What’s Wrong with Killing?

Among all who get involved in discussions about moral issues, killing and violence seem to have, in general, a bad name. How many times have you heard the remark, in refutation of some view, “By that logic, it would be okay to kill someone” – ? Killing is the default that we turn to when we need some example of doing wrong.

One would think that in the abortion debate, agreement on the wrong of killing would give us some common ground. But it turns out that although killing is universally disreputable, it’s disreputable in a nebulous way. When we say “Killing is wrong,” we don’t all mean the same thing. We disagree on exactly what is wrong with it.

1. To my moral intuitions, it is clear that what is most wrong with killing is that it deprives an organism of its future conscious life (which in the case of human beings usually includes a chance to improve morally). If I don’t deem it to have much of a future life or don’t deem that its future life will be very conscious, as I don’t in the case of a mosquito, then killing it is less wrong. I think it’s permissible to kill a mosquito for a provocation or even a threat that would not justify my killing a human being.

2. But many people think that what is most wrong about killing relates to the species of the victim without regard to its future conscious life. They say that the lives of all human beings are exactly equal in value and that human lives are special. Thus the worst wrong is to kill any innocent human being. (Well, there are some who say only, “The lives of all born human beings are exactly equal in value;” but the fundamental assumption is the same – those who say that simply don’t apply the assumption to the unborn.) Thus the life of a person in an irreversible coma (even granting the assumption that we really know beyond doubt that the coma is complete and irreversible) is as valuable as your life or mine.

Many Christians think in this way because of a belief that any human being, yet only a human being, is an imago dei.

I disagree with vesting all belief in what is wrong with killing in the simple humanity of the victim, because my moral intuitions tell me that in a triage situation – for instance if that person in a coma were in a hospital where there was not sufficient life-support equipment for two patients, and there was another patient in need of the equipment who was conscious or expected to regain consciousness – I would clearly prioritize the second person, though that person is not more human.

I think I would even preserve the life of a dog who could expect to have years of conscious life ahead of it (I believe dogs to be among the animals with highest consciousness), rather than that of a human who was sure never to come out of a coma.

The life of any human being is very important to me. We should not take anyone off life support if we can help it (unless they wrote an advance directive). But I wonder if some of my concern for even a human being in an irreversible coma, stems from my knowledge that humans in general are highly conscious.

3. Some think that what’s wrong with killing is that it frustrates a desire, on the part of the organism, to live.

I was lucky enough not to have to try to analyze this particular view on my own. An analysis of it co-authored by Kelsey Hazzard of Secular Pro-Life, and me, appears as a post on the SPL blog. Here I will just add a couple of further comments:

In the blog post, we remarked about that view, What is being said here is that an organism’s caring about its future life is important, but the future life itself that the organism cares about is not important. One more way to put “what is being said” would be: “Beings’ future lives don’t matter, but if they cherish a desire to live based on the illusion that their lives really do matter, then that foolish desire matters.”

We have implied in the post that an equation between caring about living (wanting to live) and caring about one’s future life; but can there really be much debate about that equation? For myself, I think that people who don’t want to live are invariably people who don’t want to go through the future life that they expect; and people who do want to live have at least a little hope for a little future happiness.

Also, in using expressions such as “the only harm that we can see in the frustration of a desire for one’s future life” in relation to the topic of the wrong of the killing, we have suggested that wrong involves harm. If there is any moral wrong unrelated to harming somebody, it seems to me that it would be a very abstract wrong compared to the wrong of harm.

And, it might be worth identifying a possible difference between the frustrates-a-desire-to-live view that we mainly discuss, and Peter Singer’s view, which we also mention. Singer focuses on the importance of a capacity to care (to hold preferences, as he puts it), but I’m not sure whether he ever singles out the importance of caring about life. Thus his thesis may not undermine itself as much as does the other, which inadvertently implies the importance of future life. Yet he equally ignores the relevance of future life when we consider killing someone.

(And lastly, in that article we said, “. . . okay, it’s true, embryos haven’t yet started to care about their future, and probably won’t for some years.” But were we 100% correct in saying that? The fact that they are biologically programmed to do everything possible to live, and that that biological longing is designed to ensure that the later conscious longing will have its day, means something to my personal moral intuitions. But let’s leave that aside for now.)

I think of the above as the three main competing views as to what is wrong with killing. In addition, there are some views as to what may at least add to the wrong of killing:

4. Killing may involve inflicting pain. On the wrong of inflicting avoidable pain, there is almost complete common ground in society. Even hunters who kill for fun do not find as much fun in it if they inflict significantly more pain than usual. Even pro-choicers who do not see anything wrong with killing the unborn in itself would like it to be done as painlessly as possible. Even if there really exist proponents of the “sovereign zone” bodily-rights argument who say that a pregnant woman should have a legal right to torture her unborn (because she is doing what she wants with her body and its contents), they would probably say that it would be morally wrong for her to do so.

5. Killing will often involve emotional distress for people other than the victim. It will particularly cause distress if the victim had in their life developed positive relationships. This has some small relevance in the abortion debate, because a born person, unlike an unborn, may have developed such relationships. Killing the unborn may be less wrong in that particular way.

6. Killing will often involve a loss of a utilitarian kind. And again, it is only born people who may be confirmed to be making a positive utilitarian contribution to society.

If we are to consider people’s utilitarian value in assessing their worthiness to live, we have to note that the utilitarian value of some born people will be greater than that of others, and that the contributions of certain born persons have been confirmed to be negative. Still, if carrying a pregnancy to term might negatively impact a woman’s ability to take care of her born children, that would assign a certain negative utilitarian value to her unborn child, and if there is no one who can help with the born children, that would be a factor to some degree, for the permissibility of abortion in that particular case.


In relation to the “frustrating a desire” belief about the wrong of killing, I wrote, “Ultimately we can’t argue logically with moral intuitions.” Logical arguments can be very important in helping people find better intuitions in themselves, but ultimately we can’t reject, on logical grounds, any of the above intuitions about the wrong of killing. I have written elsewhere regarding how I think differences in moral intuition ultimately resolve.

And I have said a number of things here indicating that I don’t give equal value to all human lives. Philosophically I don’t and probably many people don’t, but it would not be wise for society to try to implement, in practice, some objective calculation of value. Because if it were known that everybody was being rated in terms of their expendability, that would cause tremendous tension in society. We have to maintain the existing social convention “everyone’s life is of equal value,” and continue to codify that convention in terms of equal legal rights. (Except in a triage situation where the rubber meets the road and we have to make some differentiations.) I also think that the existing social convention should be upgraded so that “everyone” includes the unborn. I think that mainly because the unborn, also, have a future conscious life.

© 2015

What Babies Don’t Know Can’t Hurt Them, Right?


Secular Pro-Life has published an article co-authored by Kelsey Hazzard of SPL, and me.


You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published. Back up your work as you type, in case of accidents.

Some future posts:

Life Panels

Evolution, and the Humanizing and Uplifting Effect on Society of a Commitment to the Unborn

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World