Yesterday’s discussion about the context of Sam Harris’ statement leads to the question, “What is the relationship between belief and justified killing?”
Imagine that you are taking care of your neighbor’s four young children while she goes to a counseling session with her pastor. After her session, she shows up at your house with a shotgun. She is obviously upset and confesses that she must kill her children. She tells you that Satan is out to get them, and the only way to protect them from this unspeakable evil is to put them in the hands of a more powerful protector – God. The only way to do that is to kill them and send them to heaven.
She also says that she will kill anybody who gets in her way.
Would it be permissible for you to kill this woman if it is the only way to prevent her from killing you and the children?
The answer is clearly, “Yes.”
Why is it permissible to kill her?
Ultimately, because she intends to kill (murder) four innocent people (five, if you try to stop her).
Why does she intend to kill the children?
Because (1) she loves them and wishes to protect them, (2) she believes they are in danger, (3) she believes that only God can protect them, and (4) she believes that they can only have God’s protection if they are dead.
The four mental states in this example make up the mother’s reasons for attempting to kill the children. Prohibiting her from killing the children means that it is perfectly okay for her to love her children and want to protect them, as long as she does not believe that the only way to protect them is to kill them. Or, she can go ahead and believe that the only way to protect her children is to kill them, but not at the same time that she loves and wants to protect her children.
However, we will not allow her to both, at the same time, love and want to protect her children while she believes that the only way to protect them is to kill them. If this is the case, then we will exercise our right to restrain her by force if necessary, or even to kill her if she should succeed in getting into a position where we have no other option.
Every action that we prohibit – from robbing a bank to raping a child – is a prohibition on whatever combinations of beliefs and desires that would result in an agent performing such an action. It is entirely incoherent to say, “You may do not do X; but you have a right to have those mental states that cause people to do X.”
So, even though moral prohibition bans a specific desire or a specific belief, every prohibition prohibits certain combinations of desires and beliefs. Every prohibition is a prohibition on combinations of mental states. A prohibition on speeding is a prohibition on those mental states that would cause one to speed – or a prohibition on those who have such mental states from getting behind the wheel of a car.
We can also see this in how we determine whether a person has actually performed an immoral act, or whether he could be excused.
For example, we do not punish people for accidents. It simply makes no sense to do so. To punish somebody is to say that they are at fault for what happened, that they could have done otherwise. An accident, by definition, is something that was outside of the agent’s control. In the case of an accident, the agent could not have done otherwise. So, punishment is inappropriate. (In law, there are some exceptions to this. In morality, I would hold that exceptions make no sense.)
An intentional action is a conglomeration of a set of beliefs and desires. When we have a person on trial for a crime, the whole purpose of the trial is to determine what the accused believed at the time of the crime, and what he desired at the time of the crime. What we learn about his beliefs and desires determines whether or not we are going to punish him.
Let’s say, he shoots somebody. The mere act of shooting somebody does not make him guilty of a crime. He might have shot that person in order to eliminate a competitor for a job opportunity. Or, he might have shot that person in order to stop her from killing her four children.
The difference between homicide and self-defense rests in what the shooter believed and what he wanted to accomplish at the time of the shooting. Did he desire to protect the children from harm and believe that the person he shot was going to harm the children? Or did he desire a particular job and believe that the person he shot would otherwise get the job instead of him?
One set of beliefs and desires means that the accused did nothing wrong and is, perhaps, a hero. Another set of beliefs and desires means that the accused is morally contemptible and deserving of punishment. It is beliefs and desires that determine one from the other. All of the effort at the trial goes into determining which set of beliefs and desires the agent had.
We may say that we are trying to find out what the agent did so that we can punish his action. However, the “action” is defined by what we learn about the agent’s beliefs and desires. With one set of beliefs and desires the “action” is one of self-defense. With a different set of beliefs and desires the “action” is murder.
We may say that we punish people for their actions while we leave them free to have whatever mental states they like. However, it is almost always the case that what we call wrong is an ‘action’ defined as a collection of mental states, accompanied by some physical movement – the twitching of muscles - that has no moral quality independent of the mental states they are associated with.
Now, I would like to go back to our original example. When we prohibit a mother from killing her children, what we are in fact prohibiting is any set of mental states which would cause a mother to kill her children. This includes the set of our mental states that I mentioned at the start of this post.
However, if we are going to ban this particular set of mental states, which states are we going to ban? Clearly, the desire to protect one’s children is not on the chopping block. We want to encourage this state. So, the only option is to ban one or more of the beliefs that make up this set. In short, mothers are not permitted to believe that the best way to protect their children is to kill them.
Or, at least, they are not permitted to believe this except when they can provide good evidence. If one’s child is slowly burning to death, with no possibility of rescue, screaming in pain, a sharpshooter parent may shoot the child to prevent several minutes of agony before death. In this case, the parent may be let off, but only because her belief in the child’s suffering is on such solid footing.
I also cannot help but mention that desire utilitarianism is compatible with all of this. Desire utilitarianism, which is the idea that morality is concerned primarily with promoting desires that there are the more and stronger reasons to promote, and inhibiting desires that there is the more and stronger reason to inhibit.