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Can you imagine taking another life? Hopefully, the answer is ‘No,’ outside of a very well-defined list of circumstances. In this lesson, we will examine some of those circumstances as well as how society perceives them.

Taking a Human Life

For the overwhelming majority of us, the idea of taking another life is pretty hard to wrap our brains around. Sure, some video games may let us lay waste to waves upon waves of invaders, but those are just pixels. If you take the time to really think about taking a life and all that comes with it, it’s clear that it is not something that is taken lightly.

If you’re a person of faith, you probably have very determined thoughts about what comes after death, but if you’re contemplating taking a life, chances are you don’t feel that your target shares that same outcome. That’s to say nothing about your own belief’s viewpoint on your killing of another person. Still, society has differing views on when it is acceptable to end another life.

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Preventing Further Harm

At some level, soldiers are essentially paid to take lives, if necessary. However, we would loathe to say that even the most hardened members of Seal Team Six, the group that killed terrorist Osama Bin Laden, were paid to kill.

No, instead, we say that they protect us. In other words, they prevent further harm. To that end, they are successful.Few would argue that Osama Bin Laden would have stopped attempting to kill other people had he not been killed. In fact, most experts agree that his death resulted in fractures in Al Qaeda that have limited its ability to kill other people.

In the United States, police carry weapons in hopes that they will never have to use them. Even in the United Kingdom, where most police don’t carry guns, special teams exist that carry high-powered weapons with orders to take out people who are able to kill others. As a result, it’s pretty clear that our society condones killing to prevent further harm.

Punitive Life Taking

The question to disable and, if need be, to kill an active shooter at risk of harming more people is one that is relatively easy for society to make. However, a much more hotly-debated question is how to handle such an individual once he has been captured, tried, and found guilty. In the United States, many states would choose to use capital punishment, essentially killing the individual as punishment. Other states do not use this practice.

As you’d imagine, this is a very hotly-debated topic. Today, it is largely limited only to cases of murder with an aggravating factor, like torture or rape.However, throughout history, such punitive life taking has not only been used for murder but also for various other crimes. Some kings of Medieval England would hang people who hunted in royal forests. The idea was that the punishment was a deterrent itself.

Few for Many

Not all decisions to kill are taken at such a governmental level. A classic example among philosophy students measures whether it is better to save one life or five. The example allows the questioned person to save five lives, but he has to shove someone else into certain death.

If that person is not shoved, the other five will die, but the questioned person’s hands are, to some extent, clean of all involvement.Such a question is relatively easy for people who identify as utilitarians, meaning that they place equal value on each human life. However, it is next to impossible to find a true utilitarian. What if the person who had to be shoved was your child? Or what if the people to be saved were the group of bullies who picked on you throughout high school? Could you be expected to make the best decision, whatever that may be?

Malicious Life Taking

While there is a great deal of gray area with choosing to save the few or the many, there is much less when it comes to malicious life taking. By this phrase, I mean any sort of action that results in the intentional death of someone.

With very few exceptions, our society finds murder to be abhorrent. In fact, it’s hard to think of examples that don’t fall under cases of preventing further harm. Perhaps to some cases of temporary insanity such as finding a spouse with a lover, could justify murder, but it is far from agreed upon.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, we look at cases in which an individual intentionally takes a life as well as how society views those instances. Starting with preventing further harm, we see how many condone this life-taking, whether it is as a soldier or a police officer. Meanwhile, the punitive killing of an individual is hotly debated, as evidenced by the fervor in efforts to expand or contract capital punishment.

The choice of killing the few or the many remains theoretically easy, but is hard when other bonds are introduced. Finally, malicious life taking is largely inexcusable to society.

Vocabulary & Definitions

right or wrong?

Prevent further harm: To prevent further harm in the lesson means to protect society from future attacks from groups such as terrorist organizations.Capital punishment: Capital punishment is the taking of a life as legal punishment for a heinous crime.Utilitarians: Utilitarians are people who believe the right thing to do is the one that produces the most good and that each human life has equal value.Malicious life taking: Malicious life taking is the intentional killing of someone.

Lesson Outcomes

After viewing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • List examples of life-taking that are condoned by many
  • Define capital punishment

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