If you are a victim of crime – a mugging or a burglary, for example – you may have the satisfaction of seeing the perpetrators convicted and punished. You may even receive some compensation. But suppose the crime of which you are a victim is murder: what then?
Let’s suppose the police investigate your murder, discover the murderer and bring him to court where he is duly found guilty and sent down for a long prison term. Do you, the deceased, feel content, satisfied? No, of course you don’t, because you don’t feel anything. Death has removed you from all sensation, from all thought, from all knowledge, in a word, from all consciousness. How, then, can you be compensated for your murder?
This raises the following question:
If when you are dead you are not conscious of anything, can you be said to have suffered any loss?
With other crimes – for example theft or assault – you, the victim, are aware of the damage that has been done to you and the loss that you have suffered. Your life has been diminished thereby and it makes sense to seek compensation in order to repair the damage as far as possible. But in the case of a murder, no such reparation is possible. You are dead and that’s that.
We intuitively regard murder (and for that matter, accidental death and all “premature death”) as a bad thing. Murders frighten us for the simple reason that we do not want to be murdered. We shy away from death as something frightful but we probably never stop to think what it is exactly that we think we suffer as a result of being dead. Yet this notion of suffering as a result of our murder lies behind the legal theory that convicts and punishes murderers.
If my car is stolen and I make a claim on the insurance, the insurance company will expect me to make a complete list of everything that has been taken from me together with its value. This list will quantify my loss, i.e. that which I had and which I no longer have.
Now, in the case of my murder, how do I quantify what I have lost? I cannot point to my life before the moment of death because that had already been consumed: I was never going to have that again. What about the future? Can I say I have been robbed of my future and all it comprehends? To do that, wouldn’t I need to be able to predict the future, something that no one has ever been proved to be able to do? For all we know, had I not been murdered, I might have stepped off the kerb and under a bus the very next minute. How can I prove that this is not the case? How can we prove that murder has robbed me of anything at all? We may suspect or believe that I would have lived on a good few years but we cannot prove this. Yet assumptions of this sort are made every time someone is brought to trial for murder.
Now I am not saying that it doesn’t matter if someone murders me. It does. No society can tolerate its members going around freely killing one another. It is right to take measures to prevent this. I simply question the reasons we give for evaluating the loss suffered by the victim. In fact, I am close to thinking that we cannot do this at all.
The life lived by the victim up to his murder cannot be used because he no longer has it. In any case, he may have lived a perfectly miserable life and wished for death. We cannot cite the years of life he might have enjoyed as we cannot prove he would have had them or that, if he had had them, they would have been worth having.
Yet, intuitively, we go on talking of the “value of human life”, of the “waste of life” when people are killed, of the “loss of life” when a plane crashes or a ship sinks. But on what do we base this “value” and this “loss”?
N.B. I accept that others may suffer as a result of my death (e.g. my dependents) but that is a separate issue. What about the loner who has no relatives, no friends, no dependents? Don’t we also intuitively regard his life as valuable to him and consider that if he is murdered, something has been taken away from him? But what?