Let's start with the idea that for something to be wrong it has to harm a conscious being, in this case a human. This could involve active harm (punching them), or harm which they remain ignorant of. So if an unknown relative leaves someone £1m, and a corrupt lawyer steals this money, this someone is harmed through having a less enjoyable life, even though they are completely unaware that they were robbed.

Now suppose someone gives me a drug which kills me painlessly in my sleep. It causes me no active harm. (I feel no pain and am in complete ignorance of what is happening). But as the following morning I don't exist, I can't experience a less enjoyable life. There is no 'me' there. Non-existence is not harmful. (I didn't exist for an eternity before my birth and this was certainly not harmful.) We could focus on harm done to those who are alive such as friends and relatives but that would be a strange reason to think murder was wrong. Plus it would mean that an isolated person with no friends or relatives could be killed with impunity.

The one time I heard this discussed it was considered wrong as it was denying someone future happiness/experience. But then if denial of potential years is wrong, then surely this would make abortion wrong. Presumably potential years are potential years, and whether they'd accrue to a fifty-year old or a foetus would be irrelevant. And if potential years are a valid moral concern, then we'd have to weigh up the moral wrongness of a fertile man and a woman not having children as they're equally denying potential years to a potential human.

Obviously I believe murder is wrong, and I'm also pro-choice. I suppose I'm interested to know the (presumed) flaw in this chain of reasoning.

  • 2
    "For something to be wrong it has to harm a conscious being". No, it doesn't. Harming a dog for no good reason is still wrong. So is passing someone else's work as your own, even if they do not mind (e.g. long dead). Non-existence is harmful, in the sense that it deprives one of benefits (or, if you prefer, lack of harm alone is morally insufficient). In a killing or abortion harms and benefits to both sides have to be weighed. The difference is, presumably, that the fetus is not yet a person, hence the harm to it has much lower weight than to a killed person.
    – Conifold
    Oct 7, 2019 at 21:45
  • the closest i ever got to answering "why be moral" to myself was a book on habermas (and his theory of communicative action) and levinas (phenomenology). it was enough for me at the time, though i'm still concerned that 'morality' leaves us with all too human values -- ones that end up meaning nothing (if that makes sense) given our annihilation / the ambiguity of our projects
    – user38026
    Oct 8, 2019 at 2:33
  • i voted to close cos it's a bit vague as it is
    – user38026
    Oct 8, 2019 at 3:16
  • As stated in the wonderful answer by Frank Hubeny, all of this will depend on your ethical theory. What is your basis for morality? One definition would be, as you say, dependent on causing harm to a conscious being. Others might include things like a God-given morality. Different ethical theories will lead to a different conclusion, so the question in the title does not have a unique answer.
    – YiFan
    Oct 8, 2019 at 7:49
  • From a deductive reasoning point of view MURDER would have to be prohibited because that would mean our leaders could be killed for doing a unsatisfactory job in politics: i.e., our President could be murdered without any charges; This allowance of murder would have to include Supreme court justices, police chiefs, prosecutors, school teachers, college administrators, college professors, parents, wives, etc. We would have to modify our definition of LEADERSHIP if we allow murder. For those human beings that believe LEADERS are necessary & GOD sent to the people murder being legal is bad.
    – Logikal
    Oct 8, 2019 at 15:02

7 Answers 7


Whether murder is wrong or not would depend on one's ethical theory. In a Jewish or Christian divine command theory murder (or abortion) would be wrong because believers interpret the Torah or Bible as prohibiting such behavior through divine commands. Their God is a law-giver.

Here is how Michael W. Austin describes a divine command theory:

Roughly, Divine Command Theory is the view that morality is somehow dependent upon God, and that moral obligation consists in obedience to God’s commands. Divine Command Theory includes the claim that morality is ultimately based on the commands or character of God, and that the morally right action is the one that God commands or requires.

This is not a command or duty that comes from some rational source although philosophers may attempt to justify it rationally. If the divine king commands something one does it and does not ask questions.

If one wants moral obligation without God one would have to devise a theory that justifies murder or does not justify it. Some of these theories focus on intention such as Kant's categorical imperative and others on the consequences of the action such as consequentialism.

G. E. M. Anscombe, who likely herself supported a divine command theory, did not think any of these rational alternatives to justify moral obligation without a law-giving God useful enough to be worth considering. According to her these theories are "only harmful without" that "earlier conception of ethics".

Here is the question:

Obviously I believe murder is wrong, and I'm also pro-choice. I suppose I'm interested to know the (presumed) flaw in this chain of reasoning.

I will only consider this question from the divine command theory as Anscombe seems to present it. The result is straightforward:

  • If one does not accept a God who commands the moral obligation, one should drop the concept of moral obligation entirely because one will end up justifying injustice.
  • If one does, one should not question the command, but only interpret it. Any attempt to justify the command may be interesting but it is ultimately irrelevant.

Bottom line: Murder is prohibited by an interpretation of divine command and so likely would be abortion.

Anscombe, G. E. M. Philosophy. Vol. 33, No. 124 (Jan., 1958), pp. 1-19 Retrieved on October 7, 2019 from JSTOR at https://www.jstor.org/stable/3749051?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Austin, M. W. Divine Command. Retrieved on October 7, 2019 from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy at https://www.iep.utm.edu/divine-c/

  • +1. A valuable perspective.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Oct 13, 2019 at 11:17
  • 2
    Jewish thought does not grant foetuses full personhood, so abortion is not considered murder en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… This highlights ambiguities of interpretation about divine commands.
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 28, 2021 at 13:21

I think you hit on an important point. That there is a need, if we're going to understand philosophy, to put in harmony this, our, world, and our speculation on what is right or wrong, with the world that continues to exist just as much without us.

You can see this in discussions on 'moral realism' and in religious meta-ethics.

If you want to work these (why ought I not murder?) things out on your own, I would suggest reading some existential philosophy.


I'm not sure I see the need for an existentially informed ethics, and probably think it should leave ethics the same as it would be, while affirming in the real world the former pole above, the world that is of our making and comportment (the title of this section was just a suggestion that Merleau-Ponty's existential / phenomenological philosophy does a good job with 'realism').

Anyway, maybe morality can be grounded (and I assume you are looking for a ground, because almost everyone thinks murder is wrong) in reasoned argument from shared -- and ideologically sound (from the outside something's gone wrong in societies that are immersed in, say, the practice of human sacrifice) -- positions of free discussion. That might sound like nonsense: but I just mean that humanity might just work it out.


Welcome, mikeymike234.

There is no single thing that makes murder wrong. And murder may not be wrong in the case of people who cause vast evil but I set such cases aside since they are not the ones you are mainly thinking of. At least that's my impression.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Franklin G Miller explain two grounds on which murder is, or might plausibly be considered to be, wrong.

Murder, disrespect and autonomy

Imagine that Abe robs Betty and shoots her in the head so that she will not testify against him if he is caught. As a result, Betty dies. It is clearly immoral for Abe to shoot Betty. Why?

The most general explanation is that Abe harmed Betty - his act resulted in bad effects for Betty. Other explanations are possible, of course. Some theorists might claim that what makes Abe's act wrong is Abe's intention, but the reason why Abe's intention makes his act wrong is that it was an intention to cause harm to Betty, so the wrongness of the intention is still grounded in the badness of the effect that was intended. Other theorists might instead say that Abe violates Betty's rights, but her violated right in this case is a right not to be harmed, so again the bottom line is about harm. Still others might propose that Abe shows disrespect for Betty's autonomy or personhood, but what makes his act disrespectful is that it inflicts a loss of autonomy, and a loss of autonomy is a kind of harm, broadly construed, so what makes killing wrong is still that Abe's act had some harmful or bad effect on Betty.

Nonetheless, it is not enough to say that Abe harmed Betty We still need to know which kinds of effects count as harms. That question is not simple .... Another reason is that, even if the fact that Abe harmed Betty explains why his act was wrong, it does not explain how wrong it was - its degree of wrongness. After all, some harms are minor. To fully explain what was wrong with Abe's act, we need an explanation that captures the full extent of what was wrong with his act.

*Which effect explains that? Abe's act causes at least two effects on Betty One is death - the loss of life.

Murder and total disability

The other effect, which is less often noticed, is total disability. Shooting Betty makes her unable to do anything, including walking, talking, and even thinking and feeling. Since Betty then lacks all abilities to act or do anything, and we are concerned here only with abilities to act or do things, Betty's disability is universal. Of course, anaesthesia can also cause universal disability for a short time. In contrast, the universal disability that Abe's shooting causes is also irreversible. Universal and irreversible disability will be called total disability

Which of these consequences - death or total disability - makes Abe's act of shooting immoral? Two answers are possible. In one view, Abe's act is immoral because this shooting causes death, so it is an act of killing, and killing is immoral unless it is justified, which it is not in this case. In another view, Abe's act is immoral because it causes total disability, so it is an act of total disabling, and total disabling is immoral unless it is justified, which it is not in this case.1 These two views are rarely sepa- rated, because to kill normal people like Betty is to disable them totally Conversely, there was no way to totally disable Betty without killing her prior to the advent of the intensive care units in which the lives of totally disabled people can be sustained by mechanical ventilation and artificial hydration and nutrition along with other techniques. Nonetheless, these views remain distinct, because today Abe can totally disable Betty without killing her. He can shoot her in the head so as to cause irreversible brain damage that makes her unable to walk, talk and even think and feel without also causing her death, because her life can be sustained artificially.


Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Franklin G Miller, 'What makes killing wrong?', Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol. 39, No. 1 (January 2013), pp. 3-7: 3.

R. E. Ewin, 'What Is Wrong with Killing People?', The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), Vol. 22, No. 87 (Apr., 1972), pp. 126-139. This article considers a range of other approaches, including some based on utilitarianism.


The de facto reason is that the law owes its existence to the country, not to the intervention of reason or philosophic deliberations. The country requires "numbers" for its own protection. The country, or in Plato and Aristotle, the polis, is the place where philosophy is first raised, as something that speaks of what is good for any reasonable being, but it happens in the context of the limited interest of a political community or country. The question still rages, as it has for 24 centuries, as to whether reason is the standard, or brute force. Brute force goes with the particularity of bodies, and therefore of particular political communities. What reason is capable to lay down, whether it reaches to the heavens as utopia, or always makes a negotiation with reality, as Sovereignty, is in question.

Theoretically Political Philosophy, the modification of the country and its laws as they now stand, has better claim to being prima philosophia than does Metaphysics, the rule of reason as such.

For reason, in absentia of the considerations of the country, the Socratic doubt concerning the worth of life is, as the question affirms, necessary. Socrates claims Justice improves human beings. If death is better than life putting the deadly Kool-Aid into the hands of the other is Justice.


Murder is inherently wrong for it produces suffering. Humans and all other living beings naturally abstain from suffering. Imagine a person living in complete isolation, with no relatives, no friends, etc. If he/she decides to commit suicide it will not be an immoral action.

  • In the example I gave the murder did, by definition, produce no suffering. The murdered person did not suffer during the murder. And the next day didn't exist and so therefore could not experience suffering. Oct 7, 2019 at 19:40
  • it is difficult to believe that death is really no harm @mikeymike234 and, even if we do, the taking of human life might be against our rights or ideas of justice or vritue
    – user38026
    Oct 8, 2019 at 2:29
  • OP said it well. There is no harm done. If someone is dead they cannot be unhappy or harmed. If you killed me, I would not be angry or sad or hurt. I'd be dead... Why would it be """inherently""" wrong?
    – Tvde1
    Aug 2, 2021 at 12:20

The scenario is wrong for the following reasons:

  1. It presumes that the human person exists for himself/herself alone, which is why it downplays the harm done to family and friends, and to the State, by the murder.

  2. It also assumes a materialistic worldview, and that is why, it believes that the lawyer making away with the money that the intended beneficiary is not aware of, is more harmful than the death of a person. It fails to take into account, the fact that the lawyer has betrayed the wishes of the person who entrusted the task to the lawyer.

  3. It has a relativist worldview, which is why it believes it can take the life of another way, because no harm is caused. It is actually, a rather arrogant worldview, because it takes the view that the potential happiness of the deceased is inconsequential, since the action leading to the deceased's death did not cause harm to the deceased person. It simply does not have any regard to the feelings or the aspirations of the deceased. It arrogates the decision of who lives and who dies to himself, and it is a very arbitrary decision.

  4. It is also presumptuous because it believes that no pain was caused, while we have no way of ascertaining whether indeed, no pain was caused at any point of the events leading to the death of the deceased. And even if no pain was caused, that death may have opened up pandora's box: the deceased could be the sole breadwinner of the family and now that family is potentially thrown into a lifetime of suffering, the deceased may have been on the cusp of a technological or scientific breakthrough, that is stalled and may or may not be completed, particularly if the deceased's notes are not readily accessible, etc.

  5. It forgets that wrong is wrong always, and that the end does not justify the means.

  6. It does not regard the dignity of the human person as inalienable because it believes that there are times when the life can be taken away from the human person for no reason at all.


Perhaps the ends do justify the means? Supposing an individual to take a life in the pursuit of the greater good, would this be wrong morally? Or would the ends end up justifying the means because more benefit than the harm caused to the individual? I believe this was explored by Dostoevsky, albeit with a different conclusion.

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