Practical Philosophy Webinar: Lars Christie (UiO)

Lars Christie (Innland Norway University of Applied Sciences)

"In defense of mistaken killers"

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Sometimes people kill others through innocent mistakes. Consider a person who unknowingly catches a deadly virus and passes it to another, causing the death of that person. Or a competent fire truck driver who veers off the road due to an oil spill, killing a pedestrian. Consider finally a police officer or a soldier who kills an apparent attacker they are justified in believing are about to kill an innocent person. 

Is there a moral difference between innocent killers like these? Several authors have attempted to draw a distinction between the unknowingly infectious person and the fire driver on the one hand, and the police and soldier who engage in mistaken other-defense on the other. According to this view, there is a moral symmetry between innocent killers of the first sort and their victims, while a moral asymmetry (to the victim’s advantage) holds between those who kill others in mistaken other-defence and their victims 

In my paper, I dispute this distinction. I argue that both types of innocent killings belong to a category of Unavoidable Mistakes. I compare the harm inflicted through Unavoidable Mistakes with collateral harm. It is widely considered that foreseeably harming innocents as part of a military attack is permissible, if it is necessary and proportionate to the moral value of the military attack.  I argue that we ought to think about Unavoidable Mistakes in the same manner. Insofar as such mistakes form an unavoidable part of a type of action that is overall morally justified (driving of fire-trucks, engaging in self-defence), we ought to evaluate such mistakes the same way as we evaluate collateral harm.  

If my view is right, there is a moral symmetry between just soldiers and those unjust soldiers who are innocent in believing that they are fighting for a just cause. The upshot of this is that wars are harder to justify than what international law and the majority of current just war theorists would have us believe.


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Published Aug. 25, 2020 1:40 PM - Last modified Nov. 9, 2020 9:02 AM