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What is so Wrong with Killing People?

  • Robert Young (a1)


If killing another human being is morally wrong on at least some occasions (as it clearly is), what precisely makes it wrong on those occasions? I have framed the question thus to indicate that I shall not be considering the view that killing another human being is always and everywhere morally wrong. I take it as read that there are at least some morally justifiable killings (for instance, in self-defence where no other means of disarming one's attacker is available). Once it is clear what is wrong with killing on some occasions it should become possible to explain why it is not wrong on others. My immediate concern is with the killing of another human being, and with applying my answer to cases of voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia, but light will be shed on whether and, if so, why it is wrong to kill oneself, to kill unborn human beings, and to kill non-human animals especially those whose life has most in common with the life of human beings.



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1 I have tried to elaborate on them in ‘Dispensing with Moral Rights’, Political Theory 5 (1977).

2 ‘A Defence of Abortion and Infanticide’ as revised and reprinted in The Problem of Abortion, Feinberg, J. (ed.) (Belmont, Calif.: 1973), 5191. For critical discussion see Benn, S., ‘Abortion, Infanticide and Respect for Persons’, ibid., 92–104, and Brody, B., Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life: a Philosophical View (Cambridge, Mass, and London: 1976), 85ff.

3 See Smart, J. J. C. and Williams, B., Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge: 1973), 98. Bennett, J.'s ‘Whatever the Consequences’, Analysis 26 (19651966), 83102, is relevant to Williams's remarks and to the more recent discussion of similar matters in Harris, J., ‘The Survival Lottery’, Philosophy 50 (1975), 8187 and the replies by Morillo, Carolyn, ‘As Sure as Shooting’, Philosophy 51 (1976), 8089, and Singer, Peter, ‘Utility and the Survival Lottery’, Philosophy 52 (1977), 218222.

4 Nozick, R., Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York: 1974), 3435.

5 They apply also to the question of whether an innocent threat or an innocent shield of a threat may morally permissibly defend himself or herself. It should be noticed that the case of the innocent fat man is so devised as to preclude his taking self-defensive action. This is deliberate, and is intended to limit the factors that one has to cope with in deciding which actions are morally permitted.

6 Cf. Wasserstrom, Richard, ‘On the Morality of War: A Preliminary Inquiry’, in War and Morality, Wasserstrom, (ed.) (Belmont, Calif.: 1970).

7 Cf. Thompson, D. F., ‘The Means of Dealing with Criminals: Social Science and Social Philosophy’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 5 (1975), 116.

8 For some of the debate see e.g. Van den Haag, E., ‘On Deterrence and the Death Penalty’, Ethics 78 (1968), 280288; Bedau, H. A.The Death Penalty as a Deterrent: Argument and Evidence’, Ethics 80 (1970), 205217; and their rejoinders and replies in Ethics 81 (1971), 7476. For an interesting presentation of it see also Conway, D.Capital Punishment and Deterrence: Some Considerations in Dialogue Form’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 2 (1972), 431443.

9 In Philosophy of Law he admits exceptions such as the mother who commits infanticide, the soldier who kills a fellow soldier in a duel and so on.

10 For a contemporary retributivist's view on the latter see Kleinig, J., Punishment and Desert (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoft 1973) 123ff.

11 Cf. Dworkin, G., ‘Paternalism’, The Monist 56 (1972), 6484; Carter, R., ‘Justifying Paternalism’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 7 (1977), 133145.

12 Vide the much publicized Karen Quinlan case. The original judgment by Justice Muir of the Supreme Court of New Jersey refusing Karen's father's request, which had the support of the Catholic authorities, to authorize the discontinuance of all extraordinary means of sustaining Karen's life processes is reprinted in Social Ethics: Morality and Social Policy, Mappes, T. and Zembaty, J. (eds) (New York: McGraw Hill 1977), 3742. A debate between James Rachels and Tom Beauchamp on the moral significance of the killing-letting die distinction is published in the same volume, pp. 62–75.

13 I have discussed these matters in my ‘Voluntary and Nonvoluntary Euthanasia’, The Monist 59 (1976), 264283.

14 Cf. Sumner, L. W., ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, Noûs 10 (1976), 145171 (esp. p. 163).

15 The pros and cons are well brought out in Moral Problems in Medicine, Gorovitz, S. et al. (eds) (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976) in the section on ‘Birth Defects’.

16 If my discussion of the wrongness of killing certain animals was to the point, it will also serve to undermine the contention frequently made in discussions of abortion that once the issue of the humanity of the foetus is settled so too is that of the justifiability of abortion.

17 I am grateful to John Campbell, John Kleinig, Bruce Langtry and Peter Singer for helpful criticisms of an earlier draft of this paper.


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