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What if I got up in front of a room and announced that “killing fellow human beings is murder!” How might you respond?

If your answer is anything other than, “well, that depends,” think about what your response is and why.

Might not your reaction depend largely on what you perceive is the context of my statement? What might be that context of my statement? Depending on the venue and situation when I’ve made that pronouncement, it might be fairly obvious. In other cases, you might try to read between the lines of my statement based on what else you know about me, particularly from a political standpoint.

Am I talking about abortion? Is it an anti-war statement? Perhaps I’m trying to make a point about wrongful death accusations in cases of corporate malfeasance. Maybe it’s a statement about poverty and the moral obligations of the “haves” relative to the “have nots.” If you reacted either positively or negatively to my original statement, can you say which one of these (or some other) political context you took my statement to reference?

Let’s assume for the moment that you disagree with my underlying political point. Assume also that your reaction wasn’t an immediate counter-attack. In this case, your response might be measured and reasoned. You could attempt to disagree with such a statement on a technical level. “Yes,” you might respond, “sometimes killing is murder, but sometimes it is not.” You might dwell on a legal definition of murder, restricting it to a “first degree” or “second degree” murder as defined in law and, therefore, exempt situations such as “manslaughter” or “negligent homicide.” Perhaps you brought up the justification of self-defense. Or maybe you were thinking about a person in service to the a government in an official capacity; a soldier or a cop. A killing as a result of the following of a lawful order would generally not be described as “murder,” unless one is trying to score some political points.

Perhaps you did agree with me. Perhaps you said, “yes! It is about time that people valued every human life and didn’t excuse an avoidable death just because [fill in the blank].” If you did, that doesn’t mean that you were unaware of the exceptions that I outlined in the previous paragraph. You simply didn’t see me as making a “legal” argument. Of course I may be overstating or overgeneralizing, but sometimes we do that to make a point. We hope that the clarity of our oversimplification jars a listener into thinking about something in a new way.

On the other hand, perhaps you agree with me and thought that I was making a moral and ethical point that, while not very widely held, you happen to agree with. If we are pacifists, through religion or philosophy, we may be stating a tenet of our moral code. For some, killing is NEVER justified nor justifiable. Why? Because we believe that killing people is ALWAYS murder.

Could my statement perhaps, just perhaps, not be within a political context? Maybe not in 2019, but imagine ourselves in another time. Possible?

If so, now imagine that neither of us are pacifists, but we’re going to discuss the moral and ethical implications of this pacifist ideal. By saying “killing is murder” I really mean to say that “killing is bad.” By using the word “murder”, I’m attempting to drive home the point in a way that the word “bad” just doesn’t do it. When a killing is wrong, when it is unjustifiable, when it is the killing of an innocent with bad intentions, we find it not just bad but abhorrent. Our society will go to great lengths to hunt down and punish a “murderer.” So why do we sometimes seem to ignore our own rules? Is the loss of human life ever OK? Is it ever something that we should just ignore as inconsequential?

In other words, do you want to be put in a position, when arguing that the killing of another human being is not “murder,” that you have to justify a lack of value in that lost human life. Probably not. When you believe the killing of another human being is “justified,” helps in your acceptance of that position that the language used to describe it is different. “Murder” would be off the table.” So might even be softer terms like “kill.” If we describe something as “the use of deadly force,” we don’t even have to mention (or hardly think about) the person who was made dead. However, if the word “murder” is on the table, in defending why it is justified, you have to be that much more secure in your position, don’t you?

Suppose, once more, that after all this discussion, we decided to write a joint essay for the papers about how “Killing People is Murder.” While acknowledging the subtleties of the argument, we make the point that life has to be valued to the greatest extent possible and, only in doing so, can we make the right choices when life and death are on the line. Immediately we are now attacked. “How can you saying ‘murder’ when your freedom is paid for with the lives of soldiers and their actions in wars on your behalf? How can you live in your house or apartment, knowing its security is guaranteed by the forces of law and order that have occasionally killed a criminal in the course of stopping his crime? How can you be such hypocrites?”

But is it really hypocritical to have discussions about a topic that is neither black nor white, but various shades of gray? Can we sometimes accept a murder as necessary and justified? Might we even, occasionally, cheer on such a murder when it means a terrorist is stopped or a home invasion thwarted? Or does our mere use of the word “murder” remove our moral authority to participate in that larger discussion?

Now.

What if I got up in front of a room and announced that “taxation is theft!” How might you respond?