Dr. A is a very evil man who harms millions of people in other countries. In fact, thousands or millions of people die each year because of him. Let's say he's a mad scientist who produces some fraudulent drug that kills people.

Citizen B decides to put a stop to the madness and kills Dr. A.

It isn't a revenge killing; he acts calmly and rationally. And there's no politics involved; they're both civilians.

Are there any notable philosophers who would consider Citizen B just as evil or immoral as Dr. A? If so, what logic would they use to arrive at that conclusion?

I should emphasize that I'm not interested in religious/theological opinions (e.g. "because the Bible says so"). I'm strictly interested in philosophical arguments that can be backed up with some kind of logic.

NOTE: I just read the Absolute Ethics discussion. I'm not sure if it answers my question or not. It kind of sounds like a religious argument to me in that it appears to based more on faith than logic. It sounds like Immanuel Kant is a notable philosopher who might consider Citizen B just as evil as Dr. A, but I'm not sure about his logic.

So I think I'll select leroy's response as the correct answer. To put it in better perspective, it sounds like this would be a better complete response:

Notable philosophical doctrines that would treat Dr. A and Citizen B as equally evil are probably limited to "faith-based" paradigms - e.g. religion and, arguably, absolute ethics.

  • 2
    Possible duplicate of Absolute Rules in Ethics
    – Braydon
    Sep 16 '17 at 1:28
  • Thanks for the link. It's hard to say if that page answers my question or not. See the note I added at the bottom of my original question. Sep 16 '17 at 3:05
  • 1
    Define "bad"...
    – luchonacho
    Sep 16 '17 at 7:25
  • "Bad" as in "evil" or "disgusting." Sep 16 '17 at 8:22
  • i don't think absoliutist ethics says that any unethical person is equally evil, only that every act of e.g. murder is evil
    – user28660
    Sep 16 '17 at 16:12

I'm not sure if I've understood your question correctly, the way it's currently worded sounds potentially as if the equality of the evil is the main focus, in which case I think the answer is simply 'no' for all systems. Even faith-based ones would have no reason to think them equally evil as I think most still believe in the ordinality of numbers.

If, on the other hand, you are asking about the justification for thinking them both to be 'equally' within the category 'Evil', then simply put, the logic behind such ethical systems is that of the unforeseen consequences which, these systems believe, are best mediated by following some prescribed rule than by trying to calculate the consequences for each action.

You have already dismissed religious arguments as illogical so I will not dwell on them, except to say that as they believe in an eternal soul which will be damned to purgatory for the killing it is perfectly logical for them to argue that such a killing would be inadvisable within the framework of their world-view.

Other more nuanced systems of virtue or deontological ethics might make the argument that the best world arises as a consequence of the population following such rules. For Kant, this is because only by reason can free-will be expressed, it is not reasonable to see others (person A) simply as a means to an end (stopping the mass killing) because we would not want to live in a world where others saw us simply as a means to an end. For moral naturalists, the almost universal taboo against killing is an indication of the fact that killing (other than in self-defence) must be something which hinders evolutionary competitiveness, otherwise the taboo against it would not have evolved. Both examples are essentially making the argument that some long-term consequence of living in a world where people condone the killing of person A might actually be worse for the population of that future world than the killings which person A has perpetrated. None would argue that nothing else should be done to prevent person A from carrying out such actions, but just that killing him is not the right measure to take.

In this, one could argue that such systems are, in reality, consequentialist, they just have a different way of handling uncertainty in prediction. Given that the chaotic, emergent properties of a system such as the one generated from the interactions of 7 billion people will probably be as significant, if not more so, than the predicable ones, it is not an unreasonable position to take.

  • Wow, interesting answer. The bigger question I'm pursuing is half philosophy and half psychology. Why do so many people turn a blind eye to evil, yet lash out at people who attempt to hold evil people accountable? I've experienced it personally many times. If I blow the whistle on a pedophile, people will rally behind the pedophile. And if I suggest a U.S. president guilty of war crimes should be executed for his crimes, people cry that I'm worse than him. I've come to call it "kindergarten ethics." Sep 16 '17 at 7:42
  • Yes, I suspect that your detractors are simply hiding behind a facade of moral indignation when really they simply disagree with your conclusions about the 'crimes' of your opponents, but don't wish to speak out about that for whatever reason. They may see what they think is going to be a more widely agreed upon argument against your proposals and considered it therefore a more expedient reaction than their actual opinions.
    – Isaacson
    Sep 16 '17 at 8:18
  • @DavidBlomstrom the first man convicted of war crimes was beheaded, so i don't think your question really captures what you describe.
    – user28660
    Sep 16 '17 at 16:33
  • i think you might raise an interesting point, though. there does seem to be something wrong with vigilante justice, and i'm not sure why. perhaps it seems more prenicious than the rule of law, i'm not sure. aside form that, yes people disagree about who is guilty and what should be a crime
    – user28660
    Sep 16 '17 at 16:56
  • 1
    maybe, i don't know @DavidBlomstrom i don't believe in it, however.
    – user28660
    Sep 16 '17 at 18:28

I've made some conclusions which may be faulty, but I'll choose to believe in for now. I welcome all criticism and scrutiny on this matter. That being said, here's what I think.

The act of killing Dr A to prevent the damage he will cause fulfills the mission of preventing the damage he will cause. But killing might not be the optimal solution. The act of killing Dr A serves the purpose of incapacitating him thus preventing the damage. But what if it doesn't? What if Dr A wasn't the actual criminal? Or what if Dr A had more partners or had a cure for the drug/disease or the code for the nuke to disable it, etc. In this case, all the facts must be accounted for in order to justify the killing. And of course, it's usually impossible to have all the facts in any such case unless you or Mr B is directly involved in all such cases. This is point number one.

Point number two is that whatever judgement can be attributed to Dr A, the same judgement can't be directly attached to any other criminal as their situations will always be different. If Dr A is killed and no one else is hurt, that's good, but if Dr B is killed, the consequences might be different. Thus there can never be an answer that directly applies to all situations such as "yes, it's ok to kill criminals" or "no, you should never kill anyone." There are no absolutes for this situation and every action will have it's own consequences. Only with experience may one judge which is the lesser evil.

Point three is the matter of the options available for handling the situation. In an ideal world, something like an omnipotent God could have prevented someone like Dr A from ever existing, or even better, changed the facts in Dr A's life to make him become a good person. An All powerful king could have Dr A be captured and reformed to use his knowledge for the good of his kingdom. A superhero or an advanced military team might be able to kidnap or capture Dr A alive for further processing, and an incorruptible justice system could ensure Dr A never harms another person. And finally, A lone person with a gun, in the right place at the right time can only hope to shoot Dr A and hope all of his evils die with him. Ultimately it is certain that Dr A must be prevented from doing further harm.

With these points, I will conclude that killing Dr A should be a last resort option when all other options are unavailable, but it is a resort that must be taken to save the millions of live that would otherwise be lost. Should Citizen B be labeled evil for this action? No, not at all. Should he be known as a hero? Still no, as Dr A was not brought to justice and not made to pay his dues for lives he has taken. But that said, citizen B is definitely the savior of millions of lives, so he's not too bad of a person.

Now, If citizen B had the power and opportunity to kill Dr A But chose not to do so and let him kill millions of people, then he is at least half as bad if not more so than Dr A, and the blood of those people is similarly on his hands. It's never alright to let a killer go free to kill more innocent people, when you have the power to stop it.

  • And a point about Vigilantism. The main reason vigilantes are a bad idea is that they lack structure and have no real accountability system. We all Love superheroes, but they only work if the systems put in place to handle criminal activity stop working or get too overwhelmed to function. A normal citizen has no way to organize and handle the entirety of a city and operate lawfully. Jul 29 '19 at 2:13
  • this sounds a bit like particularism, is that deliberate? it is ethical butter, imho (though i don't know the details of decision making)
    – user38026
    Jul 29 '19 at 5:46

The intentional killing of the scientist in the scenario is not morally justifiable if there are ways to incapacitate him without unnecessary harm or injury. I will assume for a moment that we are speaking of Government agencies that professionally take out bad guys. Are chemicals available such as gases or tranquilizers? If so I would OBJECTIVELY say the authorities are obligated to use those non deadly forms of force first. Why not? I dont care if it would make their job harder. Train properly or train harder to deal with these types of issues. They are not applying themselves 110 percent. The options ARE AVAILABLE. I see no excuse why you did not exhaust those first morally speaking. They would be putting maybe 50 percent or less to get it over with in a quick manner. In reality I dont expect emotional people to take the high road-- as these kind of people are result orientated. The result is to stop person A and along with the use of excessive authority people will bend rules or CREATE rules to get the desired result. This is why many people think morality is nonsense.

We typically hold MURDER as a crime and as an immoral act regardless of who does the murder. Authorities often set up this environment for people to grow up in so it is normal. I think Kant would say such a precedent of one humman killing another requires that same precedent if correct holds forever. This is not a social or popular answer. That is, person B murdering the scientist would THEN become a rule for all humans to follow morally regardless of special man made laws, country boundaries, personal titles, etc. (There goes those philosophers cramping the authoritian style.) Objective Morality is NOT LAW. Objective Morality would be a higher concept than law. Objective Morality requires universal and independent truth value preservation. This is contrary to Consequentialism. Objective morality falls under normative ethics. Consequentialism is NOT under normative ethics.

So if we allow person B to murder person A then anyone faced with the same circumstances is free to do so as well. I should be able to murder a man who is about to fire his fully automatic high powered M-50 caliber into a crowd of music fans below him who are enjoying a mucical concert. What you can't do is make exceptions to a rule and claim to be rational. There are no moral exceptions by definition: the rule has to apply everywhere and 100 percent. If we don't apply the rule everywhere and less than 100 percent we have subjectivism. If we have subjectivism then this opens possibilities to human error and abuse of authority. This is what we currently have. How do we monitor circumstances? I can see an agency doing better than individuals managing the same thing.

The realistic approach is for private citizens to alert authorities. No one can be certain of the circumstances the murder will state. This frequently occurs when a home owner INTENTIONALLY murders a home invader. Why not stop the invader with legitimate techniques and hold for the police? The objection immediately how is the home owner supposed to do such a thing? The home owner often avoids asking the invader to surrender. The common response --especially in southern states of the U.S.-- to get away with the murder is to say the intruder was armed and attempted deadly force. Many home owners will INTENTIONALLY shoot to kill first then plant a weapon to escape jail time. Here other available means were simply skipped. But how can I prove they were skipped?

The issue is now when can one use deadly force? Well when you have exhausted all of the other available alternatives. Who does this in reality? When time is a factor this objective style is difficult to do. So it is too hard for the goal minded person to take the high road. An authority will justify it or not justify it. The issue is more of a man made thing such as law. Morality is not created by man. Morality is. We are supposed to apply ideal concepts to shape our reality not the other way around or just use authoritative means to resolve conflict. I would say morality and authoritarianism do not mix well because the authority's actions can go unchecked. By the time some one does investigate the authority damage could be done and unrecoverable. This is because authorities often have exceptions to the rules. You cant have objective morality with exceptions to the very rules that are supposed to apply everywhere.

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