One of our definition questions particularly intrigued me.

If a man were committing suicide by jumping off a building and you shot him on the way down, killing him, are you culpable for his death?

Legally you may or may not be, depending on the jurisdiction. But what would the philosophical underpinnings of such a law be? It could be viewed as a mercy killing, in a way, but is it distinct from assisted suicide (and how)? What else is there to consider?

Edit: Assume the man would die on impact. "Well he might live" gets too far away from the intended discussion.

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    How is this a philosophical question? This is a legal question for the blame and also if you killed him, you killed him. Jun 7 '11 at 20:59
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    it's not only a legal question, it's a matter of ethics too, which is not the same with law Jun 7 '11 at 21:02
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    @Oscar Culpability is a philosophical concept. It's not a question about legality just because the law makes extensive use of said concept. "If you killed him you killed him" is an over-simplification, otherwise this question and questions about assisted suicide would never arise.
    – user20
    Jun 7 '11 at 21:03
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    @Oscar I asked about the underpinnings of the law. "Well YOU shot him!" is not a philosophy. And as I noted on Lennart's answer, you can construct a situation where survival is truly impossible (think supernova or something). And a question can contain a hypothetical situation without being a hypothetical question.
    – user20
    Jun 7 '11 at 21:31
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    As other point out culpability is a legal question, not a philosophical question. If you are asking if it is wrong then that is an ethical question but still not a valid question for this forum since it is asking to "do" philosophy not about philosophy. A valid question here would be if there are any ethical systems that would justify killing someone who is committing suicide.
    – chuckj
    Jan 12 '12 at 5:55

An autonomy/consent perspective strongly distinguishes this scenario from assisted suicide. You do not generally forfeit your right to bodily autonomy just by doing something that's dangerous or that you mean to die from, and shooting the falling man might interfere with some way in which he was exercising autonomy-- you might keep him from being remembered as someone who wholly chose the moment of his death, or you might deprive him of a few seconds of weightlessness that he had intended to be his last experience.

Of course, you also might NOT be interfering with that, but you don't know, whereas an accomplice (partner?) in assisted suicide is arguably acting to support the dying person's autonomy. (One good elaboration of this argument is Ronald Dworkin's "Life's Dominion".)

I'll mention two ways in which I think you do forfeit some autonomy by attempting suicide, though I'm not sure either one matters here. One, you might be reducing the weight of your interests in any kind of balancing that has to be done; if your suicide is going to break someone else's leg (which jumping off a building might!) then atomizing you with a ray gun on the way down is probably more than justified even if it thwarts an exercise of your autonomy. Two, if your suicide looks like an accident, good samaritans will probably feel free to do all kinds of bodily invasive things to save you, if they think you can be saved, and I think that this is reasonable by most people's lights.

(There are plenty of philosophers who would say that preventing a suicide is an act of good samaritanship even if you know the person wanted to die. But plenty of others would disagree, and it depends among other things on whether life is an intrinsic good, which is a whole other kettle of fish.)


He was not dead. You intentionally killed him. You are therefore culpable for his death.

Saying that he would have died anyway means that you can be excused of any murder, since everybody will die anyway, sooner or later. That is therefore an unreasonable standpoint.

Saying that it was a mercy killing doesn't change the culpability. You are still culpable no matter if it was a morally correct action or not.

  • What of the argument that you're culpable for shooting him, but his death was already determined and thus you can't be culpable for it? (This assumes he would not survive the fall; we could construct a situation in which survival is impossible, I'm sure.)
    – user20
    Jun 7 '11 at 20:29
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    You are still ending his life earlier then it would have otherwise. If we say that ending it 5 seconds earlier does not count then what about 10 seconds? a minute? a day? a year?
    – lathomas64
    Jun 7 '11 at 20:31
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    @Matthew Read: Already answered: That argument assumes that how and when you do doesn't matter, and with that viewpoint we will all die, and hence murder is fine. Reductio ad absurdum. Jun 7 '11 at 20:33
  • @Lennart Fair point.
    – user20
    Jun 7 '11 at 20:45
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    @Lennart Legal culpability applies only to illegal actions. Moral culpability applies only to immoral actions. If the sense of culpability in the last sentence of your answer was disambiguated, my objection would go away.
    – vanden
    Jun 11 '11 at 21:26

Since we assume the person was going to die, we could say your actions were sufficient but not necessary for his death at that particular (rough) point in time. Despite the logical completeness of that assessment, it's probably unsatisfactory for most people. As social beings, we are greatly concerned with what your intent was in that situation, because we want to know if you are likely to do it again. Without intent specified, I personally wouldn't be inclined to offer a firm conclusion on culpability; only a probabilistic analysis with a very low degree of confidence that suggests people don't tend to shoot someone unless they are trying to kill them.

  • I've edited the question.
    – user20
    Jun 7 '11 at 20:36

Well, I think the question is, does the very act of shooting a man make you culpable for his death, or are you only responsible for the way your act has changed the outcome? That is, are you culpable for any exercise of free will, or are you simply culpable for the consequences of your actions?

I lean towards the former. That is, the act itself is wrongdoing, not just its consequence.


Somewhat similar in principle, although not involving suicide, was a curious case of murder that happened in 18th century London.

Some felon had been sentenced to death, and while he was being conveyed in a cart to the execution site, a bystander leapt forward and clumped him on the head with a heavy walking stick of the kind they used in those days, and the fellow died immediately.

Well you might think that as the guy was due to be hanged within half an hour anyway, this killing would be treated leniently. But not a bit - The bystander was arrested, and later himself convicted and hanged for the murder! I think he was quite a distinguished person too, a lord or something.

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    This probably would have been better as a comment (condensed a bit) because it doesn't really answer the question, but it's a good alternative way to look at the OP's question.
    – stoicfury
    Dec 4 '11 at 17:08

Well, jumping off a building doesn't necessary mean death. It's true that there is a high chance that the person that does such a thing will die, especially if the building is high, but it's not known for sure until he/she hits the ground. From my point of view, yes, if you 'help' someone this way you are culpable for his/her death. On the other hand, assisted suicide, could be another good topic to discuss, I'm not sure about the legal matter of it, but from my point of view it shouldn't be considered culpable as long as both parts agree upon it (I'm thinking especially about terminally ill people)

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    I'm sure it's assumed to be a skyscraper... you and @eMansipater are saying the same thing (essentially).
    – wizlog
    Jun 7 '11 at 20:34
  • The point is, even if it is a skyscraper you don't know for sure until he/she hits the ground, that being said, as long as the person is alive, even if everything seems forfeit, 'helping' should be culpable Jun 7 '11 at 21:00
  • terminally ill people jump from skyscrapers, with accessories shooting them?
    – propaganda
    Jan 22 '12 at 20:24

No you are not responsible for his eventual death that would have been caused by hitting the pavement.

Yes you killed him before he hit the pavement,

Therefore Yes, you have killed a guy, but you are not culpable for his eventual death, but you are culpable for his death.

Hope that confuses the matter more! :)

  • yes, but it depends how many meters!
    – propaganda
    Jan 22 '12 at 20:20

Yes you are responsible for his death. Think of it this way. If someone is terminally ill, their organs are shutting down, they have hours left. If you put a bullet through his brain, your killing him. You sped up his death.

  • But why does speeding up death make you culpable? And is there really no difference between a split second and hours?
    – user20
    Jun 7 '11 at 20:33
  • Of course! Are you telling me that doctors ARE allowed to ease someone into death by initiating a morphine drip (ensuring that they die a peaceful, painless death)?
    – wizlog
    Jun 7 '11 at 20:39
  • First, asking questions isn't "telling" anything. Second, we're talking about the basis of the issue, not what rules have been made up for a particular case relating to it.
    – user20
    Jun 7 '11 at 20:44
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    @wizlog I don't think we are talking about the legal matter of this question, laws are different in every country. Law and ethics are different things. Jun 7 '11 at 20:57
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    @wizlog "Philosophy is the foundation for all laws" is patently false, especially in non-democratic countries without modern laws. And even if it were, philosophy would determine legality, not the other way around.
    – user20
    Jun 7 '11 at 21:08