People are murderers if they kill other people. They are not murderers if they let other people die when they can cheaply prevent it. For instance I am not a murderer if I spend a couple of hundred dollars on clothing rather than sending it to a decent charity, even if the predicted result is that one more person will die.

People don’t want to be murderers, but they don’t mind letting people die, except those who are close to them. People also don’t like or respect murderers, but they don’t mind others letting people die, except people who are close to them. People don’t like being murdered or being allowed to die equivalently, regardless of whether those involved are close to them. It is interesting that people’s treatment of others’ lives correlates so with how third party observers deal out like and respect, rather than how the person whose life is at stake feels about it. It is commonly assumed that killing people is bad because we care about the person who gets killed. This might be what we think about when we are condemning murderers, but it doesn’t predict our actions at all well.

Humans aren’t evil here in the same sense that we think of someone who kills for a pair of jeans as evil. It’s not purposeful. Most people believe that they do care about other people’s lives, because they have great trust in their emotions to tell them when something bad is happening. They never check this. But what do you do when you find your emotions do not tell you this at all? One response is to spend yonks trying to justify things like physical distance and action vs. omission as being morally relevant while taking credit for being wonderfully deep. This is evil.

26 responses to “Murder

  1. As always, I don’t mean to argue that you should value anything in particular. Just that your actions probably don’t match your stated values, and that I probably disapprove.

    I also don’t mean to imply that I think lives are always the thing to care about, or charities are that great. It’s a baseline. But why trade off lives for things you wouldn’t condone a sniping for?

  2. We residents of first-world states are much more likely to be murdered than to starve to death, so from a purely self-interested perspective it’s quite sensible for each us to condemn murderers but ignore people who prefer to spend their money on luxuries rather than saving lives. Admitting that you value your own life more than the lives of distant strangers goes a long way towards resolving this dilemma.

    Moral subjectivists will openly admit this. It’s much more difficult for people who want to cling to moral realism, since most realist moral theories are not compatible with those values.

    But as you point out, part of the dilemma still concerns us subjectivists. Should we condemn a person who buys clothes and kills a distant stranger by neglect as much as we condemn a person who robs and murders a distant stranger and buys clothes with the loot?

    The uncharitable killer’s actions may plausibly be excused as a crime of neglect, wheras bloody-handed killing most certainly cannot. And I do think it’s quite sensible to condemn intentional crimes much for strongly than neglectful ones.

    Also, consider the practical responses to these two types of killing. The widely accepted response to murder is to hunt the murderer down and lock them in a cage (both to prevent them from killing others and as punishment to deter other potential murders). The best way to deal with uncharitable killers, by contrast, is to use taxation to force them to give money. Being grudgingly forced to give away money is much more compatible with maintaining one’s place in polite company than is living in a cage.

    • As far as I know, moral subjectivists will not openly admit that their morals are self serving, just that they are arbitrary, which they are not.

      But why it is sensible to condemn intentional crimes more? It’s probably a cheaper way to protect yourself and seem virtuous sure, just don’t pretend this is altruistic at all.

      That the responses are different is partly an outcome of the social acceptability of neglect I imagine. But yes, locking people up doesn’t prevent them from neglect.

  3. …to clarify that last point: The rational response to murder necessarily involves condemning the murderer (in a social sense). It may be perfectly rational to go on being friendly with an uncharitable killer, even as you point out to them that you object to their actions and support levying taxes against them — moral condemnation without social condemnation.

    Of course, you might decide that you don’t want to be friends with someone who cares so little about the lives of distant strangers. But if you’re anything like most humans, chances are you don’t value the lives of distant strangers all that much more than they do.

    • Problem is partly that friends are fairly substitutable and nobody else is likely to join me in refusing friendship to most people, so I can’t punish people much by refusing to be friends. Also I would have to punish everybody, which would be extremely costly in terms of loneliness and lack of useful social connections.

  4. Jacob is right; we rich folks fear murder more than starvation or other ways of dying by neglect. Is that reasonable? I calculation seems in order here.

    • Presumably the rich won’t die of neglect that can be solved with money much. So what neglectful deaths are we talking about? says 109 deaths per 100,000 in US which would have been ‘amenable to health care’, but how cheap is causing health care to fix them?

      For comparison US murders (2005): 5.6 per 100,000

  5. mitchell porter

    I read this post as a moral polemic aimed at people who regard themselves as altruists and rationalists, but who still indulge themselves when they could be saving a life. But perhaps Katja underestimates the degree to which her largely American audience are moral egoists and proud of it!

  6. Moral hazard is not equivalent between these cases. This is true for both actual and perceived moral hazard.

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  8. Katja, when you say, “People don’t like being murdered or being allowed to die equivalently”, do you mean “it feels the same to be murdered or to be allowed to die” or do you mean “it feels worse to be murdered than to be allowed to die”?

    BTW, I am one of many who thinks moral feelings are a function of self interest and “what is possible” – subjective, but not arbitrary.

    • I mean it is identical to be murdered or to be allowed to die for the person who is dead. Being dead doesn’t offer much variety.

      I agree with you about moral feelings I think (though I’m not sure what ‘what is possible’ means here), but I think there is a difference between following them and being moral.

  9. The idea of murder here seems to be a bit far-fetched. True, the writer has succeeded in bringing out a negative aspect of society as a whole into focus in a rather quaint way.
    If we bracket all the aspects pointed out, then all of us are murderers or accomplices in some way. Many things do happen in the world that jerk our conscious. However, I feel that it is the degradation of the values attached to every society that points to the root cause of this.
    When pointing this out, it has to be kept in mind “what is value?” this is determined by common patterns of behaviour which is considered sensible in each community. Don’t we have variances in values from a community to another. There is the Bishnoi tribe in India who consider hurting the local wildlife as a sin and would easily take up cudgels against offenders to communities that consider killing animals as a sign of bravery or manliness.
    So who in the world can stand as judge or jury for determining values of society. It is like applying the laws of one country in another one.

  10. Identical in consequence doesn’t necessarily mean identical in all other respects, including moral feelings. Introspection says I would be as outraged to be allowed to die as to be murdered, but I’m not sure that’s an accurate guide. How can we know?

    Re “what is possible”: signalling aside, our moral feelings are likely calibrated to how much change we can affect.

  11. People don’t like being murdered or being allowed to die equivalently

    I wonder what the basis is for this statement. I think it likely to be false. Most people would rather be allowed to die than murdered.

  12. There will always be someone we could perhaps have saved with some probability at some cost. So is everyone in this world therefore a murderer? That doesn’t seem to work well. Everyone except those who dedicate their lives to saving those in need? What about those who dedicate their lives to saving animals? Under this framework, wouldn’t they just be showing a preference for the murder of people over the murder of animals?

    What about the consequences of this line of reasoning? Is there anything that makes people systematically care about helping the worst off? Intense religious belief, maybe? Highly religious people are probably the most likely to go off to a famine and try to help people. Should we therefore advocate religious indoctrination for everyone? If not, it seems that we’re just condoning murder…

  13. “Just that your actions probably don’t match your stated values, and that I probably disapprove.”

    I think the problem is that the values are stated in English and you only speak Philosopher or Nerd, or something. Or maybe philosophers have bullied people into reciting creeds that they don’t actually accept, because philosophers care a lot more about words than ordinary people.

  14. Statist believe it is moral to murder people if you are a agent of the government and some people in the government want you to murder.

  15. In my own potentially warped view of moral relativism, I think the defining characteristic between the murderer and the non-charitable killer is a matter of responsibility. In the case of murder, it is a simple matter to assign responsibility – a single individual is responsible for the death. Even in the most confused cases, there will be only a handful of people deemed responsible – accessories, accomplices, and such. In the case of a death by neglect, the responsibility is shared amongst all those capable of acting who did nothing. There is no direct causal link that ties my spending $30 on a dinner date to a death. The fact that someone could have spent $30 and saved a life does not imply that my $30 should have been spent in that pursuit. By sharing the responsibility amongst virtually all of humanity (or at least a substantial fraction of it), including the individual who died.

    Considering the question from an economic standpoint – let’s say that I strive to be as moral as possible under the stricture that I must spend my limited resources in such a way that the utility is maximized for all humanity. Anything resources that I expend on anything but the barest of living essentials is effectively an act of evil. Only by condemning myself to poverty could I avoid the stain of evil. Taken to the extreme of altruism, I should actually commit suicide, for the resources that I’m consuming to sustain my life could potentially be used for another. Stepping back – at what point does my own self-preservation take precedence over the preservation of other lives? Am I allowed to continue living, so long as I am no better off than any other individual in the world? Why should I be so self-sacrificing when the rest of society seems so unwilling? Katja herself points out that striving to be the epitome of moral virtue would require too much sacrifice – and that’s without even considering the moral implications of wasting time waxing nostalgic about good and evil on a blog post instead of focusing her time and energy to preserving the lives of others. (Though it could be argued that by highlighting this moral quandary she has in fact optimized the use of time and resources in saving lives – though it could also be argued that my $30 dinner ultimately ended up saving a life through a lengthy chain of indirect exchages)

    Extrapolating, let’s assume that everyone assumes this “perfect” moral stance and that everyone contributes their surplus resources for the betterment of those less fortunate. Society would be a model of utopian communism: from each according to their gifts, and to each according to their need – with total equality throughout. While the concept is appealing, I can’t imagine living in such a society, because there would be no drive for improvement. When any increase in station must be shared with all of humanity, there is little incentive for individual effort above the minimum. In constrast, in our self-serving and unequal capitalist society, I can choose to work an hour of overtime to earn an extra $40 to be spent on whatever I choose. In the utopian analogue, I could perform the same work, but the proceeds would be split 6-7 billions ways – leaving me with hardly anything to show for my effort. Since nothing I can do can conceivably improve my lot in life, I have no incentive to do anything above the bare minimum – and the exact same incentives apply to everyone else. Humanity would stagnate and eventually wither and die.

    Which leads us to the evolutionary argument – the only reason we have concepts of altruism and morality at all is because we as a species are better adapted to survival when we work together. If we were capable of an entirely solitary existence, we would never have gotten into this conversation. Altruism is only useful (from an evolutionary standpoint) when there is some reciprocal action – I share some berries with you today so you’ll share your meat with me tomorrow. In the case of murder, there is a strong quid pro quo aspect – if I agree not to murder you (by obeying society’s laws) then you agree not to murder me. Breaking that transaction results in penalties – whether ostracism (removal from the group and thus reduced chance of survival) or outright death. By contrast, giving money to a charity where there is little or no chance of any reciprocal action – even if there is potential to save a life – is much harder to justify, except possibly to provide a sense of moral superiority. Taken to its extreme, evolutionary thinking suggests that giving money to charity is actually counterproductive to an individual’s survival – and potentially to humanity’s as well, as those individuals most likely to die of neglect are those least capable of caring for themselves. Their deaths ultimately strengthen humanity as a whole, as only those capable of survival will continue their genetic line.

    Maybe this harsh and inhumane perspective makes me evil. If so, I can live with it.

    • Yes, there are differences between them. My point is that the differences are not to do with the outcome for the person in danger. Our moralizing is not altruistic.

      Yes, if you actually cared as much about the value of human life as we claim you would spend most of your money on it probably. I don’t think you would commit suicide, as you can make much more money and continue by being alive generally.

      Did I say that striving to be the epitome of moral virtue would be too much sacrifice? I think I just said that saving lives is not the epitome of moral virtue. I save most of my money for these sorts of reasons, so do not think striving is much of a sacrifice.

      I am not suggesting that everyone should subsidize one another in general, that would have huge negative effects you point out. But neither is the optimum no altruism.

      • If the “goal” of my morality is to create optimum utilization of resources for humanity as a whole, and I do not generate more resources than I consume, then the moral solution is suicide. I’m not certain if those conditions apply to me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they apply to not-insignificant fraction of humanity. If we follow the resource consumption route, spending resources on increasing my own production is actually preferable to spending those resources to alleviate another’s suffering. This is where I prefer to spend my charity – education for myself or others.

        I also don’t claim that an optimum is reached in the absence of altruism – merely that altruism taken to extremes is just as bad (if not worse) as zero altruism. The bigger question is whether there is some absolute line where it can be proven that greater altruism is universally “good” and lesser altruism is universally “evil.” As a moral relativist, I don’t think such a line exists – but rather must be determined by each individual. Those individual lines will be strongly biased by the prevailing views of society, and those views will necessarily evolve over time.

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  18. I’m not sure your characterization is accurate. I think it may be that people don’t really believe that they can save lives through donating money. They’re in denial. Few people have a strong understanding of opportunity cost, and even fewer are capable of changing their beliefs in a way that would cause them material deprivation. So it’s not that people are “ok with killing through negligence”, it’s that they don’t really believe their inaction is causing anyone harm.

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