A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 6, 2011
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I recently had a discussion about the killing of Bin Laden. One point that was raised was that the raid was actually an act of murder because no one in his house was armed and no resistance was offered to the Seals. This point was used by one person to argue that the Seals committed murder.

One point worth considering is the source of the claim that there was no resistance.When I asked about this, I was informed that two Pakistani officials have made this claim and described it as “cold-blooded.” My initial response was the obvious: Pakistani officials are rather lacking in credibility regarding Bin Laden. After all, they have told the world for years that they had no idea where he was located.  It is important to note that I am not rejecting their claims on the basis of an ad hominem. Rather, I am suspicious of their claims on the basis of assessing the officials quality as reliable authorities in this matter.

However, let it be assumed that Bin Laden and his fellows were unarmed and did not resist. While killing unarmed people who are offering no resistance can be regarded as rather cold-blooded, it need not be murder. After all, while murder is a type of killing, not all killings are murder. On the face of it, murder would seem to be intuitively defined as a wrongful killing. This sort of definition is typically used to distinguish capital punishment from murder. In the case of capital punishment, one stock argument is that the person killed has been found guilty of a crime and that the just punishment is death. Since the death is not, in theory, wrongful, it is not murder. Naturally, a multitude of objections can be raised against capital punishment, but there does seem to be an important theoretical distinction between murdering a person and killing a person in the process of justice.Obviously enough, capital punishment is generally inflicted on a person who is unarmed and who typically offers no resistance. As such, the death of Bin Laden could be regarded as capital punishment rather than murder. Under Locke’s view of capital punishment, the killing of Bin Laden would seem to morally correct-after all, Bin Laden showed himself to be an enemy of humanity and thus could be destroyed like a dangerous animal.

If the capital punishment argument does not float, the matter of war can be used. Killing occurs in war, however it is generally not classified as murder provided that the appropriate rules of war are followed. While killing people who are not armed is generally looked down on, snipers are not tried as criminals when they shoot unarmed and “unresisting” targets-provided that those targets are otherwise legitimate.  Taking out high value assets (such as commanders) is also considered legitimate in war, even when those targets are not wielding weapons.

It might be countered that soldiers are expected to take prisoners and hence killing Bin Laden was an act of murder, even in the context of war. Of course, the ethics of taking prisoners does include the fact that the soldiers are not morally required to take great risks merely to keep an enemy alive. Since Bin Laden was clearly a legitimate target and it seems likely that getting him out of Pakistan alive would have been rather difficult, it would seem that the soldiers would be morally justified in killing him on the spot rather than risking their own lives needlessly and putting their mission at risk.

I do recognize that there is something morally problematic about killing an unarmed person. It could be argued that even if he appeared unarmed, past experience has shown that terrorists use explosive vests and hence it does make sense to shoot a known terrorist in the head when there is a chance he is loaded with explosives. It could also be argued that in the real world (as opposed to movies) it makes no sense to let an enemy arm himself when you can shoot him before he can shoot back. Speaking of movies,  if Bin Laden was unarmed, then that seems to have been a poor decision on his part:

Little Bill Daggett: “Well, sir, you are a cowardly son of a bitch! You just shot an unarmed man!”
Will Munny: “Well, he should have armed himself if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend.”

This situation is a tough one. However, I think that my considered opinion is best put by the professor who taught me about military ethics: “some people you just have to kill.”

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34 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on May 6, 2011 at 7:33 am

    Let us also remember that killing Bin Laden ensures his eternal silence about the days when the CIA funded him, etc.

    There will also be no hostage situation, in which his supporters would attempt to get him back through a trade.

    There is no doubt that killing him was an eminently practical decision.

  2. frk said, on May 6, 2011 at 9:28 am

    A lot of memory can be easily swallowed. Did they gut Bin Laden to retrieve anything he may have swallowed between the time he first heard gunfire and the time the Seals entered his room?

  3. Asur said, on May 6, 2011 at 9:28 am

    The Pakistani officials’ claim seems trivial when considered in context that he was surrounded by armed guards. Even so, though, it wouldn’t matter either way: state of nature = no moral aspect. The only concerns are practical ones.

  4. fidel said, on May 6, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    Suppose it is rightfully described as “murder” and suppose it was quite illegal, that doesn’t automatically make it immoral.

    • Asur said, on May 6, 2011 at 4:55 pm

      Off the cuff, I’m inclined to support the notion that “All acts of murder are immoral acts.”

      What would be an example of something that was both murder and not immoral, fidel?

  5. fidel said, on May 6, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    Hi Asur,

    Certainly ‘murder’ is a thicker term than ‘kill’ and it seems entirely intuitive to say “if act A is ‘murder’ then it is morally wrong.” The term does seem to carry the implication that the act is necessarily immoral.for most people. But of course it depends on the moral system by which you judge the act. Although, say Mill, argued every act of murder is wrong even if that act will generate more happiness, it seems open to some act-utilitarians to say a particular act is an act of murder but it is morally justified because its consequences will be the most favorable outcome or generate the greatest happiness. (It also seems possible to judge the actions of a state by different criteria than those undertaken by a private individual – perhaps ‘utility’ is the right code for government actions even if it is not the correct one for private individuals).

    Bin Laden’s killing can be reasonably described as ‘murder’ – it doesn’t seem a ridiculous way to describe shooting an unarmed man in his own home when you seem to have the option of arresting him. But, assuming for the sake of argument that is what happened, I would still suggest it still seems to have been the right thing to do. And so the example or a moral murder would be that of Bin Laden. I don’t know that using the term ‘assassination’ is any more than a euphemism in this case,

    • Asur said, on May 7, 2011 at 1:02 am

      I guess, then, the important distinction underlying the various terms for killing is whether the killing was just or unjust.

      Although we did seem to have the option of arresting Bin Laden, I don’t see that we had any pressing reason to do so, hence the fact that we didn’t try to arrest Bin Laden before shooting him doesn’t seem important to me.

      We can disagree about the semantics of what the various terms for killing connote, but it seems to me that ‘murder’ specifically means an unjust killing.

      Since I don’t think we were under an obligation to arrest Bin Laden and had sufficient reason to kill him, I can’t call it murder.

      • fidel said, on May 7, 2011 at 10:07 am

        Hi Asur,

        That we don’t have ‘any pressing reason’ to arrest a given individual doesn’t seem quite enough to justify killing an unarmed man without trial – that’s not how we tend to operate with mass murderers, domestic or international (at least not openly). What we need, morally speaking, is a pressing reason not to arrest him but kill him instead. And I believe we had one.

        Despite the intelligence we might have got from him if he’d cracked in Guantanamo – Bin Laden’s survival would have had far worse consequences for all of us than his being shot in the head. It seems reasonable to conclude that a long drawn out captivity and trial would have inspired far worse in the way of Jihadist terrorism than simply killing and burying him – with respect to Islamic customs – at sea. I think the killing was (quite rightly) thought justified by those who ordered it on consequentialist grounds. And I think that killing an unarmed man without trial, on consequentialist grounds does sound rather like a case of murder to me. But if you want to reserve the term ‘murder’ for killings you deem immoral that is your right and I imagine most people would share your intuitions about how the word should be employed.

        • Asur said, on May 8, 2011 at 12:07 pm

          “And I think that killing an unarmed man without trial, on consequentialist grounds does sound rather like a case of murder to me.”

          So, what you’re saying is that consequentialist grounds cannot justify killing someone.

          That’s absurd — by that logic, you’d have no justification to defend your life against someone trying to take it since the entire notion of self-defense is predicated on the consequences to yourself if you don’t act.

          Perhaps you’re relying on some form of divine law for your perspective?

          • fidel said, on May 8, 2011 at 2:53 pm


            “So, what you’re saying is that consequentialist grounds cannot justify killing someone.”

            No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. What I am saying is that killing Bin Laden *was* morally justified on purely consequentalist grounds BUT that it still seemed reasonable to me to describe the same as an act of ‘murder’.

            I acknowledge your right to assume the term ”murder’ denotes ‘immoral’ (as opposed to, say, ‘illegal under US law’) and I am not disputing your right to use the term that way – I have even granted that most would probably share your intuitions about how you should use the term.

            All I am suggesting is that I could grant that a given act is an act of ‘murder’ – legally speaking an act of murder or meeting the normal conditions for an act to be an act of murder – whilst still insisting that the murder was (morally) justified (on consequentialist grounds). I suggest that the consequences of capturing Bin Laden alive and taking him to trial were so very bad that they and they alone outweighed the prima facie moral obligation civilized nations have to capture unarmed murderers and take them to trial.

            I personally am quite happy to concede that Bin Laden’s killing was an “murder” – he was, after all, an unarmed man shot in his own house, contrary it seems to international law and the laws of the country the act occurred in, who could have been captured and taken to trial instead – but I insist that , in this rare instance, the act of murder (if that is what it is) was morally justified because the consequences of letting Bin Laden live and face justice were so very grim.

            • Asur said, on May 8, 2011 at 6:17 pm

              “I acknowledge your right to assume the term ”murder’ denotes ‘immoral’ (as opposed to, say, ‘illegal under US law’) and I am not disputing your right to use the term that way.”

              Since I am not a subjectivist, supposing that I have a right to use “murder” as I wish is meaningless to me; it’s like saying I could use ‘red’ to mean ‘blue’ if that’s what I wanted to do.

              In a sense, we can do that, certainly–but only at the expense of intelligible communication.

              If you wish to use “murder” to mean ‘justified killing’…sure, why not?

              It’s bizarre, but perhaps by “bizarre” I intend ‘sensible and in good taste’–apparently, one can never know.

  6. fidel said, on May 8, 2011 at 7:09 pm


    I more closely associate the term ‘murder’ with a species of unlawful killing as opposed to a necessarily ‘immoral’ one. Your association is different, and I was meaning to grant that your understanding of the term was in no way counter-intuitive – that you most certainly were not doing something akin to using ‘red’ to mean ‘blue’, and that your understanding may well be the majority view outside legal circles.

    I do not wish to use the term ‘murder’ to denote (morally) ‘justified killing’. But yes I would allow that some acts of murder can be morally permissible, indeed morally required, just as stealing can be morally justified or required and remain stealing.

    I think killing Bin Laden was morally required on consequentialist grounds

    But I think if you ignored for a moment the name ‘Bin Laden’ and described how persons acting on behalf of the US government – contrary to local and international law and under legally dubious US legal sanction – shot an unarmed man (albeit a mass murderer) in the head in his own home rather than ‘arresting’ him because it would cause too much trouble if he was given a fair trial, you would find it difficult to call it anything other than murder. This act was justified on consequentialist grounds because of very specific circumstances but i think it has all the important features that would cause it to fall under within the class of acts we normally term ‘murder’. You feel if the act was just it cannot be an act of murder. I do not think your position is obviously wrong. But still I suggest, that in the Bin Laden case, the US government chose to murder somebody, for the good of its populace, the West generally, and indeed Muslims in the Middle East. I think they were right to do so, but I think there is no need to hide an act of murder behind euphemisms.

  7. T. J. Babson said, on May 9, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Good question:

    Wallace: We’ll stipulate — I think we’ll all stipulate — that bin Laden was a monster, but why is shooting an unarmed man in the face legal and proper while enhanced interrogation, including waterboarding of a detainee under very strict controls and limits — why is that over the line?


    • Asur said, on May 9, 2011 at 7:06 pm

      Relative to the individual being shot or tortured, in the former case we can plausibly claim national self-defense against the threat the person posed, whereas in the latter whatever threat they posed has been neutralized by their capture.

      It’s the same reasoning whereby you can arbitrarily kill an enemy soldier on the field of battle, but not once you’ve captured them or accepted their surrender.

      The counterargument to this is that the detainee may no longer pose a threat, but the information they have might allow us to deal with other, related threats that are still actionable in the name of national self-defense–hence, by extension, we are justified to take action against the detainee, i.e. waterboarding and the like.

      The problem with that–and I’ve never really sorted through it to come down decisively on one side or the other–is that the detainee is not plausibly responsible for these other threats, hence action against the detainee is essentially action against an innocent party.

      • fidel said, on May 9, 2011 at 9:33 pm

        It is proper to shoot an unarmed men in the face in ‘national self-defense’ because if you capture him, the threat he poses is neutralized, and he then gains the right not to be tortured or executed without trial.

        • Asur said, on May 10, 2011 at 1:36 am

          Somewhere above us you have a brick in a wall of text that makes the opposite point; which position are you taking?

          In any event, “proper” here would mean we have an obligation or duty to kill, which isn’t the case. I’m also not sure why you take it to be at all relevant that OBL was personally unarmed; he wasn’t dangerous because we thought he was running around with an AK-47.

          • fidel said, on May 10, 2011 at 10:03 am

            It is relevant whether OBL was unarmed in the same way as it is relevant whether any other murdering criminal that the authorities go to confront is unarmed. Unless it is on foreign soil (in this instance well away from any battlefield) the US govt will not (openly) choose to shoot an unarmed terrorist in the face instead of arresting him and taking him to trial.

            ‘Proper’ might mean ‘one of several permissible options’ but sure the Navy Seals had a duty to kill OBL as they had been ordered to do so and the US president had a duty to order them to do so because his duty is not to the domestic law of Pakistan, or international law, or to the norms of standard morality but to the interests of the USA and its populace.

            Which brick, which point?

            • Asur said, on May 10, 2011 at 3:13 pm

              I was looking at:

              “I suggest that the consequences of capturing Bin Laden alive and taking him to trial were so very bad that they and they alone outweighed the prima facie moral obligation civilized nations have to capture unarmed murderers and take them to trial.”


              “It is proper to shoot an unarmed men in the face in ‘national self-defense’ because if you capture him, the threat he poses is neutralized, and he then gains the right not to be tortured or executed without trial.”

              The first states that we had good justification to kill him outright, and I took the second to imply that we didn’t.

              Rereading your comments, you’re making some nuanced distinctions I may have missed; my apologies if that’s the case.

              Regarding OBL being unarmed, I don’t think the analogy to the authorities confronting an unarmed murderer at, say, a traffic stop is apt: In the latter case, authorities are justified in killing the murderer only if he or she is armed and hostile, and this is because the murderer poses a threat solely through their direct actions; OBL, on the other hand, is not directly but indirectly threatening to us through his influence over others who are direct threats — and, as you point out, his threat can plausibly be taken to persist even were he captured, which is not true of a conventional murderer.

              That’s why I don’t think it matters whether he was armed or not; his threat is simply not dependent on it.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 10, 2011 at 4:52 pm


              Good points. Bin Laden can be regarded as a commander rather than a foot soldier. To say “wait, the general is not carrying a rifle, so I may not shoot him”, would seem to get things wrong.

      • T. J. Babson said, on May 9, 2011 at 9:58 pm

        So it is OK to shoot OBL on sight, but not to waterboard him? This is the moral calculus?

        • Asur said, on May 10, 2011 at 1:50 am

          I didn’t make a claim either way, I was just explaining the arguments involved since you asked.

          I’m not averse to working through them, though; tell me which statement is bothering you:

          1) It is OK to kill an enemy combatant.

          2) It is not OK to torture a prisoner.

          • T. J. Babson said, on May 10, 2011 at 7:47 am

            So, if we let a prisoner go, as soon as stepped outside the gates of the prison we could gun him down as an enemy combatant?

            • Asur said, on May 10, 2011 at 9:56 am

              Assuming that we’re using a principle of threat to justify our actions, the answer would be ‘No’, since the implication of releasing a prisoner is that they’re no longer a threat.

              I guess you don’t want to look at the engine under the hood? I’m just trying to see where you’re coming from with 1 and 2, not trap you into agreeing with a caricature.

            • T. J. Babson said, on May 10, 2011 at 10:05 am

              Is the standard simply being an enemy combatant, or does he have to pose a threat? If OBL was taking a bath stark naked and obviously not a threat can we still shoot him on sight?

            • T. J. Babson said, on May 10, 2011 at 10:07 am

              I am against torture but in favor of killing OBL, but it is not clear to me that these are internally self consistent positions.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 10, 2011 at 2:06 pm

              I’m inclined to say they are. I’ll need to construct an argument, though.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 10, 2011 at 2:03 pm

              In that case, I would say no. If he was released because s/he was found innocent, etc. then the killing would certainly seem to be unjustified. If the person was let lose to perhaps be “killed while escaping”, then that would seem rather like murder.

            • T. J. Babson said, on May 10, 2011 at 10:44 pm

              I think we all agree that killing someone is a greater harm than waterboarding him.

              Isn’t it strange, then, that we feel that the greater harm is morally justified while the lesser harm is morally unjustified?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 10, 2011 at 1:52 pm

      Reading this caused me to think of hunting. Killing an animal outright on a hunt is generally regarded as morally superior to torturing it, even if the torture does not kill the animal. Maybe it is a matter of sympathy: seeing a living thing being tormented makes us feel worse than seeing a quick kill. I’m appealing to my own experience here. When I, for example, killed a duck with a clean shot, I did not feel bad. When I ran over a chipmunk on my bike and saw it thrashing in pain, I felt horrible. This is, of course, not an argument. However, it might show something about how our sympathy works (or at least mine).

  8. fidel said, on May 9, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    seems to be TJ, not my idea of ‘Justice’ but it seems to be the President’s

  9. Asur said, on May 10, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    TJ said:

    I am against torture but in favor of killing OBL, but it is not clear to me that these are internally self consistent positions.

    Consistent options:

    1) Consequentialist: Killing OBL was necessary in a way that torturing is not.

    2) Hedonic: Torturing is wrong because it causes unnecessary suffering in a way that killing OBL did not.

    3) Deontic: We have a duty to protect ourselves (killing OBL), but also a duty to act humanely (not torturing).

    Inconsistent option:

    4) State-based: Since OBL was in a state of nature relative to us, we were justified in acting however we saw fit. Inconsistent because this would also justify torture.

    If you picked 1-3, congratulations, you’re self-consistent; since I favor 4, I don’t have a leg to stand on if I want to claim that torture is morally wrong (i.e. wrong in general), though I can still appeal to consequentialist reasoning to claim that it is specifically wrong for some given situation.

    • fidel said, on May 10, 2011 at 9:23 pm


      Re: your comments of May 10 at 3:13 pm although in both passages I say that the US had justification to kill Bin Laden, I do see why you would take my second claim to imply the opposite.

      I quite agree Bin Laden’s continuing role as an ‘enemy combatant’ was not connected to him being armed. Whether Bin Laden was armed or not only seems pertinent to the question of whether he should have been captured for trial instead of shot in the face. As a general rule I would suggest unarmed terrorists should be captured for trial but in this particular case I believe it was right to order his killing.

      If Bin Laden had been captured he would no longer have posed any threat *as an enemy combatant*. But the threat caused by the fact Bin Laden was alive in US custody would have emerged (and this threat might well have been greater than the threat he posed in his compound miles from any battlefield with no phone or internet access). And it is on account of this threat that I take his killing to have been the right thing for the US President to order. Had the US had the opportunity to torture OBL, given the life-saving information one might reasonably expect to obtain from the leader of Al-Queda, this would seem justified on the same consequentialist grounds that give warrant for his killing: that of saving innocent lives. And that the US could not torture OBL – on account of rights now granted to captured combatants – only adds further weight to the argument that the President was, on balance, right to order his killing instead of his capture.

  10. rambleandrant said, on May 12, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    Interesting movie quote, by the way!

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