Thought Experiment: Does Murder Always Constitute Rankism?

1 May

NOTE: I have changed this blog title from “Osama’s Dead: Is This Rankism?” to “Thought Experiment: Does Murder Always Constitute Rankism?” I feel that the former title was unnecessarily incendiary and carelessly crass, especially since so many people have suffered from deep emotional trauma at the hands of Osama bin Laden, whose death sparked the idea for this post. I’d like to apologize up-front for any ill-feelings my original title might have stirred in this blog’s readers.

The news is in: Osama bin Laden has been killed by U.S. forces. This leads me to ask an essential question: does the act of murder always constitute rankism?

I’m trying to put an argument together, but I’ve hit a blank spot. Follow along with me in my philosophical journey. See if you can help me out.

First, let’s define dignity:

1) Dignity is the state of being worthy of recognition as a whole person.
2) Everyone is worthy of recognition as a whole person.
3) Therefore, everyone has dignity.

Second, let’s define rankism:

1) Rankism is the act of violating someone’s dignity.
2) Therefore, rankism is the act of failing to recognize someone as a whole person.

Third, let’s define murder:

1) Murder is the act of deliberately ending a person’s life.

Now, here’s where I’m coming up against a wall. The fourth and obvious step in this process is answering the following question: does deliberately ending a person’s life inherently mean failing to recognize them as a whole person? Is it possible to appreciate a complete person, nuances and all, and still kill them? If so, then it could be possible to murder a person while treating them with dignity. If not, murder is inherently rankist.

Finally, even if we can answer that question — and that’s a big “if” — all we’ve proved is that the above argument is logical, not that it’s true. For it to be true, I must have provided an accurate definition of dignity. That’s another conversation entirely.

What do you think? Is murder inherently rankist or not?

16 Responses to “Thought Experiment: Does Murder Always Constitute Rankism?”

  1. idnapper May 1, 2011 at 8:45 pm #

    In order to to kill you for political reasons (ie I cannot live in the same world as you), I have to judge that you are worthy of death, while simultaneously assuming that I am worthy of life.

    I am more worthy to live than you.

    I am more worthy than you.


  2. Megan May 1, 2011 at 8:50 pm #

    Andrew, after reading this post, a random but interesting thought popped into my head, but first I’d like to say that your questions are philosophical in nature. As you probably already know, there are opinions and arguments that can be put forward, but there are no correct or incorrect answers. Anyway, onto that thought…

    I’ve always thought of murder as being wrong under any and all circumstances, but as I read this post I happened to think of euthanasia, which I think is an acceptable course of action when a person is suffering terribly (usually from a terminal illness). Euthanasia has been used primarily in instances of physical pain though and rarely, if ever, in instances of severe and incurable mental illness. I would never claim that any mental illness is absolutely incurable, especially since I believe proper rehabilitation can solve a lot of problems, but let’s assume for a moment that there ARE incurable mental illnesses.

    Clearly people like Osama bin Laden are not “all there” and could be considered to be severely mentally ill and beyond curing. So what if, instead of murder, we thought of his cause of death as euthanasia? Coming from this perspective, it would be perfectly possible to recognize and appreciate him as a whole (though deeply flawed) person, and his “murder” could even be viewed as an act of compassion, for both bin Laden and his victims, as long as the killers didn’t take any joy in the act. I don’t know that I would argue for it personally, but I thought it would be an interesting question to put forward.

  3. Joseph Homer May 1, 2011 at 8:54 pm #

    Different definitions of Dignity will, as you acknowledge, would change my response, but if we were to bracket that for the moment, killing someone does violate their personal dignity or sense of valuation to themselves. Making the decision that someone should no longer live eliminates any value that person had of or for themselves; it is a decision by an other which has deemed it appropriate for whatever reason that it is worth violating their personal dignity for an ostensibly greater one.

  4. Pascual May 1, 2011 at 9:13 pm #

    I think the variables in what constitutes “murder” is the problem that keeps this mostly semantical. If we say that you deliberately kill someone in order to protect yourself or others (as in they were firing upon the persons in question), then are we failing to treat said person as a whole individual or is it that the dignity of others is being protected therefore the dignity of the attacker does not come into consideration? Very good question indeed, but I don’t know that the reasons for ending a life always fall under rankism

  5. Charlotte May 1, 2011 at 9:29 pm #

    Some comments from Facebook:

    PHR: Excellent observation. I think it’s an irreconcilable thing honestly. There are too many variables.. I mean unless we’re talking pure semantics.
    23 minutes ago · Like

    Charlotte Hill This makes me wonder if there’s any sort of definitive line where, after someone passes it, we can say, “Yes, s/he needs to be killed.” I mean, Hitler was Hitler. Bin Laden was bin Laden. These people committed atrocious acts and would have kept committing them until they were stopped. So really, at some point, is rankism even a factor anymore? Or do we take a utilitarian approach and just stop as much suffering as possible? To what extent can we allow ourselves to be led by theoretical rules? (This is also assuming that murder of bin Laden was the only option here; prison could certainly have been another one.)
    11 minutes ago · Like

    MV: I believe every human is born with dignity, yet I believe dignity can be forfeited. If I am wrong, then I would have to believe that evil and dignity can exist in the same body. I am a liberal, but I never felt liberals ever seriously grappled with the problem of evil, not to determine the attributes of the divine, but to determine the attributes of humanity. Have you ever been face to face with a man that would kill you with no remorse? Stood in a room with murder on the walls and on the floor? A body lying in street, the young and old… I don’t believe every act of murder is irredeemable; I don’t believe that about my father, but I believe irredeemable evil exist, whether its people or people imbued with ideology. Yet I think evil is created, I don’t believe it exist metaphysically or anything. Osama was created, yet he ultimately made a choice. He forfeited his right to life. It was not murder; it was combat.
    7 minutes ago · Like · 1 person

    PHR: Yeah I’m a bit disappointed they didn’t capture him. My being an atheist puts me firmly in the opinion that death is a very convenient way out of a LOT of trouble.
    And yes, that’s a really good observation. I think, and this is something I just read about in Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape”, that the best way to operate in general is to make decisions that minimize overall suffering. If that means killing the offender, so be it.
    6 minutes ago · Like · 1 person

    MV: Killing him was definitely convenient, politically and logistically… done and done… let the election begin.
    5 minutes ago · Like · 1 person

  6. Ron May 1, 2011 at 9:29 pm #

    Well… you have picked someone way out on the skinny tail of the bell curve for an example. But I guess that’s the point, right? It’s a difficult question.

    On a personal level, I imagine that bin Laden would greatly prefer to go down fighting than rotting in a jail cell. So within his culture and the culture of the military, a “death with honor” is preferable to being captured. So, if you want to be a relativist, his death was not only dignified, it was honorable. From his perspective, it could be said (and it will be claimed) that he died shouting “Allahu Akbar!” with AK-47s in each hand.

    And he has said things on numerous occasions that suggested that he would prefer to be “martyred” in the course of Jihad. So, in essence, he got what he wanted. Is dignity a constant across all cultures? I don’t think so. In bin Laden’s version of Islam, the body is merely a shell, and this life is the rug you wipe your feet on before entering Paradise. So murder and being murdered are small things to someone with this mindset.

  7. Stephanie May 1, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

    idnapper: It’s not, “I’m more worthy to live than you so I’ll kill you”. This is about the aim to end violent extremism. The extremism that propagandizes masses into a way of thinking that leads to intolerance.

    On that note and many more thoughts I don’t feel like writing out in blog remarks, I see no validation to this “rankism” mumbo jumbo. This isn’t a show your dick contest.

    • idnapper May 2, 2011 at 4:19 pm #

      Political assassination is a violent extreme. We all live in our own propaganda machines – cultural hegemony and xenophobia affect both sides of a conflict and lead to shared intolerance. While I agree that rankism seems a contrived subterfuge for a discussion of class theory, it still makes a worthy discussion.

  8. Charlotte May 1, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    FYI, all, I’m kind of regretting my choice of blog post title. It implies that I’ve made my mind up about whether murder is rankist or not — and I most definitely haven’t. I look forward to thinking through this question with you.

  9. Mark May 1, 2011 at 9:46 pm #

    That was well played! The term “dignity” is not fixed, assuming so would be fallacious. The attributes of dignity have been culture specific and have shifted over time. As the basis of an argument, one would need to define “dignity.” Yet as liberals, we loath defining anything, we usually don’t need to. We are a reactionary and inclusive bunch, never drawing lines in the sand but kicking them. Yet kicking that line means you are positioned. If you believe is a universal dignity, what is it? Can we define a “dignity” that respects all manifestations of it globally? These types of conversations across cultural, religious, and national lines are extremely difficult if we don’t draw lines in the sand… or in stone for those seeking objective grounds.

  10. shalomimages May 1, 2011 at 11:26 pm #

    My mind is still aching from the memory of seeing crowds of Americans chanting “USA! USA!” upon news of Bin Laden’s death. When we rejoice at the killing of a killer, the result is the support of more killing, converting victims into perpetrators, and the surviving perpetrators back into victims, creating more occasion for righteous vengeance, adding more velocity to the downward spiral of destruction and chaos.

    Can murder and dignity coexist?

    What more obvious and unambiguous example of an act of indignity can be found than murder? It is the ultimate example.

    Therefore, I believe that the answer is clearly “No, murder and dignity are mutually exclusive.” Murder is an obvious, absolute violation of dignity, both of the person who is murdered, and of the murderer. Changing the term to “killing,” “assassination,” or “battlefield casualty” doesn’t change this fact. All are absolute violations of dignity, for everyone involved.

    This leads to another question: Are there situations in which acting with indignity is required?

    I would like to answer this with a resolute “No,” but the truth is that I don’t know. Many would argue that the killing of Bin Laden served a greater good. Some true supporters of the dignity movement might convincingly argue that in such an extreme example as Bin Laden, the indignity of his murder was worth it. I’m not in a position to judge this in an ultimate sense. I just want to clarify the discussion with regard to dignity, so that we don’t allow ourselves to believe that this was a dignified act.

    I understand the killing of Bin Laden to be an obvious act of indignity, one that is not a cause for celebration, but rather which is a solemn time in which a spiral of destruction and madness has reached its bloody crescendo. I hope that we can resist the delusional urge to believe that dignity was anywhere to be found in this situation. To imagine how dignity would have truly acted, I can wonder what Gandhi or Dr. MLK, Jr. would have chosen to do in this situation. I wish they could be here to tell us themselves, and to help us infuse our personal, national, and international actions and relations with true and enduring dignity.

    • idnapper May 2, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

      Thank you for invoking ghandi and mlk! Peace is the only answer always.

  11. Abd El Wahab May 2, 2011 at 7:13 am #

    “Dignity doesn’t consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.” –Aristotle. This sentence together with “Dignity is the state of being worthy recognition as a whole person.” Will help us, somewhat, reach a fair, coherent concept of dignity based,half,upon one’s role to claim his/her dignity. It’s not something endowed more than being deserved. Generally, someone violates his/her dignity once failing to recognize other’s. How can you recognize the dignity of someone deliberately degrading yours? What if this one goes far beyond you to humiliate many others? What if humiliation takes the form of destruction, devastation, annihilation of souls before properties? How can I admit the right of life for someone renounces mine?! Not only renounces theoretically, but also practically. Isn’t this one exercising rankism against others? What’s the suitable tool to fight the savage, brutal rankism of this one? That’s the Question!
    Note: The anonymous ‘One’ mentioned above refers to a general entity, with open possibility of application, rather than a definite personality.
    Generalization of ideas is an illusory error and a misconception trap as well. Philosophy of “Since” & “ Therefore” best matches algebraic, and geometric issues in its theoretical hypothesis, which lacks elasticity of dealing with substantial matters. Relativity governs our life. Death, as an intentional act, isn’t absolutely evil, so long as it fits the purpose in question, so along as it comes out from those eligible to evaluate, judge, and make decision, so long as it comes out complying with values, ethics, principles free from any taint of interest. Death, in such case, besides being a disciplinary punishment for criminals, who exceeded all limits, it’s a preservative action for others’ dignity, and life. Sometimes death is Pro-dignity & Anti-rankism.

  12. robertwfuller May 2, 2011 at 8:52 am #

    “It is not instruction but provocation that I can receive from another.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    This subject calls for a book-length response; anything less is susceptible to ambiguity and misinterpretation. But, in the spirit of Emerson, I’ll risk a few thoughts.

    Killing Osama bin Laden is an act of biblical proportions, that is, it is one of those situations where the public requires an eye-for-eye kind of justice to release it from the grip of political paralysis and open it to rethinking global priorities and politics.

    The wound in the American psyche is too deep to be healed within an ethical framework characterized by either “Turn the Other Cheek” or “Protect your Foe’s Dignity.” The paradox is that in the aftermath of meting out eye-for-eye justice, there is an opening, going forward, to break the cycle of revenge, and put an end to patterns of reciprocating vengeance.

    What matters now is what we do next. More revenge? Or, can we move on to address the underlying indignities that festered until they erupted into violence, counter-violence, more violence, etc.

    Terrorism is a response of the weak, but only rarely does it arise unprovoked. It is almost always a response to the experience of humiliation.

    Humiliation is a time bomb. One part of a strong defense is not offending others in the first place.

    Osama’s death–like those of other larger-than-life figures who were seen as villains by some, as heroes by others–enables us to look at our role in the world with fresh eyes. We mustn’t miss the chance.

  13. Megan May 2, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    Sorry I addressed my post to Andrew instead of you, Charlotte! Your comment beneath Andrew’s status left me a bit confused as to who authored the post. My apologies!

  14. nameisbryan May 2, 2011 at 9:00 pm #

    I heard the Dalai Lama say once, something to the effect of, “Condemn the actions, have compassion for the actor.” Bin Laden’s actions are unacceptable acts of indignity and we condemn them whole-heartedly. There is little or no question there, for most everyone. However, Bin Laden was a living thing just like every other on the planet. Killing him ensures that he will never act again in any way to affect the Earth, but it doesn’t end terrorism, violence, war, or any form of Rankism in the grander scheme of things.

    Every time a great villain dies, it feels to me not like a victory but like an enormous missed opportunity to try at all odds the much more difficult road — would it have been possible, given the morally just arc of our universe, to sit down with Bin Laden (or Hitler, or any of these people) with enough clarity and patience to give compassion and dignity for the man, while strictly condemning his actions? Would there be a time, after the days, months, or years of raw and frayed conversation that a man with an image as evil as Bin Laden’s, would stand up a new man and do a single act of good for the people he opposed? Would there be a time when, passing through the hatred of the people, a single soul could walk through the mob and say something as audacious as “I forgive you, Bin Laden. I will never forgive your actions, but I see in your soul still a spark of dignity”?

    The day that happens, I will fly to DC or the Middle East or the Moon, and dance and scream and laugh. That is the day I will declare victory, and the end of a terrorist.

    Killing Bin Laden is no end to a terrorist. It only proves to confirm the belief of the man killed, who firmly believed that murder was the best solution to ending a problem. The moment his life ended, was the moment his belief could never be changed. The man is dead, but we did nothing to dissuade that belief, and so it lives on in our world. It is another sad instance of unresolved pain, trapped inside for so long, that is released and passed on to the rest of us. I refuse to partake in this celebration. Instead, I vow never to deny the dignity of those who commit acts of indignity. Instead, I will do whatever I can to separate the act from the actor, and march to the day when the minds of the greatest villains sing with the rhythms of peace.

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