Is the Government Routinely Guilty of Murder?

A quick question. We typically make a distinction between killing someone (which is murder, outside of certain defined cases, like self-defense), and acting in a way, a consequence of which is that they die.

Part of that distinction is intent, and part of it knowledge (it’s not murder to do something which causes death, if it was accidental, or if the result couldn’t have been foreseen). But those are obviously not the whole difference – I can knowingly, and deliberately, say, engage an ambulance driver in conversation, so that they are delayed in responding to my rival’s injury, which I did not cause but know about. And that is a very wrong thing to do, but not quite murder, it seems. Certainly at least, it is not ‘violent murder’.

(note that intent is not the same as motive. I can commit murder for noble motives – I may even be right to do so – as long as I am doing so deliberately. I can also regret that they must die, while still intending to kill them)

A big part of the remaining distinction, though, is about types of action, about the means used. Part of why the person above is not a murderer (if we think they’re not) is that the only action they performed – striking up a conversation – is a generally acceptable and benign sort of action. Stabbing, poisoning, or sabotaging equipment, so that someone (predictably) dies, would count as murder because those sorts of actions have some kind of directly ‘violating’ nature.

This reflects the sort of things a non-consequentialist ethical theory might say: even if the consequences (death) are the same, it’s still important that certain sorts of actions are different from others. Let’s grant this for now then. There are rules of action (do not poison people, do not physically attack people, etc.) that must be obeyed, and they are to some extent independent of consequences.

Now here’s my thought. If someone, with knowledge and deliberation, takes a violent action, or threatens violent action, and by so doing, brings about a certain person’s death, is that sufficient to count as either murder, or as something ‘morally equivalent’ to murder? Even if the ‘direct’ cause of death is something other than said action, or even if the person who dies is not themselves the victim of violence?

I wonder this because it seems that at some level, all state decisions are carried out with at least the threat of violence; the reality of violence is also fairly common. And it’s also the case that many state decisions lead to many deaths that might have been avoided, even if none of this violence is directly lethal. For example, on day 1 the police forcibly arrest and imprison someone for stealing food from a shop: a second person sees this and comes to fear the law. They are, however, financially destitute and this fear of the law prevents them from stealing food from that shop, or from forging health insurance or immigration documents, or some such things. As a result, they or one of their family dies, say from a childhood infection made dangerous by malnutrition.

Now, this seems to be a situation in which the state or some agent of it has carried out violent actions, which led to someone’s death – which death is predictable, if not individually then as part of a statistical average. (I’m here abstracting away from questions of who exactly in that great apparatus of decision-making and -enforcing is responsible – let’s just speak of ‘the state’)

Does this make said state guilty of murder, or of something morally equivalent to murder? If so, that seems to be quite serious – though of course it need not imply condemnation of the state. One might say that this sort of murder is justified by the particular circumstances that attend being a state.

But I do find my pedantic mind wondering about this. If it’s not murder, why not – what makes the difference? If it is something like ‘directness’ of causal link, then 1) what exactly is directness – how is the causal chain to be ‘segmented’ into distinct chunks? 2) why is directness – when distinguished from, say, reliability of connection – morally important? Is this just like the squeamishness of being more willing to support something unpleasant if you don’t have to see pictures of it?

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