This article was last modified on November 24, 2010.

Is Assassination Ever Justified?

Rarely does the topic of assassination come up in philosophical debates. Sure, murder may be debated, but rarely assassination — and in either case, the general assumption is that such things are bad or morally wrong. But what if we are forced to question this assumption? A collection of philosophers did just that in 1974, and I would like to revisit their discussion now.

First, what is assassination? Paraphrasing the definitions posited by Haig Khatchadourian and Douglas Lackey, we will say that assassination is “the deliberate killing of a private person or public figure, without trial, mainly for political reasons or motives”.

Second, we get to the matter at hand. Harold Zellner asks, “Would someone be justified in assassinating a president in order to stop a war”? The answers vary. And keep in mind that we are concerned with morality, not legality.

Against Assassination

On one hand, Zellner sums up Plato’s Crito, where Socrates makes the claim that “by living in a state one contracts to obey its government; the citizen of the state has made an implicit promise not to resist the government.” Or, as we might say today, if you do not love your country, leave it.

And obviously not all assassinations are justified. President Garfield was killed by a man with two stated motives: “save the Republic” and “create a demand for my book”. The second reason is horribly selfish and the first seems rather subjective — historians would probably say that the course of the Republic was in no way significantly altered by Garfield’s passing.

Likewise, Arthur Bremer attempted assassination of presidential candidate George Wallace for the selfish goal of fame. While his actions did, in fact, lead to his goal, they are not justified by his impure motives.

Lackey argues that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was pointless, and therefore not justified. His policies were “reductions in taxes and sharp increases in military spending”, and Lyndon Johnson did not approach the presidency much differently.

Sirhan Sirhan killed Robert Kennedy “to diminish United States assistance to Israel.” This motive was probably not justified, and even if it was, no such change in assistance occurred. Other figures generally seen as unjustified assassinations were Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi, whose deaths Lackey says “were spectacularly bad.”

Suppose someone, perhaps a Holocaust survivor, had tracked down Martin Bormann in Argentina, decades after World War II ended, and shot him dead. While this murder would be understandable, it would probably not be justified. Why? Because at this point no significant amount of good would result from his death.

The killing of Israeli Olympians in 1972 was “unspeakably reprehensible”, according to Khatchadourian. Their murders count as assassination because they were symbols of their country, despite not actually being politicians. As they played no role in government, and their death likely altered no policy whatsoever, the killing could be considered even less justified than the death of Garfield. This is the death of innocents in cold blood.

Assassination, in general, is not practical against anyone besides dictators, tyrants and monarchs. Why? Because, as Kai Nielsen explains, “history is not made by individuals and that since this is so, it is rarely the case that the elimination of individuals will change anything”. (While this is absolutely true, Nielsen goes against what most of us see as obvious: “I do not doubt for a moment that, Hitler or no Hitler, Fascism would have arisen in Germany and World War II would have occurred”. Global war without Hitler? Fascism in Germany without Hitler’s influence?)

Nielsen also thinks assassination is not an option if we hold pacifism to be a moral ideal, though one wonders if this is real pacifism or a one-dimensional cardboard cutout. Nielsen says that, to a pacifist, “any employment of violence to prevent still more violence is evil.” On the contrary, a structured pacifist can rightly claim that a small act of violence that prevents a greater act of violence is still peaceful, as by failing to act they are indirectly causing warfare.

For Assassination

But what of a counter-point? “Even if one thought it a very great evil to take Hitler’s life,” says Zellner, “one should surely think it enormously more important to help shorten a global war.” The most basic utilitarian argument would suggest that taking one life is justified (and maybe even mandatory) if it saves millions. Lackey, a bit more simply, says the act of assassination may be justified “by increases in freedom, justice, and happiness.”

James Rachels references the attempts on Hitler’s life in March 1943 and on July 20, 1944 by Colonel Graf Claus Von Stauffenberg. Stauffenberg was motivated by Christianity and his hatred of totalitarianism in any form, even from Hitler (who he called the “Master of Vermin”). He smuggled a bomb in to Hitler’s quarters with a briefcase. The bomb exploded, but Hitler lived, and Stauffenberg was executed the same day.

“It is reasonable to think that if either of these attempts had succeeded, the second world war would have ended much sooner, and a great deal of death and suffering would have been prevented.” Americans might not have lost their lives at Normandy, and the Japanese may not have felt the fire of the atomic bomb. Perhaps the creation of the bomb would have been delayed entire years.

Rachels offers a basic formula to determine if an action is good: we should “strike the best overall balance between maximizing good and minimizing evil.” Where exactly on a scale certain actions lie is where the real debate comes in. For Rachels, killing Hitler is minimizing evil, but it may not be maximizing good. Killing may not have been necessary. If we were able to imprison Hitler, that would perhaps be even more just, as it would still be one less death. Of course, that leaves open the counter-argument that Hitler’s very existence expands evil, or that executing him in prison would make him a political martyr. Or what of the opinion that a life in prison results in more suffering than execution? Now we move from debating assassination to debating capital punishment, which is beyond the scope of this essay.

Hector-Neri Castaneda rejects any sort of utilitarian argument: “No sum of happiness of any number of agents, however large it may be, can morally override a man’s right to his own happiness.” Rights must indeed be considered, but a person’s “rights cannot be thought of as inviolable in all circumstances.” We accept that committing a felony may remove your right to vote or bear arms. Likewise, in extreme cases, your actions may nullify your right to life (at least in a moral, if not legal, sense). Had Hitler been killed, few — if any — people would cry out that his rights had been violated. (In response to Castaneda, although six million happy people does not outweigh one, he surely must accept that each death was a violation of each individual’s right to happiness. If Hitler violated six million peoples’ rights, there must be a consequence.)

Khatchadourian also suggests that perhaps, in the case of Hitler, a German who assassinates him may be acting in self-defense. Suppose that Americans or Russians were likely to invade Germany and kill thousands of soldiers. As a soldier, killing Hitler may prevent such an invasion and save their own life, as well as the lives of many others. If self-defense is moral, would assassination in this context be moral?

Ramon Lemos goes so far as to assert that assassinating Hitler would have been justified as early as 1938, if it was seen as highly probable that his death would prevent global war. On one hand, this still works off the basic utilitarian idea that one death is justified if it prevents millions of deaths. But it also raises the question: at what point can we assassinate if war has not yet begun? Can we truly assassinate a man who has not yet committed murder? How does this differ from the hypothetical arguments for traveling back in time and killing Hitler as a baby? That is a much hairier question.

Where is the Threshold?

Say we accept killing Hitler (whom Arthur C. Danto, among others, called “a monster”) as moral, but killing Garfield as immoral. Or, as Rachels says, “shortening a global war by a year may have been a great enough good to justify killing Hitler; but securing a minor improvement in a tax law would not be a great enough good to justify killing anyone.” Where do we draw the line? What constitutes what Khatchadorian calls “very special or exceptional cases” where murder is justified?

We already know that it is rare when a single individual changes the course of history on any grand scale. In American politics, when a president has been assassinated, the vice president takes over, and generally continues the same policies. There is no counter-example of an American presidency that was cut short and the course of American policy shifted abruptly. No matter how “evil” a president may be seen to be, or how deeply one disagrees with them, any act of assassination is futile if the successor continues along the same path.

An exception may exist, though. Perhaps a politician campaigns on a platform of war, or they are likely to pursue war in the near future, whereas the person who would take their place has no intentions of going to war. Here we find the middle ground to be a conundrum. If we could have prevented war in Vietnam or Iraq by assassination, would that be justified? Would the death of one man justify the saving of thousands of lives? It is not millions of lives, but are not thousands still more valuable than one? What if a sitting president wishes to expand or continue a war, while the vice president has openly spoken out against the president (unlikely, but possible).

I am by no means advocating assassination, and I have no desire to be visited by the Secret Service. Yet, the moral question must be raised in theory: how many deaths must be saved to justify the ending of a single life?

Postscript: Hitler and Self-Defense

Hypothetical question: suppose an assassin is within range of Hitler. Suppose we have ascertained that killing Hitler would be moral. If we also accept that self-defense is moral, is there a ranking on morality? Or, if Hitler knows he is about to be shot, is it more moral for him to let himself be shot than to defend himself, even if he has a right to do so?

In another essay, I asked whether a prisoner can rightly rebel against his captors. Some philosophers say his right to life trumps all, and he is free to fight. Others say he must submit. I am asking a similar but different question here: ought Hitler submit to his assassination or should he fight off any and all potential attackers, even if they have a moral obligation to kill him?

I leave this question open.


No case of assassination is cut and dry, except the ones that are obviously wrong. All others leave open a number of questions: does greater good justify a little evil? How much good is needed? How much evil is needed to implement the lesser evil? Assassins invariably think they are justified in their actions… but how many truly are?


Zellner, Harold M., ed. Assassination. Schenkman Publishing Company, 1974.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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