On good and bad murder in a non-moral sense

Let’s name names and flush out a distinction that everyone seems to work from anyway: there’s good and bad murder. By “murder” I mean the familiar definition of killing the innocent, where the relevant sense of innocence belongs to all individuals not personally guilty of life-threatening acts. The definitions can be tightened up, but the sense just specified remains.

Bad murder is the familiar sort – it’s the one the TV news calls murder, that drives courtroom dramas and detective stories, and that gets committed by gang members, jealous redneck husbands, and the occasional preppy socialite. This is the sort of murder that shocks and horrifies, leads to the call for tougher laws, and leaves us wringing our hands over the terrible callousness of all those other people.

Good murder is, well, you can hear Leon Panetta confess to a paradigm case here:

I was tempted to have the link start at the actual good murder, whose victims are first introduced at 2:04, but a crucial part of good murder is its context. One can’t just start with a description of the act, the one who commits the act has to have his name introduced, have his struggles laid bare, and have all of his difficult moral problems put center stage so as to make us understand why he just had to kill some nameless person(s).

I honestly can’t tell if I’m being ironic in writing all this. I suppose I can virtue-signal and tell you that I think good murder is morally wrong, but I can’t experience outrage over it and I don’t think that I would demand Panetta or his accomplices in the White House should be treated as a murderers, except in a world so counterfactual that it need not be considered in a moral debate. The reason I would spare them prison is not because they lack moral agency (except in the sense that their conscience is deeply perverse) but because the criminalization of murder seems to have limits that keeps it from being able to capture all murders. Everyone is familiar with this sort of thing in the criminalization of lust:

Human government comes from Divine government, and should imitate it. Now even though God is omnipotent and supremely good, he allows some evils to take place in wold he might prevent, since without them greater goods are forfeited, or greater evils ensue. So human government also and those in authority rightly tolerate certain evils, so that certain goods be lost or certain greater evils be incurred: thus Augustine says (De Ordine Book 2, c. 4): “If you do away with prostitutes, the world will be convulsed with lust.

For most readers of this blog the most familiar case of good murder is abortion. Even when it is criminalized it is not punished like bad murder and it’s hard to see how it ever could be. We love our mothers with much the same fervor that we love our nation and so we can’t help but excuse them for killing nameless, faceless threats to their security. Occasional attempts will be made to positively justify such killing, or even – God help us – to celebrate it, but for the most part we are content to treat it as a difficult choice that we had no choice but to make.


  1. robalspaugh said,

    August 21, 2016 at 2:13 pm

    I don’t want to try to double-effect my way out of this one, being sympathetic to what you are going for here. But if Panetta legitimately wields the sword as an agent of the state, so that we have an execution compounded by several “good murders” as you call them, then it seems to me we can run the exact same Augustinian argument in the opposite direction. Sometimes the executor of justice should not carry out the just sentence, precisely because of the attendant harms to society/others/the common good. So judges like Panetta must be willing to let bad guys get away sometimes, because “if you do away with all bad guys, the world will be convulsed with widows and orphans.”

    It also seems to me, just an observation really, that you could use Augustine’s approach to defend the idea of “safe, legal, rare.” If that were actually a real goal of any real life politician, of course.

  2. Zippy said,

    August 21, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    To pick up on one point, the (self or other) accusation of ‘virtue signaling’ looks to me like a mechanism to shut down reason when we don’t want to go where it leads. But the time when we ought to do our best and most thorough reasoning is exactly when we are not personally faced with a tough choice, because then when we are faced with tough choices we have our prior dispassion – and the requirements of the positive law – upon which to rely.

    Armchair moralizing is more dispassionate, by definition, than heat of the moment rationalization. Decision makers deserve the support of absolute moral boundaries when circumstances are tough. It is no mercy to weaken a man’s resolve exactly when it is precisely his resolve that he needs most in order to avoid doing evil. (We are stipulating that the ‘good murderer’ is doing evil, right?)

  3. Zippy said,

    August 21, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    We Catholics used to understand that imperfect contrition — fear of punishment — is a crucial support in helping people to avoid doing evil. But in the age of all ‘mercy’ all the time and ignorance as the eighth sacrament we have lost our knowledge of this basic reality: that the presence of sure punishment is as much about helping potential perpetrators make the right choice as it us about justice after the fact.

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