Ethical Theories at the Murrah Building

On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and wounding 680. One third of the building was destroyed, along with damage to 324 other buildings and 86 cars, causing $652 million in damage. McVeigh was motivated by his opposition to the United States federal government and his anger over its actions in the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident and the 1993 Waco Siege. He timed the attack to occur on the second anniversary of the burning of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

To most people, McVeigh is obviously a reprehensible criminal whose actions cannot possibly be justified. Some theories of ethics would agree with that assessment, while others would recommend a different outlook. Let us examine the Oklahoma City bombing through the lenses of deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics to see how each provides a different perspective on McVeigh.

Deontology

Deontology argues that decisions should be made by consulting moral principles. The rightness or wrongness of an act is thus determined by whether it is in keeping with such principles. Deontological theories include the Kantian categorical imperative, which says that one should act only according to the maxim that one can will that it should become a universal law; moral absolutism, which argues that certain actions are intrinsically good or evil; divine command theory, which appeals to God as the judge of right and wrong; and Hoppean argumentation ethics, which derives moral rules from the act of argumentation.

In all such theories, murder is forbidden because initiating violence to kill someone cannot be in accordance with universal law. By definition, murder is not universal but unilateral; if it would occur in reciprocity, then it is a mutual assisted suicide rather than a case of murder. The people killed by McVeigh in Oklahoma City were not the individuals responsible for the state-sanctioned crimes committed at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and were only tangentially connected to the people who were responsible. Though 99 of the 168 victims were part of the state apparatus, the vast majority were unarmed civil ‘servants’. Only eight of the victims were federal law enforcement agents and six were military personnel. The rest of the victims were civilians, and they were not being used as innocent shields by legitimate targets for defensive force. Thus, a deontological approach finds McVeigh’s actions to be completely unjust and criminal in nature.

Consequentialism

Consequentialism, or teleology, argues that the morality of an action depends upon the result of the action. Consequentialist theories differ on what results they deem important. Utilitarianism seeks the most happiness for the greatest number of people; state consequentialism values order, material wealth, and population growth; egoism prioritizes good for the self; altruism seeks good for others; and rule consequentialism functions much like deontology but uses the consequences of moral rules to select them.

The initial answer that may come to mind is that the consequences of McVeigh’s actions were 168 murders, 680 injuries, and $652 million in property damage, thus his actions were immoral. But as with many complex situations, there is an answer—namely this one—which is clear, simple, and wrong. The straightforward answer is wrong because it ignores the counterfactual of what would have happened between that day and this if the Oklahoma City bombing had not occurred. Of course, it is impossible to know precisely what the counterfactual would be, and this uncertainty is an intractable problem with consequentialism. But this should not stop us from making an educated guess.

If McVeigh had not acted, then the mentality of those wielding state power would likely have been that they could perpetrate such atrocities as the Waco Siege without penalty. After all, they hold a monopoly on criminal justice that allows them to immunize themselves from prosecution. Absent vigilantism, they are thus able to escape punishment for their misdeeds. With this in mind, in the absence of the Oklahoma City bombing, federal agents probably would have been more willing to resort to force in such cases as the Montana Freemen standoff in 1996, the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014, and the Malheur standoff in 2016. The former and latter cases did not have the personnel involved to be more deadly than Oklahoma City, but the Bundy Ranch standoff could have resulted in hundreds of deaths on both sides if it had turned into a battle. It is impossible to be certain, but McVeigh’s actions may have altered the mentality of government agents to seek peaceful resolutions to such standoffs, which may have prevented many more deaths than the 168 that McVeigh caused.

Ultimately, any consequentialist analysis requires information that cannot be acquired, so we must treat both the possibility that McVeigh altered government responses to resistance groups and the possibility that he did not. If the state would have acted the same regardless of McVeigh’s actions, then McVeigh was an evildoer. But if the Oklahoma City bombing ultimately prevented greater atrocities in the future, such as a shootout at Bundy Ranch, then McVeigh’s actions produced a greater good for a greater number, more order, and more good for others. Among consequentialist theories, only ethical egoism would certainly condemn McVeigh because he brought capital punishment upon himself, which is not a prioritization of good for the self.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics focuses on the character of the moral actor rather than on specific actions. The purpose of examining an action in virtue ethics is to find out what the action says about the character of the moral actor. The means of doing this frequently falls back on deontology or consequentialism. What is considered to be a virtue differs among formulations, and this is subject to the cultural mores of a particular place and time.

The general finding of virtue ethics in this case would be that McVeigh’s character was similar to that of many tragic heroes in ancient Greek dramas. He was motivated by a sense of justice, seeing the United States government murder its own citizens with impunity. But like the tragic heroes of old, he had a tragic flaw that brought about his downfall as well as the destruction of those around him. A tragic flaw in a well-written story could not be an obviously negative character trait, but rather a trait which is positive in moderation but becomes negative when taken too far. McVeigh’s sense of justice went to extremes and blinded him to the fact that his bomb would commit its own injustice against the innocent people caught in the blast.

Conclusion

This exercise shows the stark contrast in results that can come from applying the various normative ethical theories to an extreme act. Deontology absolutely condemns such an act as mass murder. Most forms of consequentialism cannot definitively say much of anything, but they can offer educated guesses and help us see what might make such an act a more tolerable evil than inaction. Virtue ethics offers insight into the character of a terrorist, which helps explain what could motivate someone to such an act of mass destruction. Taken together, these theories give us a comprehensive understanding of the ethics concerning terrorist activity.

Defending the Hoppriori Argument

The development of argumentation ethics as a justification for libertarian theory was a milestone in the philosophy of liberty. First presented in 1988 by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, it demonstrates the validity of self-ownership, private property rights, non-aggression, and so forth by showing that the act of arguing against them is at odds with the content of such an argument. Such a case is called a performative contradiction (perfomativer Widerspruch in the original German), and these cannot be rationally advanced in argument. Hoppe’s proposal was controversial at the time, and remains so. Murray Rothbard said of Hoppe’s work,

“In a dazzling breakthrough for political philosophy in general and for libertarianism in particular, he has managed to transcend the famous is/ought, fact/value dichotomy that has plagued philosophy since the days of the scholastics, and that had brought modern libertarianism into a tiresome deadlock. Not only that: Hans Hoppe has managed to establish the case for anarcho-capitalist-Lockean rights in an unprecedentedly hard-core manner, one that makes my own natural law/natural rights position seem almost wimpy in comparison.”

But many other libertarian theorists disagreed. Hoppe and his supporters have adequately rebutted most of their objections, but one critical review has not been countered to this author’s knowledge. In an article published on May 15, 2004, Auburn University philosophy professor Roderick Long offers a non-dismissive criticism of argumentation ethics which does not accept Hoppe’s formulation but leaves room for some future effort to show a connection between libertarian theory and the requirements of rational discourse. Let us respond to Long’s criticism on a point-by-point basis.

Long begins by reconstructing Hoppe’s argument as he understands it:

1. No position is rationally defensible unless it can be justified by argument.
2. No position can be justified by argument if it denies one or more of the preconditions of interpersonal argumentative exchange.
3. Interpersonal argumentative exchange requires that each participant in the exchange enjoy exclusive control over her own body.
4. To deny the right of self-ownership is to deny exclusive control over one’s own body.
5. Therefore, the denial of the right of self-ownership is rationally indefensible.

(1) and (2) are accurate reconstructions, as are (4) and (5). (3) is inaccurate; as Long correctly notes, one could shackle another person’s body but leave their mouth free to speak. But interpersonal argumentative exchange does require that each participant in the exchange enjoy exclusive control over some part of one’s own body, as one cannot communicate without exercising exclusive control over some part of one’s body. It is important to remember that is/ought is something of a false dilemma, in that there is a third matter which bears consideration; could. In sum, there are the way things currently are, the way they should be, and all of the ways they could be. When considering a theory of ethics and rights, it is insufficient to account only for a particular case; one must account for all possible cases. Any part of one’s body which may move could be used for communication (e.g. sign language), and the entirety of a person’s body either moves, is moved by parts which move, or is surrounded by parts which move. As such, one should own the entirety of one’s body because all of it has the potential to be part of an act of argumentation.

Long correctly notes that the conclusion (5) follows from the premises (1-4), and (5) also follows with the necessary modifications to (3) discussed in the previous paragraph. Long disputes Hoppe’s argument by disputing the truth of (1), (2), and (4). Thus, our task is to defend these three premises.

Long begins his critique of (1) by considering the nature of an argument, wondering whether Aristotelian negative demonstration or coherence among propositions count as arguments. Negative demonstration does count as an argument, although it is a more complicated form than affirmative demonstration. Coherence among propositions is necessary but not sufficient to count as an argument; one may make several propositions which do not contradict each other but which cannot be used together to make any conclusion. But both of these are consistent with deriving a conclusion from premises. Long combines the definition of an argument as a derivation of a conclusion from premises with (1) to contend that an infinite regress occurs:

“But presumably the premises themselves must be rationally defensible too; deriving a conclusion from premises that are not rationally defensible is hardly going to confer rational defensibility on the conclusion. So those premises, too, must be justified by argument – and so on for the premises of that argument. Thus we are launched on an infinite regress, with the apparent upshot that no position can be rationally justified – a performatively contradictory assertion if there ever was one.”

Long’s error in this critique is to neglect the fact that the premises of an argument may be first principles, which cannot be and do not need to be demonstrated, as they are self-evident. This saves Hoppe’s argument from the sort of infinite regress that Long describes.

For (2), Long attempts to show a counterexample:

“Consider the statement ‘I am the only person left alive.’ One can certainly imagine circumstances in which one would be warranted in endorsing this statement on the basis of the available evidence. (The last astronaut left on the space station watches the Earth explode ….) Hence the statement could in principle be justified by argument. Yet it certainly denies one of the preconditions of interpersonal argumentative exchange – namely, the existence of other arguers.”

That the statement could in principle be justified by argument is all that matters. As discussed earlier, a rigorous theory of ethics and rights must account for all possible cases. Just because a sentient being is the only one at the moment does not mean that this will always be the case. In Long’s example, perhaps other people were in another spacecraft which also survived, but were on the other side of Earth and will not come into view for some time. Perhaps intelligent extraterrestrials will arrive in a few hours. Perhaps the whole thing was a hoax set up to prank the astronaut.

Note that even if there were a valid concern here, it would be irrelevant because self-ownership is only a useful concept if other arguers exist. If one is the only sentient being in existence, then self-ownership is factually true simply because there exists no one who can challenge one’s self-ownership. Such a solitary sentient being need take no thought of legitimacy or rights, for who shall judge him to be in error?

Long criticizes (4) by asking whether it refers to fact, legitimacy, or right. That is, does denial of exclusive control over another person’s body indicate an acknowledgment of the nature of a current situation, a belief that one violates a moral duty by exercising exclusive control over one’s own body, a belief that one has a moral duty to interfere with another person’s control over their body? One could commit an act of aggression, which could deny the fact of another person’s self-ownership but not the legitimacy or the right. Long does not produce an example in which the legitimacy of self-ownership is accepted but the right of self-ownership is denied, though he contends that such a situation may exist. In the case of self-ownership, such an example requires that a person be using their self-ownership in a way that violates moral duties to other people, as nothing other than estoppel would be a sufficiently strong cause for denying a person’s self-ownership.

Long correctly notes that (4) is only true if it is taken to refer to right rather than fact or legitimacy, as using fact would mean that “might makes right” and using legitimacy would result in a performative contradiction (to argue that exclusive control of one’s body is illegitimate, one must exercise such control). Long uses this result to say of (3),

“But then, if the argument is to remain valid, premise (3) must likewise be reinterpreted to mean ‘Interpersonal argumentative exchange requires that each participant in the exchange enjoy a right to exclusive control over her own body.’ But why should we grant the truth of (3), under that interpretation? Whatever plausibility (3) had came from interpreting it as talking either about the fact or the legitimacy, not the right. When (3) is interpreted as talking about the right, it starts looking less like a premise and more like the intended conclusion.”

Now we see not only why Long’s formulation of (3) was inaccurate, but why it was necessary to correct. Had (3) been left unmodified, there would have been a serious error. But with (3) corrected and shown to have plausibility as a right, Hoppe’s argument holds.

Long concludes with two broader worries about Hoppe’s argument. Defending libertarian rights amounts to defending a view about the content of justice, which is at odds with Long’s Aristotelian position. Also, Hoppe’s argument commits us to recognize and respect a libertarian theory of rights regardless of our goals, which appears to say that there is a practical requirement without a means-end structure. We may dispense with these criticisms by rejecting the Aristotelian position in favor of a strict deontological framework. But as Long writes elsewhere of the deontological position,

“What sort of value does justice have? Is justice to be valued as a means, as an ultimate end, or neither?

Some deontologists might plump for the latter option: neither. Rights are not goals to be pursued, either as ends in themselves or as means to further ends; rather, they are side-constraints on our pursuit of goals. But it’s difficult to make sense of this idea praxeologically. If justice is neither one of our ultimate ends, nor a means to one of our ultimate ends, what reason could we have to care about it?

Suppose, then, that justice is an ultimate end — one that serves no further value beyond itself. Then either it is our sole ultimate end, or it is one among others. But it would be very odd to have justice as one’s sole ultimate end, as though respecting people’s rights were the one and only goal worth pursuing. Such an end would radically under-determine the shape of one’s life.

If justice is an ultimate end, then, it must be one among others. But in that case, how is it to be integrated with our other ultimate ends? Do we make trade-offs when ultimate ends conflict? Or do we look for some way of conceiving of our ultimate ends so that conflicts are impossible? In either case, we seem to be asking how to fit justice into the broader goal of an integrated life-plan – what the Greeks called eudaimonia. But then we are no longer treating justice as an ultimate end; justice now serves the more inclusive end of eudaimonia.”

These concerns merit an answer, and the answer is that rights are not side-constraints, but are hard limits which should be considered binding upon all people at all times. While this may not be accomplished in fact (might does not make right but it does make outcomes), it is an end worthy of pursuit. While justice is an ultimate end, this does not mean that it serves no further value beyond itself. The practical purpose of justice is to reduce unnecessary conflicts, which in turn reduces unnecessary destruction of property and loss of life. The end result of justice is a maximization of liberty. It is for this reason that a proper sense of justice, as illuminated by the Hoppean argument for libertarian rights, should stand above any other ultimate ends that one may have.

To conclude, a Hoppean argument for libertarian rights does work if formulated correctly, and there is no need to embed it within a eudaimonist framework. Long’s criticisms are better informed than most, but they ultimately fall short of toppling argumentation ethics.