Killing, in peace and war

Killing a fellow human is among the worst crimes and unethical acts that any of us can commit.

Except in war time?

When there is a war when we are led to believe that killing becomes not only acceptable, but even commendable. Why? Because that's how it's always been?

Or because we trust our governments to make that decision for us? Surely people have very little trust in their politicians; why would they (we) trust them to decide for us when killing is justifiable?

This page written 2016/04/27, last edited 2021/01/15
Contact: David K Clarke – ©

The question of when it is acceptable to kill another person, in everyday life or in war, is one that seems to receive very little thought or discussion in modern society.

George Bush the younger, with encouragement and help from Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain and John Howard of Australia and no justification, invaded Iraq in 2003. The war resulted in millions of refugees and hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Acknowledgement: Russmo
In the early twenty-first century in most nations to kill a fellow human is a crime; even when that person wants to die. On this page I will discus only those situations when there is a true victim, when the person being killed does not want to die. In war time most people accept that killing 'the enemy' is acceptable and even something that soldiers should try their best to do. How can this dichotomy in standards be ethically justified?

Should we just trust our governments when they tell us that, while killing is a terrible thing in peace time, it is good in war time? On matters other than killing do we normally trust our governments to tell us what is right and wrong? There are laws that are set down by our governments and which we generally have to abide by; although how many of us could say that we never choose to break the law once in a while – when we consider the particular law to be a foolish law, or to be wrong in a particular case; perhaps something like a temporary road speed restriction in a place or at a time when there is obviously no need for it; or perhaps allowing our dog to run around without a lead in an area where the law says that dogs must be on a lead?

And then there are things that most of us would consider to be wrong, even when they are not against any law; being unnecessarily rude to other people for example, or walking in front of someone who is taking a photo or admiring a painting, or unnecessarily getting in the way of other people on a busy footpath.

So, in every day life most of us make make many decisions based on ethics rather than law. Is the decision of whether and when it is acceptable to kill another person just to be left to governments to decide, even when they give us what are totally conflicting rules in peace and war?

To complicate the situation further we must take into account whether the particular war is 'a just war'; most people would think that the wars against Germany and Japan from 1939 to 1945 were justified while the 2003 invasion of Iraq by nations lead by the USA, Britain and Australia was not. Is killing in an unjust war unethical even if killing in a just war is ethical?

Apart from government, who would we trust to tell us when it is acceptable to kill another person?

Perhaps some of those of us who are very religious would trust our religious leader(s) to tell us; for example a very few Muslims seem to accept that their imam can tell them it is right to kill some people. But it seems that very few of us would take our religions so far and be so trusting of our religious leaders to kill when told to.

I can't think of any person or group of people who I would trust enough to believe them if they told me that I should kill somebody else, can you?

Some people come under the influence of some other very persuasive person at times, see Robert Hendy-Freegard. Perhaps our willingness to trust our governments to tell us when it is right to kill, while we don't trust them in much else is a similar sort of gullibility?