i've read recently, the german government had prohibited to shoot a plane which was suspected to be owned by terrorist - the reason was among other things ethical.

i know every human deserves to live and has the right to be not tortured, etc - which is also guranteeed by e.g. the german government.

But why can't i "sum those ethical concerns up"? If i have for some reason to torture a person, but i can choose as "targets" between one single person or two persons, why does the two lives don't count more as the single live?

  • This depends on your moral framework. In utilitarianism, you can.
    – user2953
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 6:46
  • It actually hasn't been the government, but the constitutional court that prohibited it. The government only wrote the law to fulfill this mandate.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 17:48
  • @Keelan You are vastly oversimplifying a lot of utilitarian thoughts by stating this. Consequentialism and Utilitarianism are more varied than you seem to imply.
    – MM8
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 18:00

3 Answers 3


Regarding the actual judgement and its philosophical background

The constitutional court in fact had three main points in its justification of the judgement:

  1. Because you can never now if your actions provide the desired outcome, i.e. if the alternative would really have been worse. You produce facts and exclude the possibility of probably better alternatives by this. Do you know that the torture will make him speak? Do you know it does help anything because the victim is not already dead? Do you know that the men and women on this plane will not decide themselves for sacrificing their lives or can overcome the terrorists? No, you do not. You only claim to have this knowledge you cannot possibly have.

=> Kantian point against consequentialistic reasoning, e.g. in his On a supposed right to lie from philanthropy

  1. Because you would help them show that you are in no sense morally superior, giving up your values you pretend to hold higher than anything else if it fits you. Therefore it would help the cause of the terrorists.

=> I am not aware of any particularly philosophical writing that adresses this argument, but it seems good.

  1. Legally, there is no alternative! The highest value of German constitution (Grundgesetz) is human dignity (article 1, sentence 1), not human life (article 2, sentence 2). Torture as well as weighing up lives (plane example) does not take human dignity as absolute value for granted, it rejects it. The German constitution (alongside with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, btw!) forbids calculus like this.

=> This also corresponds with the strong kantian tradition in Germany, because the human dignity as inviolable, absolute value is a kantian concept first expressed in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Ak. 435. The very first formulation of dignity in this sense is by Samuel von Pufendorf more than 100 years earlier in De iure naturae et gentium libri octo (1672) as a reaction to Hobbes' Leviathan, so that v. Pufendorf can be considered the ancestor of dignity and public international law [Völkerrecht] in the modern sense.

Regarding the ethical principles and consequences

So the philosophical point behind this reasoning (and the three probably most influential formulations of human rights of the last 70 years) is that while other fundamental/human/basic rights (whatever they are called) can be relativised, the one that constitutes humanity as such, human dignity, must not. And this is in the end a thought that emerged in the era of Enlightenment, embodied by kantian moral philosophy.

Yes, there may be consequences that some individuals hold to be unintentional and undiserable. It will have negative consequences for the welfare of individuals that seem injust. But this is the framework of values we have given ourselves and made them constitutional for our society exactly because it is thought (with Kant) to be the best for human society as a whole. In fact, injustice will be done either way, because the causing acts are injust. This is why we need law (this is the standard thought e.g. of Kant, Fichte and Hegel in their philosophy of law).

Books on that topic

Regarding Kant's own reasons for and conceptions of human dignity:
Sensen, Oliver: Kant on Human Dignity

Regarding the kantian understanding of human rights and the relations between these frameworks:
Follesdal, Andreas and Maliks, Reidar (eds.): Kantian Theory and Human Rights

Appendix regarding the German constitution in particular

The only way to change this in Germany is making a new constitution, because article 1 and 20 cannot be changed and are eternal as long as this constitution is in effect (Article 79, sentence 3 Grundgesetz). This includes the human dignity as highest, absolute (i.e. not to be relativised) value (article 1) and the main rules for the government: Federal structure, rule of law, democracy, representative government, sociality and the right to resist against anyone who actively tries to change any of these (article 20). Perhaps you can now conceive how important it was for the men that formulated the Grundgesetz not to open dignity for ethical calculus, especially after the cruelties and terror of WWII that showed how important the absoluteness of dignity is.

If you are interested to learn more about the structure and values of the German Grundgesetz (basically, the first 17 articles represent the valuation of basic rights according to their order), there is an official translation available (also in PDF) here.

  • 1
    Your answer, although informative, turns this into a discussion of history and politics more so than philosophy. Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 15:14
  • 2
    @AlexanderSKing: I hope it fits you (and this site) better now ;)
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 17:08
  • Thanks a lot for your informative answer. A pleasure to read :) while other fundamental/human/basic rights (whatever they are called) can be relativised, the one that constitutes humanity as such, human dignity, must not. Is this just determined by the numerical order of the laws?
    – uuu
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 6:22
  • @toogley: Legally, yes. But there is the philosophical point behind it that humans as free beings have dignity and it is this freedom that must not be relativised. It is what Kant called the "ends in themselves" that humans as autonomously deciding beings are.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 7:51

In a deontological ethics, actions are themselves good or bad, regardless of their consequences: Torturing is bad, and it doesn't matter what reason the torturing is being performed for. Kant, with his categorical imperative says that for an action to be acceptable in one situation, it has to be acceptable in any situation. Since torture is not acceptable in some situations, it can never be acceptable no matter what the objective one hopes to achieve.

Consider the following situation: Lets presume a strange scenario were we would be able to solve all of the country's problems - crime would be eliminated, unemployment would be eliminated, health care would become perfect, and society in general will be come peaceful and happy - but at one condition. There is a group of 50 small innocent children who have to be kept in a dark room in a faraway city and tortured everyday for the rest of their lives - this is the only way to achieve the miraculous society mentioned above. Without torturing these children, the above mentioned zero crime, zero unemployment, perfect health for the rest of society would not occur. Is this scenario acceptable? surely summing the ethical concerns as you say (the technical term used is calculating the utility of the situation), the concerns of the whole country override the concerns of these 50 children. But nobody would ever consider this scenario acceptable, in fact most people would consider it horrible and disgusting.

But we don't need such an imaginary scenario, we can look at a real world historical one: Using the same "sum of concerns" you mention, enslaving a minority for the benefit of the majority would become acceptable (some people in the US during the era of slavery - i.e. before 1865 -argued that slavery should be preserved for exactly this reason - indeed whites in the US in the 19th century far outnumbered blacks), but nobody would consider slavery acceptable nowdays. Similarly modern day rules of freedom of speech follow a similar logic: if we were to just "sum up the concerns" of society, then censoring those who have disagreeable opinions would be perfectly acceptable in the name of protecting the interests of the majority. But nobody in the developed world finds this acceptable, freedom of speech is considered a value that is protect and is more important than the interests of the majority.

The point here is to show that there are considerations that are higher than the numerical calculation of the good that a given course of action can provide.

I suppose that some utilitarians might argue that torture is defensible if it leads to net improvements in the greater good. And it is certain that many governments and agencies do so in practice. But the Geneva convention and international human rights as defined by the U.N consider the prohibition against torture to be one of those rules that is more important to reinforce than any utility that torture might provide to society.

  • You describe a rather rudimentary form of utilitarianism; I don't think many, if any, modern utilitarianists would argue that we should torture 50 children for world peace.
    – lemon
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 10:13
  • @lemon notice that I qualify my statement by "I suppose, some, might". I know very well that most utilitarians wouldn't agree with such a scenario. Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 15:13
  • Since torture is not acceptable in some situations just because of curiosity: when would torture be then acceptable?
    – uuu
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 6:33
  • What did the Sadist say when the Masochist ask to be hit? No.
    – JeffO
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 20:51

In Germany, the law is quite clear on this: The police can only shoot a person if there is a direct, immediate threat that the person is going to kill. Holding a knife to someone's throat is not an immediate threat - the police would have to wait until they believe that the knife is being used now. "Suspected to be owned by (a) terrorist" - well, German police can most definitely not kill anyone on a suspicion.

A police force needs rules that are objective, can be followed, and can be used in any situation. A police officer is not supposed to make ethical judgments but to apply the rules that he or she was told and act accordingly. Since the rules have to apply in any situation, they have to be designed so that the result is ethical in any situation.

BTW. If you are in a position to decide, ethical concerns never mean that you can't do something - they mean that it might be unethical to do something. You can always act in the way that you believe is right and suffer the consequences. You can quite obviously shoot the owner of that plane and go to jail for the rest of your life, if you believe that is the right thing to do.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .