The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life
McMahan (Jeff)
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Amazon Book Description

  1. This magisterial work is the first comprehensive study of the ethics of killing, where the moral status of the individual killed is uncertain.
  2. Drawing on philosophical notions of personal identity and the immorality of killing, McMahan looks carefully at a host of practical issues, including abortion1, infanticide, the killing of animals, assisted suicide, and euthanasia.

Amazon Customer Review
  1. This is simply the best and most comprehensive book on the topic of killing within applied ethics. The work is well written and covers a tremendous amount of ground on the different arguments related to the ethics of killing both historically and in the contemporary literature. Philosophical issues associated with abortion2, euthanasia, theories of death, the soul, harm, are all covered. McMahan gives clear expositions of arguments that have been so far advocated from all sides of the issue in philosophy and medical ethics on when and why killing is wrong and proceeds to offer his own analysis and conclusions. Even if you do not agree with McMahan on his conclusions, you will likely find where the contemporary and historical philosophical setting takes place.
  2. I especially thought impressive McMahan's breadth of knowledge in relevant philosophical and medical topics associated with the main topics such as personal identity, the philosophy of mind, human biological development, moral responsibility, the physiology of death and many other relevant topics. For example, before we know if a killing of a person is wrong, we need to know what a person is to analyse when killings of persons occur. This topic is an issue for personal identity. What are persons? Are they biological organisms? Their brains? Some immaterial soul substance? The book explores in detail all such related topics in depth.
  3. Another cool aspect of this book is that just about all the chapters can be read independently of each other. They all deal with separate topics and McMahan's argumentation do not presuppose knowledge of arguments or information given in previous chapters.
  4. The book's subtitle, "Problems at the Margins of Life" hints that the book covers the ethical issues of these kinds of killing: abortion3, of animals, and euthanasia. The book is meant to be the first of a series on killing, later books will cover the ethics of killing in war and in self-defense.


Oxford University Press, 2002

"Mulgan (Tim) - Critical Notice of Jeff McMahan's The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life"

Source: Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Sep2004, Vol. 34 Issue 3, p443-459, 17p

Author’s Introduction:
      There is no moral belief that is more universal, stable, and unquestioned, both across different societies and throughout history, than the belief that killing people is normally wrong. Yet no one, to my knowledge, has ever offered an account of why killing is wrong that even begins to do justice to the full range of commonsense beliefs about the morality of killing. (McMahan, 189)
  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.

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

"McMahan (Jeff) - The Ethics of Killing: Preface"

Source: Jeff McMahan - The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life, 2002, Preface

Author’s Abstract
  1. A comprehensive study of the ethics of killing in cases in which the metaphysical or moral status of the individual killed is uncertain or controversial.
  2. Among those beings whose status is questionable or marginal in this way are human embryos1 and fetuses2, newborn infants, animals, anencephalic infants, human beings with severe congenital and cognitive impairments, and human beings who have become severely demented or irreversibly comatose. In an effort to understand the moral status of these beings, this book develops and defends distinctive accounts of the nature of personal identity, the evaluation of death, and the wrongness of killing.
  3. The central metaphysical claim of the book is that we are neither nonmaterial souls nor human organisms but are instead embodied minds. In ethical theory, one of the central claims is that the morality of killing is not unitary; rather, the principles that determine the morality of killing in marginal cases are different from those that govern the killing of persons who are self-conscious and rational.
  4. Another important theme is that killing in marginal cases should be evaluated in terms of the impact it would have on the victim at the time rather than on the value of the victim's life as a whole. What primarily matters is how killing would affect that which would be rational for the victim to care about at the time of death.
  5. By appealing to various foundational claims about identity, death, and the morality of killing, this book yields novel conclusions about such issues as abortion3, prenatal injury, infanticide, the killing of animals, the significance of brain death4, the termination of life support in cases of persistent vegetative state5, the use of anencephalic infants as sources of organs for transplantation6, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and advance directives in cases of dementia.
  6. In particular, the book defends the moral permissibility of abortion7, infanticide, and euthanasia in certain cases and argues that brain death8 is not the appropriate criterion of death either for a person or a human organism.

"McMahan (Jeff) - Identity"

Source: Jeff McMahan - The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life, 2002, Chapter 1

Author’s Abstract
  1. Argues against three widely held views of our identity:
    • The view that we are souls or incorporeal substances,
    • The view that we are human organisms, and
    • The view that the criterion of our identity over time is entirely psychological.
  2. It argues that we are instead embodied minds and that the criterion of our identity over time is the continued existence and functioning, in non-branching form, of enough of those regions of the brain in which consciousness occurs in order for the brain to retain the capacity, with relevant support systems, to support consciousness or mental activity.
  3. It also follows Derek Parfit1 in claiming that identity is not the basis of egoistic concern about the future.

  1. Preliminaries
  2. The Soul
  3. Are We Human Organisms?
  4. The Psychological Account
  5. The Embodied Mind Account

"McMahan (Jeff) - Death"

Source: Jeff McMahan - The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life, 2002, Chapter 2

Author’s Abstract
  1. Analyzes the badness of death for those who die.
  2. Argues that our intuitions about the comparative badness of different deaths are best justified if we abandon the idea that death should be evaluated in terms of its effect on the value of life as a whole.
  3. Instead, death should be evaluated in terms of the effect that it has on what the victim has reason to care about from an egoistic point of view at the time of death.
  4. Only in this way can we adequately explain why the death of a fetus1 or newborn infant is less bad than the death of an older child or adult.

  1. Preliminaries
  2. The Problem of Comparison
  3. The Metaphysical Problem
  4. The Problem of Overdetermination
  5. Overall Lifelong Fortune
  6. Deaths of Fetuses2 and Infants
  7. A Paradox

"McMahan (Jeff) - Killing"

Source: Jeff McMahan - The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life, 2002, Chapter 3

Author’s Abstract
  1. Seeks to understand why killing is normally wrong. It argues that there is no single, unitary explanation of the wrongness of killing.
  2. It begins by considering the morality of killing animals and contends that there is no morally significant intrinsic difference between all human beings on the one hand and all other animals on the other.
  3. The reason why killing an animal is morally objectionable appeals solely to considerations of interests.
  4. But killing a rational, self-conscious being is wrong because it involves a failure of respect for that individual as a rational being.
  5. The morality of killing a fetus1 is governed by the same principles that govern the killing of an animal.

  1. The Wrongness of Killing and the Badness of Death
  2. Animals and Severely Cognitively Impaired Human Beings
  3. Equality and Respect

"McMahan (Jeff) - Beginnings"

Source: Jeff McMahan - The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life, 2002, Chapter 4

Author’s Abstract
  1. Discusses abortion1, infanticide, and the infliction of prenatal injury.
  2. It argues that early abortion2 is morally comparable to contraception and that late abortion3 can be justified in many cases because of the comparative weakness of the fetus4's interest in continuing to live.
  3. The permissibility of abortion5 is not threatened either by considerations of potential or by claims about the sanctity of human life.
  4. Because there is no significant intrinsic difference between a late-term fetus6 and a newborn infant, infanticide can also be permissible in a limited range of cases for the same reasons that abortion7 can be justified.
  5. Abortion8 cannot be justified, however, by appealing to a pregnant9 woman's right of self-defense.

  1. Early Abortion10
  2. Late Abortion11
  3. Prenatal Harm
  4. Is a Later Abortion12 Worse?
  5. Time-Relative Interests and Adaptation
  6. Potential
  7. The Sanctity of Human Life
  8. Infanticide
  9. Abortion13 as the Denial of Life-Support
  10. Abortion14 and Self-Defense

"McMahan (Jeff) - Endings"

Source: Jeff McMahan - The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life, 2002, Chapter 5

Author’s Abstract
  1. Argues that we must have two concepts of death - the death or ceasing to exist of the person and the death of the human organism.
  2. Brain death1 is not the proper criterion for either of these.
  3. Persistent vegetative state2 involves the death or ceasing to exist of the person, even though the human organism continues to live.
  4. This chapter also defends the permissibility of assisted suicide and euthanasia in a broad range of cases and concludes by discussing the authority of advance directives in cases involving dementia.

  1. When Do We Die, or Cease to Exist?
  2. Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide
  3. The Withering Away of the Self

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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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