The following text is that of a privately printed pamphlet, 1956, pp. 14.  Front cover: One Shilling.  Inside front cover: Dedicated with respect, but without permission, to the others who said “Non placet.” Inside back cover: Copyright reserved to the author.  Copies can be obtained from her at 27 St. John Street, OxfordIt was reprinted in The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe, vol. III, Ethics, Religion and Politics. Blackwell, Oxford: 1981, 62-71. 

Mr. Truman’s Degree

G. E. M. Anscombe

In 1939, on the outbreak of war, the President of the United States asked for assurances from the belligerent nations that civil populations would not be attacked.

In 1945, when the Japanese enemy was known by him to have made two attempts toward a negotiated peace* [* See Appendix.], the President of the United States gave the order for dropping an atom bomb on a Japanese city; three days later a second bomb, of a different type, was dropped on another city.  No ultimatum was delivered before the second bomb was dropped.

Set side by side, these events provide enough of a contrast to provoke enquiry.  Evidently development has take place; one would like to see its course plotted.  It is not, I think, difficult to give an intelligible account:—

(1) The British Government gave President Roosevelt the required assurance, with a reservation which meant “If the Germans do it we shall do it too.”  You don’t promise to abide by the Queensbury Rules even if your opponent abandons them.

(2) The only condition for ending the war was announced to be unconditional surrender.  Apart from the “liberation of the subject peoples,” the objectives were vague in character.  Now the demand for unconditional surrender was mixed up with a determination to make no peace with Hitler’s government.  In view of the character of Hitler’s regime that attitude was very intelligible.  Nevertheless some people have doubts about it now.  It is suggested that defeat of itself would have resulted in the rapid discredit and downfall of that government.  On this I can form no strong opinion.  The important question to my mind is whether the intention of making no peace with Hitler’s government necessarily entailed the objective of unconditional surrender.  If, as may not be impossible, we could have formulated a pretty definite objective, a rough outline of the terms which we were willing to make with Germany, while at the same time indicating that we would not make terms with Hitler’s government, then the question of the wisdom of this latter demand seems to me a minor one; but if not, then that settles it.  It was the insistence on unconditional surrender that was the root of all evil.  The connection between such a demand and the need to use the most ferocious methods of warfare will be obvious.  And in itself the proposal of an unlimited objective in war is stupid and barbarous.

 (3) The Germans did a good deal of indiscriminate bombing in this country.  It is impossible for an uninformed person to know how much, in its first beginnings, was due to indifference on the part of pilots to using their loads only on military targets, and how much to actual policy on the part of those who sent them.  Nor do I know what we were doing at the same time.  But certainly anyone would have been stupid who had thought in 1939 that there would not be such bombing, developing into definite raids on cities.

(4) For some time before war broke out, and more intensely afterwards, there was propaganda in this country on the subject of the “indivisibility” of modern war.  The civilian population, we were told, is really as much combatant as the fighting forces.  The military strength of a nation includes its whole economic and social strength.  Therefore the distinction between the people engaged in prosecuting the war and the population at large is unreal.  There is no such thing as a non-participator; you cannot buy a postage stamp or any taxed article, or grow a potato or cook a meal, without contributing to the “war effort.”  War indeed is a “ghastly evil,” but once it has broken out no one can “contract out” of it.  “Wrong” indeed must be being done if war is waged, but you cannot help being involved in it.  There was a doctrine of “collective responsibility” with a lugubriously elevated moral tone about it.  The upshot was that it was senseless to draw any line between legitimate and illegitimate objects of attack.—Thus the court chaplains of democracy.  I am not sure how children and the aged fitted into this story: probably they cheered the soldiers and munitions workers up.

(5) The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and there was war between America and Japan.  Some American (Republican) historians now claim that the acknowledged fact that the American Government knew an attack was impending some hours before it occurred, but did not alert the people in local command, can only be explained by a purpose of arousing the passions of American people.  However that may be, those passions were suitably aroused and the war was entered on with the same vague and hence limitless objectives; and once more unconditional surrender was the only condition on which the war was going to end.

(6) Then came the great change: we adopted the system of “area bombing” as oppose to “target bombing.”  This differed from even big raids on cities, such as had previously taken place in the course of the war, by being far more extensive and devastating and much less random; the whole of a city area would be systematically plotted out and dotted with bombs.  “Attila was a Sissy,” as the Chicago Tribune headed an article on this subject.

(7) In 1945, at the Postdam conference in July, Stalin informed the American and British statesmen that he had received two requests from the Japanese to act as a mediator with a view to ending the war.  He had refused.  The Allies agreed on the “general principle”—marvellous phrase!—of using the new type of weapon that the Americans now possessed.  The Japanese were given a chance in the form of the Potsdam Declaration, calling for unconditional surrender in face of overwhelming force soon to be arrayed against them.  The historian of the Survey of International Affairs considers that this phrase was rendered meaningless by the statement of a series of terms; but of these the ones incorporating the Allies’ demands were mostly of so vague and sweeping a nature as to be rather a declaration of what unconditional surrender would be like than to constitute conditions.  It seems to be generally agreed that the Japanese were desperate enough to have accepted the Declaration but for their loyalty to their Emperor: the “terms” would certainly have permitted the Allies to get rid of him if they chose.  The Japanese refused the Declaration.  In consequence, the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The decision to use them on people was Mr. Truman’s. 

*     *     *     *     *     * 

For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder, and murder is one of the worst of human actions.  So the prohibition on deliberately killing prisoners of war or the civilian population is not like the Queensbury Rules: its force does not depend on its promulgation as part of positive law, written down, agreed upon, and adhered to by the parties concerned.

When I say that to choose to kill the innocent as a means to one’s ends is murder, I am saying what would generally be accepted as correct.  But I shall be asked for my definition of “the innocent.”  I will give it, but later.  Here, it is not necessary; for with Hiroshima and Nagasaki we are not confronted with a borderline case.  In the bombing of these cities it was certainly decided to kill the innocent as a means to an end.  And a very large number of them, all at once, without warning, without the interstices of escape or the chance to take shelter, which existed even in the “area bombing” of the German cities.

I have long been puzzled by the common cant about President Truman’s courage in making this decision.  Of course, I know that you can be cowardly without having reason to think you are in danger.  But how can you be courageous?  Light has come to me lately: the term is an acknowledgement of the truth.  Mr. Truman was brave because, and only because, what he did was so bad.  But I think the judgement unsound.  Given the right circumstances (e.g. that no one whose opinion matters will disapprove), a quite mediocre person can do spectacularly wicked things without thereby becoming impressive.

I determined to oppose the proposal to give Mr. Truman an honorary degree here at Oxford.  Now, an honorary degree is not a reward of merit:  it is, as it were, a reward for being a very distinguished person, and it would be foolish to enquire whether a candidate deserves to be as distinguished as he is.  That is why, in general, the question whether so-and-so should have an honorary degree is devoid of interest.  A very distinguished person will hardly be also a notorious criminal, and if he should chance to be a non-notorious criminal it would, in my opinion, be improper to bring the matter up.  It is only in the rather rare case in which a man is known everywhere for an action, in fact of which it is sycophancy to honor him, that the question can be of the slightest interest.

I have been accused of being “high-minded.”  I must be saying “You may not do evil that good may come,” which is a disagreeably high-minded doctrine.  The action was necessary, or at any rate it was thought by competent, expert military opinion to be necessary; it probably saved more lives than it sacrificed; it had a good result, it ended the war.  Come now: if you had to choose between boiling one baby and letting some frightful disaster befall a thousand people—or a million people, if a thousand is not enough—what would you do?  Are you going to strike an attitude and say “You may not do evil that good may come”?  (People who never hear such arguments will hardly believe they take place, and will pass this rapidly by.)

“It pretty certainly saved a huge number of lives.”  Given the conditions, I agree.  That is to say, if those bombs had not been dropped the Allies would have had to invade Japan to achieve their aim, and they would have done so.  Very many soldiers on both sides would have been killed; the Japanese, it is said—and it may well be true—would have massacred the prisoners of war; and large numbers of their civilian p opulation would have been killed by “ordinary” bombing.

I do not dispute it.  Given the conditions, that was probably what was averted by that action.  But what were the conditions?  The unlimited objective, the fixation on unconditional surrender.  The disregard of the fact that the Japanese were desirous of negotiating peace.  The character of the Potsdam Declaration—their “chance.”  I will not suggest, as some would like to do, that there was an exultant itch to use the new weapons, but it seems plausible to think that the consciousness of the possession of such instruments had its effect on the manner in which the Japanese were offered their “chance.”

We can now reformulate the principle of “doing evil that good may come” Every fool can be as much of a knave as suits him.

I recommend this history to undergraduates reading Greats as throwing a glaring light on Aristotle’s thesis that you cannot be or do any good where you are stupid.

I informed the Senior Proctor of my intention to oppose Mr. Truman’s degree.  He consulted the Registrar to get me informed on procedure.  The Vice-Chancellor was informed; I was cautiously asked if I had got up a party.  I had not; but a fine House was whipped up to vote for the honour.  The dons at St. John’s were simply told “The women are up to something in Convocation; we have to go and vote them down.”  In Worcester, in All Souls, in New College, however, consciences were greatly exercised, as I have heard.  A reason was found to satisfy them: It would be wrong to try to PUNISH Mr. Truman!   I must say I rather like St. John’s.

The Censor of St. Catherine’s had an odious task.  He must make a speech which should pretend to show that a couple of massacres to a man’s credit are not exactly a reason for not showing him honour.  He had, however, one great advantage: he did not have to persuade his audience, who were already perfectly convinced of that proposition.  But at any rate he had to make a show.

The defence, I think, would not have been well received at Nuremberg.

We do not approve the action; no, we think it was a mistake.  (That is how communists now talk about Stalin’s more murderous proceedings.)  Further, Mr. Truman did not make the bombs by himself, and decide to drop them without consulting anybody; no, he was only responsible for the decision.  Hang it all, you can’t make a man responsible just because “his is the signature at the foot of the order.”  Or was he not even responsible for the decision?  It was not quite clear whether Mr. Bullock was saying that or not; but I never heard anyone else seem to give the lie to Mr. Truman’s boasts.  Finally, an action of this sort is, after all, only one episode: an incident, as it were, in a career.   Mr. Truman has done some good.

I know that in one way such a speech does not deserve scrutiny; after all, it was just something to say on its occasion.  And he had to say something.  One must not suppose that one can glean anything a man actually thinks from what he says in such circumstances.  Professor Stebbing exposing the logical fallacies in politicians’ speeches is a comic spectacle. 


Choosing to kill the innocent as a means to your ends is always murder.  Naturally, killing the innocent as an end in itself is murder too; but that is no more than a possible future development for us:* [* This will seem a preposterous assertion; but we are certainly on the way, and I can think of no reasons for confidence that it will not happen.]  in our part of the globe it is a practice that has so far been confined to the Nazis.  I intend my formulation to be taken strictly; each term in it is necessary.  For killing the innocent, even if you know as a matter of statistical certainty that the things you do involve it, is not necessarily murder.  I mean that if you attack a lot of military targets, such as munitions factories and naval dockyards, as carefully as you can, you will be certain to kill a number of innocent people; but that is not murder.  On the other hand, unscrupulousness in considering the possibilities turns it into murder.  I here print as a case in point a letter which I received lately from Holland:

We read in our paper about your opposition to Truman.  I do not like him either, but do you know that in the war the English bombed the dykes of our province Zeeland, an island where nobody could escape anywhere to.  Where the whole population was drowned, children, women, farmers working in the field, all the cattle, everything, hundreds and hundreds, and we were your allies!  Nobody ever speaks about that.  Perhaps it were well to know this.  Or, to remember.”

That was to trap some fleeing German military.  I think my correspondent has something.

It may be impossible to take the thing (or people) you want to destroy as your target; it may be possible to attack it only by taking as the object of your attack what includes large numbers of innocent people.  Then you cannot very well say they died by accident.  Here, your action is murder.

“But where will you draw the line?  It is impossible to draw an exact line.”  This is a common and absurd argument against drawing any line; it may be very difficult, and there are obviously borderline cases.  But we have fallen into the way of drawing no line and offering as justifications what an uncaptive mind will find only a bad joke.  Wherever the line is, certain things are certainly well to one side or the other of it.

Now who are “the innocent” in war?  They are all those who are not fighting and not engaged in supply those who are with the means of fighting.  A farmer growing wheat which may be eaten by the troops is not “supplying them with the means of fighting.”  Over this, too, the line may be difficult to draw.  But that does not mean that no line should be drawn, or that, even if one is in doubt just where to draw the line, one cannot be crystal clear that this or that is well over the line.

“But the people fighting are probably just conscripts!  In that case they are just as innocent as anyone else.”  “Innocent” here is not a term referring to personal responsibility at all.  It means rather “not harming.”  But the people fighting are “harming,” so they can be attacked; but if they surrender they become in this sense innocent and so may not be maltreated or killed.  Nor is there round for trying them on a criminal charge; not, indeed, because a man has no personal responsibility for fighting, but because they were not the subjects of the state whose prisoners they are.

There is an argument which I know from experience it is necessary to forestall at this point, though I think it is visibly captious.  It is this: on my theory, would it not follow that a soldier can only be killed when he is actually attacking?  Then, e.g., it would be impossible to attack a sleeping camp.  The answer is that “what someone is doing” can refer to what he is doing at the moment or to his rôle in a situation.  A soldier under arms is “harming” in the latter sense even if he is asleep.  But it is true that the enemy should not be attacked more ferociously than is necessary to put them hors de combat.

These conceptions are distinct and intelligible ones; they would formerly have been said to belong to the Law of Nations.  Anyone can see that they are good, and we pay tribute to them by our moral indignation when our enemies violate them.  But in fact they are going, and only fragments of them are left.  General Eisenhower, for example, is reported to have spoken slightingly once of the notion of chivalry towards prisoners—as if that were based on respect for their virtue or for the nation form which they come, and not on the fact that they are now defenceless.

It is characteristic of nowadays to talk with horror of killing rather than of murder, and hence, since in war, since you have committed yourself to killing—i.e. “accepted an evil”—not to mind whom you kill.  This seems largely to be the work of the devil; but I also suspect that it is in part an effect of the existence of pacifism, as a doctrine which many people respect though they would not adopt it.  This effect would not exist if people had a distinct notion of what makes pacifism a false doctrine.

It therefore seems to me important to show that for one human being deliberately to kill another is not inevitably wrong.  I may seem to be wasting my time, as most people do reject pacifism.  But it is nevertheless important to argue the point because if one does so one sees that there are pretty severe restrictions on legitimate killing.  Of course, people accept this within the state, but when it comes to war they have the idea that any restrictions are something like the Queensbury Rules—instead of making the difference between being guilty and not guilty of murder.

I will not discuss the self-defence of a private person.  If he kills the man who attacks him who someone else, it ought to be accidental.  To aim at killing, even when one is defending oneself, is murderous.  (I fear even this idea is going.  A man was acquitted recently who had successfully set a lethal booby trap to kill a thief in his absence.)

But the state actually has the authority to order deliberate killing in order to protect its people or to put frightful injustices right.  (For example, the plight of the Jews under Hitler would have been a reasonable cause of war.)  The reason for this is pretty simple: it stands outmost clearly if we first consider the state’s right to order such killing within its confines.  I am not referring to the death penalty, but to what happens when there is rioting or when violent malefactors have to be caught.  Rioters can sometimes only be restrained, or malefactors seized, by force.  Law without force is ineffectual, and human beings without laws miserable (though we, who have too many and too changeable laws, may easily not feel this very distinctly).  So much is indeed fairly obvious, though the more peaceful the society the less obvious it is that the force in the hands of the servants of the law has to be force up to the point of killing.  It would become perfectly obvious any time there was rioting or gangsterism which had to be dealt with by the servants of the law fighting.

The death penalty itself is a completely different matter.  The state is not fighting the criminal who is condemned to death.  That is why the death penalty is not indispensable.  People keep on discussing whether the point of it is deterrence or vengeance; it is neither.  Not deterrence, because nobody has proved anything about that, and people think what they think in accordance with their prejudices.  And not vengeance, because that’s nobody’s business.  Confusion arises on this subject because the state is said, and correctly said, to punish the criminal, and “punishment” suggests “vengeance.”  Therefore many humane people dislike the idea and prefer such notions as “correction” and “rehabilitation.”  But the action of the state in depriving a man of his rights, up to his very life, ahs to be considered from two sides.  First, from that of the man himself.  If he could say “Why have you done this to me?  I have not deserved it,” then the state would be acting with injustice.  Therefore he must be proved guilty, and only as punishment has the state the right to inflict anything on him.  The concept of punishment is our one safeguard against being done “good” to, in ways involving a deprivation of rights, by impudent powerful people.  Second, from the side of the state, divine retributive justice is not its affair: it only has to protect its people and restrain malefactors.  The ground of its right to deprive of liberty and even life is only that the malefactor is a nuisance, like a like a gangrenous limb.  Therefore it can cut him off entirely, if his crime is so bad that he could not justly protest “I have not deserved this.”  But when I say that the sole ground of state’s right to kill him is that he is a nuisance, I only mean that he is a nuisance qua malefactor.  The lives of the innocent are the actual point of society, so the fact that in some other way they may be a nuisance (troublesome to look after, for example) does not justify the state in getting rid of them.  Though that is another thing we may yet come to.  But the blood of the innocent cries to heaven for vengeance.

Thus the malefactor who has been found guilty is the only defenceless person whom the state may put to death.  It need not; it can choose more merciful laws.  (I have no prejudice in favour of the death penalty.)  Any other defenceless person is as such innocent, in the sense “not harming.”  And so the state can only order to kill others of its subjects besides convicted criminals if they are rioting or doing something that has to be stopped, and can only be stopped by the servants of the law fighting them.

Now, this is also the ground of the state’s right to order people to fight external enemies who are unjustly attacking them or something of theirs.  The right to order to fight for the sake of other people’s wrongs, to put right something affecting people who are not actually under the protection of the sate, is a rather more dubious thing obviously, but it exists because of the common sympathy of human beings whereby one feels for one’s neighbour if he is attacked.  So in an attenuated sense it can be said that something that belongs to, or concerns, one is attacked if anybody is unjustly attacked or maltreated.

Pacifism, then, is a false doctrine.  Now, no doubt, it is bad just for that reason, because it is always bad to have a false conscience.  In this way the doctrine that it is a bad act to lay a bet is bad: it is all right to bet what it is all right to risk or drop in the sea.  But I want to maintain that pacifism is a harmful doctrine in a far stronger sense than this.  Even the prevalence of the idea that it was wrong to bet would have no particularly bad consequences; a false doctrine which merely forbids what is not actually bad need not encourage people in anything bad.  But with pacifism it is quite otherwise.  It is a factor in the loss of the conception of murder which is my chief interest in this pamphlet.

I have very often heard people say something like this: “It is all very well to say ‘Don’t do evil that good may come.’ But war is evil.  We all know that.  Now, of course, it is possible to be an Absolute Pacifist.  I can respect that, but I can’t be one myself, and most other people won’t be either.  So we have to accept the evil.  It is not that we do not see the evil.  And once you are in for it, you have to go the whole hog.”

This is much as if I were defrauding someone, and when someone tried to stop me I said: “Absolute honesty! I respect that.  But of course absolute honesty really means having no property at all . . .”  Having offered the sacrifice of a few sighs and tears to absolute honesty, I go on as before.

The correct answer to the statement that “war is evil” is that it is bad—i.e., a misfortune—to be at war.  And no doubt if two nations are at war at least one is unjust.  But that does not show that it is wrong to fight or that if one does fight one can also commit murder.

Naturally my claim that pacifism is a very harmful doctrine is contingent on its being a false one.  If it were a true doctrine, its encouragement of this nonsensical “hypocrisy of the ideal standard” would not count against it.  but given that it is false, I am inclined to think it is also very bad, unusually so for an idea which seems as it were to err on the noble side.

When I consider the history of the events from 1939 to 1945, I am not surprised that Mr. Truman is made the recipient of honours.  But when I consider his actions by themselves, I am surprised again.

Some people actually praise the bombings and commend the stockpiling of atomic weapons on the ground that they are so horrible that nation as will be afraid ever again to make war. “We have made a covenant with death, and with hell we are at an agreement.”  There does not seem to be good ground for such a hope for any long period of time.

Pacifists have for long made it a point in their propaganda that men must grow more murderous as their techniques of destruction improve, and those who defend murder eagerly seize on this point, so that I imagine by now it is pretty well accepted by the whole world.  Of course, it is not true.  In Napoleon’s time, for example, the means of destruction had much improved since the time of Henry V; but Henry, not Napoleon, was a great massacrer of civilians, saying when he did particularly atrocious things that the French were a sinful nation and that he had a mission from God to punish them.  And, of course, really large scale massacre up to now has belonged to times with completely primitive methods of killing.  Weapons are now manufactured whose sole point is to be used in massacre of cities.  But the people responsible are not murderous because they have these weapons; they have them because they are murderous.  Deprived of atomic bombs, they would commit massacres by means of other bombs.

Protests by people who have not power are a waste of time.  I was not seizing an opportunity to make a “gesture of protest” at atomic bombs; I vehemently object to our action in offering Mr. Truman honours, because one can share in the guilt of a bad action by praise and flattery, as also by defending it.  When I puzzle myself over the attitude of the Vice-Chancellor and the Hebdomadal Council, I look round to see if any explanation is available why so many Oxford people should be willing to flatter such a man.

I get some small light on the subject when I consider the productions of Oxford moral philosophy since the first world war, which I have lately had occasion to read.  Its character can easily be briefly demonstrated.  Up to the second world war the prevailing moral philosophy in Oxford taught that an action can be “morally good” no matter how objectionable the thing done may be.  An instance would be Himmler’s efforts at exterminating the Jews: he did it from the “motive of duty” which has “supreme value.”  In the same philosophy—which has much pretence of moral seriousness, claiming that “rightness” is an objective character in acts, that can be discerned by a moral sense—it is also held that it might be right to kill the innocent for the good of the people, since the ”prima facie duty” of securing some advantage might outweigh the “prima facie duty” of not killing the innocent.  This sort of philosophy is less prevalent now, and in its place I find another, whose cardinal principle is that “good” is not a “descriptive” term, but one expressive of a favourable attitude on the part of the speaker.  Hand in hand with this, though I do not know if there is any logical connection, goes a doctrine that it is impossible to have any quite general moral laws; such laws as “It s wrong to lie” or “Never commit sodomy” are rules of thumb which an experienced person knows when to break.  Further, both his selection of these as the rules on which to proceed, and his tactful adjustments of them in particular cases, are based on their fitting together with the “way of life” which is his preference.  Both these philosophies, then, contain a repudiation of the idea that any class of actions, such as murder, may be absolutely excluded.  I do not know how influential they may have been or be; they are perhaps rather symptomatic.  Whether influential or symptomatic, they throw some light on the situation.

It is possible still to withdraw from this shameful business in some slight degree; it is possible not to go to Encaenia; if it should be embarrassing to someone who would normally go to plead other business, he could take to his bed.  I, indeed should fear to go, in case God’s patience suddenly ends.

Text found on-line 01/01/08 at