The question translates into another, namely: Is it acceptable to kill the guilty to protect the lives of the innocent?
Which begs the next question: Who is guilty and who is innocent, and who is to judge?
Where do we draw the line between 'guilty' and just someone being a bystander and at best guilty by association and not doing anything—for whatever reason? (Which, right now, would make the whole world complicit in the crimes committed in Iran—and in any place in the world, where evil is being inflicted on those who cannot avert its infliction on themselves)
Terry Goodkind's solution to this kind of problem (in the final book of the Sword of Truth series, Confessor) was to take an easy way out; 'easy' for a writer of fiction, that is. Those who followed or supported the 'Order' (standing in, pretty thinly veiled, for any of the world's religions; and I can't really fault his strongly drawn characterizations of the absurdity of religious faith and the grotesque results it produces in human beings—I mean, just look at Iran right now, as it plays out; and then remember all the other instances where religion and dumb-assed ideology have been invoked in to elicit and bring forth the worst in its practitioners) were separated from those who wanted "to live their own lives"—into non-overlapping universes. It was the only way to wrap up the books, I guess. Bit of a deus ex machina; one of many.
Goodkind's approach to how to defend oneself against an enemy both overpowering and basically not caring if they died, was equally straightforward and uncompromising; though I must confess that, at a gut level, I'm pretty much on-board with it. In fact, Teris, the Aslatrix—known to readers of Fontaine and Tethys—deals with someone in pretty much the same way in the first few chapters of Aslam.
The problem with both of Goodkind's solutions—the first one also being inflicted with the limitation that in this world, there isn't anything like the "Power of Orden", the powerful magic that ultimately had to be invoked to sort things out—is that they need to be applied on a sliding scale. He ignores that by setting the slide way over to one end of the scale of judgment. But just where we slide it to n each particular case...well, that's where the rub is. For, unless you're an ideologue or religious nitwit, the mark you draw onto those scales of judgment applied to others and their level of responsibility for and complicity in suffering inflicted on those on whom it is being inflicted, is entirely arbitrary. It's like abortion: how do you decide at what point a clump of cells has become a human being with a 'right to live', pretty much just like anyone having been born?
Or is it?
The usual 'rational' way of dealing with the 'sliding scale' is to become an ethical/moral relativist—if not explicitly so, but definitely by implication. This is the way of most of the enlightened intellectualigentsia, as well as every 'open minded' dimit who thinks that evil is relative and a matter of opinion.
Is there a baseline of conditions one might use to allow judgment of the existence of 'evil' in human deeds? Conditions, external and internal, that would cause anyone existing under them to come to basically the same conclusions—possibly by a gut reaction, something that is at a more 'basic' level than 'reason'—about the nature of evil and its appearance. What we are really looking for are types of 'human universals' that, if not kept down by conditioning or contigency, would lead people to come to similar conclusions, no matter who, where and when these people exist.
Well, here are some suggestions. Suppose we had an arbitrary human exemplar, who...
- Is not a psychopath or has other drastic neurological of psychological conditions that would make his or her reactions to other people differ significantly from the 'average', especially in terms of their capacity for empathy. (It's been said that if the 9/11 hijackers had been able to empathize with their victims—a capacity annulled by psychopathy and/or their 'faith'—they would not have been able to do what they did.)
- Lives under conditions of economic security, and social and physical safety—including that relating to, for example, threats by outside groups.
- Has been brought up with certain narratives of a metaphysical nature, but has not been programmed with strong and persistent religious or ideological dogma containing specific instructions for the exercise of morality and ethics that judge those who do not share 'faith' as something 'lesser', possibly requiring vanquishing or conversion.
So, suppose, we had such a person or persons, or those deviating from this standard by degrees not significant in the context, and capable of displaying the 'universals' of human morals and ethics.
Would it be sensible to use such 'averaged' people and their judgments and sensibilities, especially the visceral ones, as measuring sticks to attempt a definition of what definitely is 'evil'? Like killing people who haven't done you any harm? Like inflicting suffering, often horrific, on children and the helpless? Like making the lives of others into hell, just because it happens to be convenient or suits some selfish or uniopic purpose?
There is a list of 'human universals' listed by Donald Brown—I only learned of these through reading The Blank Slate—that, whether entirely accurate or not, gives one pause for thought. But if there are such basic sensibilities, then there has to be some form of possibility to judge when these sensibilities have been violated. The violators' proximate motives can also usually be assessed—though often they will be concealed under a tarnkappe of deceit, often on a grand scale and often including a significant measure of self-deceit—and these must be the ones based on which judgment needs to be rendered.
And, supposing that this is so, then we need to re-ask the question, this time in a more complicated form, to account for those universal sensibilities:
Do those who take life, inflict suffering, take away those 'human rights' which are part of the 'human universal sensibilities', and so on...do these people thereby forfeit their own right to those things; like life and liberty, as the US Constitution would have it?
Does the protection of those unable to protect themselves, or having charged certain people with the task of protection, justify the taking of the lives of those who would take the lives of those that are being protected?
To take this further: Supposing the answer is 'yes', then— unless an agency or agencies charged with protection can also guarantee that they live up to their assigned protective task—should it not be the right of anyone to take whatever measures s/he considers necessary to make it possible to effect such protection? Or is the right of a society for social regulation— which in practice seems to imply as a consequence taking away from individuals both the right and the means for, say, self and family protection—greater than the right of individuals to be able to exercise their implicit, 'human universal', duty?
I'm not saying things are one way or the other. These are just questions. But many of them are at the heart of much domestic and international politics, and of the national and global Zeitgeist. Therefore our trying to ignore them or answer them in he usual facile way is done at our own peril.