Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Ethics Of Tyrannicide

"I'm amazed that people who don't think twice about killing conscripts (or even civilians) are so reluctant to justify violence against serial killer statesmen. What could be less objectionable than trying to stop mass murder by killing the specific individuals most responsible for it?

If the philosophical case for tyrannicide is so strong, why do so many people - including the members of the 1944 plot against Hitler - have such strong moral qualms against it? My best guess is that (a) there is a high correlation between moral virtue and obedience to authority, and (b) political leaders are very reluctant to support tyrannicide because they're worried about retaliation and/or setting a precedent. But I wonder if that's a little too conspiratorial." -Bryan Caplan, after watching the new movie Valkyrie, about the plot to kill Hitler

I don't consider it at all conspiratorial to suggest that political leaders are reluctant to support state-sponsored assassination because they're worried about reprisals or setting dangerous precedents. It's akin to officers during the American Revolution issuing standing orders that the officers of the enemy forces not be targeted: powerful leaders seem to put themselves in a different category with different rules from everyday people like you and me. Or maybe I just don't want to believe that there is such a strong correlation between moral virtue and obedience to authority, since I consider myself to have at least a fair amount of the former and a much lesser amount of the latter.


Van Zan said...

Let's distinguish a few things here, JBW...

An enemy officer on the field of 18th century war (with all the social conventions of the age), the domestic military plot to kill Hitler, and the assassination of foreign leader whose state we are not at war with... are all quite different situations.

Assassination of a foreign leader is an act of war. The allies would have killed Hitler in a heartbeat if we could have got at him once the war had started, but that's a total war situation.

If we take a trip down the dark side of the street... if America starts assassinating even the vilest scumbags whom we are not actually at war with... the people they tyrannize won't only not thank us, they will hate our guts. Further, whatever forments after that - which may be worse - will be kicked back to us as being our making.
Our closest allies would desert us and justly so. America the global hitman, killing anyone we don't like? 'America-Fuck-Yeah!' would probably say it is on the side of good... blah blah blah, and the rednecks would be happy, but America would have put its democratic soul in the toilet.

Haven't seen Valkyrie but I know of the story and I'm glad it has been brought to popular attention. Hitler, piece of filth that he was, believed the German people didn't deserve to live, if they lost the war. The plotters were trying to avert the total annihilation of their people.

Another step along the idea of "double patriotism" was Clausewitz himself. He served in the Russian army against his native Prussia when the latter bent its knee to Napoleon. Clausewitz later re-entered the Prussian military. His example seems bizarre to someone from our time, and is probably closer in spirit to the example from the American Revolution that you mention.

I don't think there is necessarily a strong correlation between moral virtue and obedience to authority. You can have one without the other pretty easily.

If I may be so bold as to say so: the notion of a connection is a very orthodox religious assumption. The current pope has deplored lack of obedience as lack of virtue, for instance. For him somehow obedience is a virtue.

For someone like you or me, obedience is a virtue in a dog, but people should be expected to know the difference between right and wrong for themselves.

Laura Lee - Grace Explosion said...
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Van Zan said...

Completely unrelated to the topic of the post but...No, Grace, it's not okay.

And when you call on God to do it, and then put that in your blog with personal photos of the targets (yes I saw that) you are attempting to incite someone else to do it, which is hate-peddling, incitement to murder, as well as an act of extreme moral cowardice.

Laura Lee - Grace Explosion said...
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Van Zan said...


That hit home did it?

One, where have I written that I am pro-abortion? I have not written that anywhere. Ever.

Two, I have not incited anyone to kill or injure anyone else. Ever.

Three, you put photos up on the internet of people you want killed.

Four, you have just accused me of mass-murder, which is libel.

Five, I've been attempting to give you some benefit of the doubt... for being just stupid instead of being deliberately malign.
But I'm starting to reassess that view.

This not my blog, so it's not for me to say "fuck off". But fuck off all the same.

Laura Lee - Grace Explosion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.