Targeted Killings and the Morality of Hard Choices

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter approaches the question of the morality of targeted killing by developing a general theoretical framework for answering questions about what morality permits, forbids, and requires. The framework consists of three levels. At the first level is the consequentialist principle that one ought to choose that action from among the alternatives that will bring about the greatest net good in the world. This principle is decisive in determining the moral status of an action across a wide range of cases, but it can be preempted by principles that belong to the second level. At that level are the deontological principles that specify 'strong permissions', which allow an agent to choose an action that does not have the optimal consequences, and 'strict obligations', which require the agent to perform an action that does not have the optimal consequences. The right of self-defence is a strong permission, and the prohibition on deliberately killing one innocent person in order to save, say, three other innocents is a strict obligation. Normally, such permissions and obligations are decisive when they apply to a case, but at the third level of the framework is a principle that overrides those permissions and obligations in cases in which catastrophic consequences would otherwise ensue. Using this framework, a decision tree is constructed that shows at what point in the deliberation process, and how consequentialist and deontological considerations are to figure in a decision about the moral permissibility of an action.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationTargeted Killings
Subtitle of host publicationLaw and Morality in an Asymmetrical World
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780191738975
ISBN (Print)9780199646470
StatePublished - Mar 1 2012


  • Consequentialist principle
  • Deontological principles
  • Morality
  • Permissibility
  • Self-defence
  • Targeted killing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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