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Killing and Equality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 January 2009


Although the belief that killing is normally wrong is as universal and uncontroversial a moral belief as we are likely to find, no one, to my knowledge, has ever offered an account of why killing is wrong that even begins to do justice to the full range of common sense beliefs about the morality of killing. Yet such an account would be of considerable practical significance, since understanding why some killings are wrong should help us to determine the conditions in which killing is not wrong. For, in those cases in which the reasons why killing is wrong do not apply, killing may be permissible or, if there are positive reasons that favour it, even morally required.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995

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1 McMahan, Jeff, ‘Death and the Value of Life”, Ethics, ic (1988), 3261CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and ‘Preferences, Death, and the Ethics of Killing”, Preferences, ed. Fehige, Christoph et al. , Berlin and New York, forthcomingCrossRefGoogle Scholar. An integrated presentation will appear in McMahan, Jeff, Killing at the Margins of Life, New York, forthcoming.Google Scholar

2 I say ‘late-term” because I believe that the human foetus during the early stages of pregnancy cannot be harmed at all. This belief is defended in Killing at the Margins of Life.

3 I argue in detail for this conclusion in Killing at the Margins of Life, ch. II.

4 Ramsey, Paul, Ethics at the Edges of Life, New Haven, 1978, p. 191.Google Scholar

5 A similar distinction is drawn in Regan, Tom, The Case for Animal Rights, London, 1983, pp. 235–6.Google Scholar

6 Virtually the only alternative accounts are theological in nature. I will not pursue these here, though in Killing at the Margins of Life I consider and reject the claim that what distinguishes us from animals is that we, but not they, have souls.

7 This view has clear affinities with a view sketchily advanced by Nozick under the label ‘utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people”. (Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Oxford, 1974, p. 39.)Google Scholar

8 See Frankena, William K., ‘The Ethics of Respect for Persons”, Philosophical Topics, xiv (1986), pp. 160–4Google Scholar, and Donagan, Alan, The Theory of Morality, Chicago, 1977, pp. 6674.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 Thomson, Judith Jarvis, The Realm of Rights, Cambridge, Mass., 1990, p. 292.Google Scholar

10 Similarly, suppose that one could either save Old, who would then have only a very short time to live, or a large number of stray dogs. It is not implausible to suppose that there is no number of dogs such that one ought to save them in preference to Old. Yet when we turn to non-lethal harms, Old ceases to have priority. If one could either prevent Old from suffering a certain amount of pain or prevent some number of dogs from each suffering the same amount of pain, it would take only a few dogs to make it more important to prevent their pain than to prevent Old's.

11 This is a variant of the well-known trolley case first discussed by Foot, Philippa in ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect”Google Scholar, reprinted in her Virtues and Vices, Los Angeles, 1978, pp. 1932.Google Scholar

12 Some who think that we should be guided by considerations of comparative harm believe that this too is required by yet another ideal of equality: equal consideration of interests.

13 See, for example, chs. 5 and 6 drafted by Allen Buchanan for a forthcoming book on ethics and the Human Genome Project, co-authored with Dan Brock, Norman Daniels, and Daniel Wilder.

14 For one influential variant of this approach, see Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, Oxford, 1972, § 77.Google Scholar

15 Rawls, , p. 505Google Scholar. Compare Charles Taylor's observation that, in the Kantian tradition, ‘what is picked out as of worth … is a universal human potential, a capacity that all humans share. This potential, rather than anything that a person may have made of it, is what ensures that each person deserves respect.” Taylor, , ‘The Politics of Recognition”, Multiculturalism and The Politics of Recognition, ed. Gutmann, Amy, Princeton, 1992, p. 41Google Scholar. Emphasis in the original.

16 This view is developed in more detail in my ‘The Metaphysics of Brain Death”, Bioethics, ix (1995)Google Scholar § V, and more fully still in Killing at the Margins of Life.

17 This thought-experiment is obviously reminiscent of Michael Tooley's case involving a kitten injected with a drug that will cause it to develop into a cat with a brain like that of an adult human being. See his ‘A Defense of Abortion and Infanticide”, The Problem of Abortion, ed. Feinberg, Joel, Belmont, CA, 1973, pp. 86–8.Google Scholar

18 I am indebted to C. A. J. Coady for pressing me with the latter view.

19 An earlier version of this paper was read at the Australian National University. I am grateful for the audience's comments on that occasion. I have also greatly benefited from comments by Roger Crisp and Brad Hooker.