Yes, we do accept killing. Almost everyone does. Should we? And if so, what should our standards and parameters be?
“We oppose all killing.”
This is, theoretically, the consistent-life-ethic motto. In theory, opposition to killing, any killing, for any reason, seems ethically sound. Yet the reality is that almost no one lives out this theory in practice. When we consider the broad array of living organisms in our eco-systems, we have to revise this statement: no one actually lives according to the thesis that all killing is wrong. We are all killers.
Contemporary philosophers such as Peter Singer and Jonathan Glover have raised questions about the way we draw lines between acceptable and unacceptable killings. While I view their answers to these questions as morally insufficient, especially when it comes to disability rights, the questions nonetheless need to be addressed, and we can not do so if we do not first confess that we are a society, and specifically we as Christians, routinely accept killing.
Try thinking about acts of killing as a series of concentric circles, with “humans” in the middle, “animals” next, then “plants”, and finally “other living organisms.” With very few exceptions, most people, including most Christians, accept the killing of other humans within set parameters. The magisterium of the Catholic church made allowances for killing, for many years, in the case of capital punishment. This is no longer the case. The magisterial teaching does still allow for just war, however.
The requirements for a war to be just are fairly stringent. By those standards most of our recent wars, including the one that allowed for the founding of the United States, would have to be considered unjust. The killings that were a part of those wars would then have to be viewed as wrong (though the degree to which participants in those wars were morally complicit would depend on issues of intent and knowledge). So anyone who views the Revolutionary War, or World War I as “just” is claiming that the killings that happened in those wars – including the horrifying deaths of non-combatants, civilians, even children – as, if not just and good, at least morally acceptable. A “necessary evil” perhaps.
We can look at World War II as a war that was just in cause if not in means. Stopping the Nazis was just and necessary. But the use of inappropriate force (the bombing of Dresden, for instance) and the harm to civilians and non-combatants was not just. By the time we reach the end of the war, when the Japanese were already willing to surrender but the United States dropped atomic bombs on two of their cities, creating unimaginable suffering and horror, we were well out of the realm of justice and into the realm of doing something that ought to be ranked, morally, with genocide.
Very few people in our contemporary society are pacifists in the sense of being opposed to all war, all the time. And being a pacifist in this sense carries with it certain moral problems, such as: should we not engage in force, even in violence, to protect the innocent? Was it not just to oppose slavery by means of war, if that were the only means remaining? And even though the Allies went in against the Nazis without fully understanding the extent of the iniquity of the latter, it was just nonetheless to use force to stop genocide.
Nonetheless a few are genuinely opposed to all killing of other humans, for any reason, at any time. This includes war to stop genocide. This includes killing in self-defense. A few years ago this was my stance, also, but since then, as I have grown more aware of material power imbalances in society and the obligation to protect the vulnerable as well as to overturn oppressive structures, I have modified my views to say that while all killing is “evil” in the material sense that life is an objective good and the loss thereof an evil, that does not make all killing morally evil – or, perhaps, at least does not make all who do acts of killing morally culpable for evil. This idea is consistent with accepting the reality that death is part of the cycles of nature, and that other species and organisms routinely kill for the sake of self-preservation or preservation of a group or herd.
Move on to the next circle. What about the killing of other animal species? Almost everyone I know accepts some killing of animals, whether for food, protection, or euthanasia. Many people are inconsistent, morally, when it comes to killing, since they are fine with killing pigs (extremely intelligent and often affectionate creatures) for meat but horrified at the idea of killing dogs. Others are fine with killing animals that have been raised for their meat, but not with killing animals in the wild, as part of a hunt. My own view on the killing of animals is that it should never be done simply for the fun of it. I oppose trophy and sport hunting. I also think it’s wrong to kill an animal simply because one finds it gross or scary. Killing a spider simply because one is freaked out by spiders is unacceptable. Killing snakes because you find them gross is also wrong.
I am also growing increasingly uneasy with the extent to which we accept the killing of animals for food. If I am unable to bring myself to kill an animal in order to eat it, should I be eating meat at all? At the very least, I believe we must oppose all cruelty and acts of inflicting pain, in our approaches to raising animals or harvesting them for their meat, as well as for their milk, eggs, or any other resource we derive from them.
What about plants? While I don’t know anyone who opposes the killing of plants, per se, most of us who are ecologically aware know that wanton and random destruction of plant life is bad. Generally, though, we are horrified by the cutting down of an ancient tree, we are fine with tearing out weeds. So what is our moral standard? The age, size, and longevity of the plant? Its uniqueness? Its significance in relation to history and our own emotions about nature? Its value for an ecosystem? Do we have any sense in which a plant has value in itself, without reference to any end or use? I think we probably should. Not to the extent of taking an anti-weeding stance. But we do need at least to become more mindful of plant life as something complex and mysterious that has a dignity of its own.
What about other living things? I think the only time I have encountered anyone getting enthusiastic about the dignity of microorganisms was when I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, in which one of the characters grows up to be a virologist and has a strange affection for the particles she studies – and a virus is not even, technically, an organism. But that idea, that fascination with the functions of small and alien things, has never left me. This does not mean that I flee antibiotics because of the dignity of bacteria. Nor does it mean that I think bacteria are without dignity, insofar as they are alive and participate in the complex web of life.
So to sum up: most of us are in fact just fine with killing, and not just killing of animals. The idea that killings within our species is generally regarded as wrong, whereas killing outside our species is not, is simply inaccurate. Historically, injunctions against killing other humans usually were just injunctions against some kinds of killing. Others were widely regarded as just fine, from the killing of prisoners to the killing of enemies to the killing of the transgressing woman to the killing of the disabled, even to human sacrifice.
Most of us today view certain acts of killing other humans as regrettable but acceptable—a necessary evil. Does that mean that we all hold that the end justifies the means? No. Most of us are fine with committing a lesser evil for the sake of preventing a greater evil. Or with evil as a side effect of pursuing a greater good.
The complexity comes in when we try to agree on a hierarchy of goods. For some, any human life is so sacred, holding so lofty a place in this hierarchy, that it must never be killed—not for freedom, or justice, or an end to pain, or even in self-defense.
For most of us, however, there are cases in which it is acceptable to take some lives. When weighing when it is acceptable we ask questions such as: what will happen if we don’t? Do we have any alternatives? Is there a way we could achieve this end in some other manner?
And most importantly: are there greater or lesser degrees of dignity and sanctity and value, among different human lives? What can make a particular human life less worthy of protection: ability? Moral actions? Value to a community? Additionally, are there times when the suffering of living is so great that it is better to be dead? We hold that this is true of animals but are divided on whether it is true of humans as well. We also have to consider, in cases where we have decided that death is acceptable, whether simply allowing death is on a par with causing it.
Then autonomy comes into it. Some philosophers believe that killing is wrong if it violates autonomy. What if we are unable to determine if autonomy is present, as in with a comatose person or an unborn human?
We must also consider bonds among humans. Traditional taboos against certain kinds of killing focused less on the value of a life, more of the bond of connection or trust that is violated in killing. This includes taboos against the killing of the father, or a host killing a guest, violating the sacred bonds of hospitality. When we discuss abortion this consideration needs to come into play.
And what about personhood? Are there degrees of personhood? Do animals have some kind of personhood? Do human organisms grow into their personhood? In order to ask this, we need to understand what “personhood” means and the extent to which we regard it as inviolable.
I need to stop before I start writing a book.
What I want to end with, though, is this: very few people who become morally outraged at abortion are in a position to do so without being hypocritical, and that includes anyone who supports just war. We need to be a lot more real about what war actually entails, the amount of suffering, the horror, the violence, the violation of bodies, the ongoing trauma. If we accept this we have automatically lowered the bar on what we can consistently be outraged about.
Those who are morally consistent are admirable and need to be brought to the fore as spokespersons on life issues, but they also need to grapple with the moral consequences of never choosing violence. Would it have been better for the Union not to have waged war against the slave states? Better to let the Nazis overrun Europe and wipe out every Jewish person? Is it acceptable to let an aggressor murder one’s family while you simply make an act of silent peaceful protest?
I know most consistent life ethicists do consider these questions, even if the conclusions they arrive at are different from mine. It is precisely because they thoughtfully grapple with difficult moral issues that I think they need to be given platforms. Those who rant about abortion while simultaneously upholding racist structures, war, capital punishment, and the oppression of immigrants should be denied all platforms by right-thinking people. Those who claim to be pro-life while doing nothing to protect the vulnerable in a pandemic, while being unwilling to do anything to stop gun violence, should not be taken seriously. Pro-choice thinkers who have seriously considered the consequences of banning abortion, and who are actively engaged in opposing clear and evident threats to life, are better equipped to discuss life issues than the likes of Abby Johnson or Frank Pavone.
Our entire conversation about abortion and life ethics needs to change from a culture-war melee to a serious conversation in which we take cognizance of all the difficult and intersecting moral questions we face when we consider any act of ending a life.
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