The big news this week is that US Navy Seals killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Not surprisingly, this killing raises various matters that are philosophically interesting.
One obvious issue is whether or not a targeted killing of this sort is morally acceptable. The easy and obvious answer is that since Bin Laden was a very bad man, it was morally correct to put a bullet into his eye. While this is true, it is worth considering the matter in more general terms. After all, what feels justified in a specific case might not stand up to calm assessment when considered as a general principle.
On the face of it, the general principle that it is morally acceptable to target and kill bad people seems to be morally and practically problematic This sort of principle would seem to take us back to the state of nature (to be philosophical about it) or to the mythical Wild West (to be dramatic about it) and does not seem to be one that should be adopted within the context of civilization. After all, one key distinction between civilization and the state of nature is that civilization has a system of law rather than mere vigilantism.
One obvious reply is that Bin Laden was operating outside of civilization and had, in Lockean terms, placed himself into a state of war with the United States and other countries. On this view, Bin Laden can be regarded as an enemy combatant (and hence a legitimate target under the ethics of war).
The enemy combatant approach does have considerable appeal. After all, Bin Laden certainly seemed to regard himself as engaged in a war with the United States and the United States certainly seemed to accept this state of war as well. If killing in war is morally acceptable, then it would seem to follow that the killing of Bin Laden was morally acceptable. Killing him would be on par with killing any other soldier on the field of battle.
It might, however, be contended that Bin Laden was not killed while on the field of battle. Rather, his home was invaded and he was shot to death within its walls. If this is morally justified as an act of war, then presumably it would be morally acceptable for Qaddafi to order hit squads to kill NATO soldiers and leaders in their homes in America, France, the UK, and so on. However, the general principle that it is acceptable to send hit teams to kill soldiers at home seems to morally questionable, at least. After all, it would seem to erase the distinction between the soldier acting in the role of a soldier in war (which would make him/her a legitimate target) and the soldier as a person living his/her life outside of the domain of war.
In reply, it might be argued that the sort of war being waged by and against Bin Laden admits of no such distinction. Combatants are always combatants, even when at home, and hence legitimate targets. The idea that everyone is a legitimate target is, of course, a common tenet of the terrorist and there seems to be a certain justice in applying their own principle to them. Of course, the terrorists are supposed to be evil largely because they do not make such distinctions and hence accepting this principle as justifying the killing of Bin Laden comes with a moral risk.
This risk can be offset by arguing that there is no need to accept the terrorist’s lack of distinction. Rather, it can be argued that the terrorist’s failure to accept the distinction means that they themselves are in a constant state of being combatants. As such, they are always legitimate targets because they are always on the field of battle. Combatants that do make such distinctions (and follow them) are entitled to also be treated with such distinctions and, as such, targeted killings of such soldiers at home would be murder rather than acts of war. As such, killing Bin Laden at home would be justified.