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.

10 thoughts on “Taking life

  1. Fitting to the theme is a Turkey crisis at Christmas.

    I have some troubles following you today, maybe also because I have never heard of the replaceability theory before. Replaceability is at least important to make sure that species do not go extinct. In that case, the number may not be that important, just sufficient to avoid inbreeding.

    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.

    This part suggests, but does not state, that euthanasia is about killing intellectually disable people. In the modern usage it refers to people that no longer want to life because the quality of their life is too low and it is almost over anyway. In The Netherlands, and I think everywhere where euthanasia is legal, this decision can only be made by a person that is still intellectually capable, or at least was capable at the time the decision was made.

    Nice Christmas theme. Happy holidays everyone.

  2. Hi Victor,

    I think you’ve followed what I said. There are different types of euthanasia and I didn’t intend to define any of those types so if it has come across that way then the mistake is mine. There’s voluntary euthanasia, involuntary euthanasia and non-voluntary euthanasia. Voluntary is the type you describe; involuntary is very rare if it exists at all (I don’t really know much about this one); and non-voluntary applies where a human being is incapable of making the decision to end their life due to an accident or disability or for some other reason they are incapable of giving consent. Here’s an example of non-voluntary euthanasia:

    In 1988 a case arose that well illustrates the way in which modern medical technology forces us to make life and death decisions. Samuel Linares, an infant, swallowed a small object that stuck in his windpipe, causing a loss of oxygen to the brain. He was admitted to a Chicago hospital in a coma and placed on a respirator. Eight months later he was still comatose, still on the respirator, and the hospital was planning to move Samuel to a long-term care unit. Shortly before the move, Samuel’s parents visited him in the hospital. His mother left the room, while his father produced a pistol and told the nurse to keep away. He then disconnected Samuel from the respirator, and cradled the baby in his arms until he died. When he was sure Samuel was dead, he gave up his pistol and surrendered to police. He was charged with murder, but the grand jury refused to issue a homicide indictment, and he subsequently received a suspended sentence on a minor charge arising from the use of the pistol.

    source: http://www.utilitarianism.net/singer/by/1993—-.htm

    I think there are probably cases where nonvoluntary euthanasia is justifiable and I am certainly in favour of voluntary euthanasia and also abortion which also involves taking life.

    I can see that addressing the replaceability argument does not really apply to your concern about species extinction. But is this really a concern? Let’s say we stop eating pigs. Pigs are already wild throughout New Zealand. They’re a bit of a pest and people hunt them. They have managed to survive quite well without being farmed. Some humans will continue to farm sheep for wool, cows for milk, chickens for eggs…..I don’t really see how any of these animals will go extinct.

    Merry Christmas to you too and I hope the Turkey crisis gets resolved. 🙂

    1. A pig is not just a pig.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pig_breeds

      A goose is not just a goose.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_goose_breeds

      Turkeys seems to be more boring, but also a Turkey is not just a Turkey.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_turkey_breeds

      Many of these breeds are endangered, because they do not grow fast enough for industrial farming, because they are too fat, etc. They are important though. They often taste better :), are more resistant and can be held outside, which also likely makes them more healthy, they have resistances against deceases that may become important in future.

      For the vegetarians: we have the same problems with plants. If we want to preserve this biodiversity we have to eat these plants and animals, otherwise the populations will become too small and they will go extinct. A loss of thousands of years of selection.

      At the conference in Rio, the nations of the world did not only agree to protect the climate, but also the biodiversity and the agricultural biodiversity.

      1. Victor,
        Yes, I agree we should protect biodiversity as much as we can. And I agree that our current farming practices which seem to favour large monocultures are not particularly helpful in achieving this goal.

  3. Every being must experience pain, the fear of it and the fear of death. If any did not then it would not be sufficiently driven to avoid these things and would not exist now.

    Every life is unique and cannot be replaced. The only question is to what extent killing to live has been and is acceptable. It is acceptable for the lion but we are more evolved and must accept the responibility that goes with the advantages.

    Nevertheless, I don’t feel at all judgemental. Evolution is a gradual and ragged process. We all pursue different strands and each strand is worthy of respect.

    —- Apple sauce, sage and butter on leeks all cooked in foil. Parsnips in their jackets. Hot crunchy mushrooms (just placed in hot water for 3 mins) with butter and a touch of black pepper.

    A very Merry Xmas to you and your famly, and make sure you have more fun than a serious person. 🙂

  4. I am not sure I have ever given this much thought….or serious thought. I would not like to have to write my ideas about it as they change when reading new ideas. So thanks for providing some new ideas for me to think about.

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