Why is murder wrong?

Almost everyone agrees that murder is wrong. But is it possible to prove that it is?


Over two hundred years ago the famous Scottish philosopher David Hume sided with Philip by producing what is usually called "the fact/value distinction". Statements are of two quite different sorts, he argued:

The first are "is" statements, like "The cat is sitting on the mat". Whereas the second are "ought" statements, like "The cat ought not kill the mouse" or "It is wrong for the cat to kill the mouse."

Because "is" statements are about how the world is, they can be checked by looking at the world. If, on inspection, there is indeed a furry animal seated on the floor covering, then "The cat is sitting on the mat" is true! But "ought" statements cannot be checked in the same way. We cannot look at the world and to discover an "ought" connecting mice and cats.

Hume concluded that the two sorts of statement are so different that you cannot get from one
to the other, from an "is" to an "ought". But this is exactly what Phoebe tries to do in her
argument with Philip. To prove that Philip ought not murder someone because it is wrong,
she produces as evidence that:

Unfortunately, because all are "is" statements, they do not prove the "ought" statements
"You shouldn't murder" or "Murder is wrong". Even the statement "God says murder is
wrong" wouldn't help, because that too is merely another "is" statement!

Once you have understood Hume's argument, it is very difficult to counter it convincingly,
as Phoebe found out. Which leaves us with two unattractive possibilities concerning murder:

And neither of these is what Phoebe really believes.

But is Hume right? Ah, there's a good question!

Extra tricky questions for budding philosophers

  1. Does Hume's argument apply to all matters of right and wrong, or just to murder?
  2. If we abandoned the idea that murder is wrong, the human species might die out.
    Does that make murder wrong?
  3. Does "Being kind is good" just mean "Hooray for kindness!"? If not, what else
    does it mean?

To find out more about David Hume and his his revolutionary ideas, click here.