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Reflections on Ethics 29
The Philosophy of Killing.

by: Teofilo Contreras

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Despite the grand title, this only a personal opinion. Perhaps as much as there can ever be on this subject.

Among the moral or ethical rules humanity has imposed on itself, not killing may rank as the first. It's no wonder, since life is all there is. As far as we know, death is the true an definitive end of the line. Most moral systems, religions and philosophies have devised all sorts of punishments, damnation and penance for those who kill. Some extend the bad image of killing to the killing of all types of living beings and some concentrate only on humans; but, in general, killing is definitely seen as not good.

Yet there are exceptions. Killing one's food is not only OK, but it can be a great sport. Killing predators to prevent them from eating the sheep before we do, seems fine too. Killing mosquitoes and ants is seen as... well nothing really. If we analyze the extremes there is hardly any argument: Murdering the neighbor because his house is too yellow, will not earn an once of sympathy for the chromatically offended; while flattening a worm out of existence, with a carelessly placed foot, will go unnoticed maybe even by the killer himself. The controversial part is when we try to analyze the blurry line that divides bad killing from the good or indifferent one.

We then come into the land of abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, war and other.

I see abortion in a different light than Massimo Pigliucci. For me it's technical trickery when we try to avoid the issue by fiddling with the definition of a human being or the definition of life. The real question, from my perspective, is whether we are going to label the termination of the unborn human life as ethically acceptable or not. From that point on, I agree with Massimo Pigliucci that careful consideration only renders more questions and dilemmas. I understand perfectly that in many circumstances an abortion is the most reasonable option. The bad part is that legal abortion opens the door to irresponsible, yet sometimes educated, people who will use abortion as a birth control system, instead of the much less dangerous and less controversial methods of contraception. The temptation is great to force these people to go through pregnancy and provide for the child once born. Of course this is only my anger speaking, because turning a child into a punishment is the worse kind of idea, particularly for the innocent child. Would it be sensible then to ask them to go through pregnancy and then give the child for adoption? Too many risks, I think, an unwanted pregnancy could also turn into a very bad situation for the child; also I don't think you can do something of the sort without some kind of trial and defense, which might take more than nine months and who knows what else. In the end, abortion seems to be in a similar situation to drug traffic and consumption: If it's going to happen no matter what, it may be best to have some degree of control, that is, have it regulated rather than prohibited. It's not that abortion is ever a great idea, but anything else seems to me ethically worse.

Suicide may be considered a special case in the killing department. When object and subject coincide. If life is all we have and someone decides to throw that away, should someone else have rights in this decision? To paraphrase from an extinct rock music radio station, suicidal people are those who said "this is my stop" about their ride in life. If life is our most valued possession, shouldn't we be entitled to make all sorts of decisions concerning it? In some ways, suicide resembles some other activities such as smoking, drinking, engaging in dangerous sports, etc. Doing harm to one's own body seems to be a private decision, from society's point of view, except when that harm is lethal; then, everybody judges and interferes with the late suicide's free will. Perhaps a way to describe it would be by means of property. In most circumstances, the only one entitled to make decisions about something is the owner. So who owns one's life if not exclusively oneself? Can someone claim ownership over my life or a part of it? Sometimes the objections address the consequences for other people surrounding the suicide's person's life. A suicide affects other people too, it's undeniable, but so does changing jobs, a marriage or moving abroad or buying a big bad motorcycle. Suicide is like saying "I play no more" so the rules of the game no longer apply, it's a complete severance of ties with everyone and everything, the end of existence. Nonexistence means no rights and no obligations. Nothing of ethical substance can be said about suicide because, once it happens, the perpetrator has been punished.

Assisted suicide is the next step. I don't see much difference. The assister would certainly feel quite strange. Imagine the doubts: What if this guy would have changed his mind tomorrow, what if he is temporarily delusional, what if my attorney is mistaken and this does legally qualify as murder... ? On the other hand, who could deny help to someone who has come to that most difficult of decisions, and for some reason needs help? I think the ethical question about assisted suicide refers us back to suicide, if suicide is accepted as a valid choice then then the difference between self sufficient or assisted seems irrelevant. I would not like to be asked for help in this department though. I would just put one rule to assisted suicide: the assistance must be needed, it can't be chosen. That way no more complications than strictly necessary enter the equation.

Euthanasia seems to me a further complication, because how can we know if the person would agree with the decision? In cases worthy of euthanasia, the person is unconscious (otherwise it would be assisted suicide) and the situation must be absolutely hopeless. So there is no way to know what the person would have thought or decided. In other words, the person is as good as dead already. On the other hand, I thinks it's very natural to feel strongly that we should preserve life and to try to avoid the decision. The doubt nags, what if next month someone finds a cure for whatever the problem might be; what if we are missing something; what if there is a parallel and enormous importance to this person's life, of which we know nothing? Therefore, I think, euthanasia more than an ethical issue is a technical one? How much is the situation really hopeless; the unconsciousness really unconscious and the lack of other factors inexistent or irrelevant?

Capital punishment is another swamp for arguments. I have heard nothing conclusive ever on this subject. When a criminal is capable to do the cruelest of crimes and is ready to go on to the next, why let him be? Why should society pay for his maintenance and risk a potential escape or the contamination of other people with his teachings? Why not apply the penicillin of the electric chair and get rid of the infection? The big why is because there are mistakes. It's impossible to even imagine all the potential things that can go wrong in an investigation, trial and conviction. In some cases we might be quite certain that the accused is indeed guilty, but we might not be so sure if his repentance or resolution to mend are sincere or feigned. In other cases there might be dozens of doubts about the evidence, the testimonies, the verdict. In some countries, the legal system is less trustworthy than in others, the public officials more prone to corruption, or more ignorant and inefficient. Who, in his right mind, can claim to be one hundred percent sure that one criminal or another deserves to die, because we say so? Who, in his right, mind can be one hundred percent sure that Hitler, Pinochet, Stalin, Jack the Ripper, Catherine de Medici, would have a right to live, in the hypothetical case we were judging them today?