I'm between two choices:

1.) theoretical definition: this type of definition attempts to provide an adequate understanding of the thing(s) to which the term applies.

I think this because murder is the killing of a human by another human and the death penalty is, by lexical definition, sanctioned by the state.

2.) persuasive definition: this type of definition is a definition that is slanted (or biased) in favor of a particular conclusion or point of view.

I can see the merit of this viewpoint, because murder has a negative connotation and the "air quotes" indicates that the speaker does not consider the death penalty to be a truly valid or straightforward term.

While I personally believe this definition is theoretical, I also believe that I am just thinking to hard and maybe a little too literally/unemotionally. What do you think?

EDIT: the lexical definition of murder also stipulates that it is "pre-meditated" (check) and "unlawful" (this part is over-ridden by the addition of the state sanctioned attribute.

  • It looks more like a statement to me rather than a definition. The "death penalty" and the "state sanctioned murder" (which would also cover, say, assassinations a la Bond's "license to kill") have independently defined meanings (the former in the law books), and one is "contained" (or not) in the other, in the old Kantian sense. So it would be his "analytic a priori" statement. Whether it is "contained" then turns on the intended meaning of "murder", "state-sanctioned" might pre-empt its use. But it is "analytic a priori", true or not. – Conifold Nov 9 '16 at 2:56

I think this is less ambiguous than it seems.

Not all killing is murder. For example killing in self-defense is defined as not being criminal.

Adding a detail like criminality only to remove it at the same time is a red herring. It cannot help clarity, or contribute to meaning, as it is canceled out before any logic is applied to it. So it must be present only to incite its emotional effect, and skew opinion.

Modifiers like 'just' in the form that does not take a pronoun phrase, is also a signature here. The 'just' means that we should rule out alternatives, and minimize the content, but left alone, it does not specify the kind of alternative we are meant to rule out or the excess we should be seeking to minimize.

Something like 'just that part of the argument that can be transcribed into formal terms' might appear in a technical speech. But without that kind of follow-up criterion, 'just' is basically a dismissive interjection that emphasizes the supposed simplicity of the statement, and invites us to not look too closely. This is emotional reassurance rather than logical information, and it is therefore usually rhetorical manipulation, or at least editorializing, neither of which belong in an objective definition.

So this is a 'persuasive' definition.

It does not persuade me, and I even accept the point to which it is aimed. So I don't like your author's vocabulary.

The term of art in rhetoric as I was taught it, and the one used in some theories of law, is just 'suasive' as in 'moral suasion'. The separate term helps because it means folks diagnosing arguments that do not have force but still may affect judgment do not appear to be admitting 'truthiness' by calling the argument 'persuasive'.


The answer to your question hinges entirely on whether we take certain words to already contain moral judgments. There's been some work on this recently, but much of it can be traced back to GEM Anscombe's "Modern Moral Philosophy". In that article, she describes a "bilker" and points out (here I paraphrase) that's what wrong with being a bilker is that you are a bilker.

The application to your question here is that "murder" is (unless we are talking about a grouping of crows) a word that already contains the moral judgment in it. If we accept that, then it's evident that it's not a neutral description of killing -- whether the killing is done by the state or an individual. Thus, describing the death penalty as "state-sanctioned murder" is going to be a pretty clear case of persuasive definition.

That being said, this entire argument hinges on us accepting that the word "murder" always contains a moral judgment. I would tend to think so, but words are their uses so it's possible that in some language or linguistic community somewhere there's no distinction between killing (which at least in my dialect is capable of neutral application) and murder.

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