The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life

The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life

The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life

The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life


This magisterial work is the first comprehensive study of the ethics of killing, where the moral status of the individual killed is uncertain. Drawing on philosophical notions of personal identity and the immorality of killing, McMahan looks carefully at a host of practical issues, including abortion, infanticide, the killing of animals, assisted suicide, and euthanasia.


There are many reasons why abortion remains one of the most intractably controversial of all moral issues. But the main reason is that the moral and metaphysical status of human embryos and fetuses is shrouded in darkness. In some respects these beings are similar to you and me; in others they are profoundly different. One might think, however, that at least it is certain that one once was an embryo and then a fetus. That, it might be thought, is an important consideration in determining the moral and metaphysical status of these beings.

There is a similar uncertainty about the status of human beings who are irreversibly comatose or who have suffered severe brain damage or dementia. But, again, one might think that we can know at least this: that one might oneself later exist in an irreversible coma or a state of advanced dementia.

One cannot, however, simply take it for granted that one once existed as an embryo or fetus, or that one could continue to exist in an irreversible coma. These ubiquitous assumptions are considerably more contentious than is commonly recognized. And it is particularly important for the purposes of this book to subject them to critical scrutiny, along with the alternative views with which they conflict. For our main concern in this book will be with the morality of killing beings of these sorts: that is, beings on the margins of life. It is therefore essential to determine whether, in killing an embryo, a fetus, or an individual in an irreversible coma, one would be killing an entity of a sort that you and I once were, or might become.

In attempting to determine when we began to exist and what the conditions of our dying or ceasing to exist are, it is important to avoid certain confusions to which it is easy to succumb. Writing about abortion, Walker Percy, who was a physician before he became a novelist, invites us to consider the common view that, “since there is no agreement about the beginning of human life, it is therefore a private religious or philosophical decision and therefore the state and the courts can do nothing about it. ” Percy claims:

this is a con. I… submit that religion, philosophy, and private opinion have nothing to do with this issue. I further submit that it is a commonplace of modern biology . . .

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