Sunday, 6 January 2013

Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller on the Wrongness of Killing

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Franklin G. Miller just published an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics (39/1, 2013) on "what makes killing wrong". The article was already pre-published online about a year ago, so my comments are somewhat belated. My excuse is that I only read it this morning. The authors' main theoretical claim is that what makes killing wrong is that the resulting state is that of a "total disability". "Total" is taken to mean universal and irreversible. In other words, when you're dead, you're incapable of doing anything at all and you will never be capable of doing anything again, and that's what's bad about being dead and consequently what is bad about, as the authors put it, "making" someone dead. The suggestion is interesting and, giving the difficulty to understand what exactly makes killing wrong, certainly worth considering. What I find worrying, though, is that the reason for proposing that we think differently about the evil of death, and killing, is not a theoretical interest in furthering our understanding of those issues, but rather a practical interest in changing certain practices.

Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller are unhappy with the so-called "dead donor rule", which prescribes that a patient needs to be dead before you can "harvest" their organs. If your goal is to get as many organs as possible, then this rule is rather inconvenient. And it is this inconvenience that prompts the authors' attempt to redefine death as a state of total disability, or rather to claim that what death is in addition to being a state of total disability is morally irrelevant. There are states in which you are totally disabled, but still alive, but if you are in that state, you're as good as dead, or could as well be dead for all it matters. You may even be conscious and still be totally disabled, as long as you can no longer control your thoughts in any way. You are in a state of complete and utter helplessness, and you will remain so. For this reason, you can now no longer be harmed by being killed, which means that there is no moral reason not to kill you. And perhaps there isn't. Perhaps it would even be better for you, provided that your condition is really irreversible (which I don't think we can ever be absolutely certain about).

Still, I'm not convinced, primarily because this is such a suspiciously convenient conclusion. What is the situation? There are people who want your organs. Unfortunately, you're not dead yet, and we're not supposed to kill you. But we cannot remove your organs without killing you. So what are we going to do? Let's go and find an ethicist to make a clever argument which will then allow us to get what we want. Congrats on a job well done. And if we ever doubted that philosophical ethics can do much good, we must now admit that ethicists can be very useful indeed.

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