Critical Notice of Jeff McMahan's The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life
Mulgan (Tim)
Source: Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Sep2004, Vol. 34 Issue 3, p443-459, 17p
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction:

  1. In this exceptional new book ("McMahan (Jeff) - The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life"), Jeff McMahan sets out to provide such an account. Along the way, he offers nuanced and illuminating accounts of personal identity, human nature, the badness of death, the wrongness of killing, the rights of animals, abortion1, and euthanasia. This book is a major contribution to both moral theory and applied ethics, and makes a strong case for the relevance of the former to the latter. It is also beautifully written and a joy to read.
  2. The practical relevance of a philosophical analysis of killing lies in the fact that 'an understanding of why killing is normally wrong should help us to identify the conditions in which killing may not be wrong' (189). In particular, McMahan seeks an account of killing that makes sense of contested terrain at the margins of human life (abortion2 and euthanasia) and also the morality of the taking of non-human lives.
  3. McMahan's methodology is a relatively standard one in contemporary moral philosophy. He combines conceptual analysis with judicious appeal to widely shared intuitions, and tests the results against a variety of counterexamples, both real and imagined. His use of this method is exemplary, as is his defence of it: ‘I am going to assume, in this book, that, unless they can be explained away as obvious products of collective self-interest, exploded metaphysics, factual errors, or some other discrediting source, our common moral intuitions should be treated as presumptively reliable, or as having some presumptive authority’ (238).
  4. This is a long, dense book, overflowing with examples, arguments, and counterarguments. Insofar as there is a unifying theme, it is McMahan's defence of a two-tiered account of the wrongness of killing, the view 'that morality, and in particular that area of morality concerned with killing, is divided between a region concerned with interests and well-being and a region concerned with respect' (260).
  5. Once this division is in place, McMahan's 'main purposes are to defend the permissibility of certain killings of beings below the threshold, and to show that some killings of persons are not wrong at all because they are compatible with what is required by respect' (251). In other words, McMahan mounts a partial defence of abortion3 and euthanasia.
  6. The remainder of this review aims to summarise the main points of each of McMahan's chapters, to show their interconnection, and also to raise a few doubts and concerns, not so much about the details of McMahan's account, but about his enterprise as a whole. In a brief review, it is not possible to do justice to all the topics covered in the book. In particular, I skip lightly over McMahan's initial discussion of what we are4, as well as much of his more applied discussion, to concentrate on the central notion of killing.


Reviews the book "McMahan (Jeff) - The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life".

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