The United States recently assassinated Iran’s Qassem Soleimani which raises, once again, moral questions about targeted killings of this sort. While it is easy to get bogged down in the particulars of this assassination, I will focus on the general matter of the ethics of assassination.
While the definition of “assassination” can be debated and the term has a negative connotation, the general idea is that it is a targeted killing aimed to achieve a political, economic or ideological end. While one could quibble over the fine points of various definitions, I will not do that here. My main concern is with the issue of whether assassination can be morally warranted.
It can be argued that I am misguided to even consider this issue. Some might point out that an assassination is killing and killing is wrong—thus there is no need to discuss the specifics of assassination. This would be true if all killing was wrong; which would nicely settle all debates involving this matter. For what follows I will assume, perhaps incorrectly, that at least some killings are morally acceptable.
Others might raise a different worry, namely that ethics does not enter the matter. Someone could take the purely pragmatic approach that a country should kill when doing so is advantageous—that, as Hobbes would say, profit is the measure of right. This is certainly a viable approach but has the clear implication that if the United States is justified in killing Soleimani on pragmatic grounds, then everyone else is equally justified in engaging in assassination when doing so is to their advantage.
One can certainly reject ethics as part of the decision-making process of killing and accept the pragmatic justification of “kill when doing so is to your advantage.” But this principle would also justify anyone killing you who regarded it as advantageous—such as wanting your property or who saw you as an obstacle or threat. This would seem to be a problematic principle.
In some cases, people seem to get confused about what counts as ethics. For example, on a recent Facebook discussion someone rejected the notion of applying ethics to the assassination and appealed to self defense (we were justified in killing him because he was going to harm us) and retribution (he had a role in killing Americans and others). But the self-defense and retribution justifications are moral justifications.
An “anger justification” was also advanced, which is a common tactic used to try to justify violence. The gist of the argument made against me was that I would be mad if someone I knew had been killed by Soleimani, mad enough to kill him. So, killing him was justified. The gist of the “logic” seems to be
Premise 1: If B did X to you, then you would be angry enough to do Y to B.
Conclusion: Doing Y to B is morally justified.
While there seems to be a certain macho appeal to this “reasoning”, whether I would be angry enough to kill someone is irrelevant to whether killing them is morally right. While this might be emotionally effective in cases where the target is angry about the specific matter, the failure in the logic becomes evident when one considers general cases in which anger is used to justify violence. For example, imagine a husband who killed his wife because she wanted to divorce him for his infidelity, and he was enraged at her. Even if you were a terrible sort of person who would also be angry enough to kill their spouse in this situation, it would hardly make it right. It is a common error to think that because one is angry that one is justified in the anger and hence right; but this does not follow. The anger one feels is irrelevant to truth and justification. Naturally, a person can be both justified and angry, so anger does not invalidate justification—but the question to ask is whether the anger is warranted or not. If a principle was adopted that anger justified killing, it would mean that Soleimana would also be justified in his killings (if he was angry) and that someone who was angry at you would be justified if they killed you. This all seems absurd, so the principle of anger is also absurd. So, what is needed is a moral justification.
A good historical example to consider is Operation Vengeance. In WWII, American P-38 fighters were deployed to intercept and kill Japanese Admiral Yamamoto. They succeeded in downing Yamamoto’s “Betty” bomber and his body was subsequently found by the Japanese. This, as might be imagined, had a significant impact on the war in terms of morale and the elimination of one of the top Japanese leaders.
The moral justification for this is clear: when one is engaged in war, then specific leadership targets are legitimate targets. In the broader moral perspective, the overall ethics of a killing would depend on whether the war was just or unjust. In fact, one could argue that targeting leaders in a just war is often morally superior to the killing of anonymous combatants. In general, the soldiers fighting in a war are not involved in the decisions that started the war and would often not be engaged in violence without being sent by their leaders. In contrast, the leaders are making the decisions and hence bear more moral responsibility. As such, if a soldier in a war is a morally legitimate target for violence, then the leaders who sent them to war are also morally legitimate targets.
In the case of Soleimani, the United States and Iran are not at war—hence the ethics of war do not apply. However, one could appeal to the ethics of conflict between nations. In general, killing the citizens of other nations outside of war is generally wrong—but there can be exceptions if the person killed did things that were wrong enough to warrant their being killed. In the case of Soleimani, if he did enough evil to morally warrant his death, then his assassination would be morally warranted. But accepting this as a justification requires accepting the corresponding moral principle and we would need to accept that Americans could also be justly killed by other nations if their evil deeds warranted their deaths. For example, there are certainly those who would argue that the deaths caused by Obama and Bush could morally warrant their assassination on moral grounds.