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What is murder?

16 June 2008 by Mike Gogulski
Posted in crime, people, philosophy | 16 Comments »

This article and philosophical discussion began as a response to my “Fuck the troops!” post. As that thread has grown rather extensive, and the specific issue of my own (anarchist) definition of murder is related but tangent, I have decided to split the topic and begin a new post here.

I am somewhat conflicted as to whether to split this off as a separate item completely divorced from the original conversation and my reaction to Mr. Warner, or to let it flow. Since the hour is late and the path of least resistance is often attractive, I will leave it as a personal response.

Dear Lee,

You wrote:

[A]s a matter of pragmatism, none of the other definitions [of murder] or standards can deprive me of property, liberty, and life. Their value is purely symbolic, as they are not based upon force or coercion.

Of course definitions have no power on their own. They gain power only as they are accepted and applied by people in their relations.

If I read you correctly, you don’t necessarily accept the definition of murder as defined by legislature, religion, or “analysis of the rightful place of self-defense,” but you aren’t making clear exactly what your philosophical standard, legal principle, and definition is. If it’s not too legalistic of me, could I ask you to explain what YOUR higher law is, and how it would apply to me, or any other non-participant in your belief system?

In the Muslim world, the law is what the Sheik, Caliph, or Imam says it is. It tends to vary, notwithstanding the Koran or Sharia Law. I wouldn’t want that for me, and I hope that isn’t what you are talking about.

I wouldn’t want Sharia or literal Biblical law for anyone, and even I can agree that, as an example, the organic law based in the English Common Law is a morally superior system. That doesn’t make it a good system, however.

The question is not too legalistic, this is a fundamental and critical issue, and one which I and hopefully most of the world use to examine and judge the question. My philosophy is something of “self-defense plus”. I believe mine to be an extension of the philosophy described by the “Philosophy of Liberty” video I posted previously.

To the narrow question of what is a criminal murder and what is a justified killing — be it in self-defense, in the service of delegation of the right to self-defense or as retaliation for tortious damage or infringement — I am not a philosopher, and I won’t be able to put together a comprehensive intellectual argument which will unassailably support my beliefs. What I can offer, though, is a set of principles (though some may be loose and slippery) which speak to the issue, and examples that support and illustrate their application. I will gleefully and recklessly make assertions here without proof, use terms without definition and attempt to exploit proof by intimidation. I don’t have time for much else.

First, we own ourselves. Our bodies are our rightful and natural property. When someone attempts to damage us or kill us, we are justified in using whatever force necessary to prevent or interrupt that. That force may even be disproportionate. If a kidnapper has me tied up and is preparing to saw off my leg, if I manage to get a free hand and deliver an ice pick to his brain, that also is justified. We may be justified in certain circumstances in conducting proportionate revenge upon those who injure us as well.

Next, we own our property (define it as you will, and this is a broad and deep and vague philosophical area in which I have mixed opinions and in which there are many views), and that property is an extension of ourselves. We are justified also in using force to protect and defend our property, and may be justified in extracting proportionate retributive compensation or a proportionate forced cure for damage to or infringement upon our property. Our bodies are our property as well, as are our lives.

Next, we own our liberty. Liberty is the space in which one may move and act and be without infringing upon the equally inviolate liberty of others. Our liberty is also our property.

We have the duty to respect the equal rights of others with respect to their own persons, property and liberty. No action that we or they take can abridge or abolish this duty. This duty arises as a practical consequence of our own desire and need for our persons, property and liberty to be respected.

We have the ability, and the moral justification, to delegate the defense of our persons, property and liberty to other persons, organizations or institutions, exclusively or non-exclusively. When we make such an intentional (and explicit) delegation, we are not creating any right, entitlement or duty that did not exist before, we are merely expanding it and inviting others to enforce our own rights. Such a delegation is almost always carried out for reasons of reciprocity: familial love, kinship, fraternal association, commercial transaction, etc. If we, say, delegate our defense to a neighborhood association which sets up an armed patrol to safeguard our homes and defend our lives, property and liberty, we are not empowering those who carry the weapons and go on patrol in our names with any new entitlement, we merely concentrate it in them and agree to support and defend their actions insofar as those actions are in accordance with those of our own rights which we have delegated.

Additionally, other people to whom we have not specifically delegated our powers of self-defense also are justified in acting to defend us or to exact retribution from those who aggress against us. The onlooker to an escalating argument who breaks my debating partner’s nose when he sees that my debating partner is about to stick a knife in my belly is entirely justified, whether I know him or not.

What I think I have given here is a rough outline of libertarian/anarchist theory at a fundamental level. Looks a bit like Mosaic law, doesn’t it? It’s also the basis for the justified functioning of a volunteer military (the scaled-up version of the neighborhood patrol) whose services are contracted for and supported by a group of people who wish it. I’ve also given the barest toe-hold to the “preemptive strike doctrine” under which the war in Iraq today is being waged, though I disagree entirely with its extension to cover that war and almost every other instance where it is used in the world today.

Thus: an unjustified killing, a murder, is one which violates these principles. This is how I see the issue.

You came along, though, telling us that you’d killed people, and that though it haunts your conscience, you believe those killings to be just. I will submit, respectfully, that it should be impossible for a sane man to simultaneously hold close the principles I have outlined above and the belief that those killings were just.

  1. 16 Responses to “What is murder?”

  2. By genesgalore on 16 June 2008

    murder is natural. nothing morally wrong with it per se. it’s just as humans, most of us, accept and practice a social contract that says we don’t do it to each other without consequence. it’s not like you are all going to hell for doing it or nothing. the fricken cow you ate had nothing to say about it.

  3. By Lee Warner on 16 June 2008

    You make a very fair and cogent argument. Within your principles, you may legitimately argue that any given conflict entered into by proxy, as the US Armed Forces is our proxy, is either within the boundaries of your standards, or outside those boundaries, depending on how you evaluate the extigent and collateral circumstances.

    By that last sentence I mean that if you decided that a nation like Iraq had prepared for, and intended to attack the USA, you could support war as just, or if you decided the circumstances were not indicative of a true threat of imminent hostilities, you could honestly oppose war.

    As I have pointed out in previous posts, you are fortunate to live in a time and place where you have the luxury of such a choice. In earlier times, the King stuck a spear in your hand and ordered you to march up to that wall and knock it down while other people poured boiling oil on you. Truly a suck-ass position to be in.

    Well, that’s the sort of position I was in. I got a draft notice two weeks after my 18th birthday. The King stuck a spear in my hand, pointed me west, and told me to kill. I went west, and met some people who resented my presence on the land that they themselves were trying to invade, (let’s be honest about it) and they tried to kill me. Truly a suck-ass position to be in.

    I was taught to stay alive by more experienced warriors, and I actually managed it. In doing so, I killed people. Now, I think one of the things that infuriated you at first was the one comment I made about “enjoying it.” Let me explain that aberration.

    I watched a man with a knife dragging another man, bound and gagged, to the edge of the river I was patrolling. The man with the knife was wearing a uniform such that I recognized him as an enemy combatant. The other man was in civilian clothing. After watching for several minutes as the enemy combatant beat the civilian with the butt of the knife until he could no longer stand, I shot and killed the soldier as he raised the knife with both hands to plunge it into the civilian’s back.

    I still feel no remorse for that killing. In fact, I’m glad I did it. It led directly to a nasty firefight later that I didn’t like, but c’est la guerre. The civilian survived that day.

    Was I guilty of murder? No, I don’t think so.

    Should I have been there, on that day, in that place, with that weapon in my hands?

    No, probably not.

    Was the King morally justifed in sending me there?

    HE thought so at the time, but I think no, probably not.

    Should I have refused to go? Yeah, probably so. And I might have, if I hadn’t been a thoroughly ignorant kid, the son of a decorated Marine Corps captain who believed in his very soul that killing orientals was his duty, privilege, and God-given right. In fact, it took me over thirty years to understand, overcome, and reject my father’s intense, venomous hatred of all things Asian.

    I’m sorta glad he died before he found out I owned a Toyota.

    So, then there’s this: You came along, though, telling us that you’d killed people, and that though it haunts your conscience, you believe those killings to be just. I will submit, respectfully, that it should be impossible for a sane man to simultaneously hold close the principles I have outlined above and the belief that those killings were just.

    Yeah, well, you’re right about that. It should be impossible. But I suspect that you grossly underestimate the capacity of the human mind to rationalize and justify.

    So, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. While I freely admit that it took me a lot longer to grow up than it does most people, I believe now that I am sane, although I realize that my belief may be in error, because I believed I was sane while I was in combat, too. I remember the acts I committed, but I also remember the intensity of my training, and the true believers who delivered the propaganda that I too-fervently believed at that time. I was born to it, and everything I did, I did because I believed in my heart and soul that it was right, just, and honorable.

    Just as nearly every single combatant in history from Ur to Uruguay does. Because, sadly, for every conscientious objector like you, there are hundreds of thousands of true believers. None of them call it murder.

    It’s taken over thirty years for me to come to terms with the moral, legal, and philosophical errors made in the justification and prosecution of that war, especially those errors committed by me, but I still can’t bring myself to call it murder.

    That early experience led me to reject the rationale for the wars in Panama, Bosnia/Serbia/Hertzegovina, Gulf War I, and the present war in Iraq. I even objected to the Falkland Islands war. I opposed these wars for my own reasons, very likely different from yours, but based upon my experience, which told me that the stupid bastards who started each of those wars were going to get a whole lot of people killed unnecessarily before they figured out what they were doing and finished it.

    And my experience showed me that war is chaotic, complex, horrible, and exhilarating. And the human race has only rarely ever managed to avoid it. We constantly blunder into war after war after war, and we use every single rationalization and justification ever invented (and invented some more!) to permit ourselves to kill other people and still stay sane, and even then some of us lose it anyway.

    That’s why I say that war is neither moral nor immoral. Trying to separate out the different moral excuses of all the world’s combatants is an impossible task.

    I guess this is my main point: Once you declare ANY side to be moral or just, you open Pandora’s Box again, and out come the prison camps, fire-bombings, torture, and nuclear/biological/chemical weapons. Declaring ALL war to be unjust is unacceptable to innocent people who have been attacked.

    Besides, the true believers won’t listen, and all the other sheep who have never been invaded or faced combat are watching “Survivor” and “Dancing With The Stars,” and don’t give a rat’s ass how much blood is spilled in their name by their proxies.

    So, all of your denunciations, rejections, renunciations, and objections are probably fair, moral, and just, if you believe in the tangled, inchoate concepts we call fairness, morality, and justice.

    And your objections don’t matter any more than mine do, because it’s mankind’s nature, (as well as his choice) to kill other humans.

    Just ask a true believer. (But don’t, for God’s sake, tell him it’s murder.)

  4. By Kent McManigal on 16 June 2008

    In my opinion, murder is the intentional killing of an innocent person; it doesn’t matter if it is during a war or not.

    A “just war” is when you fight back in your own home territory against an invader. Mercenaries can come from other countries to help you if they wish (and if they pay their own way or you pay to transport them there) but no other country should send troops to another country using the “voluntarily confiscated” tax money of its own subjects.

  5. By Lee Warner on 16 June 2008

    Yeah, well, you hold that opinion because you’re an honest man. If enough other people in this corrupt cesspool had your principles, this would be a whole ‘nother world. You have my respect, for what it’s worth.

    I’d shake your hand, but I can’t seem to wash off this blood…

  6. By Mike Gogulski on 16 June 2008

    genesgalore wrote:

    murder is natural. nothing morally wrong with it per se.

    I see that I’ve attracted the vanguard of the psychopathic front. Welcome, I guess.

    it’s just as humans, most of us, accept and practice a social contract that says we don’t do it to each other without consequence.

    Mmmm yesh, social contract theory:

  7. By Mike Gogulski on 7 July 2008

    Dear Lee,

    I apologized some time ago to you privately, and promised to do so again publicly.

    Your story of being conscripted, pushed into a situation where you probably had to kill in order to do the right thing and of having a militant, racist father slapped me quite strongly across the face. Well, that it did. Though I love to deal in absolutes, life hands all of us so many muddled shades of gray.

    I am sorry for going ad-hominem against you in the discussion on this thread and in the “troops” thread. I don’t know you. I drew inferences and conclusions from a few words that you wrote here about your person and character, and then turned those into weapons against another human being. It’s shit, really, and it doesn’t help my cause either.

    I even made a specific post that was an ad-hominem attack against you. I’ve taken the unusual step of deleting it, while pledging to myself that I will not do such a thing again.

    All that said…

    We started this discussion in reference to my moral abhorrence of those wearing the uniform in Iraq today. You came along and offered something which I still view as a nihilistic philosophy, devoid of the principles necessary for humanity to survive and prosper. Though I soften my tone, I will still eagerly attack that philosophy.

    I cannot know what your journey has been. To have grown up in the period you did, to have had the family environment you had, with its context and connotation, is something I can never approximate. I can guess. I can think. I can ponder. I can’t know.

    You were drafted. It isn’t clear whether you were drafted for the Korean War or the Vietnam War. Ultimately it makes no difference; the principles and the people involved have the same moral value whether they are Korean, Vietnamese, or American.

    I attacked you roundly because you came here and pronounced that you had killed, in uniform, and attached that killing to an ambiguous morality. In your substantial reply above you described one killing. I hope that I never find myself in the situation that you did, then and in that place, now, or in the future or anywhere. I pray that I never need make such a choice and live with its consequences. You made your choice, no doubt without the benefit of long reflection based in deconstructivist socio-political analysis and a deeper sense of history. You did what you found that you had to do.

    As you describe it, the killing you did was not a murder. It is possible that, knowing additional facts about the situation, I might change my view, but the story you have given is not one of murder but rather of doing what was necessary to save the life of another human being. Absent any other information, I must conclude that your killing of this man at the river so long ago was, in fact moral.

    You ask, “should I have been there?” and say “probably not”. We can probably agree on that, especially because you were conscripted. There is a larger and much more abstract question along the lines of: if you and people like you had refused to submit to conscription, would that situation at riverside ever have arisen? Probably no-one alive is in possession of the information necessary to answer that question.

    I will put here, though, the central question that has run through my mind since reading your story above. did you kill anyone else? If so, are those tales so clear-cut as this one you’ve told?

    You have briefly described a long, intricate and no doubt painful journey of the self over the course of thirty-plus years. You seemed at several points to almost express regret, but veered away from condemnation of either what you were forced to do or what you did willingly, subject to the brainwashing of the day. What I read here is a sense of “the world is fucked up, and there’s little we can do about it.” Do I have it right, or have I missed something?

  8. By Jimi G on 9 July 2008

    In genesgalore’s defense, perhaps the social contract he was referring to is not the classic “social contract” of Rousseau (whose doctrine I hold to be utter nonsense) but the spontaneous contract between individuals that dictates, in effect, that if one tries to kill another, one better be damn sure he succeeds on the first try or the other will kill HIS ass. There are known consequences (risk/reward) of murderous intentions, and thus most individuals pursue murder as a last resort.

    Genesgalore is quite correct, IMHO, that there is no other sanction to murder that exists than the consequence of being killed oneself, by either the intended victim, his family or the State. Religion is imaginary. Killing a human no more brings heaven and hell into existence than does killing a cow.

    Thus, murder per se is not illogical or immoral (though other factors may make it so, depending on one’s beliefs). It has been said that a man is as faithful to his wife as his options. It could be the case that individuals abstain from killing based on their options as well. For example, an unarmed person living in peaceful everyday existence generates a slim likelihood of murder, whereas an armed person under immediate threat of death by an assailant generates a high likelihood of murder. Somewhere in the middle might be an inner-city drug dealer defending his turf or a stressed-out teenager pushed to the limit by a bully. To be honest, one must admit that murder is simply an option at any human’s disposal, to be weighed by cost-benefit analysis. I believe that humans are natural born killers, Koestler’s killer apes with great intelligence — possibly a bad idea.

    Sure, there may be some humans that subscribe to a moral philosophy that inhibits their choice to murder, but that merely reduces options, leaving only self-defense as the most likely circumstance for commission of murder. Only pacifists (in deed) can be said to be immune to murder. And by the time you find out if you’re a true pacifist, chances are you’re dead at the hands of a non-pacifist.

    FWIW, intellectually I believe in pacifism. But then again I have never stared down the barrel of a loaded gun, and certainly not with the means to reply in kind. So I have no idea where I really stand. I hope never to find out.

  9. By Lee Warner on 11 July 2008

    Dear Mike,

    Apology accepted with humility. I take responsibility for angering you, and I apologize to you for that.

    I will put here, though, the central question that has run through my mind since reading your story above. did you kill anyone else? If so, are those tales so clear-cut as this one you’ve told?

    I am afraid that I have told you what may be the ONLY clear-cut story in my entire experience.

    I did a lot of shooting into undergrowth, shooting at the sound of gunfire near us, seeing enemy fire cutting the brush around us and causing casualties in our ranks, with no idea whether or not I was hitting the enemy. I set mines and Claymores around roads, bridges, and trails, and walked away, not knowing whether they would be tripped by a soldier or a civilian, or even triggered at all. They may still be there, waiting. I called in airstrikes on villages from which we were taking fire, not knowing how many enemy combatants we were facing, or how many non-combatants were huddled in their huts, hoping everybody would just go away and leave them alone. I sealed up bunkers and cave mouths with explosives, not knowing if anyone was in there, or if there was another way out. I ambushed enemy units while they were sleeping, eating, swimming, riding in trucks, and riding bicycles loaded with arms and supplies. I ordered mortar shells dropped into areas that I couldn’t see into, hoping to kill enemy soldiers. I turned captured enemy soldiers over to intelligence personnel, knowing that it was possible that they wouldn’t survive their interrogation. In all that time, I remember deliberately aiming and shooting at three men, and watching them fall. Personally, I can only confirm that one of them was dead.

    How many did I personally kill? I have no idea. How many am I responsible for killing? No idea. How many innocent non-combatants lost their lives because of my actions? Again, no idea.

    Did I do anything GOOD over there? Sure. I helped a bunch of Catholic nuns repair their church/school. Not that it did any good in the long term. I evacuated thousands of villagers out of soon-to-be fire zones, saving at least some lives. I prevented a young girl from being raped by the simple expedient of ramming the muzzle of my rifle into the crack of the man’s ass and clicking off the safety. I never deliberately killed a woman or a child. I never committed rape. I never tortured anyone, but as I said, I may be indirectly responsible for giving a prisoner up to a torturer.

    Note, if you will, for the record, that I report only what I did. I do not justify my actions by claiming that the enemy was worse. Which, of course, he was. Far, far worse.

    I followed my orders because they made sense at the time, and I believed that the orders were legal, moral, honorable, and necessary.

    So now I live with the consequences of actions motivated by honor, duty, and country. I live with the echo of gunfire and explosions in my ears along with my drill sergeant’s voice: “Kill the bastards now, or as sure as we’re headed to hell, they’ll kill you later!”

    Would I do it again? Not for a war over there, wherever “there” is. But if war comes over here, I will do it all again. And teach others to do it, too.

    You came along and offered something which I still view as a nihilistic philosophy, devoid of the principles necessary for humanity to survive and prosper. Though I soften my tone, I will still eagerly attack that philosophy.

    And it is a philosophy which deserves to be attacked, and strenuously. I commend you for it. However, let me point out that even with the majority of humans embracing nihilism and an utter lack of the principles necessary for humanity to survive and prosper, we have survived and prospered to the point that we are now so numerous that our very numbers threaten our own existence. How do we solve that equation?

    I’m glad your sense of morality is working for you, and I have no complaint about your beliefs and opinions. I don’t share them, but I will fight for your right to express them (to coin a phrase).

    What I read here is a sense of “the world is fucked up, and there’s little we can do about it.” Do I have it right, or have I missed something?

    Man, you have no idea HOW fucked up this world is. You probably have a much better idea than most people, I’d say, since you have actually lived outside the US, but I’ve been to places that I’d only seen in horror pictures, and most of those places are ostensibly at “peace.” The appalling damage that humans casually inflict on each other for the most insignificant of justifications is enough to drive one to despair.

    So, yes, my philosophy borders on nihilism, and “ambiguous” doesn’t even begin to cover my morality, and I am a blatant, uncontrite, contradictory hypocrite.

    There’s a lot of us around.

    I believe in human rights, and I believe your exposition of the rights of man is valid. It’s just that I no longer believe in the practical, pragmatic application of the principles that you expounded in your intial post here. As noble as they are, they are observed, as the saying goes, more in the breach than in the observance.

    What is it worth to “own our own bodies” to a slave, a conscript, or a draftee?

    What does it mean to own our property if we can be evicted from it at the whim of the State, or a bank, or a private company that can pay more taxes to the city than we can?

    What is the value of liberty when we aren’t allowed to speak freely, or travel without onerous restrictions, and when the State’s mercenary proxy-guardians (aka: police) can seize us and our property, with impunity, on the specious word of a perjured informant, violating the law and their own department regulations in the process?

    Why do I have a duty to respect the rights of other men while they are working feverishly to deny me mine?

    Why are these breaches of ethics, morality, and justice seen everywhere, in every country, state, jurisdiction, political division, in fact, everywhere that humans live?

    None of the rights that you have enumerated can exist unless people fight for them because there are too many people in this world who believe they have the right to rule. I suspect this is one of the main reasons why people want to start fights and wars, to kill and die. And that’s why I still can’t see a sharp, defined dividing line between murder and justifiable homicide.

  10. By P.M.Lawrence on 24 December 2008

    Murder is not “the intentional killing of an innocent person” (which raises questions of intent and innocence – for a Christian it would imply that the only murder there ever was or ever could be was the crucifixion of Christ).

    No, murder is killing in breach of obligation. That switches the ethical question, but to something more specific and answerable. It becomes an ethical question that has come up in other areas, e.g. in asking “but who is my neighbour?”, which means there’s more to work with. It can also be used to reformulate the legalities, and so on. It comes down to working through your own system of ethics to find out the who/whom/what/how sorts of things for your obligations. No, that isn’t moral relativism – it’s just that your own ethics are all you’ve got to turn to, even though some people’s ethics aren’t up to much. With luck they’ll find out the problems with those before it’s too late.

  11. By genesgalore on 18 May 2009

    By Mike Gogulski on 16 June 2008

    genesgalore wrote:

    murder is natural. nothing morally wrong with it per se.

    I see that I’ve attracted the vanguard of the psychopathic front. Welcome, I guess.

    it’s just as humans, most of us, accept and practice a social contract that says we don’t do it to each other without consequence.

    Mmmm yesh, social contract theory:

    HUH???synapses not functioning??? what part of the very numerous social contracts don’t you understand????

  12. By Mike Gogulski on 18 May 2009

    It’s not a question of understanding, but one of rejection, particularly of the idea that one can be bound to a “contract” without consent.

  13. By tomkat on 30 June 2009

    this moral contract crap is as laughable-international law ring any bells?
    ps. fuck the troops!

  14. By Ronin jr (formally whatever) on 14 August 2011

    I hear the troops rape all the women and eat babies. I love being let loose in a foreign land. Nothing better than seeing some quaint mud hut village and having a superior say “hey, dude. Go crazy”. And then, THEN! You get a paycheck! And the thanks of your nation. God damn, what a freaky racket.
    You guys have a warped view of the world, you know.
    Gotta go polish my human teeth necklace…

  15. By Ronin on 15 August 2011

    @formerly whatever – get your own moniker, how about Soldier of Sam?

    You are sub-human. You will reap what you sow, vermin.

  16. By Ronin jr on 19 August 2011

    name calling isn’t nice

  17. By Alex on 19 June 2013

    I find the human attitude on murder to be remarkably simple.

    If I am doing it, it’s justified.

    If my enemies do it, it’s murder.


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