The Precept Against Murder

Content Warning: Can be viewed as moral imperatives. Neuropsychological Infohazard.
Previous in Series: The Precept of Community

The First, Second and third precepts already cover the theoretical groundwork behind this precept, but we also thought it would be important to just come out and say it directly, instead of hoping it’s properly derived from the other precepts.

7. Respect and protect all life, do not kill unless you are attacked or for food.

Yes, all life. There’s no reason to stop applying universalism to other creatures, our experiences aren’t that unique in the animal kingdom. We may have made a lot of cool tools, but in terms of how our brains work at a mechanistic level, we’re not that distinct from squirrels. Thus we should extrapolate our universalism out to all the things that seem to share our internal experiences of experiencing. Anything that cares about its own welfare, that wants and prefers things, that believes and feels things, that recalls and expects things, and that has ends of its own that can be satisfied or frustrated, should be counted as having distinct inherent value.

This is different from pure utilitarianism, under which individuals aren’t exactly seen as having inherent value, merely receptacles into which value can be inserted. The inherent value of life is what causes the least bad outcome of the trolley problem to still be considered a bad outcome. Doing bad things for good reasons can win you lives saved that would have been otherwise lost, but the lives lost in the action cannot be morally offset by the lives saved.

Basically, utilitarianism lets you perform this calculation:
5 lives saved – 1 life lost = 4 lives saved, a net good!

But what we’re saying is that you shouldn’t do that because the life of every individual member of the system has a distinct inherent value that is lost when they die. Lives aren’t reducible to mathematical operations governed by associative and communitive properties, the equation is more like:
(A life+B life+C life+D life+E life)-(F life) = ABCDE lives saved – F life lost

You can’t reduce the equation more than that because two human lives aren’t communitive or associative, they each have non-tradable distinct inherent value. You should still save ABCDE, but the inherent value of F is still lost in the process and we shouldn’t ignore that, thus we come to our next set of minor precepts.

  1. All conscious beings are born with a distinct inherent and irrevocable value. The value they possess cannot be traded or taken from them.
  2. Respect and recognize the distinct inherent value of all conscious beings.
  3. Do not equate the distinct inherent value of one conscious being with another.
  4. Do not put the distinct inherent value of one conscious being above another.
  5. Do not deny the consciousness or the distinct inherent value of a conscious being.
  6. Do not attack a conscious being unless they have defected and attacked you already.
  7. Do not kill a conscious being unless not killing them would kill you.
  8. Put your rights and desires first, insofar as those rights and desires do not impinge upon the rights and desires of another conscious being.

This does strongly imply vegetarianism is a morally correct position, but there are some exceptions included. A hunter who hunts for sport and recreation would be considered in violation of the precepts, while someone living off the land in the wilds of Alaska who will starve to death without hunting is allowed to try and kill things because it would kill them to not. The hunter has the right to try and kill the deer if they would starve to death without killing the deer. The deer has the right to try to continue existing and avoid being killed by the hunter. Someone’s inherent value is going to be lost, it’s all black mountain. But also, most of us are not hunters lost in the wilderness of northern Alaska; it won’t kill us to stop eating animals, and so we should probably just go ahead and do that. Of course, these precepts are not the precepts.

Part of the Sequence: Origin
Next Post: The Precept Against Theft and Hoarding
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One thought on “The Precept Against Murder

  1. I think the argument against utilitarianism is the result of confusion about the meaning of “value.” Certainly there is a reasonable interpretation of “value” under which each person has a unique value and these values don’t add up. However, in utilitarianism (and more generally, in consequentialism) we are talking about value in the sense of the von Neumann-Morgenstern theorem: the quantity the expectation of which we should maximize when making decisions. In this sense, it is certainly possible to aggregate the values of different people, since when faced with a trolley problem, you have to decide among the available outcomes. On the other hand, equating utility with something like QALYs is a very poor model in general, for example killing one person and giving birth to one person is clearly a net negative, IMO because people with more experiences should count for more but also because killing is an evil in itself.

    I also take issue with “Do not put the distinct inherent value of one conscious being above another.” I don’t eat chicken but I definitely put the value of a human way above the value of a chicken. Not to mention that I value people who are close to me more than strangers (but the difference is much smaller in the latter case), departing from utilitarianism. Now, we can interpret this as referring to the incomparable “values” from before, rather than decision-theoretic values, but then it’s not clear what would it mean to put one such value above another.


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