. I will for the moment ignore the whole “does right or wrong exist in nature” question, but for our purposes here the concept of killing being wrong looks to be something that we humans created. We created it in order for our social groups to function and the mutual shared benefit of all. We decided killing was wrong. But in doing so we made two fatal errors. We forgot to consider our natural instincts as animals and we also made exceptions for when it was ok to kill.
We made an even bigger mess when we decided to bring God into the mix. We decided that according to our deity, killing was not cool and therefore thou shall not kill. Except then God gave us some exceptions for that rule too. For every rule made, there was some exception. There is always an exception. That is human ingenuity, like Hannibal crossing the Alps, we either find a way or make one.
We now rely on laws to keep our society functioning, but we still even create exceptions to these. There are still places that allow capital punishment. There are jurisdictions that allow for killing in self-defense. And of course we proudly train our militaries to kill.
So again I ask, is it ok to kill?
What if the only reason it is not ok to kill is because it is against the law?
This is a question I have wondered about for many years. I do not have an answer. My philosophical position on it constantly transforms. For the most part I would say that it is not ok. I agree that for the good of social order we cannot have people going around killing others. After all, we do not want to live in Hobbes’ natural world. But, is killing inherently wrong in and of itself? That I do not know. That I will probably never know. Human and religious history are full of too many contradictions. There are too many exceptions. So while I cannot answer for humans as a whole, I can try to formulate a personal opinion on the matter.
As I stated above, killing of humans generally would not be good for social order. For reasons of comfort it is best not to kill. I have wondered if I could kill. I doubt I would ever do so for malicious reasons. I simply can’t really imagine anything that is worth murdering someone over. But what about self-defense? Honestly, I do not know. In any situation weather being attacked or on the field of battle where it is kill or be killed, would I be able to do it? I would certainly be able to, as in I would be physically capable of it. But could I muster up the actual action and mindset to terminate a life? This is where I do not know myself. I am pretty certain I would make a horrible soldier. For various philosophical reasons I view war as an inherently stupid folly of human conceit. But what about true self-defense where I was confronted with a violent attacker and my options were limited? I doubt I would let myself be killed. That would be foolish. Isn’t one of the purposes of life survival? So possibly I could kill in that scenario, but again one never knows until confronted with such a thing.
And then there is the other part of it, do lives have value? By that I mean are some lives more valuable than others? Is it wrong to kill a person, but perfectly acceptable to kill an insect? Is it acceptable to kill both? Is it wrong to kill both? On this issue I find myself often conflicted. Generally I am of the opinion that killing humans is not good. But what of other lifeforms? Is it wrong to kill a housefly? What about a mouse? If it is ok to kill either what makes it so? Why then is is not acceptable to kill a human?
I have killed many insects in my day, but never really thought about it. This is probably the worst type of killing; killing with casual disregard. It wasn’t until I first killed a mouse a few years ago that had made its way into my house and gotten stuck in a glue trap that I began to consider my actions of killing insects and animals. Killing the housefly before was simple and there was no thought or emotion involved. The mouse changed everything. Suddenly it was a lifeform that I could relate to. I could see the mouse struggle. I recognized it as a fellow mammal. There was a connection.
And then I killed it.
As I ended the life of that mouse something changed. I felt different. I didn’t feel good.
I have since found myself on philosophical rollercoaster where even I find myself reluctant to kill houseflies and even my archnemesis, spiders. Killing the mouse brought me to a more Buddhist-like view on the matter.
Who am I to deny a creature existence?
While these are questions that roll around in my mind on occasion they’ve been rather present this week. Earlier this month a man I knew was found dead. According to police he died of gunshot wounds to the chest. The news of this was certainly unfortunate and shocking on its own. Earlier this week the police announced that they had a suspect in custody. When they finally made the announcement and released the identity of the suspect things became even more shocking.
The suspect was another man that I had known. To the best of my knowledge the two men were friends. No one expected he would be revealed as the suspect. Since the announcement, myself and those that knew the two men have existed in a state of shock and disbelief. We have all wondered what would lead to this happening. We have been trying to wrap our minds around the events and what we knew of the two men. None of it makes sense.
As it is my curse that my mind continually seeks to understand things I am left in a perplexing fog. What makes one man kill another? What happened? Why? Why would someone ever wish to deny another human of their existence?