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Tuesday 24 November 2015

Killing Children

Killing Children

That’s as stark as a title gets.

A few days ago, I wrote on a thread about liberalism and security that Devadas Krishnadas started on his page. He asked provocatively  “Where have all the liberals gone?”. A few liberals, including the Singapore Democratic Party-linked ` journalist’ Kirsten Han went to his page and started talking about amongst other things, the death penalty.

I waded in and said, “The terrorists are not common criminals, it's not about crime punishment and deterrence. They are a mortal enemy intent on killing and destroying. So you kill them before they kill you. And their children too in case they grow up to take revenge. It's as simple as that. Please don't complicate matters.”

People familiar with the discussions I start on Facebook, especially when I see a more intellectual demographic (which Devadas’s readers are), would know that often I would lead with a seemingly provocative and outrageous statement, that on cooler analysis, actually represents a deeper argument that is founded on logic, if sometimes uncomfortable logic.

This is one time. 

I went on to explain what I meant, but not before Kirsten Han reacted by screenshotting my comment and pasted it on her facebook.

This has I am told, led to outrage in some quarters – funnily enough, although it has been shared, it did not appear on my newsfeed and a grand total of 3 of my personal friends, out of the thousands I have on my personal account, asked me what it was about.

Shows how social media functions in echo chambers.

However, for those interested, here is a re-hash and an elaboration of the things I then PROCEEDED to say after Kirsten Han screenshot the comment.

Firstly, on the issue of killing children per se, one may react to it with revulsion but it is a complex moral question. A moral absolutist may say one may not kill children ever, just as moral absolutists believe that even the State should not take lives through capital punishment since killing is wrong, but this is not a moral stance that would hold water with everyone.

Take self-defense. If a child is holding a rifle and is about to shoot at you, do you have the right to kill him?

Most would.

A more morally complex issue is enemies using children as shields – this is a real issue faced by the Israelis in their conflict with the Palestinians, and an issue now with ISIS.

And this brings us to the current problem of ISIS grooming their children (as well as the children living in their ‘state’), as combatants. 

CNN has covered this extensively.

See this article especially, which calls them ‘cubs of the Caliphate’ -

From the standpoint of self-defense, I think few would argue that one does nothing when confronted with children (and women) trained and intent to kill.

This already moves the majority away from the morally absolute belief that one should never kill children.

However, the problem is even more complex than that, and asks even more uncomfortable moral questions.

An analyst in the article above notes “The war won't end as quickly if ISIS can readily replace its fallen soldiers with brainwashed children “. "It will be a matter of generations," he said of how using child soldiers will affect the Middle East. "It will take maybe 20 years, 30 years. It's a long, long process and it's very dangerous."

This is important. An entire generation of children under ISIS including their own, have been ‘brainwashed’ to see anyone not subscribing to their ideology as enemies, and should be killed.  They fight like adults and replace the adults when they are KIA.  This leads to a 20 to 30 year problem, especially since “It takes a significant amount of time and money to rehabilitate child soldiers, experts say”.

Moral absolutism and rights are not the only moral paradigms available to us. 

Moral absolutism, as I have argued, is untenable for most people, who would claim a moral right of self -defense when faced with an armed child intent on killing.

There is however another familiar moral theory many of our laws are based on: Utilitarianism. It says that the morally right outcome is the one that maximizes the welfare of everyone. 

A thought experiment that students of philosophy are often asked to think about is this:  imagine you are stuck in a cave with 50 other people. The only entrance is blocked because a fat man who tried to climb out is stuck in it. You are quickly running out of air. The only way to escape is to blow up the fat man to clear the entrance. Kill one person to save 50 including yourself. Would you do it?

Many of modern society’s laws are already utilitarian. This is no surprise as it is one of the oldest moral creeds.

Therefore, given a problem of a whole generation of children that are already trained to kill, and given that rehabilitation is difficult, and given that this will lead to 20 to 30 years more of strife and suffering for many, many more human beings, what is the utilitarian thing to do?

Kill some to save many?

Would you do it?

That’s my point. 

So rather than accusing me of all sorts of wicked and evil things, perhaps it is better for us all to think properly about this complex and real issue.

Your conclusion may well be uncomfortable even to you.


  1. I agree with you on this. Sometimes have to kill some in order to save many.

  2. Wow. Your attempt to dress up such moral reprehensiblity as utilitarianism is shocking.

  3. There is an English idiom, to be cruel is to be kind, I agree with you in toto.

  4. I like your focus on killing and violence to solve problems. It harks back to the time when we could solve any problem by beating up people, very nostalgic.

  5. This is a very hard decision beyond emotion as terrorist are using children to shield themself or like some syndicates in India who kidnapped children & deformed them inorder to beg on the street
    Believed in the ideal of non- capital punishment in an ideal world where we pray & hope ppl can be moved & changed for the betterment of themselves if not the world
    But it remains in the realm of ' moral ideals which cannot blossomed in the hard soil of reality'...

  6. It is not "as simple as that". Your ideas might sound logical to you but that is because you have chosen to ignore all the complexity and nuance of the situation.

    Firstly your solution is not even remotely feasible. Killing all the terrorists and their children is an impossible task. Identifying who the ALL terrorists are is impossible given the amorphous and clandestine nature of terrorist activity. This is not conventional warfare with neatly drawn battle-lines and soldiers clearly identifiable by their uniforms and flags. The terrorist are not racially homogeneous or geographically co-located.

    Assuming you somehow managed to kill all the terrorist and their children. Would it not be conceivable that mass infanticide might be a catalyst for more hatred, religious ferment and eventually more terrorism.

    However I am cynical that you care one way or the other about the issue. It would appear that you are deliberately making provocative statements as a means of drawing attention to yourself.

  7. Let me make it more complex for you and see how you respond. What about former child soldiers from the Sudan and other civil conflicts in Africa who have survived, thrived and are now contributing to their communities? Should we have wiped them out or given then hope and opportunity?bone example here, perhaps there are more.

  8. Your "thought experiment" is a poor analogy for the ISIS situation, since killing the children is not the only way to stop the future suffering. In fact it is a rather tenuous proposition that killing children will reduce suffering at any point.

  9. The author has narrowed the scenarios where you can either shoot(kill) the child holding a gun or not, risking the scenario of one being killed by the child by not choosing to do so.

    The fact is that many other options are there either by reasoning, or by shooting the child to incapacitate and not to kill.

    There are options depending on the moral views of the person in question.

    Nothing is Black and White. The author has in his own words said the following

    " What do you expect in war? You bomb their cities, their people, and they are not going to find a way to exact vengeance on you? "

    " That is the nature of war - it is cruel, vindictive and innocents suffer for the power games that their rulers play."

    And yet the same person said that we have to kill children, before they kill us.

    Hate begets hate, yet the author has somehow now vindicated killing children is the logical option, and " do not complicate matters ".

    It is quite obvious the irony in the two piece of article that he wrote, shows a desperate example of him trying to justify the gaffe that made, presenting a warped argument using the basic moral dilemmas argument in novice ethics textbook.

  10. There must be a distinction on how we treat child combatants as a class and in individual distinct scenarios and circumstances because as a class, child combatants are physically disadvantaged compared with adult combatants and options to leverage this discrepancy must exist, and that child combatants do not remain children perpetually or over the 20-30 year time frame suggested. They will grow up and they will also learn and can be shaped psychologically more so during those formative child years for evil as well as for good. To lump them in with adults and women is disingenuous. Any normal person would be able to tell you the same. Your way of thinking leads when extrapolated to its logical conclusion can only mean no differentiation in law on how child felons are treated compared with adult felons.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. We should not treat child combatants as a class that is equivalent to adult combatants. Any normal person will be able to tell you that children are physically disadvantaged then adults and this difference in ability physical and psychological can be leveraged to prevent such tragedy on a class basis. Citing the 20-30 year time frame, children grow up. During that formative years, education is our best and preferred approach. Each response should be on a case by case basis. Taking your argument to its logical conclusion, child felons in our lands should be treated the same way as adult felons. Framing toys discussion as killed or be killed is a lazy and reprehensible way to think about this topic

  13. This post shift the goalposts on your original thread which read as follows:

    "The terrorists are not common criminals, it's not about crime punishment and deterrence.
    They are a mortal enemy intent on killing and destroying.
    So you kill them before they kill you. And their children too in case they grow up to take revenge.
    It's as simple as that. Please don't complicate matters."

    You original post suggests killing the children of terrorists "in case they grow up to take revenge" - this is essentially a preemptive strike against potentially innocent and vulnerable parties.

    This new post masquerades behind the notion that you merely meant to present the possibility that we might have to defend against armed and dangerous minors. This is a different question entirely.

    Putting aside the obvious conjecture and hyperbole in your presented hypothetical scenario, there is a big difference between defending against a young but armed terrorist; and killing an innocent child, in cold blood, out of revenge.

  14. "Moral absolutism, as I have argued, is untenable for most people, who would claim a moral right of self -defense when faced with an armed child intent on killing."

    So self-defense is an absolute moral right? Tenable for most people?

  15. Mr Cheng.
    Sorry if this comment seems off topic.
    When you use the term "moral absolutism" in your example, were you trying to articulate Kantian Deontology instead?
    That is because Utilitarianism is also a form of moral absolutism.

    Normally one would contrast moral absolutism with moral relativism.

    Moral absolutism is the position that there exist a definite principled theory of right and wrong, good and bad.

    As such Kantian Deontology is an example of moral absolutism because there is an definite method of determining moral. In Kant's case it is determined by following the categorical imperative. One of which is the rule against killing.

    For the utilitarian, morality is definitely determined by the principle of maximising utility for the greatest number. This too is an absolute principle. Hence, utilitarianism is also an example of moral absolutism.

    Moral relativism is a position that thinks that no principles of morality exist.
    The normal contrast between Kantian Deontology and Utilitarianism exist because they focus on different starting points on the principles of morality.

    For Kant, there is an absolute injunction against killing even if it is to save a life.

    For the Utilitarians, depending on whether you are an Act or Rule Utilitarian, there is no injunction against killing but there is an absolute principle to follow where the correct action is to maximise utility for the greatest number.

    As such even in the mining example the utilitarian might not kill even to save the lives of 49 people because when taken as net utility the overall utility might not be maximised if the suffering and guilt of commiting murder to save the 49 lives out weighs the fact that 49 lives were saved. It is not just a numbers game. The quality of the utility matters too.

    1. "Moral absolutism stands in contrast to other categories of normative ethical theories such as consequentialism, which holds that the morality (in the wide sense) of an act depends on the consequences or the context of the act."

  16. With reference to the mine example.

    A utilitarian might decide against the killing of one person simply to save 49 lives because the net utility of that act might not be maximised.

    The act of killing one to save 49 could have a negative overall utility when you factor in the suffering the 49 survivors might face, with being labelled as murderers or self-centered individuals, Or that their kin might have to live with that label too.
    In short, it is not just a numbers game, the quality of the overall net utility matters too.

    A utilitarian might decide as a general rule, the taking of a innocent life is not a morally justified act because in the long run, the negative consequences might outweigh the positive consequences.

    1. Yes that would be rule-utilitarianism, which critics say is flawed because it always collapses into act utilitarianism.