When a government decides to assassinate or use targeted killing, is it legal? Is it moral? Does it matter if the target is a political, military, scientific or civilian leader? Students and community members had an opportunity to hear experts weigh in on these questions during the 2012 Donchian Ethics Symposium, “The Ethics of Assassination.”

The symposium was sponsored by the Jepson School of Leadership Studies and co-sponsored by the philosophy, politics, economics, and law (PPEL) program. It included a panel discussion with experts in law, public policy and philosophy, and a keynote lecture by former Navy SEAL officer Eric Greitens, best-selling author of “The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL” and the founder-CEO of the organization The Mission Continues, which serves wounded veterans.

The theme for the March 27 event was decided before a drone strike last September killed American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. “But that event – and Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent speech on targeted killing – clearly demonstrate that this topic isn’t ‘simply academic’ but is in fact real practice and worth discussing,” said Sandra J. Peart, dean of the Jepson School.

The panel included:

  • Whitley Kaufman, a philosopher at the University of Massachusetts whose work focuses on preventive war, the legal justification of self-defense and the moral legitimacy of causing harm to civilians in war
  • Mary Ellen O’Connell, an international law expert at the University of Notre Dame whose research focuses on international legal theory, international law on the use of force and international dispute resolution
  • David Perry, professor of applied ethics and director of the Vann Center for Ethics at Davidson College

David Lefkowitz, associate professor of philosophy at the University, coordinator of the PPEL program, and one of the organizers, moderated.

The panel was characteristic of the approach the University takes to problem solving, says Terry L. Price, associate dean for academic affairs at the Jepson School and an organizer of the symposium. “Many problems are so important, so complex, that they require collaboration across academic schools and disciplines.”

The panelists’ views differed, but they agreed on the need to talk about the issue. “This discussion today is another example of the seriousness with which people are beginning to regard this discussion,” O’Connell said.

Earlier in the day, a mini-class led by leadership studies professor Joanne Ciulla gave students an opportunity to discuss the topic with the panelists.

“The class definitely challenged any of my preconceived ideas about dictators and assassination,” says Shaye Ellis, ’14. “What I had originally assumed were clear-cut answers about justice and morality became much more complicated.”

Keynote speaker Eric Greitens shared stories from his SEAL training and discussed leading on the front lines. Every leader has a “front line,” he said. “The front line is really any place where you come in contact with pain, with fear, with heartache.”

Courage is being willing to do the hard thing that has to be done day after day, he said, adding that leadership is in part an exercise in courage.

Greitens answered questions about his organization, targeted killing and the greatest test of his personal leadership, and signed books after the talk. He also shared his thoughts on the nation’s first school of leadership studies. “I love the Jepson School’s mission to make sure leaders are trained to live lives of consequence,” he said. “I think it’s a beautiful mission.”

The symposium was made possible by a grant from the Richard Davoud Donchian Foundation, which is dedicated to “building the framework for intelligent, ethical and compassionate leadership.”


Student Response

“It was interesting how we were able to think together about issues of moral human rights through the medium of something as harsh as assassination.” --John Sobieski, ’14.

"Listening to and participating in the "Ethics of Assassination" class was a very interesting experience. Before going to the class, I had never really given the idea of assassinating a leader much thought. Being forced to think about what would make assassinating someone acceptable was a strange way to think. It did, however, relate to what I have been learning in my Justice and Civil Society course. We have been studying various moral dilemmas." --Shiksha Mahtani, '14

Keynote Address: Eric Greitens

Dean, E. Claiborne Robins Distinguished Professorship in Leadership Studies
Ethics and Economics
Leadership Ethics
History of Economic Thought
History of Political Economy
Experimental Economics
Professor Emerita
Leadership Ethics
Business Ethics
International Leadership
Conflict Resolution
Philosophy of Work
Associate Professor of Philosophy and Philosophy, Politics, Economics and Law (PPEL)
Political Philosophy
Philosophy of Law
Ethical Theory
Applied Ethics
Professor, Coston Family Chair in Leadership and Ethics
Leadership Ethics
Moral Psychology
Social, Political, and Legal Theory

Panel Discussion