Is it always wrong to kill?

From time to time, the Internet sees vigorous debate about the morality of the Israelite’s – and by extension God’s – massacre of the people of Jericho and others.

My stand is that we can’t just write off the bits of scripture we don’t like, but must grapple with them and try and understand what they’re telling us.

I accept as a possible – even probable – explanation that the massacre stories – written long after the events they record – ascribe to God the bloodthirstiness of the Israelites. If this is so, then possibly the lesson from the text is:

  • Faithfulness to God matters
  • God expects us to keep to his ways, and not to allow the surrounding culture to corrupt us
  • If we are in danger of corruption, we should separate ourselves from the surrounding culture.

But is this just interpreting the Bible through our own cultural filters and preferences?

Is it possible that God really told the Israelites to kill or expel those who would not accept Him as God and live by His laws?

As a discussion starter, I’d like to ask three questions. When is it wrong to kill? Who, or what, is it wrong to kill? Why is it wrong to kill? I’ll give you my (provisional) answers. Will you give me yours?

When is it wrong to kill? Under what circumstances? Is it always wrong to kill, or are there circumstances where it is okay? My answer to this question is that it is always wrong to kill a member of a species capable of conscious sentience – but that it is sometimes necessary (for self defense or the defense of others).

Who, or what? My answer is that it is okay to kill members of species not capable of conscious sentience provided that it is for food or in self defense, but such killing should be done humanely. A Buddhist or Hindu would draw the killing line in a very different place to me; I think (perhaps someone can confirm) that the cholera bacillus would be okay, but a beetle wouldn’t.

Why? My answer is three-fold.

First, it seems to be written in our bones – a natural law, if you will – that taking the life of another human is wrong. The tricky bit is defining ‘another human’. Sociopaths live in a universe on their own – a single human being surrounded by potential victims. Primitive cultures punished murder of family members with the full force of the law, but rewarded killing someone from another tribe as a meritorious act. Today in Western culture (thanks in large part to Christianity), we’ve extended the definition of human to most members of our species, though the precise definition still varies from person to person. Some of us would extend it still further, to all self-aware sentient beings, allowing for extraterrestrial life, or surprise discoveries about apes and dolphins.

Second – it also seems to be natural to impose the rule: if you can’t fix it, don’t break it. Taking a life is final. You can’t make it better. There’s no going back, so going forward is an extreme act.

Third, we don’t know what God has in mind for this person to do. Taking their life might interrupt something important.

These are my answers. What are yours? When is it wrong to kill? Who is it wrong to kill? Why is it wrong to kill?


About joyfulpapist

JoyfulPapist is an adult convert to Catholicism, with a passion for her God, her faith, and her church.
This entry was posted in Catholic Moral Teaching, Living Catholic lives and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Is it always wrong to kill?

  1. Mr Badger says:

    Taking their life might interrupt something important.

    Murder as rudeness 🙂


  2. golden chersonnese says:

    If you can’t fix it, don’t break it.

    Murder as sloppy house-keeping.


  3. toadspittle says:

    “First, it seems to be written in our bones – a natural law, if you will – that taking the life of another human is wrong.”

    Extraordinary how many people fail to read the writing in their bones, though, innit?
    Perhaps they’re illiterate?


  4. joyfulpapist says:

    In my view, Toad, the issue is defining what we mean by human. Like the wife of the Nazi officer I read about earlier in the year, who fed Jewish children on the run before she shot them. She did not see herself as cruel – she thought of herself as a humane person; but she had no more hesitation about killing these children than she would have felt over killing a sheep or a rooster.


  5. joyfulpapist says:

    And then there are those who won’t kill at all. Any animal. Though they seem happy enough to kill plants. I’m not sure how they feel about microscopic lifeforms such as fleas and head lice.


  6. golden chersonnese says:

    Joyful, I hear strict Jains (akin to Buddhists in many ways) will even cover their mouths with cloth to avoid inhaling microbes and minute animals.

    In their diet, they will also refuse root vegetables like potatos, onions and garlic as, of course, using them kills the plant. They will eat above-ground vegetables if it does not involve killing the plant (or eating seeds!).

    And look what I found, talking about Jains:

    Manus, is there something you’re not telling us?


  7. The Raven says:

    There is a rather good account of the life if a Jain nun in William Dalrymple’s latest book, “Nine Lives”. They make our mendicant orders look like softies! Although his account of Jainism makes it sound as though they rather align with the culture of death in their toleration of suicide.


  8. golden chersonnese says:

    Yes Raven, without of course understanding all the nuances, I believe that the best way for a Jain to die is to starve oneself to death (like Mahavira was said to do) so that the soul may achieve release from matter. Eating anything animate is in some way doing violence to a living souled thing and so only adds to karma and thus ongoing re-incarnations. Certain similarities with what we are led to believe about the Albigensians?

    I wonder if this sort of thing would appeal to our resident amphibious pacifist?


  9. toadspittle says:


    Toad is carnivorous – or more accurately – gnativorous.
    If one is what one eats, Toad doesn’t want to be an avocado.

    As to being a pacifist, there are many things Toad would fight savagely to the death for – pacificism for one, tolerance being another, and The Quiet Life yet another..


  10. golden chersonnese says:

    I think the idea is that what you eat becomes you rather, Toad, at least according to my grandmother.

    It’s a very strange thing
    As strange as can be
    That whate’er Miss T eats
    Turns into Miss T

    I suppose that means an avocado would turn into a Toad.

    But what a tangle of contradictions you are, dear Toad. At least Jains appear to have straightened all their thoughts out on these life-and-death matters. Still they’ve been at it for a few thousand years, we suppose – longer than Toad.


  11. kathleen says:

    Tough questions Joyful, but they are ones we should all ask ourselves.

    It is too sweeping to answer that one should avoid violence at any cost, turn the other cheek (as the martyrs did) and that it is always wrong to kill another human being. One has a right – and sometimes even a duty – to self defense. What parent would not intervene to protect their children from an aggressor? There have been many wars of self defense that have been blessed by the Church.

    But apart from the case of self defense, I would say that to take the life of another human being, no matter how wicked their crimes might be – or even if that person desires death – is unlawful in the eyes of God. Life belongs to Him alone, and no one has the right to take it away.


  12. golden chersonnese says:

    joyful, though trite perhaps, if I think of such questions as these, I usually think in terms of the human body.

    Human society is often likened to the human body; even the Church is said to be Christ’s body.

    Generally, anything external that tends to the harm of the body should be repelled by the least violent but effective means. For example, if it is threatened by harmful microbes, the microbes need to be blocked. If microbes have invaded, they need to be expelled or incapacitated. .If an organ or a limb is making the body suffer it needs to be healed. If an organ or a limb is threatening the life of the whole body it needs to be removed, as in amputating a gangrenous toe.

    So too for those who threaten a healthy human society or its members. The least violent and most proportionate measures need to be taken.

    Those who threaten to invade it need to be first blocked by the most effective but least violent means. Those inside who threaten its health need to be subdued. Those who would greatly endanger its health need the sternest action against them. Usually imprisonment will suffice, but in cases where this cannot be imposed, physically incapacitating the wrong-doers may be the only means at hand. It is hard to imagine a case, though, where the deliberate killing of a miscreant is absolutely required.

    Well, just some thoughts, joyful, since you invited them.


  13. Mimi says:

    Is it always wrong to kill?



  14. shruti says:

    It is very wrong to kill


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