The Truth About Killing(1)


In this series we go exploring into ourselves for a moral theory of balancing the interests of living entities with each-other. At the heart of the problem lays the issue that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and a live-and-let-live strategy can’t be upheld in reality which has resulted in numerous separated debates. This series will argue that all these debates are interlinked and should start with the same moral principles. As such it should be possible to get insights into the morality of killing insects, animals, prisoners, the terminally ill, the unborn and the newly born. The series will deal with the contexts that influence the morality-questions especially in the latter cases.

In “My name is LUCA” we talked about the origin of life, the properties of living things, the mechanisms that sustain it and those that help it reproduce. We discussed how random chemical processes, rather than ‘design’ were responsible for living things. We talked about how tough life is, how focused around reproduction as a bulk strategy and how important resources are in sustaining it. Almost as a direct consequence of this, killing is an integral part of life.

If we define killing as an act where a biological living entity ends those processes in at least one other living cell, we must have about the broadest working-theory possible. I intentionally use a broad but negatively charged word so as to enhance the controversy but at the same time the clarity and scope of what I am about to say. We have many more words for killing. We ‘execute’ prisoners, we ‘exterminate’ pests, we ‘hunt’ game, we ‘abort’ and ‘euthanize’. These words however muddle the water and prevent a clear basis for a moral theory on ‘intended termination of life’.

I killed more chickens then I would care to count and not all that killing went well. A year ago I physically retrained my dog while the veterinarian killed her, her teeth firmly ‘grasping’ my hand. We all have killed or swallowed the occasional bug and despite that I thought myself in the past somewhat of a sociopath, I never learned to like killing much. So if anything you should not accredit this post to my homicidal or sadistic nature, if anything I am firmly “Pro-life”.  Until you will have read this post through though, you will have no idea what that means. Finally, it is safe to say that there will be too much for you to read in one sitting so I will post this series in loosely structured chapters.

We are taught while growing up that killing is wrong. I’m not even sure if this is something we need to be taught or if the life inside us is by itself instinctively aware of the grave significance of this deed. It is only later that we become aware of all the killing that is going on around us. We are learned to appreciate that killing animals is perhaps necessary but at least killing people is an absolute “No-NO!”. Later still, we discover that in many situations humans are actually intentionally killed. This is the part where humanity really splits into different opinions.

There exists a minority that believes there should be no killing at all, even of animals. Most people however formulate for themselves opinions focusing on the validity of killing humans and in what situations this is justified. With all the names for it and the fragmented discussions surrounding the specific sorts of killing the very fact that this is basically all the same act, and perhaps needs to be discussed as such, is lost to general attention. The same cannot be said about the religious-right who do consider this all to be the same thing and who themselves often violate the very, one-dimensional, tenet ‘Thou shalt not kill’ they consider as valid.

The latter may actually be a surprising stance for religious people to take given the fact that these are the people that fundamentally believe that what comes after death is better than life. This is easily explained though because they also believe you have to suffer ALL that this life brings you before you may be allowed to die. Perhaps we can identify here the working of some darwinian selection on the meme since the competing religious meme that says ‘death is best’ AND ‘get to heaven ASAP’ obviously does not provide a strong survival benefit for its host, but I digress. It’s important to note though that ‘suffering’ is not necessarily to be avoided for the dogmatic religious, especially if it’s someone else doing the suffering.

 We can divide killing into types to clarify our thinking. 


Now with all this distinction possible in the domain of killing, and I make no claim that I classified the field exhaustively; it is no surprise that secular lawmakers have to a degree diversified the laws regarding the intentional taking of life. We should also note that most of the low-end categories can be divided still into “voluntary” and “involuntary”. We may regard involuntary as any case where the person doing the act would choose for another alternative if this had better or no consequences. The opposite case being that the person would have killed, even if an alternative had existed. In short ‘involuntary’ is any situation where the person feels compelled. Legally this does not always make a difference, morally it very well may.

When reviewing these classifications of killing, it is clear that we are today considerably removed from the simplistic ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ doctrine. But still this tenet holds much sway in the sense that it polarizes the discussions and makes for an ‘either/or’ choice. Take for instance the debate about capital-punishment. I have personally always been against it as have been the majority of Europeans. The reason often quoted for this is because judicial errors happen and happen a lot more than we are comfortable with. To have errors like this result in a state-led unjustified killing is simply unacceptable for many of us. However, this must not necessarily be an ‘either/or’ stance. We could perhaps allow for cases that agree with several parameters to still flow towards death-row. Cases for instance where several independent instances can be proven. Cases where there is proof of pathology beyond redemption. These are just my examples and I take not stance here. The point is that killing is not a black and white matter. Similarly we don’t consider people disabled only because they are in a wheelchair, there are plenty of disabled people that are not in wheelchairs and there are many more in wheelchairs we do not consider disabled. We have a decision-tree we apply for deciding who gets societies’ help and who will need to cut it without help. Just like with criteria for disablement there may be and will be heated discussion around parameters for killing (and there have been) but we need to abandon the religious dogma that ending life is always wrong and that two instances of killing are necessarily comparable.

Under religious influence there have been boundaries laid and inclusions made that don’t seem very factual in hindsight. For instance humans have been separated from animals in a way that some interpret as a black checque for killing any animal. The line in that case is drawn along the genetic frontiers, but this is not a viable basis for morality at all. In fact, this is a dangerous notion since none of us are genetically entirely equal, twins excepted, and it would be very unclear what level of genetic difference entitled an individual to not be harmed. Richard Dawkins did explain us how the gene is selfish, and yes morality is a consequence of evolution, but Dawkins also warned against interpreting the selfishness of the gene and drawing behavioral consequences from it. We may be justified to squash a bug and not consider this equivalent to murdering your spouse, but the reason has to be something else than genetics. In contrast inclusions have been drawn around the equivalence of a zygote, or fertilized human egg, and the life of doctors working in abortion clinics. These are considered of equal worth on religious grounds, since both are supposed to have an immortal soul, of which no proof has ever been presented. The tenet ‘An eye for an eye’, conflicting though it may be with the previous infallible divine rule, is then often used for justifying the killing of doctors.

If we wish to make a consistent theory for the morality of killing however it has to ‘predict’ the morality of killing both animals as well as humans. When physicists see phenomena that can be explained as linked they endeavor finding a theory that describes both simultaneously. The social sciences should not take second seat to them here. For we have lived too close with animals for a great diverse number of reasons to exclude them a priori from any debate concerning moral killing. The parameters that decide whether or not to apply capital punishment should be derived from the same principles as that guide the commands with which we instruct our soldiers during wars. This theory should be based not on simplistic and ill-adapted religious one-liners but on principles that are truly universe. I believe the moral rule ‘to do least harm’, to ‘cause least suffering’, is a valid norm to start off from.


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