Why is murder wrong? It amazes me that you can find discussions of this question that manage to supply no clue about how to answer it, especially considering how many confused teenagers ask it as they grow up. Let us not pussyfoot around here. Just as you always thought, murder is not just wrong, it is quite evil. But here is why.—Originally posted on Quora, since deleted, and now re-posted here with a few edits. The Quora question was, “Who might you find in the lowest circles of hell?”
If there were a hell, then murderers, particularly mass murderers, would have to occupy the very lowest circle. I think many people do not understand what a horrific crime murder is. This is a shame. So let me explain it.
Frankly, the crime of murder makes all others pale in comparison. The trouble in understanding this is that murder is more “metaphysical” and so its evil, more difficult to comprehend. When a person is dead, nothing else happens to him qua person. Thus the crime of murder seems to have a short shelf life. It takes ten minutes to sharpen the knife, a minute to confront the victim and do the deed, a few hours for the body to be discovered, a year or two for the survivors to grieve, and then life goes on. Some educated idiots even seem committed to the view that, since life is a vale of tears, murderers are doing their victims a favor. For many murder victims, the terror and pain last only for moments; is it really so bad?
But, no. That’s not how it is. If you think this way, you probably also don’t understand the economic concept of opportunity cost. The evil of murder lies not in the pain of dying and grieving, but in the enormousness of what it deliberately prevents: an entire life.
If you (wrongheadedly) think of life materialistically, as collecting stuff, then consider that murder involves not only robbing a person of all of his current possessions, it also involves robbing him of all possessions he would ever earn and enjoy in the future. The murderer as it were leaves you utterly naked for eternity. He’s stolen your money, your house, your car, your jewelry, your computer, your devices, your toys, your clothes—and everything you would have had in the future, too. That’s a lot of stuff!
If you think of a life as a series of experiences, many of which are worthwhile in themselves—”peak experiences” and all—then consider that murder involves robbing a person of all the experiences he would have in the future. The murderer as it were locks you in a plain, windowless room forever. All chance at experiencing books, movies, relationships, food, etc., all gone.
If you think of a life as “love,” as a collection of meaningful relationships, then consider that murder involves abruptly breaking every single one of those relationships, between parent and child, sibling and sibling, friend and friend, husband and wife. All of them, all at once, never to return. The murderer as it were restrains you from all future dates, outings, time with children and parents, all of it. He has stolen your power to enjoy your parents, your husband or wife, your children, your friends—everyone you know, everyone you will know, everyone you might otherwise have brought into the world. That is truly an incredible loss.
If you think of life as service, as helping others, then consider that murder involves preventing you from helping anyone else, ever again, in any way whatsoever. The poor, sick, ignorant, and powerless, whoever you might have helped, will not be helped, at least not by you. The murderer as it were ties your hands and makes you watch helplessly as others try to shift for themselves even when they can’t or don’t know how.
If you think of life as the pursuit of meaningful goals, then consider that murder permanently and irrevocably removes a person’s ability to achieve anything whatsoever. The murderer as it were chains you to a wall with everything you might want to do far out of reach. The murderer makes every one of your dreams permanently, irrevocably impossible. Imagine how outrageous it would be for someone to come to your dream job and then physically restrain you for five minutes from doing that job. Then imagine someone doing that for the rest of your life. That’s what murder does.
There are, of course, some other truly horrific crimes, such as abuse and torture. But murder is worse than abuse. Many abused people go on to live good lives and give life to others. In the end, they would rather have been abused than murdered. Murder is also worse than torture. Think of the war heroes who were tortured even for years, who later went on to have happy families and achieve great things. In the end, they would rather have been tortured than murdered.
The most deadly institution in human history is government; certain heads of state would be at the very bottom of the pit of Hell. If sheer numbers are what matter, then Stalin, being responsible for more deaths than any single individual in history, would have to be at the very bottom. Mao would be next. Hitler would be third.
Just try to think of everything that these monsters robbed from the world. It’s inconceivable.
We should think and research quite a bit more about the political, social, and psychological factors that made it possible for such monsters to rise to power.
In this essay so far, I have not discussed very much about what grounds the confident claims I make about what is right and wrong, good and evil; I merely appeal to the reader’s sense of justice in the violation of our right to fully enjoy the various things we might think give life its value (material objects, peak experiences, love, service, etc.). In other essays, I do have some explanations of the more theoretical questions, so let me briefly explain how they apply here.
In “Why Be Moral,” I lay out a basic ethical theory in which I argue that value is rooted in life. Life is not merely a necessary condition of our having anything of value; it is the wellspring of value itself. There is nothing more valuable to us than our lives and the lives of others. This value is objective in the sense that it is natural. All well-functioning living creatures are all generally made—conveniently equipped, as it were—with some degree of desire to preserve life, our own at the very least. Right action is ultimately life-affirming action.
So it is rather obvious why murder is wrong: it is the very act of denying life. Nothing could be more wrong than that, on my theory.
We naturally delight in life, I say, unless we are twisted and perverted. Sadly, we are all too often thus twisted and perverted. According to “A Theory of Evil,” which I shared last fall on this blog, evil acts are not merely acts that deny life, they evince contempt for the humanity of others. Few actions can announce such contempt for the humanity of others than taking away their lives for your own purposes. If life is indeed that in virtue of which everything else has value, then the taking of innocent human life puts something profoundly valuable beneath your (far less important) purposes.
The act of murder shows great contempt not just for the victim but for the very humanity, i.e., for the natural human life, of the victim; such murderous contempt for humanity is the very paragon of evil.