Homicide and Liberalism
A common theme in liberal thinking is that all people have rights that cannot be abridged without a very good reason. Normally, you hear about rights like the right to private property, or the rights to freedom of religion and speech. However, one right is analytically prior to all other rights: the right to life. It is for this reason that homicide must be a central concern for any liberal.
A right is analytically prior to all other rights if it must be fulfilled in order for any other right to be fulfilled. If the right to life is abridged, as it is in a murder, justified self-defense, or capital punishment, then all other rights are abridged as well. One can maintain the right to life without any other rights (even if such a life seems miserable), but if you have no assurance that you won’t be killed, then you have no assurance that you can continue to speak freely, worship the way you want, or own property.
Liberalism typically maintains a tension between resisting government overreach and economic and social oppression. The right to life has to be defended in the face of state, social, and individual aggression. As a society, we’ve spent the last year outraged at Derek Chauvin using his role as an officer of the state to kill a man who did not deserve it. It is good that Chauvin has been found guilty and will face some form of justice. However, all instances of state violence should be treated with skepticism. The state is inherently one of the most violent entities out there, if not the most violent. In part, liberalism arose as a project to tame and reduce that violence. We shouldn’t forget the cruelties that states are ready and able to commit if unchecked.
Capital punishment is a prime example of something that any liberal ought to be skeptical of. Even if done with minimal cruelty, it is the most extreme manifestation of the state’s ability to permanently revoke all of one’s rights. That should make any liberal incredibly uncomfortable, even if one thinks that there are situations where capital punishment is necessary.
The right to life in the face of homicide must also be upheld against non-state actors. In the United States, we do relatively well in this respect with regards to violent crime. Cases of murder or manslaughter are more often than not cleared, and when they aren’t, it’s typically because of a loss of leads, and not a lack of interest in enforcing the laws against homicide.
We are more iffy on self-defense, culturally speaking. (I have no evidence on-hand to suggest that there is a broad defense of unjustified homicides as self-defense.) The fetishizing of guns — a lethal weapon if there ever was one — as a means of self-defense, and a broad misunderstanding of the proper use of guns, combined with a culture fairly tolerant of physical violence results in very little scrutiny being applied to killings done in the name of self-defense. A person being killed is no small matter, even if they are killed in the name of self-defense, and as a culture, we don’t take as many precautions as we could to make self-defense less dangerous.
Homicide should be a central theme in liberal thought. Homicide is an evergreen concern, relevant to every generation in every culture. To take another’s life is to permanently abridge all their rights, and so should be highly scrutinized by liberals.