HomeOpinionGet Philosophized: Is it ethical to kill a dictator?

Get Philosophized: Is it ethical to kill a dictator?

Published Apr. 7, 2022

BY EMMA BROWN

In light of the recent tragedies in Ukraine, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, proposed on “Hannity” that someone should simply assassinate the Russian president Vladimir Putin in order to put an end to the onslaught of violence. Politicians and citizens alike quickly took to social media, admonishing the senator for his statements. Despite the clearly insensitive posturing of the notion, though, the question remains: Was Graham right to advocate for the death of a tyrant? Is it ethical to kill a dictator who is causing harm to hundreds of thousands of people?

To German philosopher Immanuel Kant, this isn’t even a question: There is no circumstance under which it is ethical to kill someone. As a non-consequentialist, Kant believes that there is a moral code that needs to be followed, that there are some actions that are simply morally impermissible, despite the circumstances surrounding them. Kant says that humans have to make ethical decisions when they are of sober mind, not when we are flooded with emotion, such as when we see images of demolished buildings and ruined homes in the news.

In response to Graham’s argument, Kant would say that because individuals are authors rather than instruments, when we exercise control over the fate of others we are denying others their dignity and their undeniable right to exercise bodily autonomy. In other words, killing Putin is inherently unethical because we are using another human being as a means to an end. 

For a utilitarian, Kant’s refusal to acknowledge the exacerbating circumstances surrounding the decision is criminal. 

English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, said that every person must act in a way that maximizes happiness for the greatest number of people. When considering Graham’s proposal, a consequentialist such as Bentham wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. Because of the pain and suffering caused by Putin, not only to the Ukrainians fleeing their country, but to the people around the globe suffering financially due to sanctions, killing the president would be the ethical thing to do because it would be maximizing happiness. 

For many global citizens, Graham’s call to action is, in some ways, justifiable. It’s certainly something that many of us mutter under our breath as we read the paper every morning. Yet when a politician openly calls for the assassination of a foreign leader, something inside of us cringes. That’s because the American moral code is built upon non-consequentialist thought. Most of us agree that there are some things we ought not do, like murder.  

So would most of us ever pull the trigger to kill Putin? No. Deontological thought is too ingrained in most of us. But would many of us support someone else killing the dictator? Yes, because we have an intrinsic desire for fairness and equity.

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