The proto-liberal Thomas Hobbes used the idea of a ‘state of nature’ to justify his social ethics. In this ‘state of nature’, individuals would attack those who harmed them, and they would in turn counter-attack. The result would be a violent society, where most people lived in permanent fear.
To avoid this, Hobbes proposed, individuals should lose any claim to self-defence against harm. Only the state would have the authority to prevent harm, if and when the state found that appropriate.
Since the state would not act to prevent every harm to every individual who complained, this was a de facto legalisation of harm. Hobbes did not give historical examples of a ‘state of nature‘ although he apparently believed it had existed. It has legal counterparts in ancient laws which regulated vendettas. Those laws allowed violent reprisals, but (in modern terminology) seek to limit escalation – “an eye for an eye”.
Hobbes wrote during the era of monarchial absolutism, and saw the monarch as the alternative for the ‘state of nature’. Nevertheless this principle became a central element of later liberal ideology, despite the alleged anti-statism of liberalism. It underlies present-day free market liberalism, where competition in the market is legal, no matter what its consequences for individuals and groups. It is prominent in libertarianism, which defines self-defence against harm as ‘initiation of force’, and justifies reprisals against victims of harm who defend themselves.
The de facto legalisation of harm has resulted in the modern liberal society, which is characterised by intense and aggressive competition, extreme social inequalities, and a powerless and helpless underclass.
Designing the state of nature
To counteract liberalism, I propose the introduction of a Hobbesian state of nature, in a regulated form which avoids a general bloodbath. On one day every year, it would be legal for people to kill those who harm them.
The proposal includes qualifications, restrictions, and regulation. You should read the entire proposal before forming a judgement, unless your beliefs condemn homicide in all circumstances. (In that case, you can stop reading here). But even with these restrictions and regulatory structures, many people will ask: “Wouldn’t people just use this procedure, to kill their boss, or kill their abusive partner?”
That’s what it’s for. The proposal allows those who have been reduced to desperation by their suffering, and who have no protection under the rule of law, to defend themselves against their persecutors. It is primarily intended for people at the bottom of the social hierarchy, who have no access to the media, the political system, or the media, and who have no lobby or interest group to speak for them. The proposal would, for instance, legalise and regulate ‘workplace shootings’. These may involve employees who have been tormented for years, with the approval of the management, and who finally defend themselves by killing their persecutors.
I am not claiming that all workplace shootings are morally justified, or that all killers were harassed by those they kill. However, the blanket condemnation of homicides, by public opinion and by religious leaders, is not well-founded.
There is a very strong cultural taboo on murder, which extends across cultures and religions. It is probably grounded in an innate genetic revulsion against killing another human, which in turn follows evolutionary logic. Humans are the most effective predators that ever lived on this planet, and if they turned that advantage on themselves, the species would soon be extinct.
In western countries, homicides typically result from escalated violence, often under influence of drugs and alcohol, often in domestic disputes. High murder rates in non-western countries are typically related to criminal feuds (as in Mexico), or to simple robbery. Cold-blooded pre-meditated murder, without any of those factors, is an extremely rare crime.
That does seem to reflect an innate taboo, and the assumption should be, that the murderer shares the taboo. There should therefore be a strong presumption, that a premeditated murder without any other motives, such as material gain or sexual gratification, is justified. In other words, if we can see no motive of personal of group advantage, we must assume that the murderer had a good reason to kill the victim.
That assumption underlies the proposal to legalise murder. It is also a response to the ethical defects of liberal societies, where weak individuals are deprived of the protection of the state. I will now describe the details of the proposal, but first a disclaimer: this proposal is intended to apply to the territory of the European Union.
On one day every year, it would be legal for some specific individuals to kill other specific individuals, between sunrise and sunset. Most workplaces and schools would be legally required to close on that day. The state would advise the population to stay indoors, and there might be some form of curfew. The day would be officially named Murder Day, to emphasise its solemn nature: all euphemism would be avoided.
There would be a state agency, the Murder Authority, charged with regulation and supervision of the legalised murder. In the two months after Murder Day, this Authority would assess the events, and alter its procedures if necessary.
Two months after Murder Day, applications would open for the next Murder Day. An adult individual, referred to as The Applicant, can apply to legally kill one other adult individual, referred to as The Target. All legal residents of the state could apply – but not those in prison, since they can not put their application into effect. They will have to wait until the first round of applications after their release.
Two groups would be exempt from the status of Target. First, the staff of the Murder Authority; they must implement the procedures. Second, those in prison or otherwise legally detained: the assumption is, that they can not harm the rest of the population, while in detention. Elected representatives and members of the government would not be exempt.
Each application must state a harm that has been done to the applicant, by the proposed Target. Random or ‘aesthetic’ murders are not allowed. The harm can consist of an action or an inaction, and it can affect the individual or a group. It can therefore include group persecution or discrimination, as well as direct actions against the person of the Applicant.
Each Applicant can kill one Target on the next Murder Day. First come, first served: the first application processed determines who is the Applicant, if more the one person wants to kill the Target. However, each application can include two alternative preferences. Ultimately one Applicant is matched to each Target. The application procedure will close after one month. There are now 9 months to the next Murder Day.
An official of the Murder Authority will inform each nominated target, in person, that they may be legally killed on Murder Day. There will be no lost letters, or other communication errors. The official must be satisfied, that the Target fully understands the procedure and its consequences.
The official of the Murder Authority will name the Applicant, and also inform the Target of the stated harm that drove the Applicant to seek their death. Every Target will know who wants to kill them, and why.
It will be illegal for third parties to obstruct the killing, on Murder Day or before it. The rich can not escape Murder Day by hiring bodyguards, or having a fortified house built. It will not be illegal for the Target to defend themselves on Murder Day itself: no law could suppress the instinct for self-preservation.
All pre-emptive strikes against the Applicant by the Target (or vice versa), will remain crimes under the normal criminal law. Threats or physical violence against the Applicant, or hiring an assassin, will result in jail for the Target. The Murder Authority will be empowered to use preventive surveillance, to forestall such reprisals or intimidation.
It will however be legal for the Target to offer compensation, through the Murder Authority, for the specific harm done, in the hope that the Applicant will withdraw the application. This is a possible loophole: a widely hated rich man could flood the system with pseudo-applicants, who would then withdraw on receipt of pseudo-compensation. The Murder Authority would be empowered to close such loopholes, for instance by freezing the assets of the Target.
Response to the certainty of death
The procedure is intended to present the Target with the relative certainty, that the Applicant will kill him/her, on the next Murder Day. The Target can respond to that in three ways.
If clearly not responsible for the stated harm, the Target can apply to the Murder Authority to cancel the application to kill them. That would apply in cases of mistaken identity, or where the Applicant had misunderstood the status, job, or functions of the Target. If the stated harm is a crime, and the Target had been tried and acquitted for that crime, the Murder Authority would take that as definitive proof that the Target was not responsible for that specific harm.
However, Targets could not otherwise dispute responsibility, or attempt to justify the harm done. What may seem a trivial incident to one person, might cause lifetime suffering to another. Some Targets will simply have to accept, that someone else wants to kill them, perhaps for something they did a long time ago. In that case the second option would apply.
The second option is exile. Each Target can apply to the Murder Authority, to go into permanent exile from the state. If they are a citizen, their citizenship would be revoked. If they were a non-citizen, any visa or residence permit would be revoked. In both cases, they would be assisted to leave the state, and forbidden from re-entering it, with deterrent penalties to ensure compliance. The application to kill them would then be cancelled.
Probably, most people would choose this option. They would simply flee the country, and the procedures would be designed to facilitate that. However, there would be some people, who would reject the stated justification for their death, who felt that they had done no wrong, and that it was the Applicant who was morally in the wrong.
In such cases, in the following two months, the Target can lodge a Counter-Application. That would entitle them to legally kill the respective Applicant on Murder Day. The same qualifications and restrictions would apply: everyone will be clearly informed, third parties may not obstruct the killing, and pre-emptive strikes remain illegal for both parties.
All application procedures will then close: it is now 7 months to Murder Day. In the following 6 months, the Applicants who have themselves become Targets can choose the option of exile. That will be treated as a withdrawal of their original application: both the original and the counter-application will be cancelled. (All Targets retain the option of choosing exile).
In the following 6 months, many of the proposed Targets (those who have not lodged a Counter-Application) will go into exile. As Murder Day approaches, some of the Counter-Applicants will change their minds, and they too will opt for exile.
One month before Murder Day, all Applicants and Targets will be required to report to the Murder Authority. If any Applicant or Counter-Applicant fails to report, their application will be cancelled. If they are Counter-Applicants and thus also a Target, their failure to report will be treated as an application for exile. Their citizenship or visa will be revoked, and the Murder Authority will be authorised to track them down, and deport them. The original Application will also be cancelled. The implementation of the exile provisions must be treated seriously, otherwise no-shows could simply evade Murder Day.
In the month preceding Murder Day, all Applicants and Targets will be required to remain in the state. The Murder Authority will be authorised to monitor their movement. Again, leaving the country in this period will mean loss of citizenship and permanent exile. The option of formally choosing exile will remain open as long as practicable, for instance until the evening before Murder Day. Any Applicant can formally withdraw their Application at any time: the Murder Authority will make itself accessible at all times, during the last month. There would be no compulsion to kill.
By the evening before Murder Day, many of the original applications will have been withdrawn, or resulted in exile. However, there will still be those who have suffered so much, or are so determined, that they welcome Murder Day.
And so, on Murder Day, they will attempt to kill. In some cases, they will attempt to kill each other. Even that will be subject to regulation: methods which endanger third parties, such as arson or explosives, will not be permitted. Since the whole point of Murder Day is that the state allows murder, it might be reasonable that the state provides the applicants with a firearm, and trains them to use it effectively.
Some Targets will hide. That would be permitted, and they might survive. However, they will spend the day in extreme fear, and a month later they can expect a new application, and another year in fear of death. The same goes for cases where the applicant simply failed: shot and missed, ran out of ammunition, or took fright. They can try again next year.
Some Targets will have entered Counter-Applications. They will succeed in killing their attacker first, or killing them in a confrontation, a shoot-out. In that case, the threat has passed. However, in all probability, an official of the Murder Authority will arrive two months later, to tell them they are now a Target for friends or family of the person they killed.
And in some cases one person will simply murder another, fully legally, because of the harm that the victim had done to the killer. The underlying assumption behind the entire legalisation proposal is, that the harm would be so great, the circumstances, so extreme, and the lack of state protection so absolute, that this murder would be justified.
Beginning at sunset on Murder Day, the Murder Authority will assess the results, check on the whereabouts of all Applicants and Targets, and begin the disposal of the dead. All murders will be fully reported to the public, including the names of Applicants and Target, and the stated harm. Two months later, applications will open for the following Murder Day.
A non-universal proposal
Two points for those who are disgusted by this proposal. First, you would not have to live in such a society. I am not suggesting that the whole world should be like this. In fact, the proposal is specifically designed for the existing European liberal-democratic states, which individuals are free to leave.
But if you did live in such a society, and you feared violent death, how could you avoid it? The answer is simple: don’t harm anyone, and especially don’t harm the weak.
And if you feared a world like this, what could you advocate, to prevent it coming into existence? You could demand that the state protect the individual from harm. That’s what drives the proposal, as indicated at the beginning: the failure of the liberal state, to comprehensively protect the citizen from others.