Philosophy Bites? (Killing in War)

I regularly listen to the podcast Philosophy Bites presented by Nigel Warburton. In each episode, a new and interesting topic is raised with a guest philosopher (someone always of note) who has about ten minutes to present their view. I have not written about it before, but this is not because it has not stirred me. On the contrary, I often have to stop myself exclaiming aloud in disagreement with some of the guests, for I have long felt that Nigel goes “too easy” on them. Indeed sometimes his questions are more the gentle nudge of a teacher than the interlocutor’s retort. Something only asked to tease out the argument a little more.

This reminds me of my old philosophy professor, who would often fence with me on a subject by gently passing me back questions to naturally draw out my thoughts into a more coherent (ha!) mode of expression.

Clearly with no great success.

The fencing analogy is apt here, as this is exactly how fencing is taught: gently. The Maestro leads the pupil through a slow and safe sequence and at the moment of commitment points out, by gently prodding them, that they have overreached and should have covered quarte instead. However, I prefer being taught in the vein of the martial arts. In karate, any point of view is thrown mercilessly into the crucible of combat and tested to destruction. If it is right, then it works. There is no gentleness and no kindness. Only something that stands and something that falls. It is true that when you over-reach you are battered, but at least you learned something and your master has shown you some honesty.

Honesty is always refreshing. As John Lennon said, “Just give me the truth.”

So, while Nigel might want to consider renaming the podcast to “Philosophy Nibbles”, apart from that, it is by far one of the most intelligent and thought provoking downloads available anywhere on the web and one of the reasons I fell in love with podcasts in the first place (the other was MOG Army, which has unfortunately pod-faded).

So, what of it?

I am going to start writing some opinion on these podcasts, posting it here, and inviting a more stimulating debate that is possible in the show’s current format.

We will start with this episode, “Jeff McMahan on Killing in War,” from Sat, 21 November 2009.

When is it right to kill?

Often, when this question is raised, it is answered only in a negative sense. That is, “When isn’t it right to kill?” While this is a valid tactic in any argument, it does not cover the crux of the matter, mainly because the arguments put forward focus on the matter in hindsight. As in, “When wasn’t it right to have killed?” Such answers are always going to be easier to formulate because one can immediately refer to examples common between the members of the debate. People will use the Second World War, the Falklands Conflict and the Iraq Wars to draw lines in the sand that fit their point of view, with the benefit that the outcome of those conflicts is already settled.

Therefore, when discussing “necessary defence” and “righteous conflict,” they will refer to WWII. When talking about “empires rattling their sabres,” out will come the Falklands. When talking about “immoral” and possibly “illegal invasions,” they will mention the Bush years and the Iraq War.

Convenient. Very convenient to restrict yourself to judging decisions after the fact. Philosophy is not a justification of something that has passed; it is also necessarily a framework for going forwards. This, of course, runs the risk of being prophesy and therefore an argument that cannot be immediately proved (an anathema to most modern moralists), but it grasps the truth of the matter. It is actually saying something on the subject.

I want to depart from the larger pictures representing the mired discussion of international relations for a moment (we will come back to it – as it forms the conclusion of the argument I am going to advance), to discuss killing on a much more individual and personal level. For while we may, and often do, ascribe individual concepts (concepts designed for individuals and their actions) to larger concepts (concepts such as ‘a nation’), we are stretching outside our terms. I believe it is a mistake to start talking about a “nation’s will.” National will is fractious, and necessarily so in a democracy. Trying to claim there is such a thing existing for more than a short moment in history is anthropomorphising unnecessarily and incorrectly. Conclusive national will is not really like fish swimming all together, but rather like marbles falling down a stairs; gravity draws them in the same direction; it is directed chaos. Armies, nations and states do not have a moral consciousness, generals; soldiers; combatants do.

I believe that when it comes down to it, right down to it, killing is between people not peoples. It is individual direct action. Killing is in a human pushing buttons, a human pulling a trigger and – tragically often – a human coming Mano-a-mano with the enemy.

So, before discussing right actions in wars, and the possible justification of some of the actions we see around us, lets us consider an individual’s rights.

Of all the rights we enshrine in laws, morals and philosophies, the one that matters the most is the right to life. Every human was born with the right to live. What does that mean? It means the right to be. It seems almost too simple, since we are regularly surrounded with people being (and we are being ourselves) that we forget what it really means. It means, simply, that your life belongs to you. It is yours. It is the one thing that truly is yours. It is the last thing you would give away and usually the first thing you would save. It is short, perilous, exciting and yet sometimes incredibly boring.

It is all you really own.

You therefore have another right, the right to defend it. Nothing that anyone can do will take this away from you. But, what does this mean? If you have the right to defend yourself, can this right get cancelled?

No, it can never be cancelled.

You can fight until your last breath if you wish. You can be dragged to the gallows, to the opera, to the hospital. No one can take this right away. Rights cannot be cancelled.

Of course, a right needs something else. It needs the power to exercise it. Through exercising your fundamental rights you realise your ability to be free to a greater or lesser extent. Of course, this extent is always going to depend on the situation you find yourself in.

So, while a prisoner on the gallows may have lost the ability to exercise his right to life, he has not actually lost the right. He will, most probably in a moment, lose his life, but he never at any time lost his right to it. He cannot. A society may judge him and say, “We will take your life,” but there is never a point that he loses the right to try to defend it. That is why execution is a terrible thing, sometimes necessary, sometimes the least cruel option, but always something that pricks with guilt.

This may sound pedantic, but I am leading somewhere. So, let us put this another way. Let us start a little further back. A tiger stalks a boar in the fields of India. The tiger draws near. Near enough that the boar is about to die. She leaps. The boar is taken in the neck and in a moment of chaos his throat is crushed. Death follows this killing.

That is just nature we say. The tiger did not take the boar’s right to life away, she just killed him. The boar, if he could have, would have defended himself or run away to preserve and defend his right to life. On the other hand, the tiger also has a right to life. She has a need to eat to preserve it. She has cubs to feed. At no point does the rights of either get taken away, they only get expressed.

That’s nature sure enough. It is called by one group, “The survival of the fittest,” and by another, “The will of God.” Regardless, it is nature. A cycle repeated all the way back in the distant history of time. Since the first single cell organism ate the one next to it, it has been nature. That single cell organism took the other organism’s energy for itself. It took it away as a competitor for other food, for space and perhaps for a mate. By surviving, it preserved its life. This was not an immoral action, only an expression. The tiger is in the same situation. The boar is food – energy is in the form of other living things – and the tiger needs this energy to survive. The boar on the other hand is not gifted a moral high ground for being attacked and killed. It has been unable to express its right to life. If it could somehow turn the tables on the tiger and fight her off, even perhaps kill her, then he would not be expressing a moral victory. He would be expressing his right to defend his life, and expressing it well.

The tiger is not better than the boar.

The boar is not better than the tiger.

It is a simple matter of capability, the movement of energy, the weight of power. The expression of rights.

The animals are free.

The human is only an animal.

One of the greatest mistakes mankind makes is the thinking of themselves as separate from the animals in the world. It is a mistake as we are not that special. The reasons that we do this are not that special either. Tigers probably consider themselves better than boars and boars surely are better, they must grunt to each other, than those bloody tigers!

It is a matter of skewed perspective.

Perspective that is also not special to humans. There is a type of bird in Iran that lives in a recognisable “family”. They share the food, share the preening, fall asleep on each other, take turns standing guard, scare off snakes and such. To see such activity in birds, an animal we do not normally anthropomorphise, is to see ourselves in an unusual other. I am always amazed at humanity’s judgement in this regard. I often meet people who state that there are, “Humans and then animals like elephants, oh, and of course, the fish in the sea and the birds – don’t forget the birds.”

I used to think this attitude was one of ignorance. A simple misunderstanding that the term “animal” means fish, birds and mammals such as humans and elephants. An ignorance of our place in the tree of life. But, it isn’t. It is something else. It is the placing of our minds, our consciousness, and our view of the world above that of the other life on the planet. We have achieved this distinction, this pedestal’ing, through one thing only: the expression of power. We think this because we have the power to do so.

Power, in this sense, is expressed in every way we can measure it, we convince ourselves it is true. Intelligence and the ability to kill with impunity for two. We tell ourselves that it is only natural, and it is, to kill to eat. Even vegetarians kill something that lives; it is the essential nature of life on Earth. What is wrong, what blinds us, is our made up justifications.

Our made up morality.

We do it with more than the “dumb beasts” outside in the world. We do it with each other too. The vast majority of humans are suffering from a terrible skewing of perspective. Their own. Their own life is somehow more important that anyone else’s. This leads to the most amazing level of self-serving justification for many things. The human mind naturally, it seems, manages to smooth over their own mistakes and horrible actions, sweeping them under the carpet, while all the time taking great pains in pointing out each other’s. Therefore, we tell ourselves that we are not ‘rude’, only ‘outspoken’. When someone tells you what he or she would do in their place, “Oh, I would have just smacked him” they say gruffly, with the scowl of fantasying visualisation, as though they actually did do that, they are actually simply confirming their own view of their place in the world. It is a kind of “king of the hill” moment probably common to all animals.

All life has some level of societal structure. It is, in the very least, the method that they have to reproduce.

When there are 6 billion of you, this is naturally a mesh of complex relationships floating one atop another. How you talk to your wife, your boss, your friends. How you treat strangers, old people and different people. All these layers mesh into how others see you and, in being in one place or another within the mesh, how your mind sees itself.

Tigers do this too. Just at simpler level.

Therefore, if all life acts in this way, if it is a commonality to see yourself as special, it becomes – like in a top-heavy fraction – something you can cancel out of the final reduction. This leads to the truth. Refreshing, but cold.

Your life has no more meaning as anyone else’s. Your right to defend yourself is exactly the same as someone else’s.

If that is the case, then the morality (that natural-perspective-judgement on the situation) cannot and should not enter into the decision you find yourself faced with.

And so here we are. We have swum, albeit briefly, down into the water of the pool and touched the bottom, only to now turn and reach back for the surface and another breath. Sometime soon, a full and slow dive will be needed, so that we may explore this strange underwater world in more depth. Consider this a quick pre-se.

Take a so called, “moral dilemma” of two soldiers shooting at each other. They are both in a fight to defend their life; they both have an equal right to survive. Just because one shoots first, because one has the drop on the other or because one flanks and has an easy kill, matters not one jot. The same as for the tiger. Both have the right to defend themselves and both are expressing that right. Just because one has the power to express that right more effectively than another is irrelevant.

Now, let us not jump ahead here to my conclusion, because perhaps it is not as you imagine from the above. For while, this may sound like I am expressing the ancient creed of, “might makes moral right,” if you think about it, I am not. I may not like the truth of this argument, but that doesn’t mean I should not face it, or I fall into the trap that it highlights. So, I am actually saying that there is no “moral right.” There is only an animal’s right to its life and its ability to express that right. A tiger is not morally right. It is just capable. Reality is without morals. Reality is natural.

If you accept that the tiger is not “wrong” for hunting the boar, if you realise that all living things takes energy from other creatures, if you realise that we delude ourselves when we raise humanity above the other life of this planet, then this argument naturally follows.

“Morality,” is our limited invention, this we already know, and we waste a lot of time scrabbling around trying to universalise this. What is now hopefully clearer is that morality is necessarily an illusion. A framework based on a selfish perspective on the world, a misunderstanding of our place on the planet, in the Universe(s).

Someone might now say to me, “But what of that ‘right,’ you mentioned? The right to life. Is that not the basis for a morality? The keystone upon which it all rests?”

Well, no. It is not. As I said, rights mean little without the power to express them. The right to life and the right to defend your life are clearly not things that prevent nature affecting you. You may, almost certainly will, one day become ill enough to threaten your life. Does that make the virus killing you “wrong?” Our moral judgements predicate that we put ourselves on a pedestal that blinds us to the reality we find ourselves in.

What does this mean for morality?

It leads to a simple truth, that is: “morally right” does not exist. Actions cannot be correctly and objectively judged under the frameworks we have built ourselves, because the complications, the un-weaving of the web of morality, is impossible and eventually limited to our own selfish perspectives.

Here is an everyday practical example. Today, 16th December 2009, the workers of British Airways announced that they were going on strike for the 12 days over Christmas. From the point of view of the news media, my mother and almost anyone outside this strike, this is a reprehensible action of moral outrage. Think of all the people, “whose Christmas is going to be ruined” is what we are urged to do. However, for the staff of BA who are going on strike, some sort of behaviour, some sort of management ‘evil’ has led to such a situation that they must strike to stop it. To them, they are doing the right thing. It is a morally right action to strike.

How can one unravel this situation and judge moral rights? Are the strikers right? Is the news media right? What about those affected by the strike? Are they morally right to complain? They will miss Christmas, what if one of them is going to the sick bed of a dying relative? Does that make the strike wrong? What if one of them is going to the sick bed of a recovering relative that they plan to murder? Does that make the strike right?

This maze, this puzzle with no answer, is the essential dilemma that cannot be unravelled ahead of time. A group of expert Philosophers might be try to unravel it and after years pronounce that yes, or no, the strike was morally right or wrong, but what would be the point? Not only will have the strike passed, but clearly no one could have decided the correct action ahead of time. If morals can only look back, then they lose much of their worth.


Because, they rely on the illusion of perspective. Who is to judge? Who is impartial? No one.

There is no real “moral right” or “moral wrong” and certainly the attempt to judge as such using the common framework is fruitless. Countries that try to make moral decisions before attacking do so only in terms of their own perspectives. For example, take America. They are not interested in anyone else’s perspective in the slightest. Any attempt to arrive at a judgement outside the self-serving American one is met with incredible violence. That is why America lets no soldier face trial in the International Court. That is why America has passed a law legalising (to themselves) the potential invasion of Holland.

That is the height of illusion. The attempt to force your perspective onto the world through the strength of your country. Eventually it will necessarily fail. It cannot do anything else.

So, lets us take war.

War is neither right nor wrong. It is tragic, spiteful, unnecessary and – from the moral perspective of those attacked – “wrong.” It is however, not actually “morally wrong” since such a judgement is impossible to decode from the web that surrounds any action, let alone a country’s actions, or a President’s actions.

We can make up some rules, but then so can anyone. We can moralise, but we can only do this within the framework of the community we live in, and in the well of self-centred illusion we all wallow in.

What can be done?

That is a much more difficult question. I am a Daoist. My perspective is that of Daoism. Therefore, my answer is going to be one expressing Daoist values. To the Daoist, one should always live in tune with nature. Expressions made naturally and peacefully. Not beat oneself up about moral rights and wrongs and simply allow all to be. However, as a philosopher, I can use the tools and skills taught to me. But, I must recognise the futility of this. My tools are those of my society passed to me. My training is based in a Western model of understanding, stretching back all the way to Plato. I must sublime these two parts of myself.

To find an answer that is correct we must face the facts. It is the whole framework that is wrong. Our natural-perspective-judgement had built a collection of self-serving, selfish, cruel, and deluded societies based on a simple false predicate; morality can be judged. Well, I am sorry, it can’t.

This is also a moment of pause, for I am also not suggesting that the Hippies had it right either. I am not particularly a pacifist. I am a, if I may borrow a phrase, a “naturalist”.

For me, the answer is this: life is not about goals and wants. Life is not about desire. By stripping away the illusion surrounding us, we can realise a connection with life and nature that naturally leads to peace. Desire for things, for objects, for control, for domination, is a waste of everyone’s time and effort. A waste of life. Desire for stuff, for iPhones, Playstations, houses, for “owning”, is wasted life.

I spoke to someone the other day, who was unhappy about their life, and wishing it was more like so-and-so’s. “Why should they have all that? Why can’t I have some of that life, they are so lucky.” Really? I know the other party well. They are no happier than the first. No morally better off. No personally richer. They just have more “stuff”. This is not the path to happiness. This is not the path to peace. Peace comes from a realisation of reality, a realisation that leads to “letting go of grasping”, to contentment. In a society built upon the need for “stuff”, for consumption, for capitalism, one can never reach a level of peace. The society will always want more, the individual will always be unhappily grasping.

In a way the capitalist society already knows this. Consuming is life to most. The country is setup to drive this consumerism in a feedback mechanism that is considered the drive to growth. The idea is that this mechanism (called, “The Market”) is the natural order. It is really a way of growing wild and dangerous. Like the marbles bouncing down the stairs, we are unable to stop the momentum of this mechanism (after all I am writing this on the train to work!). Where does it lead? If wanting things is a way of existing – if it can be called that – It is actually a way to frustration, to desire driving action.

It leads to destruction.

Destruction of the people, the planet and the person. This is commonly expressed as war. For what is war than simply one nation trying to take the “stuff” of another? Sure, all sorts of excuses are made up for this, usually the argument of acting in self defence. An argument that tries to claim the “country” involved is only expressing the “right” I mentioned at the beginning of this article. But, as I also mentioned, countries don’t have rights. Only living things do. Countries, as we know them, are made up of people all lost in the two illusions, those of desire and the excuses of natural-perspective-judgements to explain those desires. To call them morals.

We say that life is like a journey, with a reward waiting at the end. But, really, life is like a dance, and one you will only dance once.

So, having – as my friend would say – “rooting around in the mud”, we come to the end. In the end the conclusion is one of practical advice ahead of the fact, advice most cannot give from the truth I expounded at the beginning, only from a huge framework of “moral laws”.

Here it is:

For the general expressing his countries “will”, the action cannot be judged to be wrong. Nor can it be judged to be right. Invading one city, bypassing another, killing in the name of, is what it is. It is a heck of a lot of dead people.

Remember that.

For the pilot pressing his bombing button, the tank commander ordering, “fire!” and the missileer targeting a city, you are not immoral, but neither are you moral. Don’t believe such a thing is necessary, it is not. No one can tell you that it is the “right” thing to do.

Act on your own conscience.

For the soldier trapped in the web of those who live in illusion about the nature of life (including himself), if he has the ability to express his right to life, then he is never wrong. Killing in war is not wrong. But, neither is it right. There is no moral right and wrong. Only the chaos of life, the disorder of perspective and the illusion of desires. Defending one’s right to life is never wrong, in the sense that this is not a waste of life to do so. While you can decide to sacrifice yourself, realise, understand, you are neither right nor wrong.

You are only dancing.


Agree? Disagree?  Then step up to the plate my friend and join the debate! You can leave a comment here or email me through the form at the top.


About the Author:

Bio: Philosopher, film maker, writer and IT expert. Occupation: IT Consultant, film-maker and writer. Interests: Debate, cooking, computer-gaming, reading, writing, videoing, martial arts, air­soft, movies, diving, skiing… (The list goes on — Basho is a philosopher and therefore into everything!)