Over a six-week period in the summer of 2014, I have had the privilege of working on the first donor-funded Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programme Placement at the University of Reading. This placement involved my working on a project, based in the Politics and International Relations Department, entitled ‘Assassination as an Alternative to War’ under the supervision of Dr. Adam Humphreys.
So what is an ‘assassination’? Perhaps unsurprisingly, political theorists and philosophers disagree about this. However, to aid in giving you an overview of my work on this placement, let us hazard the following quick and problematic account of what an assassination is: a ‘politically motivated’ pre-meditated extra-judicial targeted killing of, at least, one individual by, at least, one other individual.
With this account in mind, and restricting our discussion to political assassinations by one state of a political leader in another state, we may ask: Under what conditions, if any, is it morally permissible for a state to assassinate a political leader in another state? (Call this an ‘ethical’question). Assuming that there were such conditions, is there good reason to revise the laws governing the use of assassinations by states to legally permit assassinations that meet these conditions? (Call this a ‘legal’ question). Finally, we may ask what the direct political consequences of assassinations in the past have been (Call this a ‘political’ or ‘historical’ question). There are, of course, many more questions that fall into the categories I have placed the above questions in.
The project I worked on this summer is concerned with these abovementioned questions. My work, however, on this project concerned questions of the first kind above. That is, I worked on trying to address ethical questions that have been asked, and that academics in different disciplines have proposed answers to, regarding whether assassinations are ever morally permissible.
So how does one ‘address’ these ethical questions? Or, more bluntly, what did I actually do? Well, consider the ethical question presented above. If you thought that there were some conditions that, if met, would make it morally permissible for a state to assassinate a political leader in another state then, presumably, you may have some reason for thinking this. For example, you may think that if the only way to avert some kind of human-rights atrocity in the state of the political leader in question was to kill that leader, then an assassination of that leader would be morally permissible. With this reason in mind, you might construct an argument for your view. One way to ‘address’ these sorts of ethical questions, then, is to present an argument for a particular answer to a question, while conceiving of possible objections and responding to them in turn.
However, another way to ‘address’ an ethical question is to consider the arguments that have been presented for a particular answer and to try to argue that they are, for some argued reason(s), unsound. This latter way of ‘addressing’ these questions is what has made up the majority of my work on this placement.
In comparison with the large amount of work that has been produced in applied/practical ethics regarding war and other forms of targeted killings, very little attention has been given to directly address ethical questions regarding particular kinds of targeted killings we call assassinations. My work on this placement offered an opportunity to move in the direction of changing this, by engaging with some of the work done on the ethics of assassination and to critically engage with the arguments found therein.
Dr. Humphreys tasked me with reading two different papers in the recent academic literature on the ethics of assassination and asked me to write discussion/response papers of my own to these two papers. I researched the broad cluster of issues these papers wished to address and I worked to understand the disputes these papers were engaged in, in order to gain the requisite knowledge to best evaluate the arguments presented in these papers.
As I did this, I began to think that despite the authors of these papers making progress in developing our understanding of the ethics of assassination, the particular arguments presented in both of these papers for the moral permissibility of assassination (when certain conditions were met) were open to very serious objections. Interestingly, these objections, it seemed to me, helped point in the direction of what the questions we ought be asking to ascertain the moral permissibility of assassination actually are.
The products of my concerns, and where I develop the aforementioned objections and defend my claims, are two papers: one of 5,500 words and another of 3,000 words. The opportunity to author these papers under Dr. Humphreys supervision, and to contribute to the project in the process, is one I am very thankful for. I was very happy to be informed that Dr. Humphreys agreed with my conclusions, even if we did disagree about some of the finer details! I plan to continue to work on these papers in the future for possible publication.
My final research task during my placement was to compile an annotated bibliography for the project. This bibliography contains a number of online articles, academic papers, book reviews and other literature that I deemed relevant to the broad concerns of this project. Attached to this bibliography is a commentary on some issues in the literature that I wished to bring to Dr. Humphreys’ attention.
I am extremely grateful both to Dr. Humphreys for giving me the opportunity to work with him on this project and for the generosity of the donor responsible for funding my research on this project. Working on this project, and gaining experience in the kind of research I would like to conduct in a future career as a professional philosopher in academia, has been an invaluable experience. I have learned a great deal about a set of disputes in applied/practical ethics and the relevance of these disputes to certain questions in political theory. The point where these disputes meet is, I think, a space where there is room for fruitful interdisciplinary inquiry. An inquiry that, I hope, I will be able to contribute to again in the future.
Farbod Akhlaghi-Ghaffarokh, BA Philosophy