Taking life

A little while ago I promised to write about taking life as a follow on from my post about eating plants. It’s Christmas Day today, the kids are playing happily with gifts, and so now is a good time to tackle it.

When is it wrong to take the life of a living being? In my post on eating plants, I argued that species membership is not a good moral reason for whether or not to inflict harm on a being and so it is also not a good condition for whether or not to take the life of that being. Species membership has no bearing on the value of a being’s life and so it cannot answer the question of whether or not it is right to take the life of that being. Far more relevant is the being’s capacity for pleasure and pain – sentience – and also the being’s capacity for autonomy. By autonomy, I mean their ability to make decisions about their own life and whether they can see themselves as having a past and a future. What matters is whether the being is a person rather than whether the being belongs to homo sapiens. Some humans are not persons – fetuses and severely intellectually disabled humans are not persons – while some non-human animals are persons – chimpanzees are persons. What this means is that there may be occasions when it is justifiable to take human life – euthanasia being one of them – and also occasions when it is indefensible to take the life of a non-human animal – in the case of a chimpanzee for instance. The interests of friends, family and the wider community must also be considered here and it does not mean that we must always take the life of a non-person, just that it may be morally justifiable to do so in certain situations.

I’m not going to write about taking human life though. I want to write about taking the life of non-human animals. A popular argument for the killing of animals for meat is that by killing and eating animals, pigs for instance, the meat-eater is responsible for the creation of more life as new pigs must be created to replace the life that was eaten. This is known as the replaceability argument.

One objection to the replaceability argument is that if it is good to create a happy life then it is also good to create as much happy life as possible, that is to create the maximum number of beings that can sustainably be supported, and so it follows that we should eliminate human beings and replace them with a much larger quantity of smaller beings. If proponents of the replaceability argument come up with a reason for why it is preferable to create human life over non-human life, then their argument does not support the eating of animals for food since we can support more human life on Earth if we all ate plants.

Another objection to the replaceability argument is that it may be used as a defence for organ banking. Not that this is itself a reason to reject it, just that it becomes less appealing. Organ banking is the idea that for every child that is born, a clone of the child is also created and raised separately so that the organs of this clone may be used by the child at some stage of their life should they require them. When we kill the clone to harvest its organs, new clones are created to replace them and so the replaceability argument says this is a good thing for these clones would not exist were it not for the killing of them and harvesting of their organs.

A better basis for whether killing can be morally justified is to ask whether the being is self-conscious, as opposed to merely conscious, and whether they have a desire to continue living and are capable of seeing themselves over time with desires for the future. The death of a self-conscious being involves a loss of these desires and so represents a greater loss than just the death of consciousness alone. This does not mean that the interests of merely conscious beings do not count. Their interests must be taken into consideration but they do not have a personal interest in continuing to live.

That’s all for now as I’ve got a meat-free nut roast to cook. If anyone wants to read more about this, see Taking life: animals.

Merry Christmas everyone.