Before anyone thinks I am advocating murder, abortion, infanticide or genocide, I’m asking a basic philosophical question. Kill Bill? Why not kill another human being? First we have to define our terms: by “kill” we mean to intentionally end another person’s life. For the purposes of discussion I will exclude the killing that goes on in war–not because it doesn’t count, but because the ethics of killing in war time is a more complex discussion. So why not kill another human being?
1. The classic Judeo-Christian position is “God said, ‘Thous shalt not kill.’” It’s a divine commandment. End of story. Don’t do it.
2. Many people–Jews, Christians and followers of other religions or none, are not satisfied with the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” form of argument. They would go on to say that there is such a thing as ‘natural law’. Natural law is a set of principles–not always defined in the same specific way which is written in the natural order. It’s “the way things work” and consequently it’s something human beings “just know”. They know that life is a precious thing and to end life is a terrible thing and well, you just don’t do that to other people. The idea of a vague natural law which “just is” would suit agnostics and atheists. Theists would go on to say, “Yes, there is natural law, and it is written into the plan of things by the one who created everything. Natural law demands a lawgiver–one who has created the world with an in built code of meaning. Perhaps, but the agnostic or atheist would reply that this is just a bald assertion, and that the ‘natural law’ is simply part of how we evolved.
3. This brings us to a third explanation–that the prohibition on killing others is simply part of the evolutionary development of man: he came to realize that he wouldn’t want to be killed so it wouldn’t be nice to kill another person. But how would this altruism actually develop through evolution–which is based in the survival of the fittest? If survival of the fittest means the strongest and best survive, then this would best be furthered by the strong killing the weak. An idea not to kill another would require not just a jump in evolution, but a complete reversal of it’s basic principle. Nevertheless, the evolutionary idea also includes the theory that a species might evolve certain traits for self preservation and advancement. So we could posit the idea that people living together in tribes realized that the future of the tribe was assured when the women and children were protected. That might foster the idea that one should not kill, but why not kill the other warriors who threaten the chief, and why not kill the members of the enemy tribe, and why not kill the old and infirm?
4. Another way people may have decided not to kill one another is that they not only decided that life was precious and therefore any loss of life is to be prohibited, but they may also have come to understand that the reason each human life was precious was because it had an eternal dimension. They believed not only that life was precious, but thought it was precious because each human individual had an intrinsic worth. This point of view would only make sense, it seems to me, if there were some awareness of an afterlife or a divine being or some dimension greater than this world, which human beings participated in and which therefore gave them a share in this other world. The Judeo Christian tradition specifies this instinct by saying each person is a unique, eternal soul created in God’s image.
5. A non-believer might posit that we should not kill each other because each individual has his or her own human integrity and human worth, but without the ‘eternal divine image thing’ why is it necessarily true that every human being has basic human dignity and a basic human right to life? If humans are only animals why would it be any worse to eliminate them? Do we have some special worth because we’re smarter than the animals? Is there some other quality to human existence which makes it precious and therefore a crime to kill? If so, what is it?
If there is no special quality to human life, then it is difficult to see how the rule of not killing can be sustained except for sentimental or utilitarian arguments like “It’s just not nice to kill other people.” or “Think what would happen to society if we all went around killing one another.” In the end, these sentimental and utilitarian arguments may be sufficient, and a non believer may be satisfied saying, “We shouldn’t kill each other because we shouldn’t kill each other.” That’s all well and good as long as far as it goes, but if the argument not to kill is only sentimental and utilitarian, then what happens when the sentimental and utilitarian arguments are stronger for killing than not killing?
Here’s an example: Granny is lying in bed suffering from dementia. She seems to have no quality of life. No one visits her and she’s run out of money. At this point the sentimental and utilitarian arguments shift FOR killing rather than against. The sentimental argument is, “She’s suffering so much. We wouldn’t treat a dog like that! She would be so much better off if she could only find peace!” the utilitarian argument would be, “She’s using a lot of resources that could be used for other people. She has run out of funds and there is no one else to pay. We can’t really keep this going.” The ethics of end of life decisions are complex and do not seem to be of the same order of infanticide or genocide–or are they? If the reasoning is merely sentimental or utilitarian surely the difference between end of life euthanasia and abortion, and then genocide is merely one of degree. That is to say, one might make the same sentimental and utilitarian arguments for exterminating a whole class of people as one might for putting Granny to sleep.
There might be some reason for a non believer saying that human beings have an innate dignity and an innate right to life, but given atheistic assumptions, I can’t think of any. I hope no one will take this the wrong way. I’m not saying atheism leads automatically and invariably to murder and genocide, nor am I saying all atheists are evil killers or anything like that. I’m simply musing on the reasons we have for not killing one another.
There may be other reasons, but I’m tired and need to take a break from this here screen and this here keyboard.
NOTE: I welcome courteous, thoughtful comments on this post. Others will not be posted.