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The ethics of killing Osama bin Laden

May 4, 2011

In the last day or so the story of how Osama bin Laden eventually met his end has changed. The original version had him gunned down in a fire fight while using his wife as a human shield; the latest version has him shot, unarmed, in his bedroom. Was his killing unethical? One starting point for answering this question is whether it was legal or not – this is not the same question, but it gives some useful pointers.

Those who are claiming it was legal appear to be assuming that bin Laden was an ‘enemy combatant’, essentially someone actively engaged in a war against the US. In this case the position seems to be that he would be a legitimate target unless he was actively trying to surrender. On the other hand, those who question the legality appear to class him as an international criminal and the raid as an attempt to arrest him. In this case, killing him would likely only be justified in the case of armed resistance.

The ethical question, to a degree, mirrors the legal one in that the actions that can be considered ethically permissible in a situation of war are very different from those outside war. This is true even when, in peacetime, we must deal with people who have committed horrendous crimes (even war crimes). Let’s, however, for the sake of investigation take what appears to be the harder case to justify – that of treating him as an international criminal as opposed to an enemy commander. Assuming that the US troops found him unarmed, could their killing of him be ethically justified?

There are three positions we might take on this question. The first would be simply to answer ‘no’; those who give this answer would probably appeal to similar considerations as in the legal case, that the killing of unarmed people, even criminals cannot ethically be justified. The only possible exception here might be once they had been arrested, tried in accordance with the law, and sentenced to execution. This conclusion could be reached from various ethical positions: for example one that argues for the adherence to strict principles of ‘right action’, for example principles against killing; or one that looks to promote the general good (and believes that any killing such as this will inevitably, in the end, harm the general good).

On the other hand, it could be argued that the killing was in fact ethically acceptable. The most likely route to this conclusion would be again to take a position that finds the ethical action to be the one that promotes the general good, but in this case to conclude that the general good was best promoted by killing, rather than arresting, Osama bin Laden. Imagining the potential global effects of the US imprisoning, trying and executing him it is not hard to see how this conclusion might be reached, were we to take this position.

The third position we might take is perhaps the hardest to think through, but in many ways recommends itself in this situation. This position accepts that the act of killing was morally wrong – an internationally wanted criminal, found unarmed, was shot and killed rather than arrested to face justice. However, it then goes on to say that sometimes this is not the end of the matter. Sometimes people, particularly politicians, are called upon to act in ways that are morally wrong – and in fact it is right for them to do so. This position, or more accurately the challenges that it brings with it, is known as ‘the problem of dirty hands’.

Another example of ‘dirty hands’ would be for political leaders to order the bombing of an enemy’s civilian population in the face of imminent destruction (as the UK did in the Second World War), and for this to be justified in order to avoid that destruction, even though such bombing could never be morally right.

Such an argument is difficult to assess; some claim it is a mistake and in the end we must simply decide between one of the first two positions. Even those who support such an argument dispute why it should be accepted – is it because something overrides morality? Or can morality sometimes be at odds with itself?

Either way, in the case of the killing of Osama bin Laden there is something in this position that plays to two intuitions that are conflicting, and yet may be strongly held by many observers: that killing wanted criminals when they could be arrested is always morally wrong, yet the US was right to kill Osama bin Laden.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Lawrence Stuart permalink
    May 5, 2011 4:07 pm

    An interesting post. A wrinkle to your dirty hands scenario might be to consider when, if, and how the need to satisfy a wide spread hunger for vengeance is ethically justified. It seems to me that our modern leaders, no less than those of ancient polities, are sometimes required to make bloody sacrifices in the name of public good.

    As to the notion of morality being at odds with itself — this seems to me to be a given, arising out of my understanding of human nature:

    “Two principles in human nature reign;
    Self-love to urge, and reason, to restrain;
    Nor this a good, nor that a bad we call,
    Each works its end, to move or govern all
    And to their proper operation still,
    Ascribe all good; to their improper, ill.

    Self-love and reason to one end aspire,
Pain their aversion, pleasure their desire;
But greedy that, its object would devour,

    This taste the honey, and not wound the flower:

    Pleasure, or wrong or rightly understood,

    Our greatest evil, or our greatest good.

    –Alexander Pope, _An Essay on Man_

  2. May 6, 2011 4:22 am

    Thanks for the link to your post. Mentioning that morality seems to (for some reason) work differently in peacetime rater than wartime is a good thing. Whether that is in itself ethical is another big question. Personally, I don’t think this has ever qualified as a war, but only as a very large “police” operation.

    There are definitely some deep moral ambiguities in the case. Personally, I think that for both moral and practical reasons the mission should have been to capture OBL rather than kill him. Morally because human life is intrinsically good and therefore to remove it requires grave reasons (and therefore the death penalty should only be executed after a trial). And practically because it just plain makes the US look bloodthirsty.

    I said this over on my blog, but Al Qaeda is a hydra, and you don’t kill hydras by cutting off their heads, you kill them by preventing their regeneration. This requires a totally different approach than what the US is doing – less killing and more convincing people to not want to hate the US and fight in the first place.

  3. May 6, 2011 9:20 am


    How satisfying a public call for vengeance might be justified is an interesting question. Here we might be straying into the territory of Political Realism, which holds that there are some areas of the political realm in which morality is not outweighed, but simply ceases to be applicable.

    As to morality conflicting with itself, I’m not sure myself what to make of this idea. It’s obviously the case that different considerations can often weigh against each other, but once the weighing’s been done you might think that there is just a single path that morality prescribes. I admit I struggle with the idea that an action can be both right and wrong.


    I pretty much agree with everything you say there. The one reservation I have is due to my inability to picture what would actually have happened had the US arrested bin Laden (although I’m not sure anyone really knows).

    While I’m still not sure what it would have taken for the killing to be justified when arresting was an option, I can imagine some pretty terrible global consequences of a protracted imprisonment / trial followed by execution.

  4. May 7, 2011 5:15 am

    You may be right about the problems of a protracted imprisonment, trial, and sentencing. I think most likely OBL would have just gone to Guantanamo like so many other terrorists, storing him in an indefinite legal limbo. The unfortunate thing about really bad cases like this is that sometimes there just aren’t any very good options – and even if you think one option is best, the risks and probabilities are so complex that there really is no way to know, and no way to turn back the clock if things happen to not turn out well. Such is the difficulty of the study of human action – ethics!

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