Assume the following two scenarios:

  1. A person kills a random person for the fun of it.
  2. A person kills a mad bomber who was about to push the trigger that will blow up a building, killing thousands of innocent people.

Generally, it probably can be said that the killer in scenario #1 is immoral and that the killer in scenario #2 is moral.

What if the scenario was slightly different? What if a person kills a random person for the fun of it, but by happenstance, that murdered person happened to be the mad bomber who was about to push the trigger that will blow up a building, killing thousands of innocent people? What can be said about the killer in this scenario? Was he moral or immoral? Why?


As it seems that the intent of the agent in the last scenario seems to determine that this is an immoral act, what if the scenario changed slightly more:

A person fantasizes about killing a random person for the fun of it, but doesn't due to the possible consequences (e.g. going to jail). A mad bomber has been menacing a city with random bombings and is currently about to do it. Officials encourages its citizen to find and kill this mad bomber. It so happens that this person who fantasizes about killing someone knows the mad bomber (e.g. they're actually neighbors). This person runs to his neighbors house to see the mad bomber about to push the trigger that will blow up a building, killing thousands of innocent people. The person shoots the mad bomber before he can push the detonator. However, the killer didn't do this as a altruistic action, thinking about all those innocent people who would be killed by the bomb. Rather, the killer did it because he finally had a chance to act out his fantasy without any consequence (with the possible added benefit of being heralded as a hero). Was the killer's action moral or immoral?

  • 1
    How about a more real-life example. One group kills innocent civilians via drone bombs. Another group beheads innocent civilians and publishes the videos. Is one more moral than the other?
    – user4894
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 22:24
  • So in simple terms, you are asking whether the action was a "good" one. The killer had the intent to kill. Killing is immoral. The after-effect of it saving peoples lives is a coincidence. It does not disregard option 1 - which was immoral. Option 1 is still present. Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 23:53
  • Please see my update. Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 0:04
  • 4
    I like this question, but as it stands I find it a bad fit for the the SE emphasis on objective answers. It would be more answerable if you specified a particular moral framework (Kantian, Buddhist, Utilitarian, etc). One key problem is that not everyone would even agree with your opening premises. Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 19:47
  • 1
    @StackOverflowNewbie "Generally, it probably can be said that the killer in scenario #1 is immoral and that the killer in scenario #2 is moral." Can we say that? Why? In light of which moral principles? Or are we strictly sticking to our personal moral intuitions? Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 12:59

12 Answers 12


In regard to your updated question where a person desires to kill but holds back until an opportunity arises to do so legally and with a social benefit: does this not apply to some percent of military persons and police?

In other words: a person has an innate desire to kill, but they choose to do so only when deemed appropriate per their own interpretation of what is socially acceptable. If it has been deemed appropriate then it is also morally correct.

It sounds like what you are describing is an anti-hero.

  • 3
    Who must deem something appropriate to make it morally correct? You might say "The President" or something. But then you are shifting the topic from ethics to justice (two different parts of philosophy). And I think this one is about ethics.
    – Einer
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 13:58
  • 1
    I mean socially acceptable.
    – KnightHawk
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 14:12
  • "When it's socially acceptable it's morally correct" or "When it's deemed appropriate it's socially acceptable?". In the first case: Dosn't it imply a cultural relativism? And in the second case: How does socially acceptable relate to moral behavior?
    – Einer
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 14:19
  • it is the killer who is choosing when it is appropriate based on their interpretation of social norms. I'm not stating my idea of what is acceptable, but rather the theoretical killers interpretation of what they believe to be acceptable to society and or the law.
    – KnightHawk
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 14:26
  • if said killer chooses a victim based on their own interpretation of what is acceptable by society then the killer may fit into the category of anti-hero.
    – KnightHawk
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 14:28

I don't think 'morality' of actions is a simple boolean 'Yes/No' value, and different moral frameworks could give different values to each of the actions. That said, with the attempt at keeping moral assumptions to a minimum (i.e.: "Murder is wrong"):

Scenario 1 ("Pre-Edit" scenario)

I disagree that one situation would be moral and the other would not. I would argue that both killings were immoral, though not necessarily equally immoral. In the second situation (killing a 'Mad Bomber'), you still snuff out a human life. A more moral resolution would be to non-lethally apprehend the bomber before the Earth-Shattering Kaboom. (Successfully rehabilitating the bomber afterwards would be more moral still.)

Scenario 2 ("Post-Edit" scenario)

Again, trying to keep the moral assumptions to a minimum, both actors in this scenario have behaved immorally. A non-lethal resolution to the crisis would again be the most moral outcome. Enacting vigilante violence would be immoral, but possibly justifiable in light of the bomb exploding being the worst outcome.

The intent of the killer and the moral framework we choose to work under might modify the exact 'numerical value' we assign to the deed, but the morality of the act should fall in the range of: {0 > Homicide ≥ Mass Homicide} regardless of the particulars.

When faced with a situation where you must choose between two evils, choosing the lesser evil may be more moral than choosing the greater... but you're still choosing evil.


This question seems to be harder to answer for when a person does something with good consequences as opposed to bad consequences.

We don't say animals are immoral when they kill people, and we generally don't say people are immoral if they kill another by accident (Unless it's through something like neglect). Attempted murder is considered immoral even though it doesn't result in a death. Most people wouldn't argue with this.

Is a doctor who saves hundreds of lives, so long as he gets paid, acting moral? Is a company that donates millions of dollars to charity for PR purposes acting moral? If we replaced the killer in your question with someone who killed for less psychopathic reasons it might change some people's minds.


You've phrased the question as though actions with intent are either moral or immoral. A more nuanced view is that some actions with intent are more moral than others.

In your first case where there is an incidental and unintentional moral benefit to what is otherwise an immoral act, is just that: the person acted immorally but there was a benefit elsewhere. The benefit doesn't erase the immoral action, which was undertaken with full malicious intent by the perpetrator.

In your updated case, the fact that the perpetrator is able to manage his/her urges, and only indulges in them in, lets say, sanctioned conditions, is better than the former case (with or without incidental benefits) but is still far from optimal, e.g. in most moral theories it is better to stop the bomber without having to kill him/her.

  • Didn't see your answer when I was writing mine - we seem to have pretty similar ideas on this question. Must be a Dave thing? ;) In any case, I find it a little disturbing that the question and most of the answers seem to assume that of course you can only stop a bomber through killing.
    – Dave B
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 22:07
  • @DaveB thanks for acknowleding it. For a second I thought that I had an internet doppleganger.
    – Dave
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 3:39
  • I had one (was one?) of those once on a completely different site years ago :) Here, I had started my answer and had come back to the tab I left open the day-after and finished without refreshing the screen - then after posting saw that it looks like I plagiarized AND stole your identity for getting there second! You managed to say the same thing more concisely though, so you definitely got my vote for it.
    – Dave B
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 14:41
  • And since the timestamps prove my work is CLEARLY a derivative of yours, perhaps I should change my 'nym to "Dave Prime"? ;)
    – Dave B
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 14:49
  • 1
    @DaveB I was considering changing mine to Dave A
    – Dave
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 18:30

All moral/immoral actions are personal. A group of people may share the same morality, but all actions taken are individual and are based on personal morals which are based on a person's own set of beliefs. Killing a person at random, no matter what the later consequences are, is immoral. It has a lasting - damaging - effect on the person's psyche and their own karma.

What would happen if a person killed someone at random and then found out later his killing saved 1,000 people? Maybe he thinks he's a tool of God, or he can do no wrong? That all of his random immoral actions will be justified sooner or later? A very slippery slope......


It is supposed generally, that a moral choice is a conscious one: the agent knows exactly, what she is doing and what moral implications or consequences her act has (no matter that in reality she, may be, has no time for any reflection). If her intention is immoral, so the act will not get a moral value.

Usually, others have no access to this conscious content and can only guess or calculate it. Nevertheless, they need this content in order to assign properly the moral value to the act of the agent. Note that in this particular case the conditions of the problem suppose that this content is known for us.

One can expect that a feeling of gratitude to this killer would captivate people and it will show an indulgence to her... overall behavior. However, not all would be captivated, and less of all the police.

Update 1. I would propose to resolve the question by using notions of public and private. People actions are public - they are accessible for everybody and everybody can give her opinion on them. The thoughts of the agent are the other thing - we do not know them. However, I would say, that they could be divided in two parts. One part consists of nearest intentions – intentions properly speaking. In the current case, these intentions are (a) she wishes to kill a dangerous person with explicit consent of the society (b) she refrains from killing innocent people. She has made her choice, and this choice is explicit. In other words, it belongs somehow to the public domain and we have right to discuss it, may be to ask the agent about it and so on. Her other thoughts are from the private domain - agent's feelings, her selfish wishes, fear of jail etc - we have no moral rights to refer to them and to use them when elaborating our judgment about moral value of her acts.

For example, I can suspect that this killer has some evil wishes. Anyway, I have no right to express my suspect and should be respectful to her as would be to any other moral person, because from the moral point of view she acts appropriately and makes right choice - (a) and (b).

  • So the intent of the agent determines whether an act is moral or not? Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 22:42
  • I suppose that without taking into account of the intent it is impossible to assign the moral value. Otherwise a falling brick can do the job, but we don't say it does a moral act. Sure, the intent does not determine it. The first of all is the content of the act itself. Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 22:56
  • Please see my update. Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 0:04

i'll only address the second formulation.

the killer is clearly clearly someone with a deficient moral character... assuming he isn't partially excused from that due to e.g. severe mistreatment in youth, we can say that.

as to whether that makes his killing in some way morally impermissible, that is probably a matter of opinion. i lean toward saying that his killing of the potential mass murderer doesn't make him a hero. yet he is also now taken another human life, which is bad.

i think that your confusion stems from your treatment of ethics as dictating right and wrong and nothing in between. but it's still an interesting question, because it makes me wonder whether given those absolutes and that killing the mass potential mass murderer is the only option, what the moral status is of stopping the murder. naturally the best outcome is for someone to do so... and so it seems wrong to say its impermissible. yet as a kind of pacifist, i think ANYONE who does so is somehow morally at fault.

so in conclusion, not only does real life rarely involve moral absolutes, but perhaps a person can perform a moral obligation that is a bad thing to do. you can reply that someone had to do it, and i agree, but i don't think that necessarily excuses who does. real life is so messy that i'm not sure that someone had to do it is any better than someone was going to do it anyway.


Well, as for the ultimate answer as to whether the case you propose (after update 1) is moral or immoral: it will depend on the choice of moral system.

A very popular system these days is consequentialism: the only thing that matters are the consequences. Thus, after update 1, a person who only looks at the consequences of an action to judge its morality will say that the actions of your protagonist are moral: one 'bad' person died, many innocent people lived to continue enjoying their lives, and your protagonist got to experience the joy of killing that he so much desires. Thus, the "utility" in this scenario is greater than the "utility" in the alternative scenario. You are comparing, in other words, the balance of joy in the following two scenarios:

a) One man dies. This is a negative --- yes, he was bad, but he would still enjoy life, especially if he got to blow people up. Also, whatever enjoyment he got out of blowing people up gets lost, so that is another negative. On the other hand, however, your protagonist got to kill someone, and clearly that is a positive amount to add to the joy account; depending on how much joy he derives from killing the bomber, this might even compensate for the joy lost when the bomber died and no longer got around to blow people up. Also, thousands of innocent people got to continue living. Assuming that, on average their life was more enjoyable than not, this contributes a rather large positive amount of joy to the accounting. If, on the other hand, your bomber was specifically targeting sad people whose lives were not worth living (in a lot of consequentialist accounts you can have lives not worth living), then the fact that your bomber doesn't get to blow these people up contributes a large negative balance to the joy account.

b) The bomber lives. The amount of joy that he derives of his life (blowing people up included) gets added to the joy account. Your protagonist doesn't get to kill anyone. The amount of frustration that he experiences because of this lack gets added to the joy account (obviously, as a negative number). And thousands of innocent people get blown up. Again, assuming that their lives were, on average, joyful, this adds a large negative number to the joy account. And the loss and sadness of the relatives and friends of these innocent victims also gets added (if it is loss and sadness --- perhaps some of them are happy with the deaths!) . Assuming that the victims were, on average liked, this adds a very large negative amount to the joy account. If on the other hand, the innocent victims had lives not worth living (in whatever accounting of joy you are using) and, on average, their friends and relatives preferred them dead, then the fact that they were blown up adds a large positive number to the joy accounting.

Anyway, some kind of reckoning like the foregoing must be made if you are a consequentalist. You add up all the joy, subtract all the pain, and see which number comes up higher.

On the other hand, there are other systems of morality out there. For comparison, let's look at a very traditional one. In this traditional one, an action's morality depends on 3 things (and the action must be moral according to all 3 criteria):

1) The action itself. Some actions are automatically immoral.

2) The intentions of the actor.

3) The circumstances surrounding the act --- including possible consequences.

A very brief explanation follows.

As for (1): This very traditional system maintains that there are actions that are automatically immoral, regardless of consequences. For example, to kill an innocent person on purpose would be an immoral act, regardless of consequences or circumstances. In your example, the mad bomber's actions would be immoral given that he is killing innocent people (yes, even if their lives are full of pain and suffering). Your protagonist would not be acting immorally according to this criteria alone, since he is not killing an innocent person.

As for (2): This is where intention comes about. In this traditional system, if an action which is otherwise moral is done with bad intentions, then the action becomes immoral, again regardless of circumstances and consequences. A bloodthirsty desire to kill people is generally considered a bad intention. Thus, in your example above, your protagonist is acting immorally. Yes, even if he ended up saving people by his actions. However, if his intention were to save the people that the mad bomber intended to blow up and for this reason killed him, then his actions would be moral.

As for (3): This is where circumstances and consequences fit in. In this traditional system, if an action is otherwise moral, but is performed in the wrong circumstances or despite foreseeable bad consequences, then the action becomes immoral. For instance, drinking alcohol would not be bad in itself; and it could be done with good intentions (such as enjoying a good cup of wine). But if one drinks a lot of alcohol while or right before driving, then one's drinking become immoral, because one puts other people at danger given one's actions. In your example, your protagonists' actions had good consequences. So your protagonist's actions pass the requirement that consequences & circumstances should not 'spoil' a moral act.

Therefore, in the very traditional moral system I delineated, your protagonist would have acted immorally, since his intentions were immoral --- requirement (2). This very traditional system makes a distinction between the morality of a given act and the consequences of said given act (though the consequences are definitely considered as part of determining the morality of the act). In this system, all the following possibilities can happen: (i) an act can be moral and the consequences of the act good; (ii) an act can be moral, but have terrible consequences --- provided that the bad consequences were not willed and cannot be stopped ---; (iii) an act can be immoral and have beneficial consequences, at least in part --- your example above might be one such example; or (iv) an act can be immoral and have terrible consequences.

And there might be other morality systems out there against which to judge. I am partial to the very traditional one I delineated here myself. Others have different preferences.


Fact is that if we could stop the fantasist, it would be immoral to do so. If we stopped him, 1,000 people would die. If we didn't stop him, one person would die. Much better to not stop him.

Consequently, if the fantasist has laid out his plan and has prepared everything to kill the bomber, it would be immoral to stop himself and not kill the bomber.

That leads me to claim that the fantasist's planning and preparing of the killing of the bomber is the immoral act, not the shooting itself. We have two different actions: One is the fantasists scheming to be able to kill a human being without going to jail for it, the other is the shooting of a bomber, which will save many lives. One if these acts is deeply immoral, they other is not.


A person kills a mad bomber who was about to push the trigger that will blow up a building, killing thousands of innocent people.

The shooter had a moral duty to society to stop the bomber if he can. The most reasonable and safest course of action at that instant, it seems, was to shoot him. Shooting the bomber would, therefore, be a moral act.

A person fantasizes about killing a random person for the fun of it, but doesn't due to the possible consequences (e.g. going to jail). A mad bomber has been menacing a city with random bombings and is currently about to do it. Officials encourages its citizen to find and kill this mad bomber. It so happens that this person who fantasizes about killing someone knows the mad bomber (e.g. they're actually neighbors). This person runs to his neighbors house to see the mad bomber about to push the trigger that will blow up a building, killing thousands of innocent people. The person shoots the mad bomber before he can push the detonator.

Whatever fantasies the shooter may have had is irrelevant. He did his duty, and society should commend him for it.

  • Does it matter if the shooter's intent was not altruistic? Meaning, he didn't kill the bomber to save the thousands of innocent people. Instead, he killed the bomber for the pure enjoyment of it. Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 23:03
  • @StackOverflowNewbie The shooter's fantasy life is immaterial. He acted as any moral person would. Commented Sep 25, 2014 at 1:55
  • I don't mean to suggest that it would be immoral not to shoot the bomber. Hesitating or refusing to kill someone can never be seen as immoral whatever his crime may have been. Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 2:08

Looks to me as if you are describing someone like Kilgore - "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" and his philosophical "someday this war is gonna end".

Does he deserve a medal or jail, neither or both?
It is the lack of a clear answer which makes this unforgettable scene so powerful.


Morality is non-sense and is often misleading. This kind confusion only exists among moralists.

A person who kills random people for fun is no different from a shark that has developed a taste for humans. The shark is a danger to the public. It can either be treated to change its taste, or can be relocated to remote reefs where fishes are plentiful and humans are few. Whether the shark ate a mass murderer or not is irrelevant.

  • So a 2 year old playing with a guy who accidentally kills his father is the same as an adult who kills for fun is the same as a shark? Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 2:54
  • Yes. All cimes, like shark attacks, are accidents in nature. Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 3:04
  • And what about the adult who kills for the fun of it? Do you equate that scenario to the child and the shark? Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 3:15
  • Yes, there are no intrinsic differences. If the desire to kill is regarded as symptom of illness, we can hope the adult may seek treatment before he actually does any harm. Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 3:22
  • Mother-Nature does not understand neither morality nor danger, the both are non sense for her. If we remove the first, we remove the difference between good and bad and with them the meaning of the word "danger". Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 13:28

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