Resolved: Targeted killing is a morally permissible foreign policy tool

I’m thinking about writing and publishing briefs. So, before reading the topic analysis, if you could please take a second to answer the poll below, I would appreciate it. Thanks!

Alrighty, another topic to analyze and such.

Let’s start with identifying important terms.

Nouns – targeted killing, foreign policy tool

Verbs – is

Adjectives – morally permissible

Now that we’ve identified the important terms, let’s define them.

Targeted Killing – There is no actual definition of targeted killing you can find in a dictionary. The basic definition is the intentional killing of a noncombatant individual. In short, a targeted killing is an assassination. DO NOT try and be abusive with this definition and attempt to identify very narrow circumstances in which targeted killing takes place. The debate needs to focus on the moral permissibility of the action, so just accept a good general definition of it.

Foreign Policy Tool – Please do not make this more complicated than it has to be. A foreign policy tool is something which is used to achieve something in foreign policy. Essentially, what this is doing is specifying the agent and ends of the targeted killing. The government is carrying out/ordering the killing, and it is doing so in order to accomplish some foreign policy goal. This goal could be victory in a war, preventing a nation from building nuclear weapons, deposing an undesirable regime, etc… The actual end doesn’t really matter, just that it is a foreign policy end. The purpose of including this in the definition is to prevent abusive arguments which say that civilians and private organizations should not be allowed to conduct targeted killings.

Morally Permissible – Like the last topic, this is the most important part of this one. In order to argue the resolution, you must explain how we determine whether or not something is morally permissible. This explanation will occur through your value structure, and it will inform the rest of your case, so it is the most crucial part of the case. It is up to you to develop this definition in your value structure.

Ok, with those definitions in mind, let’s talk about some potential case positions.


Utilitarianism – On utilitarian grounds, targeted killing is morally permissible. Targeted killing leads to more expedient victories in armed conflicts, leading to fewer overall casualties. Not to mention, if rogue regimes are prevented from developing nuclear weapons as a result, then the utilitarian calculus definitely favors targeted killing.

Just War Theory – Traditional Jus in Bello war ethics permit targeted killing. Asa Kasher does a very good job picking apart the principle of distinction in his writing and outlines precisely why traditionally accepted moral criteria in war permit the use of targeted killing.

All is Fair in War – General Sherman argued that everything should be permitted in the context of war as it is the only true way to propel us towards a society which does not approve of war at all. Essentially, if we allow everything to be permissible in war, then people will see how terrible war can be and just refuse to go to war in the first place. Therefore, because everything is permissible in war, targeted killing is permissible.


Utilitarianism – Targeted killings cause more violence. When leaders or important individuals are eliminated, their followers are energized by the fervor of vengeance. Not only that, assassinations often leave a power or authority vacuum which splinter groups try to capture, often violently competing with one another. Furthermore, the threats which targeted killing attempts to thwart are unrealistic and often only speculative.

The Principle of Distinction – It is always morally impermissible to target noncombatants regardless of their involvement in the conflict. If they are not directly involved in fighting, they have not directly threatened anyone’s right to life, and therefore, still retain their own right to life.

Targeted Killing Makes Government Illegitimate – Targeted killings are carried out as unilateral actions, and therefore, violate the rules of morally permissible military actions. These killings do not have the consent of the international community, nor do they have the consent of the people which the government rules over. The government derives its right to defend its people from the people’s consent to be defended. At the point where the government begins ignoring this consent, it becomes illegitimate. Therefore, targeted killing is morally impermissible because an illegitimate government is immoral.

I hope this helps get you started. Feel free to ask questions, and good luck! 🙂


29 responses to “Resolved: Targeted killing is a morally permissible foreign policy tool

  1. I really like your point that “Targeted Killing Makes Government Illegitimate.” I’m doing Lincoln Douglas debate, and I think I may end up using some of your points. One suggestion- Get more legitimate definitions, and them site the sources.

    • Thanks for the comment. The reason I don’t give specific sourced definitions is to point out that the debate shouldn’t focus on them. The definition should never be a central part of the argument.

  2. I was thinking about making a Neg case centered around the idea that targeted killings are wrong because they violate international law, due process, etc… (similar to your illegitimate gov. case) So I was wondering how I could justify/make the link between violating international law and immorality. How can I reconcile these two?

    • Hi Jamie,

      There are several ways this can be done. You must first explain to me why international law determines morality on a global scale. Is it because it represents an international social contract? Is it because it is beneficial in utilitarian terms? Is it because it is a moral duty to obey the law? (Kant, Plato, and Machiavelli will all be useful in answering these questions). The key is to propose a moral system and explain why that moral system necessitates that you follow international law.

      The objection you need to prepare yourself for is the one which asks how we know that the law is moral. What about slavery? It was legal, right? My answer is usually that the law may be immoral, but breaking it is also immoral. You may work within the legal system to change the laws, but you still have a duty to follow the law.

  3. I was wondering how evidence would fall into this case outline you put above? I recently started LD debate and my first go at it was not very fun. My opponent asked for evidence, which i had none, so i wanted to be more prepared this time around. Oh and where can i find some good evidence for both AFF and NEG?

    • Evidence is used to verify claims. As far as the positions I outline above, you don’t really need real world evidence for any of them because they are moral positions. Evidence in LD is usually analytical or philosophical.

      As far as places for finding evidence, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is your best bet for philosophy. Otherwise, you can use google scholar for more modern or empirical evidence. Aside from that, if you have access to research databases like EBSCO or JSTOR, then you should use those.

  4. I’m confused about the last one, perhaps someone could clear it up for me. The “Targeted Killing Makes Government Illegitimate.” As best as I can tell, the logic is that:
    1. The Government commits an act of war without the people’s consent.
    2. Without having the people’s consent for this, this would be breaking the social contract (or the obligation of the Government to its people)
    3. This is an illegitimate Government
    4. This is immoral.

    1,3, and 4 all sound logical to me. The second seems rather dubious. Do not Governments have the power to do actions of war without the direct consent of the people? If Congress intervened today and said that we needed to declare war on a country, the people are not getting a say, are they? Just the elected officials. Why would this instance be any different?

    P.S. Thanks so much for the help on the topic, the article was great.

    • Hi Jason,

      Thank you for reading and commenting. You broke the argument down very well, so let’s talk about step 2. The validity of this part of the argument depends upon your particular view of the social contract. The way Hobbes envisioned it, you would be correct. The government has the ability to declare war without popular consent because the people have surrendered their rights to the sovereign.

      However, under Locke’s version of the social contract, this would not be the case. Popular consent is the force which drives the government, and if the government operates without popular consent in any way, then it is illegitimate. The reason for this is that any other source of authority, such as divinity or power, is non-unique and non-absolute. As far as congress is concerned, it is considered a representation of the people. Therefore, the people have given consent for congress to declare war. Only those war actions conducted by war efforts approved by congress would be legitimate. Targeted killing is not such an action.

  5. okay so I dont really understand how to figure out what value criterion should be. Any help there? I was thinking about making my value utilitarianism but for this topic i dont know what would back that up. :/

    • My advice to you is to write your contentions first. Then, you can see a common theme running through them. In order to develop a value criterion, you must first ask what you’re trying to get to. Is it justice? Is it morality? Is it societal welfare? Then, you must ask yourself how you’re going to get there. Is it through utilitarian ethics? Is it through protecting human rights? Is it through having a legitimate government? The answer to that second question will be your value criterion.

  6. Hey ace! I was wondering if running a kritik centered around Terror Talk as a discourse K was good. It seems though that these kritiks have far fetched impacts like nuclear war and I was wondering how to make the real-world impacts actually believable.

    • Hi Rohan,

      I generally do not approve of discourse kritiks for precisely the concerns you mention. We can’t affirm the resolution because it uses “terrorism rhetoric” which perpetuates stereotypes? It is very difficult to make the real-world impacts tangible since the entire world uses terrorism discourse, and it’s very hard to believe that high school debate discourse would have an effect. My answer to discourse kritiks is that you can just reword the resolution however you want as long as the principles remain the same, and then you affirm. At this point, the debate devolves into an epistemological/theory question about whether or not we’re debating the actual words of the resolution or the values and issues associated therewith. My advice to you is not to run a discourse kritik. Instead, run an epistemology or evidenciary kritik. They are more effective, and the impacts to the resolution are also much clearer.

  7. Hi! I was wondering if you had any suggestions on a card for the neg point of targeted killings making the government illegimate?

    • Hi Amy,

      In order to get an understanding of legitimacy, you should study contractarianism in depth. Look up Locke and Hobbes and what they have to say on the subject. Alain Pellet is a modern philosopher who also has some insight on the subject. Machiavelli and Plato also address questions of governmental legitimacy and efficacy. Look up these philosophers to get you started.

      With that in mind, I think you’re going about the wrong way searching for cards to support particular arguments. You should instead seek to learn and understand everything you can about a particular moral position. If you have cards, your opponent can easily counter them. However, if you know all the ins and outs of contractarianism and authority theories, then your opponent can’t throw anything at you that you won’t be able to counter.

  8. Im doing an aff case and my value is Utilitarianism and my criteria is safety,How do i find Contentions for this?

    • Hi Taylor,

      Let me start by saying that you should not try to find contentions. You should develop arguments on your own. That being said, if you already have a value structure, then you should develop your contentions based upon that. In this case, your contentions will focus on how targeted killing promotes safety and is morally permissible according to a utilitarian system.

  9. Sorry, I know you said no abusive definitions but if I were to split the definitions of targeted and killing could I run that? And what would be some blocks for against the aff?

    • Hi Maria,

      Sorry this took so long. I’ve been away for a while dealing with some stuff. You cannot split the definitions of targeted and killing because targeted killing is a separate thing on its own.

      Also, I do not give blocks. To ask me simply to block out “the aff” entails that every affirmative would run the same position. This is a big problem in debate. If you run arguments by me, I will critique them, and I can help you develop case positions, but I am firmly against blocking out people and arguments ahead of time.

      • Alright. Sorry about that then. So for aff would a self-defense case work? I was thinking having targeted killing for defense of state

      • Yes, a self-defense Aff. makes. The burden would then be to prove why targeted killing is self-defense. You must also be ready to respond to the objection which asks if targeted killing is permissible when it isn’t used in self-defense.

  10. Can I say that since the US is the most prominent sovereign state using targeted killing, it contradicts it’s own constitution which states that the right to life, liberty and property should always be protected at any cost, and since they are killing many people, including innocents, it makes government illegitimate?

    • Hi Jake,

      This is a good argument in principle, but there are several problems. First, the resolution is not U.S. specific, and making it such is a mistake. Also, the U.S. Constitution does not say that the rights to life, liberty, and property should be protected at any cost. However, you can use the broader argument that targeted killing makes a government illegitimate.

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