Ethical Realism

December 12, 2010

Honor Killings, Moral Education, Justified Punishment, Justified War, and Dehumanization

An examination of honor killings will reveal the importance of philosophical, logical, and moral education; the inappropriate treatment of criminals; the inappropriate dehumanization of our enemies; and the use of poor reasoning to justify war.

First, I will argue that “honor” for those who commit honor killings is disobedience or the reputation of a family (or the reputation of a man in the family or a tribe). Many people seem to take it for granted that the “honor” of honor killings is reputation, but we should consider the alternatives—that honor is an objective moral property or disobedience.1 Second, I will argue that Islam cannot coherently justify honor killings as they actually exist. Third, I will argue that the same poor reasoning that justifies honor killing is used in our dehumanization of our criminals and enemies of war. Such dehumanization is often essential to justify our wars.

Honor killings are a serious problem that is mainly found in Muslim communities, but not always committed by Muslims.2 It’s when a family member kills another family member based on (perceived) inappropriate behavior. Sometimes the “family” in question is actually a tribe, and sometimes punishments other than the death penalty are deemed more appropriate.3 We know that between 5,000 to 20,000 women a year are killed a year in the name of honor, and many also commit suicide (or are inappropriately punished in other ways).4

Honor killings are irrational. Killing people is not something that can be allowed without an incredibly powerful excuse, and honor fails to count as such an excuse. There are almost nothing of greater value than human life. Killing for “honor” isn’t even something that can be easily translated into a clear argument. Additionally, Islam cannot justify honor killings. Muslims who think their religion gives them a reason to kill their family members are irrational.

What is honor?

Is it mere reputation as most seem to think? Or is honor another word for “virtue?” Some people seem to think “honor” is an objective attribute that makes it so you deserve a good reputation due to your virtue, rather than reputation—the mere biased beliefs of others. If honor is mere reputation, then a child can “dishonor” their parents in the sense of destroying the reputation of his or her parents. If honor is virtue—high mindedness, greatness, excellence, moral goodness—then a child can only dishonor themselves in the sense of actually lacking virtue. No one action can destroy one’s own virtue, but one action can destroy someone’s reputation.

Honor killings are not based on the destruction of virtue. Why is that? First, destroying your own virtue cannot be accomplished through a single choice or act, but a single act is often the reason for honor killings. Everyone makes some bad choices without therefore being “bad” people, but a single act can destroy the reputation of a family (or embody disobedience). Second, destroying one’s own virtue does not justify capital punishment. Virtue comes in degrees and failing to be perfectly virtuous is normal. Pretty much no one is perfect, so capital punishment would be justified for everyone if lacking virtue was a good reason to kill people.

Honor killings often involve disobedience or “disrespectful” behavior towards a man. They target those who break the commandment “honor thy mother and father.” It is (often) “justified” based on infidelity, leaving a religious faith (against the wishes of a parent), marrying or having premarital sex (against the wishes of a parent), and so on.5

In conclusion, honor killings are either based on disobedience or reputation. It could be a mixture of the two or we might call killing for either reason an “honor killing.”

Islam cannot justify honor killings.

It is true that there are some Muslims who believe that their religion somehow justifies honor killings, but their belief isn’t self-evident. They could be wrong. In fact, I think they are wrong—and no one could possibly justify honor killings.

Let’s consider the two most common reasons for having honor killings: (1) The reputation of someone (or a group) is at stake. (2) The family member deserves punishment.

(1) The fact that the reputation of someone or a group is at stake has little to do with Islam, but it’s a poor excuse for the death penalty anyway. It might be true that a delusional group could pressure on person to kill someone else by coercing the person with the threat of having a poor reputation—but that doesn’t mean it’s good to do so. Coercion doesn’t justify violence or immoral behavior. It might be understandable why someone would be immoral when “forced” by others to do so, but that doesn’t mean that he or she is fully excused. We are morally required to stand our ground with courage and do the right thing, even if it means our own death. We can’t control the behavior of others, only of ourselves.

If coercion was a good reason to hurt people and could justify killing others, then I see no reason to think that genocide and any other immoral act couldn’t be excused. For example, genocide and other war crimes could be excused if the soldiers are worried about being executed for insubordination. However, we know that coercion doesn’t excuse such horrific acts.

(2) It is possible for a religion to say that some people “deserve” punishment for committing “crimes” or immoral acts. Such a religion could claim that premarital sex, apostasy, and disobedience are examples of crimes or immoral acts that can be justly punished. First, I personally see no reason to agree with such religious assertions. It isn’t clear that anyone “deserves” punishment, which looks to be little more than revenge that takes place after dehumanizing someone (stripping them of their inherent worth). If we can’t justify religious convictions with scientific or philosophical findings, then we should reject them. Anyone could invent a religion that justifies violence and immoral acts of oppression that are said to be “justified punishments.” My religion could say that all Muslims should be killed, but such assertions are irrational unless we have some reason to agree with it. We have reason to believe that we shouldn’t be hurting or “punishing people,” and such acts are immoral (a violation of our moral obligations) unless proven otherwise. The burden of proof is against those who are pro-punishment.

Second, let’s assume that the religion is correct that punishing children for “honor” crimes is justified (and rational). If so, the community, tribe, and/or parents are obligated to raise children appropriately—as rational and intelligent beings. If a child is irrational, then the obligations of the community, tribe, or parents have not been met. The community, tribe, or parents have then behaved immorally through neglect—they are the ones responsible for the irrational behavior caused by the immoral child in question. If a child is rational and unconvinced that premarital sex, apostasy, or disobedience is always wrong and deserve the punishment; then the community, tribe, or parents have also failed to raise the child properly through rational moral education. It is they who are at fault for the child’s immoral behavior yet again. I see no reason to think that the children who commit “honor” crimes are appropriately educated and rational nor do I see any reason to think that they have been been given appropriate moral education. To merely assume that the child have been properly educated and exonerate the community, tribe, or parents is a double standard. The child is not guilty before proven innocent if the parents aren’t. People are either innocent before proven guilty or they aren’t. That’s why trials are so important and gravely lacking (or inappropriately executed) in the cases of honor killings. The education of the child is never questioned and the possible neglect is never mentioned.

If people deserve punishment, then war is justified.

Consider how those who are convinced that “bad people” and “immoral” acts must be punished could find that an entire civilization is “bad” and commit “immoral acts”—such as failing to create rational and moral citizens—and then use such a rational to justify war. Those from countries who do things we find abhorrent will be dehumanized and we will think we should dominate those people to help educate them. Those who die resisting the conquest probably “deserved” to die anyway. This, in fact, is what happens in real life all the time. The USA is not free of blame in that area. We must resist dehumanizing our enemies and convincing ourselves that they are evil, irrational, and immoral; but we are good, rational, and moral. The quest for proper education and rationality is ongoing and has been greatly neglected all over the world. Repeatedly concentrating on the moral failings of our enemies is used to mask our own failings.

If honor killings are unjustified, then is all punishment unjustified? (Updated 12/19/10)

Education in philosophy, ethics, and rationality is gravely lacking all over the world. We are all guilty of neglecting the children of the world. Our criminals are often a product of their society and neglectful parenting. Such “neglect” and “poor” education is so widespread that it’s not considered neglectful. The neglect is invisible and it would be incredibly strange and extraordinary for anyone to be raised and educated properly to be appropriately responsible and rational. The religious belief that people deserve punishment is incoherent because it fails to realize the importance of education, rationality, and parental obligations—and such obligations are never taken to be unfulfilled. It’s not just honor killings (and punishments) that seem to be based on inconsistent beliefs, but the belief that any criminal deserves punishment. If any child should be punished, then those responsible for the child should also be punished (or more likely, punished instead), but we are lead to find a never ending chain of irrationality, irresponsibility, inadequate education, neglect, and so on. If anyone deserves punishment, then it’s impossible isolate one person who is “at fault” who deserves punishment.

Does that mean we should let criminals and dangerous people roam free? No, we might have no choice but to contain these people if we need to protect ourselves from them. Additionally, it might be perfectly rational to put such people in a rehabilitation center to help teach them how to live better lives. They haven’t been taught to be rational or live a good life, but we can try to continue their education in a safe environment.

What about the justification that punishment makes people afraid to commit crimes and therefore deters crime? Perhaps irrational people should be motivated to be moral through coercion. Coercion is not a good reason to do something ordinarily immoral, but some people hope that coercion is a better reason for a person to “do the right thing” than nothing at all. Some mild coercion could be a good way to raise children and teach them right from wrong, but it’s not clear if coercion is a justified means to control adult citizens. Rational citizens shouldn’t need such laws and irrational citizens might need gentle treatment for the same reason that children, the insane, and the mentally handicapped people deserve gentle treatment—they are not adequately responsible. The best way to make sure that coercion is justified against adults is to (a) have a good argument that the law being “protected” is rationally justified and (b) make sure that the coercion in question is not severe. (Temporary confinement, If the law being protected isn’t rationally justified, then the law could be unjust. If the use of coercion is severe—such as torture, severe medical harm, or death—then the “punishment” is likely to be cruel. Severe punishments are generally motivated through vengeance and would be inappropriate against people who aren’t adequately responsible.

Could honor killings (or honor-based punishments) be justified as a form of deterrence?

First, we need to know if the punishments are rationally justified. I must admit that at least some of the moral rules in question might have some basis. Adultery isn’t that great. However, one question is whether the immoral acts that are being punished are severe enough to warrant punishment. I see no reason to think that they are. Additionally, we need to know that the punishments are only given to the “guilty.” For the most part “honor killings” assume the victim to be guilty before proven innocent and no trail is involved. That is obviously not adequate.

Second, we need to know if the punishments are too severe. Death is certainly one of the most severe punishments possible. Again, such a punishment seems excessive against those who might not be adequately rational—and deterrence is not a good reason to punish rational people.

Finally, preventive measures seem like the most respectful way to deal with crime. It’s better for crime to never exist. Proper moral education seems like the most respectful and potentially effective way to prevent crime.


Although we might think that “honor killings” are obviously wrong, that will do little to convince anyone that it really is wrong. However, we can convince others that honor killings are unjustified by giving them the benefit of doubt and proving that their beliefs are inconsistent. First, the belief that honor killings are justified based on protecting one’s honor is based on little more than the belief that coercion can justify acts that are ordinarily wrong—but no one believes that coercion really is a good excuse for seriously harmful behavior. Second, the religious belief that people who commit immoral acts deserve punishment ignores the responsibility others share in the immoral act. Religious people must realize that parents and communities have a responsibility in educating children to be rational and moral. Such religious people have failed in being adequately rational or passing such rationality on to their children, and they have failed in convincing rational people that “honor” crimes are really immoral or worthy of serious punishment.

Once we realize that honor killings are immoral and why, we will realize that other punishments are also unjustified and our attitudes towards criminals is inappropriately vengeful. Additionally, we will realize that such an attitude is commonly used as a justification for war as a tool to dehumanize our enemies. This irrational behavior must be brought to our attention and resisted.

Once we realize the importance of philosophical, logical, and ethical education, we will realize our own failings and inappropriate treatment of criminals. We should not delight in the poor treatment of our criminals. Instead, we should do everything in our power to stop people from rationalizing immorality and help rehabilitate those who have not found a better way of life.


1 For example, James Emory, Sara Sidner, and Hillary Mayell are three examples of people who seem to assume that “honor” merely refers to “reputation.”

2 An example of a Christian family honor killing can be found here. There are also honor killings by Hindus.

3 For an example of a tribe that punished people for dishonoring it using rape, go here. Also, several Iraqi women were raped to persuade them to become suicide bombers.

Update (12/19/10): My discussion on deterrence was too simplistic and needed to be discussed in greater detail.

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