04 December 2015

Why Killing is Wrong

One of my friends recently shared this picture on Facebook, the comment, "Why indeed?" The subject came up again a few days later with this Robert Fisk article about Syria in The Independent newspaper pointing out that our Prime Minster is openly lying in order to bolster the case for killing more people in the Middle East. The accompanying picture shows a protester holding a placard with the same text.

Having read George Lakoff (See Moral Metaphors) and Mark Johnson and thought about the psychology of religious belief, the answer to the question seemed obvious to me. I started typing an explanation of the process. That answer became this essay. The fact is that all nations sanction killing under special certain circumstances, so to say that "killing people is wrong" is an oversimplification. The placard is actually a bit misleading and a bit naive. The laws we follow do not make killing a blanket offence. In some cases we can, like our British Prime Minister, apparently be proud of killing or having commissioned the killing. This does raise the question of the morality of killing. My approach to this question will be to look at how morality works, the underlying concepts and metaphors that form the mechanism of moral decision making, and to show how they apply to the subject of killing.

Debt and Balance.

The rationale behind the prohibition on killing is related to the underlying metaphors involved in our concept of justice. Ancient law codes tend to enshrine the principles: So we get the infamous passage of the Bible which lays out the penalties for personal injury, "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot". The rule occurs in a number of places: Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21. The last adds, "show no pity". With regard to killing there are several other passages which legislate for a penalty of death: e.g. Genesis 9:6, Numbers 35:16, and 35:30. The Old Testament - the law book of a small tribe of wandering desert dwellers - seems to be in no doubt that killing a killer is precisely the right thing to do. It is also quite happy to recommend the killing of enemies to the point of inflicting genocide on them. Contracts and debts were so important in Vedic society that they had a special god, Mitra, to oversee them.

The idea appears to be that fear of the consequences will prevent the transgression in the first place. Though of course we know that people are pretty hopeless at thinking through the consequences of their actions in most cases. Even if they were good at it, actions always have unintended and unforeseen consequences. We also know that extreme punishments do not prevent crime, else Saudi Arabia would not be about to behead a group of its citizens.

The Biblical laws, such a huge influence on our own ideas of justice, can be understood in terms of obligations and debts (See Lakoff 1995). So what is the rationale? My understanding is that transgression metaphorically creates a debt, or at least is treated as though it creates a debt. And an important principle in most societies is that debts must be paid. In a society in which transgression invokes punishment in the form of inflicting injury on the transgressor, they will most likely try to hide their transgression and avoid paying the debt. The Biblical law code enshrines the idea that the easiest way to collect on the debt is to repay the debtor in kind: injure the injurer, kill the killer.

We also see justice in terms of a moral balance. A transgression such as murder is believed to create an imbalance in favour of the transgressor. Punishment removes any benefit the transgressor might accrue, it clears the debt and restores balance. We punish criminals so that they may "pay their debt to society". We also anthropomorphise justice as a woman carrying a set of weighing scales - the association of a just world with scales dates from ancient Egyptian times at least.

Our basic model of a just world involves the metaphors: TRANSGRESSION IS DEBT and DEBTS ARE WEIGHTS. The Jains see actions as causing the accumulation of dust that weighs down the soul and prevents it from achieving liberation. Metaphors of debt and balance go together well. A good accountant "balances" the books, by which we do not mean they perform a kind of physical juggling act, but that they equalise the credits and debits. As Mr Micawber says in David Copperfield,
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds, nineteen, and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds, ought and six, result misery."
Killing also places a burden on those who seek justice for the killing in the form of grief and the effort required to extract payment for the debt. The person who has been killed had potential - to live, to breed, to work, etc. That potential can now never be realised. So although killing the killer pays the debt (which is why it is not wrong in this logic), there is some debt that is unpayable. And because killing creates an unpayable debt we see it as particularly heinous. The metaphor TRANSGRESSION IS DEBT seems to go both ways, so that also some are also transgressions. An unpayable debt is a moral outrage. This is why sometimes, "hanging is too good for them."

Of course none of this algebra of morality is conscious. It's a black box, unconscious process that produces conscious conclusions associated with strong emotions that indicate to us that the thoughts we have in response are both salient and important, and thus we are highly motivated to act on them. The insight only emerges from a close analysis of the language used in talking about a just world.

The Politics of Morality and the Morality of Politics.

Beyond the basic insight that morality is an accounting exercise, there are two basic attitudes to debts that roughly correspond to the political divisions called left/right or progressive/conservative. For a conservative, paying back debts is especially important to their self-view and may over-ride other considerations. Thus in response to killing, many conservatives may be in favour of capital punishment, and going to war against enemies. Many progressives accept that moral debts can never be paid in full and live with this. It was progressives who introduced reform into the justice system, arguing, for example, for the need to rehabilitate criminals rather than simply punishing them. Progressives argue for humane treatment of prisoners and alternative forms of justice. All this with a view to creating a broader harmony. Just two days ago a conservative British government, aided by conservatives of the left (!), voted to extent the protracted war that we have been fighting in the Middle East for 14 years. The progressives of the left and right have been against the war from the beginning arguing that the second gulf war was illegal. Conservatives believe that bombs going off in Europe constitutes a debt that must be paid in kind. Never mind the fact that Europe started the war. or that Britain has accrued massive debts in that part of the world since 1915. Self-deception is an important aspect of morality, particularly amongst those who wield power.

In a progressive society we have come to accept that the Biblical injunction is too brutal. We have moved on from the simple equation in which the punishment for murder is execution, at least as far as our own citizens are concerned. When a judge passes sentence on a convicted criminal what they do is weigh the seriousness of the crime and consult the law to see what is considered to balance out that crime by the government of the day. Governments are able to adjust this balance. But it does mean that justice might look different for different classes of people: if two people, one an unemployed person and one a professional of some sort are convicted of theft, the two punishments may look different. The first may get a heavy fine and some sort of community service. The second may well lose their career, all their future earning potential as a professional and thus just being convicted is already a heavy blow to them and this is taken into account. Some argue that the punishment ought not to take into account these other factors. One of the things about justice is that the truism "justice must be seen to be done" is still important. 

The problem with this consequentialist view can be summarised in Mr Spock's famous Utilitarian catch-phrase: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. As Mark Johnson (1987: 95) has pointed out this algebraic approach to justice, the "consequentialist" model of ethics, often sees the needs of the few sidelined completely. Spock's cliché does not take into account class and the historical attitudes of class. In a class system, as we have in the UK, some people weigh more than others in the moral balance. Particularly, the wealthy outweigh the poor. This is why the needs of the richest 1% dominate the needs of the 99% today: 1 billionaire outweighs 100 wage-slaves. Governments are increasingly members of the 1% and act to secure more for themselves and their peers, because they see their own needs as out-weighing the needs of the many.

In the UK we have an on-going crisis related to the precipitous drop in government revenue caused by the global financial crisis. The ideological response to this is to lower taxes for the wealthy (with the view to them using their retained wealth wisely) and cut services that are mainly used by the poor. The wealthy are seen by conservatives as morally worthy by mere virtue of being wealthy. Wealth is perceived as the reward of the just. Thus the wealthy are more weighty. This incidentally is also a step away from traditional Christian morality. Indeed it might be argued that those who feared that the collapse of Christianity would see the world slide into immorality, have seen their fears realised when it comes to the wealthy. It is assumed (by other wealthy people) that being morally worthy, the wealthy will use their wealth wisely. But they do not. They conspicuously consume with no higher purpose. They actively avoid paying into the community-chest through taxes, placing a higher burden on the poor. At the same time some of the wealthy seek the notoriety of public philanthropy instead of the anonymity of paying taxes. They give, but want adoration for doing what we all do. In this class based calculation, the poor are morally unworthy (by virtue of being poor) and thus cutting services that they use in order to lower the taxes on the wealthy is seen as a balanced policy by conservatives. They see this as fair. In this case the wealthy are few, but weighty. The poor are also few, but light. The majority in the middle only want their own wealth to remain stable and to be insulated from the risks of change. And in exchange for this they are willing to manage and administrate the empire of the wealthy.

We may have one person one vote, but when it comes to the policies actually enacted these are largely driven by the 1% and their perceived needs. Ironically, if we look at extreme political systems such as Stalinism or Maoism we also find a 1% who believe their needs outweigh the needs of the many and who organise their environment to ensure their needs, as they perceive them, are met at the expense of everyone else. The behaviour of the 1% may just be a constant in large scale societies. We certainly lack any effective narrative to counteract the current trend for the wealthy to get more wealthy at the expense of the poor. When they capture both the legislature and executive branches of government, we seem to lean back towards feudalism. Incidentally almost all businesses are run on feudal models of governance. And it is businessmen who have hijacked national governments.

More Calculations

When it comes to killing there is also a different weight attached to different people. There is a kind of algebra that we mentally perform. As well as the weights associated with class, we have different weights for different roles, for example, civilian, soldier, general, politician all have different weights. The UK and the USA apparently have no moral quandary using bombs to assassinate tribal leaders in Waziristan because they support our enemy, the Taliban. The Taliban are our enemy because they once offered succour to our other enemy, Al-Qaeda (even though it is now believed that the Taliban have severed all ties with Al-Qaeda). Ironically we once supported the proto-Taliban mujahideen in their fight against our other erstwhile enemy and sometime ally, Russia. So we are technically our own enemy now. If we kill twenty civilians to bomb one tribal leader, then our leaders calculate that justice is served, partly because they have decreed that no-one is a civilian in that part of the world . This may be true in the sense that they are all fighting for their land and resisting our illegal invasion and pathetic attempts to set up puppet governments. On the other hand gun-toting Americans suffering the latest mass-shooting ought to remember that the logic of their state is that armed individuals are enemy combatants, not civilians. What we don't do is target the leaders of the House of Saud who finance terrorism and Islamic State, and spread the extremist version of Islam that underpins terrorist ideology. In fact we do the opposite - we pay them huge bribes to buy our weaponry and support them with our military, even when they use the price of oil to hold us hostage. The algebra of this relationship is beyond my moral mathematics to solve.

With the modern study of societies and groups of people we can now see that behaviour is not simply the result of our own motivations and drives as the crude Freudian model suggests. How we behave is a product, sometimes wholly a product, of our environment. The people around us have a much stronger effect on us than we like to admit. Our myth is that we are all individuals, making our own decisions, determining our own fate. God gave us free will so we could misbehave (and what a mistake that turned out to be). The truth is that we're social animals and, for most of us, going along with the group is a survival strategy with tens of millions of years of successful history that is hard to argue against. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have shown that reasoning, that faculty we hold to be the highest virtue of the individual, doesn't even usually work in individuals. Across a wide range of tests and measures, individuals are hopeless at reasoning tasks, worse than random guessing. Reasoning seems to have evolved to help small groups make decisions and really only works in small groups. Of course for all these qualities and faculties there is a bell curve. A few individuals are naturally good at reasoning. Other's can learn to reason effectively as an individual. But even formal training is no guarantee of success. As Mercier and Sperber say, confirmation bias is a feature of reasoning, not a bug.

Morality or Justice have yet to catch up with these facts. The idea of freewill, and the interminable arguments over it, actually hampers progress in understanding human beings. Freewill is a legacy concept from Christianity, but also built into WEIRD notions of justice. But as we all know from experience none of us is completely free or completely constrained. At the very least we have obligations to our community that constrain our choices. In practice that community likely shapes most of our decisions. Many of the people in our prisons have mental illnesses or developmental problems that impair their ability to make good life choices, though short of a demonstrable inability to understand the consequences of one's actions, one still has to live with those choices. And being insane is no picnic even if we are free of societal expectations. However the notion of freewill continues to dominate the public debate, probably because it's what journalists understand or think we will understand. Social psychology is still almost inevitably trumped by that old fraud Freud.

The debt created by killing can be lessened or mitigated by circumstances. If I plan out killing someone that is weightier than if I kill on the spur of the moment. Killing on purpose is weightier than killing by accident. Killing because one was in fear of one's life, out of self-defence, may cancel out - the threat to your life may mean that the killing anticipates that debt. Killing when one is insane and unable to understand the consequences of one's action is not blameworthy in the eyes of the law, though many social conservatives consider that the insane should still be punished (for them a debt is a debt and must be paid). Killing in a war is to a person's credit - we celebrate our most efficient and effective killers. As I said, our British Prime Minister is quite proud of all the killing he is commissioning in the Middle East. David "Killer" Cameron seems to have a taste for ordering executions. 

However we are squeamish about mass killings. Fire bombing Dresden and killing tens of thousands of civilians (figures are disputed and were distorted at the time) was just about acceptable to the British, if not the Germans. Atomic bombs, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians on the day and many more from cancer in the following generations is a more ambivalent subject. Some still claim it saved American lives and shortened the war and that this justified the use of atomics. This is yet another example of the utilitarian approach to ethics in which one weighs up consequences, it's just that in this case foreign lives are worth considerable less than domestic lives. A few hundred thousand Japanese  civilians are worth a lot less than say, ten thousand American soldiers. Others argue that the use of atomics was a "war crime" of the most heinous kind (because it created a massive unpayable debt).

This in-group/out-group distinction has always been important when it comes to killing. Prohibitions on killing seldom apply in the same way, or at all, to out-group people. Funnily enough we see the same behaviour in chimps. When the Gombe Stream group became too large a group of chimps split off and set up a range next door. The alpha male of the Gombe Stream Group, a large and unusually violent male (ironically) called Frodo by Jane Goodall, lead a series of raids on the splitters in which they were all killed. Human beings are not the only species that commit murder.

Every time, every single time, a government wants to justify killing its enemies it characterises them as inhuman. This makes it easier to justify killing them. And note that the present call to extend the illegal war in the Middle-East does portray the enemy as monsters who "must be stopped". And there is certainly some truth in this. European and US governments have created a number of monstrous dictators and organisations in the Middle East. But what about the states who arm and fund them? Are they not culpable also?

From Payback to Restoration and Redemption.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Christian myth connected with justice, is the redemption of sinners. Some members of society see criminals, even killers, as in need of redemption, rehabilitation. This goes beyond the simple idea of balancing out the crime with punishment. Part of the motivation here is that we acknowledge that our methods of punishment tend to produce more criminal behaviour: relative innocents who are sent to prison come out hardened by their intimate association with other criminals; many people commit crimes as a kind of career and prison does nothing to deter them. Punishment only seems to make the situation worse in the majority of cases. So there are lobby groups who try to get the government to implement rehabilitation programs, with limited success.

It is notable that since roughly 1971 the developed world's attitude to private debt has significantly shifted. Where pre-war the average person would have avoided going into debt, by the 1970s debt  in the form of credit cards and personal loans was being promoted to more or less every adult. We began to accumulate huge average levels of personal debt. At present household debt is roughly equal to the annual Gross Domestic Product of the nation and forecast to rise steeply. Business debt is much higher because banks are heavily indebted to each other, but non-finance sector business debt is also about equal to annual GDP. Currently private sector debt in the UK stands at about £6.5 trillion and GDP at £1.5 trillion. (See this chart). Given the applicable metaphors, this change in attitude to debt may have had a major impact on our ideas about morality, but I don't think this has been studied yet (I'd be very interested to know if it has). 

In recent times we have also developed more nuanced views about justice. For example we now distinguish between retributive justice and restorative justice. Both are still based on the balance metaphor, but employ different methods to achieve balance. Retributive justice, which I have so far focussed on, seeks to restore balance by inflicting suffering and humiliation on the one who has transgressed. Restorative justices aims to balance things out by forcing the transgressor to make a positive contribution to the victim and society. Whether this takes the form of community service, compensation payments, or reconciliation meetings, the aim is still to have the transgressor actively restore balance through their actions rather than being passive subjects of punishment. The underlying concepts and metaphors are the same.

As I have already mentioned, the whole system of identifying criminals and punishing them makes it virtually certain that people will always try to hide their misdeeds out of fear. Our idea of justice still largely consists of inflicting suffering and humiliation on wrong doers. We learn this as children - those who are caught breaking the rules are punished. So, don't get caught. We also Romanticise and idolise individuals who can break rules with impunity. In particular many of the "heroes" in our story telling are able to kill without consequence. Why would anyone come forward and confess to a crime knowing that they will suffer as a result? It is irrational to seek punishment. However, sometimes the guilt of committing the crime outweighs the fear of punishment. In this case we might say that guilt comes from an awareness of having created a debt and the knowledge that it must be paid. Guilt is the feeling we have when there is a moral imbalance. And it can override concerns for personal safety and make people confess to crimes even though they know that they are inviting injury on themselves. This must be coupled with a deep indoctrination that guilt requires punishment in order to restore the balance of a just world.

Last Words

So the slogan that sparked this essay has misconstrued the situation. Killing is not wrong per se. Some killing is emphatically right (in the eyes of the law). The problem is that unsanctioned killing creates a debt. The simplest way of repaying that debt is for the killer to die. That is why social conservatives want to kill killers. Not to show that killing is wrong, because it isn't always wrong, but to show that killing is a weighty debt and that all debts must be paid. Progressives see the conservatives here locked in combat with conservatives there and wonder where it will end.


Johnson, Mark. (1987). The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason. University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, George. (1995) Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust. http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html
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