Friday, May 14, 2010

Elizabeth Anscombe on Murder

What is murder? How should we define the word?

Elizabeth Anscombe argues that the central idea of murder is the "unjust killing of humans" (see p. 8 of her work Ethics, Religion and politics). Murder is thus not simply a legal concept. For instance, think about the horrific acts that were committed during the Nazi regime. Whether there was a written law against the Holocaust or not, one could still rightly contend that Hitler and his forces murdered other human beings on a grand scale. Anscombe points out that if we restrict "murder" to a legal concept, we will end up committing the error of Thrasymachus, namely, legal positivism.


Alexander R Pruss said...

Not every "unjust killing of humans" is a murder. Suppose I make a vow not to kill in personal self-defense. (Presumably such a vow is permissible as a witness to the love of the Lamb.) And then someone threatens my life and I kill him in self-defense. Justice towards God required me to keep my vows, so the killing was unjust. However, the killing wasn't a murder, but a vow-breaking.

(By the way, this is a really neat blog.)

Anscombe's basic point, of course, remains: murder is a moral, not a legal, thing.

Edgar Foster said...

Dear Alex,

I hope you don't mind if I address you in that way. Please let me know if you don't like to have your name shortened in that way.

First, let me say that it is a pleasure to have you offer some remarks on one of my blog posts. And thanks for your kind words about my blog. I also enjoying reading your thoughts on Prosblogion and at your own blog.

It has been some years since I read Anscombe's book and took down some notes from it. I notice that I do not give her definition of murder, but rather say that the "central idea" of murder is the "unjust killing of humans."

Now, I hope that I have represented Anscombe properly since she defines murder as "the deliberate killing of the innocent, whether for its own sake or as a means to some further end."

Therefore, she appends the notion of intent to her definition for murder. As you know, other state legal codes define the term in a similar way. I understand what you're saying about a promise to God, which raises even more questions, but what do you think about Anscombe's precise definition for "murder"?