Is Murder Sometimes Justified?

Many of you will have heard of the ‘plank of Carneades’ thought experiment, which asks us to imagine two shipwrecked sailors, who both see a plank that can only support one of them. Sailor A gets there first, but he’s pushed off by Sailor B, who then paddles away, leaving Sailor A to drown. The issue then is whether or not Sailor B can plead self-defence if he’s tried for murder.

Fewer of you will know that something like this happened in real-life, and that it became a fairly celebrated part of English case law.

And hardly any of you will know that I’ve developed a new interactive activity at Philosophy Experiments, which uses a couple of real-life scenarios to look at whether it can ever be morally justified for someone to end another person’s life (assuming that they are not under direct physical threat, that the other person hasn’t consented to being killed, etc).

In the Face of Death

Try it out now. Let me know what you think. Tell your friends. And generally spread the word. Please. Thanks.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Interesting possibilities here.
    Let’s say A was an Olympic swimmer and B was an Olympic boxer. They each had unfair advantages given a particular development. If A got to the board first and managed to avoid B coming close is he not as guilty of murder as B would be in the given scenario?
    I’d have to go for neither being guilty of murder.

  2. A few comments–

    In your explanation in this post, you talk about “pleading self defense,” but this is surely not a case of self defense. The cabin boy would have had to be attacking the captain for the captain to say he killed him in self defense. The issue is just whether it was morally permissible for the captain to kill the boy. It could be permissible, but not self defense.

    I took the quiz over there, and the site-god complained about my answers, but I think unfairly! I said–

    (1) Impermissible for captain to kill cabin boy.

    (2) Permissible for nurse to kill patients.

    (3) Permissible for guy on A to divert train so it kills guy on B.

    The site-god assumes I’m using consequentialist reasoning, and thinks this is inconsistent, but I’m not using consequentialist reasoning, or at least not alone. There is a Kantian element to the reasoning.

    My answer to (1) is based on the sense that the captain is impermissibly using the cabin boy as a means. In (2) that’s clearly not the case. In (3) that’s also not the case. The guy isn’t being used in the way the fat man is, in another trolley case. It’s not essential to my plan that he should be killed–I merely foresee it.

    Now, that last bit of reasoning might be disputed, but it’s not just a matter of consequentialist reasoning going amok. What’s involved are Kantian intuitions about whether X is disrespectfually being used as a means or not. In case (1), yes. In case (2), clearly not. In case (3), probably not.

  3. @Ralph – That’s a neat variation: I might use it! 🙂

    @Jean – No, it’s definitely not self-defense (though this possibility was discussed, IIRC, in the legal ruling).

    I reckon your Kantian objection sort of works, but there are complications. I’ve thought of a few (one involving a story about two bank robberies, one of which requires you to chop off somebody’s hand in order to get a hand print to open a safe, the other of which requires you to blow up a safe with the inevitable consequence that someone in security will get caught in the blast – you can probably imagine what I’m going to argue) – but I’ve just got back from playing squash and I’m dripping with sweat, so later! 🙂

  4. Dennis Sceviour

    There is an ethical principle in Hippocratic medicine that a patient goes to a doctor to be healed and not to be killed. There is a story of Hippocrates who refused to administer a lethal substance on a request. Whether or not euthanasia is a moral issue, the decision should not be solely in the hands of a practicing medical physician.

  5. I took the test and for once, I scored 100% consistent. I’m either advancing in my ethical reasoning powers or learning how to
    get perfect scores on Jeremy’s tests.

  6. I note a minor typo in all three response labels on the radio buttons: “Quite condident”

  7. The experiment examples are quite interesting. As for the analysis, I’m puzzled on two grounds: relevance of consistency, and absence of distinction(s) which may ‘justify’ a set of decisions.

    The case of the shipwrecked sailors is different from the murder of the cabin-boy. The sailor who has the plank is preserving his life from an immediate threat; hence self-defense. So too the sailor trying to take the plank–may the best man live.

    The cabin-boy was murdered because he did not have an equal chance to preserve his own life; and the threat of death to the others was not immediate.

    The concentration camp reminds of the Celtic warrior: killing a loved one is the more loving thing to do. (You need to know some about ancient warfare and slavery to appreciate.)

    As for the runaway train, the decision to shunt to a track where another would be killed is justified by preserving the life of the greatest number. But what of shunting were to save many and to kill the one making the decision?

    The top question is muddled. As per Geach on the Socratic fallacy, ‘murder’ by definition is unjustified killing? (Monist 1966)

  8. Now I have a add-on thought re consistency. The demand for consistency is ballyhoo. Ethics, personal and group, are hodge-podge akin to English common law.

    If principles are the hodge of it, and facts are the podge; then podge can become hodge, and hodge can become just another shabby podge of bygone hodge.

    What makes this possible and tolerable, methinks, is over-rides; i.e. some principles are given more weight in different situations — e.g. preservation ‘for me’ may over-rule the principle of cooperation. And that’s okay, philosophically speaking.

  9. I gave the same answers as Jean with similar justifications, and thought I was consistent as well.
    scenario 1 Don’t kill the cabin boy, because killing the boy to eat him is wrong…. Eating him after he died, is permissible. Eating anyone after they die is permissible. So why not just wait until the boy dies. After all, he might not die first…. Then the boy might be able to eat and live because of someone else’s death. Or maybe rescue comes sooner than you’d expect.

    Scenario 2 Kill the children. This seems like a simple case of euthanasia. Nothing will come swooping in to save the children, even if allied tanks start rolling into the camp. Arguably, you might have an obligation to try to stop the attackers, but that wasn’t an option.

    Scenario 3 Flip the switch. This seemed like the only case in which the utilitarian calculus gave me a clear answer. Sacrifice 1 for the guarantee saving of more people’s lives.

  10. I thought the last case was different from the first two because I was (a) able to decide whether to help the surgeon and (b) refusing to help.

    In the cabin-boy case presumably they were unconscious and unable to refuse or consent. In the Warsaw Ghetto case, presumably the children were again incapable of consenting.

    There’s therefore the admittedly slim possibility of a sort of implied consent in both of the real-life cases. If we knew that the cabin-boy or the children were clearly and emphatically saying ‘no’, then this would change matters significantly in my eyes.

  11. Thanks for your feedback, guys. I am reading all this stuff. I will respond properly later.

  12. I confidentially killed everybody. I was not happy with it. It seemed wrong, but then I wonder if doing what is so called immoral or wrong is not sometimes, as I reasoned, in all three cases, the best thing to do, in the circumstances. It is a Utilitarian approach, what will produce the greatest happiness or happiness to the greater number of people. This could demand self sacrifice at times. Whether I would come up to scratch there I hesitate to say.

  13. I did not kill anybody.

    I tire of reading about the common sense natural instinct human nature approach to philosophical reasoning. I am appalled to find in the philosophy experiments on this website, that 63% of respondents believe in torture, and 73% of respondents would cannibalistically cut your throat and literally eat you. These statistics, if correct, cast a serious shadow of doubt on the usefulness of democracy. Clearly, decency and civilization rests with a very small minority of people. Perhaps this sounds a little puritanical; somebody has to be.

    I would like to leave the reader with a philosophical one-liner from the words of actress Katherine Hepburn, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

  14. I suspect that just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no non-cannibals in life-boats.

  15. Dennis – The lifeboat statistic isn’t as you state. 73% of people think that the ship’s captain was morally justified in his actions. It doesn’t follow that they would have done the same thing.

    Also, just because people don’t share your moral judgements, it doesn’t follow that their judgements are a function of a “common sense natural instinct approach to philosophical reasoning”.

  16. Here are my opinions…

    Euthanasia in Warsaw hospital: Yes, she should kill the patients.
    Why: The Dr is making a judgement to reduce the pain of countless patients. She gets “dirty hands” because she has made a choice to do something usually considered wrong, but for a perceived benefit. The patients will experience great pain and die either way, so the idea of consent becomes less important. The Dr should kill the patients in utilitarian terms. It is right that she feels “tragic remorse”, and she will if she is a just person. We cannot make a judgment about what is “right” in this scenario, because (for exogenous reasons) justice has been irretrievably corrupted and the Dr is making a choice to minimise injustice and pain, she is left with a utilitarian choice.

    Kill the cabin boy and eat him: No.
    Why: We don’t know for sure that he is the one who deserves to die in utilitarian terms, therefore must not make an arbitrary judgement. The decision cannot be made objectively by the people on the boat because they are affected by their own survival instinct (hindering rationality). Therefore they shouldn’t kill the boy, and must be punished if they do so. Its also worth noting that the fact that the man on the boat would be actively killing the boy, and that he would make a choice about who to kill beforehand, means that he is specifically acting or doing. He cannot be sure who (if anyone) would die otherwise, so he is guilty of murder. A morally pure action may be, in some people’s eyes, to sacrifice oneself for the others to eat. We should not, however, prescribe this as a moral law for the guys on the boat.

    Flip the switch to kill the guy on track B: Yes.
    Why: This doesn’t qualify as a “doing” act, because the guy on track B is almost certain to die either way. Since an unjust situation has been imposed on me (let 4 people die almost certainly, or increase the likelihood of this one guy on track B dying two-fold) I might as well make a utilitarian choice. I kill the one guy on track B and experience tragic remorse, or even agent regret (if I was disposed towards cold rationality, or if I didn’t like him!). Obviously my decision must be questioned in court because it was directly subjective (involved saving my own life), but because of the near certainty of death to the guy on track B either way, I cannot really be called a murder. My hands are, however, well and truly dirty.

    Utilitarian/Consequentialist reasoning is valuable because we can use it to find reasons whether or not to act in certain scenarios, but not suitable to be taken as an absolute universal doctrine, simply because there are complex cases where units cannot be compared or quantified.

    In most cases, I think we have moral duties, but I think that we must approach this with a degree of flexibility, because it is often the case that sacrosanct moral laws will be broken whatever choice is made.

    More than anything, I think this makes it clear that universal laws are rarely acceptable in all real world cases.

  17. Armchair philosophy is so easy. We sit and ponder maybe refer to a few books and eventually come up with often, some very forthright replies. I ask myself what would one do if one were actually involved in the situations as described, Face to face with all the brutal facts, no time for comfortable cogitation in the armchair, the decision is all on you: to blazes with philosophy, moral codes, right and wrong, the question is what is best to do?
    On the ground as it were, I feel that actions may be incompatible with what was resolved in the armchair.

  18. Don, your point raises an essential question about how to make our ideas applicable to reality;conjuncture of the ideal theory and the non-ideal world. I think you’re right Don, when you say that we have to be realistic and brutal with our reasoning, because these are serious issues.

    But before you discard with philosophy, remember why it is necessary in the first place: We theorise so that we can decide what the ideal in such situations is. This enables us to make governmental (political and personal) choices that are in line with our intuitions and rationality, and decide how laws and political policies can best accommodate justice.

    Don, I would argue that your own intuitions on these issues are a product of an ethical discourse of modernity. You have merely inherited a method of reasoning from historical thinkers and social actors. So, for the purpose of enlightenment and personal autonomy, why not rethink and engage with these topics in a philosophical way? Such actions are arguably more inline with “human nature” than any particular “intuitive” morality is.

    Indeed, if we decide what our own conception of morality is, then we can try to be better people in “the real world” by attempting to act with rationality, rather making impulse decisions based on flawed, if any, reasoning.

  19. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: Posted by Jeremy Stangroom | October 23, 2010, 12:54 pm
    “73% of people think that the ship’s captain was morally justified in his actions. It doesn’t follow that they would have done the same thing.” – Yes. This is true.

    What would your judgement be if the boy had discovered their intentions, and cut their throats at night when they were sleeping?

  20. Life-boats adrift without food tend to be fairly Hobbesian.

  21. Dennis – The boy couldn’t have done, he was too weak.

    I understand the point you’re trying to make, but the fact that by all accounts the boy was barely conscious is (potentially at least) a morally relevant datum here.

  22. Actually, generally speaking, if people are particularly interested in the Mignonette story, it’s worth reading Lord Coleridge’s judgement (I’ve linked to it in the OP). It’s long, but it’s beautifully put together.

  23. Re Alex Tyrrell Oct:-23rd.
    It was not my intention to discard philosophy. In fact my academic training was in philosophy in which of course ethics was an important subject both at graduate and post graduate level so I am well aware of engaging with these issues in a philosophical way. With respect I do not need your advice on enlightenment and personal autonomy. I am also puzzled as we have never met, why you see fit to tell me my method of reasoning has been inherited from historical thinkers and social actors; who exactly are those people? And what exactly do you mean by an ethical discourse of modernity? I agree that we should try to be better people in the world and attempt to act rationally unfortunately on the shop floor of life this does not always happen. Thou shalt not kill is very good advice but unfortunately instances arise where the greater good is served by killing but by no means whatsoever should it be as you say, a result of an impulse decision based on flawed, if any, reasoning. I am also puzzled by what you mean by actions being more in line with Human nature. So far as I can see in the main, the human animal is one of the most vile and loathsome creatures ever to walk on Earth and will in the course of time most likely bring about their own extinction, in addition to the extinction they have effected and are still effecting in other species both animal and vegetable all due to greed, self aggrandisement and intolerance. I my previous post I though it best to describe as ‘forthright’ the response given by some to philosophical issues, rather than ‘self important dictates’

  24. Don, In my opinion, people who have grown up in a western civilisation (including you and I) have been exposed to a primary and secondary socialisation (and onwards in life) that is greatly influenced and determined by certain discourses. Discourses of deliberation by people like Aristotle, the Christian scholars, thinkers like Kant, and more recently, people like Rawls and Habermas. (Obviously this is just a small and select sample of people; we could not expect to completely map out everyone who has influenced the intellectual sphere we inhabit.)

    By “ethical discourse of modernity” I meant: the discussion and dialogue surrounding the topic of ethics throughout time, specifically during the period of European Enlightenment. The result of which is thought to dictate or influence the way we talk about and reason over the topic of ethics.

    To paraphrase myself: “such actions are arguably more in line with human nature than ‘intuitive’ morality”. The actions (engaging with ideas in a philosophical way) can be considered as much, or even more, part of human nature than our conception of morality is, after all, there are many competing notions of morality evident in the world and throughout history, but history also tells us that humans are disposed towards intellectual deliberation.

    I completely agree with your statement about the greater good sometimes being served by killing, you will find a similar argument in my first post. However, I certainly did not suggest that we should act without proper reasoning as you have suggested. On the contrary, all my points so far have upheld the view that reasoning is paramount to self governance.

    I appreciate what you have said about the “shop floor of life”. If you consult the first sentence of my second post you will notice that I earmarked it as an important point and added that we must strive to overcome the issue of it being so difficult to apply our often idealistic theories to the non-ideal world.

  25. From the summary of my first two answers…”at least arguable that the world was left better off by the killings”. There’s the problem with your exercise. Who are you to put the survival instincts of other people in a context of whether or not the world was better off? These people had to make decisions based on the “world” that existed in the Warsaw ghetto and on a tiny boat in the middle of the ocean. That was the only “world” that was relevant to them. It’s not that they ceased to see “the big picture” of morality or what others would think. There was no relative morality and what others would think was quite irrelevant.

    You then present a scenario of entirely different circumstances taking place in a much bigger “world” involving a doctor and an imagined ME. YOU state what the conditions are, including what MY response to the doctor is, then ask ME to make a moral judgment about a situation that may not be as limiting in reality as you portray. The doctor has ethical responsibilities to both her profession and to her hospital/employer. There is also the possibility that the transplant operations will not be successful. At the very least, if you wish people to make a judgment on this situation, you have a responsibility to say what the probabilities of success are expected to be. I can’t answer such morally judgmental (i.e. God-like) question without, at the very least, answers to many pertinent questions. I won’t complete your survey, however I would say that the doctor is not right to kill me partly because it is not her decision to make and due to a number of other factors that could be relevant to such a much less isolated circumstance.

  26. @Doug

    Your points in turn:

    1. You asked:

    Who are you to put the survival instincts of other people in a context of whether or not the world was better off?

    I didn’t. I said “it is at least arguable that the world was left better off by the killings” – and that’s true. What’s your objection here?

    2. The idea that wider moral issues cease to be in play because people’s moral horizons are narrowed is just a nonsense. If you go down that track, you’re going to find yourself potentially justifying all sorts of horrors, just because people’s “survival instincts” – or whatever – kick in in particular circumstances. (Although your point is a non sequitur, anyway.)

    3. The scenario with the doctor isn’t *entirely* different. There are similarities. That’s the point.

    4. Sorry, but we often have to make moral decisions on the basis of incomplete information. That, for example, was the situation the people in the boat faced.

    5. The fact that you were able to come to a moral determination after having stated that you “can’t answer” is… well it’s ironic, at the very least.

  27. at least arguable” is akin to “might” and “could”.  My mistake in taking your statement to mean something.  Such talk is foul language in the domains I inhabit.  Why say something if you’re going to run away from it?  But that is a completely different discussion that I’m not interested in pursuing.  Much of the relevance of your other points are in the same vein/vain so far as I’m concerned.  Let me see if I can restate my point more directly.


    In the Warsaw ghetto and in the lost-at-sea scenarios, the persons who made the decisions were for all intents and purposes the proper authorities for making those decisions.  In the third scenario, the doctor is making a decision outside of her domain of responsibility.  Unless this was the point of your exercise, I think it muddies a great deal of the moral picture. 


    Perhaps if in the third scenario, the doctor, myself, and other parties involved were at some remote location, such as the South Pole station in mid-winter, the point of the experiment would be clearer.   In such a scenario, I would not fault the doctor for making the decision to take my life because the responsibility to make the decision would be hers alone.  To me this is a very significant difference.  I once had to make a decision similar to what the latter doctor made.


  28. Yeah, Doug, I’m not responding to you until you cut the attitude you display in your first paragraph.

    Actually, you don’t have a choice here: cut the attitude or don’t post here again (your choice not to post here, of course).

  29. I was shocked that the site-god failed to account for the fact that the Nazi’s had begun the mass murder of all the hospital patients.

    That’s the flaw in the “is it always wrong to lie” hypothetical when the Nazi comes to your door looking for Jews. The axiomatic value in misleading the Nazi is foiling a murder. The axiomatic value in the doctor’s mercy killing is *not* that she kills. They were already being murdered, her killing is axiomatically not murder at all, but mercy.

  30. Wayne Ewan said “Eating anyone after they die is permissible.” The following scenario occurred to me. Somebody knocks on my door and says ‘I have eaten your wife’ I look rather puzzled and somewhat startled. He continues it’s OK, though, she was dead, so it was quite permissible. It seems to me there is a multitude of replies one can give along the lines that it is not permissible.
    My perverse sense of humour finds this scenario very amusing, although I do not favour anthropophagy as part or whole of one’s diet, unless of course ——-_.

  31. Aristotle Walshbender

    Many of you have heard of lots of “thought experiments”.

    Many of us think it’s a craven concession to the science faculty to describe these thus.

    Why can’t we go back to saying: “Imagine a brain in a hat..” without the pseudo-scientific stuff?

    PS: My colleague in Classics told me I Shouldn’t use “these thus” – bit of a wager here.

  32. To expand on the example, if you could go back in time and have the opportunity to kill Hitler, would you do it? If you would, is it murder or taking one life to save millions?

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