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

Moral Intuition, Logic, and the Abortion Debate


Courtesy of Life Matters Journal. This essay was published, with illustrations, in Volume 4 Issue 1 — June 2015.


I would like to thank Jake Earl, who created the “John” thought experiment. The probing questions of various people, but most definitively of Earl, helped me to better think things through.


Moral principles must be based on pre-logical moral intuitions and laws should be based on those moral principles. (Of course to say that “laws should be based on those moral principles” is not to say that every moral principle should automatically be enacted into a law.)

Though everyone I have talked to agrees that moral principles must be based on pre-logical moral intuitions, I have heard an intelligent person or two contend that the correctness of such moral intuitions can still be logically proved or disproved (by which I mean, proved by a process of discursive argumentation, if not by formal academic logic) — as if moral inquiries were a hard science like math. More importantly, many people who would not explicitly make this contention nevertheless present their arguments about moral issues as if this were the case. So while some philosopher probably demonstrated centuries ago the impossibility of logically proving the correctness of moral intuitions, the relationship of logic and intuition still deserves to be examined. And I think the insights gained in the process of examining it can lead us toward methods of self-exploration and of discourse that will help reveal moral truths, including moral truths about abortion.

First of all, for moral principles to be based on moral intuitions really means that moral principles are the verbalized form of moral intuitions. Therefore correct moral principles will follow from correct moral intuitions. And if the correctness of a moral intuition could be logically proved, then it would be possible to construct a correct moral principle through logic alone, with no recourse to intuition — since the process of constructing would be the same as the process of proving.

To say that it would be possible to construct a correct moral principle through logic alone, but at the same time to agree that moral intuitions (of which moral principles are the verbalized forms) are pre-logical — as everyone seems to agree — would be contradictory. Nevertheless, as mentioned, some people do present their arguments about moral issues as if the correctness of a moral intuition could be logically proved (that is, as if it would be possible to construct a correct moral principle through logic alone). So let’s continue to address that contention.

“The correctness of a moral intuition can be logically proved” and “a correct moral principle can be constructed through logic alone” seem to me like two different formulations of the same thing. But in case there’s any doubt, as I continue I’ll address the one I’ve actually heard, the former.

Is there such a thing as a correct moral intuition, and if so, can its correctness be logically proved or disproved? Though I am arguing no to the second question, I will argue yes to the first.

Moral Intuitions and Moral Principles

As an example of a moral principle — a generalized moral principle, but basically a sound one, I feel — let’s use “Thou shalt not kill.” I would say that that principle did not come from God, but rather is based on a pre-logical and pre-verbal human revulsion at most killing of the innocent. A pre-logical and pre-verbal sense of right or wrong is how I would define a moral intuition. Psychology professor Paul Bloom, author of the recent book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, said in an interview that while some moral ideals “are the product of culture and society” and “not in the genes,” “there also exist hardwired moral universals – moral principles that we all possess. And even those aspects of morality . . . that vary across cultures are ultimately grounded in these moral foundations.” Even if Bloom overestimates the role of the genes in the “hardwired” moral senses, and underestimates the role of culture in those moral senses, and overestimates how universal those moral senses are across cultures, it would be safe to say that most of us do have senses of right or wrong that come out of our unconscious in ways we cannot understand. I am calling those senses moral intuitions. (For alternatives to the term “moral intuition,” and for an explanation of “pre-logical” and “pre-verbal,” see the Appendix.)
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Dismantling the Bodily-Rights Argument without Using the Responsibility Argument


Clinton Wilcox of Life Training Institute was kind enough to read the semi-final draft of this post and provide a brief but insightful critique. This does not mean that he necessarily endorses any of the final contents. However, I wish to take this opportunity to thank him.


The strongest argument for abortion rights is usually considered to be the bodily-rights argument. Perhaps the most effective variation of it that I have seen appeared in a (negative) comment under Kristine Kruszelnicki’s March 11, 2014 guest post on the Friendly Atheist blog:

They [both mother and unborn child] are entitled to their own bodily rights. So exactly how does a fetus have the right to co-opt another person’s body without consent?

Let’s say for example medical science has progressed to the point of being able to transplant a fetus into another human being. In an accident a pregnant woman is injured to the point of immanent [sic] death, does that fetus have the *right* to be implanted into the next viable candidate without consent?

The commenter was arguing, in other words, “A woman who is a candidate to be made pregnant in that futuristic way would have a right to refuse to let her body be so used – everyone would agree. Therefore, why should a woman who has become pregnant in a more usual way not also have a right to refuse to continue the pregnancy?”

In the context of the abortion debate (and, significantly, in hardly any other context), the term “bodily rights” comes up often. Synonyms still more commonly used are “bodily integrity” and “bodily autonomy,” but I will say “rights” because it is rights that have practical consequences. If anything can help determine the practical outcome “Woman goes through with abortion,” it is a right, not an abstract “integrity” or “autonomy.”

The above fetus-implantation version or any version of the bodily-rights argument could be rebutted by pointing out that most pregnant women voluntarily engaged in a sex act that caused the pregnancy in the first place, and therefore have a responsibility for the child (the “responsibility argument”); but this rebuttal does not work in cases of rape, and is not convincing to some people in any situation – for reasons which I need not discuss here but will refer to in an appendix. Thus the argument remains logically strong. But is it logic alone that makes an argument strong or weak? I would like to approach this from the perspective that an argument is an instrument for changing some of another person’s brain circuitry, and the ideas that correlate with that circuitry, to resemble part of one’s own circuitry and ideas, and that some value-related circuitry and ideas are better for us as individuals and as a species than others. I will contend that though logical demonstrations (such as the above thought experiment) and their rebuttals have an important place in the debate about bodily rights, there is no clear logical resolution to the debate one way or the other; that in seemingly logical demonstrations there are psychological factors at play apart from factors which are purely logical, and that those factors sway us from our normal intuitions; and that those factors can be neutralized by understanding them and by other techniques.

I would like to see people question where their convictions come from, because I think that the more they examine where they come from, the more they will move toward better convictions.

I would like to proceed according to the following outline:

1. Morality and moral principles, including our moral principles about when morality should be backed by legislation and when it should not, derive ultimately from intuition.

2. The intuitions of many people, particularly of most pro-lifers, say that the unborn children of pregnant women should be legally protected against abortion in some (not all) situations.

3. The intuitions of most pro-choicers differ from ours in the first place and say that the unborn children of pregnant women should not be afforded any legal protection.

4. There are some people who are, in terms of moral intuitions, “on the fence,” undecided.

5. Some people’s moral intuitions are better than those of others; in this particular area of moral investigation, the intuitions of pro-lifers are better. (Keep reading!)

I think that just as “there is no clear logical resolution to the (overall) debate one way or the other,” the correctness or incorrectness of any moral intuition cannot be logically proved, but that logic can nudge us toward correct moral intuitions, that is, help us find the correct moral intuitions within us. Under this point 5 below I will include a long section analyzing logically the concept of bodily rights. It is designed to nudge us toward more correct moral intuitions about the importance of bodily rights.

6. Though the intuitions of most pro-lifers say that unborn children should in many cases be legally protected against abortion, the intuitions of many pro-lifers also agree with pro-choicers (as do the intuitions of many undecideds) that a woman who is not pregnant (as in the above thought experiment) should not be legally subject to the forcible implantation in her of a child she did not conceive, even to save the child’s life. (And our intuitions also usually say that a violinist to whom we are hooked up should not be given legal protection from unhooking; and our intuitions also agree with various other pro-choice thought experiments designed to reject, in certain situations, legislative enforcement of a broad right to life.)

7. Human logical powers are limited, and therefore a particular situation, situation A, may seem parallel to another situation, situation B, in all the important morally-relevant ways that the human mind can think of, without the two situations necessarily being morally equivalent.

8a. The situation depicted by a thought experiment always includes some imagery of greater or lesser vividness, and some emotional content. If to our logical minds (momentarily or over a longer term) some outrageous situation, A, depicted by a pro-choice thought experiment, does seem parallel to situation B – a legal prohibition on abortion in a normal pregnancy – then the imagery and emotions of situation A get temporarily transferred to situation B. Let’s call this a process of “outrage transfer.” (Below I will touch on the search for an understanding of how events such as outrage transfer might actually work neurologically.)

b. Moreover, if we are subject to an over-fascination with logic, which many people are, then our consciences/intuitions will work with wrong information (the belief that logic can completely prove or disprove the moral equivalence of two situations) and may tell us that if there seem to be strong parallels between the situation of a pro-choice thought experiment that militates against legal protection of some living being, and the situation of pregnancy, then we should discard legal protection of the unborn in pregnancy – in spite of our earlier intuition supporting such legal protection.

8a and 8b are what I had earlier called “psychological factors at play apart from factors which are purely logical.” I had said that those psychological factors “sway us from our normal intuitions” and I had gone on to say, “those factors can be neutralized by understanding them and by other techniques.”

9a. The effects of outrage transfer will fade over time. Moreover, the outrage transfer of a pro-choice thought experiment can be offset or more than offset by pro-life thought experiments such as those involving the separation of conjoined twins, or the “Cabin in the Blizzard” thought experiment of Stephen Wagner et. al. (It can be “more than offset” if only because our minds are impressionable and are always most strongly affected by the imagery and emotional triggers that stimulated them most recently.)

b. Though human logical powers are not sufficient to tell us conclusively about the moral equivalence or otherwise of two situations (as mentioned in 7 above), they are sufficient to convince us of said insufficiency, and thereby to free us from an over-fascination with logic and restore our original trust in our intuition that the unborn deserve legal protection.


Someone will say that I am discarding logic and that moreover I am saying that a pro-life position can only be defended by discarding logic. But that is not what I am doing. We should always apply logic to the fullest extent possible, and there are good logical rebuttals to the forcible-implantation and other pro-choice thought experiments, and I will discuss them in brief; but we should not think that logic, even on a base of intuition, can give us final answers to all moral questions, specifically the question of whether a right to life overrides bodily rights in the case of pregnancy.

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If we are to pinpoint the moment of beginning of personhood that has the best scientific grounding, out of all the moments that are candidates, that will certainly be the beginning of the single-cell stage. A minute before, there were two spatially-separated haploid cells, each with insufficient genetic information ever to become anything resembing a full-grown person; a minute after, there is a single definable organism with the exact genetic information that it will carry throughout life, at 1 month of gestation, at 4 years, at 60 years.

Here Dr. Maureen L. Condic writes:

Structures capable of new functions are formed throughout embryogenesis. For example, grasping becomes possible once hands have formed. But the fundamental process of development proceeds continuously, both prior to and after hand formation, and the onset of this function reflects an ongoing developmental process. Given the continuous nature of development, to argue that embryos and fetuses become humans once some anatomical or functional landmark such as “consciousness” has been achieved is to assert some kind of magical transformation; i.e., that at some ill-defined point, a non-human entity spontaneously transmogrifies into a human being, without any change whatsoever in its behavior, its molecular composition, or any other observable feature.

I reject this argument. For something actually to transform into a different kind of thing, a change must take place in its composition or in its pattern of biological activity. For example, sperm and egg are two specific human cell types that fuse to produce a distinct cell (the zygote) with unique molecular composition and with a pattern of organismal behavior that is distinct from the behavior of either sperm or egg. A clear, non-magical, scientifically observable transformation from one kind of entity (two human cells) to another kind of entity (a distinct human organism) has occurred. . . .

Building the complex architecture of the brain is a continuous process that is initiated at sperm-egg fusion and proceeds through orderly steps under the direction of a ‘builder,’ that is, a human organism that is present from the beginning. The presence of an agent capable of constructing the mature body, including the brain, is the only sustainable definition of a human being. This agency should not be misconstrued as some kind of mystical or spiritual element that is merely attributed to an embryo or fetus based on personal or religious belief. The fact that the embryo acts as an agent is entirely a matter of empirical observation; embryos construct themselves. . . .

. . . science does not dictate that citizens have a right to equal protection under the law, but. . . . science has clearly determined when human life commences, and this determination legitimately dictates that equal protection under the law must extend to human beings at embryonic and fetal stages of development.

For more scientific sources attesting to the personhood of the zygote, see Appendix 1.

Though the beginning of the single-cell stage has the best scientific grounding among all the moments that are candidates for the beginning of personhood, some will debate against defining “personhood” in this way. And “personhood” or “person” is not the only word that can be debated. While some will maintain that a zygote is “a human being, but not a person,” others, since they can’t deny that it belongs to the species Homo sapiens, will insist, with an equally straight face, that it is “human, but not a human being.”
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