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Is it ethically correct to shoot down hijacked airplanes?

von Marius Kanter (Autor)

Hausarbeit 2014 8 Seiten

Philosophie - Praktische (Ethik, Ästhetik, Kultur, Natur, Recht, ...)


Is it Ethically correct to Shoot Down Hijacked Airplanes?

Principles of Philosophy and Ethics Post-Assignment


“You can be sure that the American spirit will prevail over this tragedy” [1] – Colin Powell, Secretary of State (USA).

This quote is related to 9/11, when a series of terrorist attacks, launched by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda killed almost 3,000 people. Four passenger airliners were hijacked and abused as weapons. Most of the US (United States) American people would now agree that these airplanes should have been shot down by the US Air force before they could hit their targets.[2] Colin Powell was right that the American spirit will prevail over this kind of attacks in the future. The Air force is now authorized by law to shoot down hijacked commercial airplanes, which appear to be a threat to the US.[3] A similar law had been drafted in Germany in 2005.[4] In contrast to the US, it has been rejected by the German Federal Constitutional Court. It was concluded that it is not conform to the first Article of the German Constitution:

"Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state
authority" – Grundgesetz, Article 1[5]

The current status is as follows: in case of an “exceptional situation of catastrophic proportions” a hijacked airplane may not be shot directly, but may be threatened to be shot and forced to land by the German Air Force.[6]

It can be summarized that the US and German law contrast each other. The question arises which moral practice can be seen as the right and just. The issue can be summarized to one question and be answered with the claim this paper will reason for:

Question: Is it morally right to shoot down a hijacked airplane and sacrifice its passengers in order to prevent the hijackers from using the airplane as a weapon?

Claim: No, it is not morally correct .

By the application of two fundamental ethical theories, evidence will be provided why it was morally right to reject the law in Germany. At first, the problem will be defined. In the next step the theory of Utilitarianism will reason against the stated claim. Consequently, support will be provided why the application of this theory can be questioned. Thereafter, the Deontological theory will serve as the foundation for the claim made in this paper. The used theories are fundamentally different and will come to different conclusions of the problem. In view of their central roles in ethics and their opposite positions, the scope pf this paper will focus on these two theories.

Problem Definition

The scenario given (state of the world) is a passenger airplane hijacked by terrorist with the ultimate goal to crash in a building. Further, it is assumed that the number of people being in the respective building outnumber the quantity of passengers within the airplane by a large extend. According to the described scenario, three potential actions shown in Table 1 have to be considered.

Table 1 - Set of actions

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The last option represents a solution where no pain is generated. As this dominant strategy may not always be available, the paper will concentrate on the first two options. Given the set of actions, it is relevant to determine respective consequences in Table 2 for later evaluation.

Table 2 - Consequences of Actions

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Utilitarianism is defined as a goal-oriented ethical theory that judges actions based on the utility of their outcomes. This core principle has been summarized by Jeremy Bentham[7] with the following words:

“[…] it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right or wrong”.[8]

As a prerequisite for this postulate, Bentham argues that actions are attributed with happiness (pleasure) and pain, which

“[…] governs us in all we do, in all we say,
in all we think…”

Hence, the utilitaristic theory uses the degree of pleasure and pain caused by distinct actions to determine their ethical validity under given circumstances.

The determination whether an action is ethically correct according the principle of Utilitarianism can be conducted in a three-step procedure shown in Figure 1[9]. States of the world, set of actions and their corresponding consequences have been defined in the chapter “Problem Definition”. The comparison of utility will be conducted in the next passage.

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Figure 1 - Three steps procedure to determine ethical correctness according to Utilitarianism

The number of people being saved is highest when the airplane is shot. A higher number of saved people is likely to correspond to the highest amount of happiness for the largest amount of people. Therefore, the decision would be to shoot down the airplane. Additionally, future pain avoidance may be achieved by preventing future acts of terrorism through drastic measures against it. However, the act of shooting passenger airplanes may cause resentful feelings as this act may seem to be in conflict with the German constitution. The constitution defines the human dignity in Article 1 as being inviolable and further states that its defense and protection is duty of the state authority. Article 2 further precises, that every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity.[10] According to Gerhard Beestermöller[11], every human being is equipped with basic inviolable rights. Every attempt to deny a human being these universal rights, ( the act of killing a human being), must be prevented, as all reasons for doing this are eventually based on arbitrary reasoning.[12] However, it remains questionable if the deed to take away the lives of airplane passengers to save the lives of other people actually can morally be seen as an act of killing. Analogies of similar scenarios may clarify this statement. Imagine a doctor providing a medical treatment to a pregnant woman, which ultimately ends the life of an unborn baby yet safes the life of the mother. Can this act of the doctor be morally seen as killing or does the respective act represent his duty? Accordingly, one may state that the act of shooting a passenger airplane to save the highest amount of innocent people is the duty of the state, as the state is obliged according to its constitution to ensure the right to life to its citizens. The decision to shoot the hijacked airplane is further supported, as the death of the airplane passengers does not represent a direct causality to the survival of the humans being saved in the building. The death of the passengers in the airplane rather represents their unavoidable fate under the stated circumstances. The act of saving the people present in the target building therefore is an independent deed and the fact of shooting the airplane leading to the premature death of its passengers can be considered as a secondary effect or collateral damage.[13]

The stated problem may be reduced to a similar case called the Trolley-Problem, being widely discussed in philosophy and ethics. There, the subject drives an unstoppable trolley on tracks. On this track five persons are situated, which would inevitable be killed. The subject could turn the trolley onto another track, where only one person would be killed. In both cases, the number of people dying can be reduced by certain actions. According to Utilitarianism it is clear that this action has to be chosen as it maximizes the happiness of the larger amount of people. However, there is one crucial difference: For the Trolley example, an exhaustive set of actions was either the killing of one person or the killing of five persons. Although shooting the airplane or not shooting the airplane does represent an exhaustive set of actions, the outcomes of actions is not determined in all cases. Specifically this implies, that non-interventionism by not shooting the airplane must not lead to the death of the passengers and the people present in the target building. Hence, the decision of shooting or not shooting the airplane to achieve desired outcomes is attached to uncertainties. The union of pilots named Cockpit argues that it is at any point difficult to interpret the situation on board.[14] It could be the case that the assumed hijack is just a communicational error. A misinterpretation of the situation, based on incomplete information could therefore lead to wrong decisions.

Using Utilitarianism ethics to distinguish what action to chooses raises further challenges. Although numerous empirical backings do exist that humankind seeks to be happy, the question remains, whether happiness is the ultimate universal aspiration of humankind. Justice, fairness or sustainability could be equivalent desires that are not respected when using the utilitaristic theory. It can additionally be questioned if a universal desire should be regarded per se as morally good[15]. Disregarding the problematic backing, further challenges remain in the warrant as the measure of doing something ethically right or wrong is solemnly based on the measure of greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. As for the backing, additional potentially important measures such as justice are ignored. In order to distinguish the greatest happiness achievable, the amount of happiness from different actions has to be compared. For doing this, happiness has to be quantified, yet no objective measurement exists and hence respective measures are at least partly arbitrary. In addition the determination of the number of people affected is hard to distinguish. For the hijacked passenger airplane the question arises as to who is affected by the various actions? The quantitative analysis requires respective boundaries which are likely to be at least partly arbitrary. Finally, as described in the previous paragraph, it is impossible to clearly distinguish between different action-related outcomes as several outcomes may be achieved by the same actions.

Given the strong weaknesses of the baseline assumption and crucial uncertainties of action related outcomes, it becomes questionable if the utilitaristic theory is applicable for the given scenario. Hence, this theory cannot proof that the action of shooting a hijacked airplane is morally right. As the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence, the scenario must be evaluated with a different, more suitable ethical theory.

Deontological Theory

In contrast to utilitarism, the Deontological theory does not reason by evaluation outcomes of action, but proofs the morality of actions as such. Further, this theory seeks to obtain a backing that is purely based on rationality[16]. Rational justification hereby requires rational reasons to perform certain actions that must be independent from the subject. In the following Kant’s moral theory will be applied as he present the key founder of Deontological theory. Kant concluded that these reasons must then proof to be a universal rule to formulate a moral norm or a first normative premise. Kant’s famous “Categorical Imperative” summarizes this concept:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”[17]

A maxim is defined as a commitment to act in a specific way and bridges intentions, acts and consequences[18]. In essence, the imperative implies, that one should only act in such a manner, that the maxim could become a universal law. Kant further concluded that universal respect for human beings must be added to the primary premise:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same times as an end and never simply as a means.”[19]

The question arises, how Kant concluded that respect for human beings is crucial when applying his moral theory. According to his argumentation, freedom is the ultimate prerequisite for any morality, as rational and hence moral behavior can truly only be applied, if the respective being is not forced to specific actions. Thus, the respect of human freedom formulated within the respect for human beings is the ultimate basis for the application of rational behavior. This respect is precised within the second part of the above-cited paragraph and represents the definition of human dignity. The reason for treating a person as an end as opposed to a means, however, needs further explanation. Firstly a definition of a human being will be provided, secondly a consequent reason for treating human beings as ends will be illustrated. Both reason and definition will be of theological Christian nature, and hence may seem to in conflict to the universal application. However, the secondly presented exegetic statement is true for most of the common religions justifying its universal application.[20] One of the first definitions of a human being is the following:

“[…] God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis, 1,27).[21]

Within his work Filosofia del Diritto Antonio Rosmini states that human beings receive their dignity through their creation. Further, it is stated that men are created to peruse a higher mean[22], hence one may claim that humans are indeed means yet should not be treated as means as this would oppose their purpose of creation.

To prove if the action is in accordance with the categorical imperative one must firstly validate if its maxim can be transferred to a universal law and secondly affirm that this universal law does not inherit contradictions and is in line with the human dignity. If these criteria’s are met and if the respective law remains in the interest of the decision maker, the action can be regarded as ethically justified. For the given scenario, it appears to be reasonably to convert the maxim of shooting a hijacked passenger airplane with according mortal intentions into an universal law. However, it is highly questionable if this law would still represent the interest of the affected people. The validation of this interest is crucial for the action to be in line with the categorical imperative. Hence, even if all affected actors would support this law, the realization of the validation of interests is hardly feasible.

The principal of human dignity is implied by treating human beings as an end. As this moral rule has not yet been precised, the German constitution and German dispensation of justice will serve as a respective baseline. This is feasible, as the human dignity is explicitly formulated in Article 1 and serves as the cornerstone for the German constitution.[23] The human dignity has received this outstanding position, partly due to the German history; Article 1 can be seen as a replacement of the former heavily criticized race principle.[24] Article 1 states the following:

“Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.”[25]

Hence the German constitution provides a moral and legal norm as to how interaction within the society should occur.

Within § 14 (Luftsicherheitsgesetz)[26] legal suggestion have been formulated as to what measures ought to be taken in case of the presented scenario: According to passage 3, the usage of weapons against hijacked airplanes may only be appropriate, if the airplane is abused to terminate human lives and if no other defensive option exists.[27] The presented law draft, however, has been rejected as it stays in contraction to the first Article according to the German Federal Constitutional Court. Shooting a hijacked passenger airplane to save the lives of human beings implies the reduction of the passengers to mere objects. Thereby, the inviolable rights are denied to the objectivized passengers (e.g. the right to life). Thus, as long as innocent passenger are within the airplane the action is in contradiction with the first Article and hence in conflict with the human dignity. As accordance with the principle of human dignity is crucial to affirm the moral rightfulness of an action, shooting a hijacked passenger airplane can under no circumstances be morally justified according to the Deontological theory.

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Figure 2 - Argumentation of the paper visualized with Toulmin's scheme


The morality of shooting a passenger airplane, which is captured by terrorist and abused as a weapon to kill large quantities of people must strictly be denied. Even when disregarding all uncertainties regarding the realization of the terrorists’ intentions the utilitaristic theory does not provide non-ambiguous moral justification for the given scenario. Due to the questionable universal backing of maximizing happiness as well as insufficient reasoning within the warrant, it has been shown, that the utilitaristic theory may not even be applicable for the given scenario. The Deontological theory, however, clearly denies the moral justification of shooting respective airplanes due to two reasons: Firstly, it appears to be impossible to concert the maxim of shooting a hijacked airplane to a universal law and secondly such law would be in contradiction to the human dignity. The question if it is ethical to shoot the airplane if no passengers are on board remains subject to further studies focusing on the deed under what circumstances the killing of people may be morally justified.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


Die Bibel. Altes und Neues Testament ; Einheitsübersetzung (2013). Lizenzausg. Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder.

Bentham, Jeremy; Burns, James H.; Hart, H. L. A. (Eds.) (2001): A fragment on government. Repr. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press (Cambridge texts in the history of political thought).

Bundesrepublik Deutschland (5/23/1949): Grundgesetz. GG.

Bundesrepublik Deutschland (2014): Luftsicherheitsgesetz. LuftSiG. Source:§14.

BVerfG, of 2/15/2006, case number BvR 357/05. 1-156.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Ed.) (2012): Karlsruhe billigt militärischen Einsatz im Inland. Available online at

Illies, Christian (2014): Principles of Philosophy and Ethics. Rational Ethics. Northern Institute of Technology Management. Hamburg, 6/14/2014.

Kant, Immanuel; Ellington, James W. (1993): Grounding for the metaphysics of morals ; with, On a supposed right to lie because of philanthropic concerns. 3rd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; Hantzsche, Valerie; Bremer, Kai (2013): Nathan der Weise (Studienausgabe). 1. Aufl. s.l.: Reclam Verlag. Available online at

Loh, Wallace D. (2001): President's Message to the University of Maryland Community: Remembering September 11, 2001. Edited by University of Maryland. Maryland, USA. Available online at, checked on 7/31/2014.

Meesmann, Hartmut (2007): Das Leben niemals opfern. In Publik Forum (20), pp.50–51.

Muḥammad; Aḥmad, Hazrat Mirza Tahir (Eds.) (2013): Koran. Der Heilige Qur-ân : arabisch und deutsch. Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. 8., überarb. Taschenbuchaufl. Frankfurt (Main): Verl. Der Islam.

Nahra, Cinara (2013): Our deontological-utilitarian minds. In Filosofia UNISINOS (Vol. 14, Issue 2), pp.139–151. Available online at, checked on 7/31/2014.

Rosmini-Serbati, Antonio (1856): Filosofia del diritto. Napoli: Giov. Pedone Lauriel.

Schmitt, Eric (2003): U.S. Practices How to Down Hijacked Jets. Edited by The New York Times. Available online at

Teifke, Nils (2011): Das Prinzip Menschenwürde. Zur Abwägungsfähigkeit des Höchstrangigen. Univ., Diss.--Kiel, 2010. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck (Studien und Beiträge zum öffentlichen Recht, 8).


[1] Loh 2001

[2] Nahra 2013

[3] Schmitt 2003

[4] BVerfG, of 2/15/2006

[5] Bundesrepublik Deutschland 5/23/1949

[6] Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2012

[7] Founder of utilarism as a special form of conceptualism

[8] Bentham et al. 2001

[9] Illies 2014

[10] Bundesrepublik Deutschland 5/23/1949

[11] Catholic theologian and representative director of the Institute for Theology and peace of the catholic pastoral care Hamburg

[12] Meesmann 2007

[13] Meesmann 2007

[14] BVerfG, of 2/15/2006



[17] Kant, Ellington 1993


[19] Kant, Ellington 1993

[20] Lessing et al. 2013 & Muḥammad, Aḥmad, Hazrat Mirza Tahir 2013

[21] Die Bibel 2013

[22] Rosmini-Serbati 1856

[23] Bundesrepublik Deutschland 5/23/1949

[24] Teifke 2011

[25] Bundesrepublik Deutschland 5/23/1949

[26] Bundesrepublik Deutschland 2014

[27] Bundesrepublik Deutschland 2014


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ethically shoot down hijacked airplanes


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Titel: Is it ethically correct to shoot down hijacked airplanes?