Philosopher’s Index Abstract:
- An analysis of the doctrine of the sanctity of life, and
- a defence of that doctrine against some trends in current ‘bioethics’, particularly as exemplified in "McMahan (Jeff) - The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life".
- "McMahan (Jeff) - The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life" is a very ambitious book on what we vaguely call the sanctity of life. It has been extravagantly praised by so many of the people we would expect to hear from, most remarkably by Don Marquis. He has called it ‘one of the best philosophical books ever written’. And if it is not exactly the best of all philosophical books it would be fair to call it one of the longest. It gives the impression of great thoroughness.
- We are offered substantial chapters — one might almost say monographs — on our identity over time, on why death is so often a misfortune, and on the way killing is wrong (when it is). These are followed by a lengthy discussion of abortion1 and euthanasia. The ‘main purposes’ of all this industry are by no means unusual. They are ‘to defend the permissibility of certain killings’ (251) — cases of what people used to call, pejoratively and somewhat technically, the killing of the innocent. In this endeavour, it would appear, no stone is left unturned. People who scorn the complexities of medieval philosophy will have little patience with what we have here, unless indeed they are attracted by the conclusions on offer.
- This last however is no small matter. Practical ethics in our time has been a liberating subject, and Professor McMahan provides the ethics community once again with the usual liberating conclusions. Not least among these conclusions we find a firm rejection of human moral equality: our ‘commitment to a fundamental moral equality among all human beings … has to be abandoned’ (233). Out of context one might not know what ‘moral equality’ amounted to, and why its rejection might be liberating. But the merest glance at this book provides context enough.
- Not all the conclusions, it must be said, are liberating. In this respect too, this book is in full conformity with recent trends in bioethics. Thus we are certainly not to think of ourselves as liberated in regard to the killing of nonhuman animals. ‘Killing animals, and allowing them to die, are far more serious matters than we have supposed’ (230). Indeed it could be more serious to kill a frog than to kill an infant. This depends upon what view one takes of death (210). This concern about ‘allowing an animal to die’ is indeed something of an extension of current thinking; McMahan could have emphasised just how much of this allowing there is, every day the world over. And this is by no means the only novelty. Even where his broad conclusions seem rather familiar, the way he reaches them has some unusual features. I shall have to confine my attention, self-denyingly, to what seems most distinctive about McMahan’s approach2.
Footnote 2: A clear overview of the main themes is provided in Tim Mulgan’s interesting "Mulgan (Tim) - Critical Notice of Jeff McMahan's The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life", Sept. 2004.
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