Wednesday, January 24, 2007

There's nothing wrong with taking life

I suppose that's a pretty provocative title, but I think it's true. I don't think that the taking of life per se has any moral issue about it. It's the wasting of life that I think is morally problematic. Why do I draw this distinction, and why do I think it frees me to make the provocative assertion that the taking of a life is amoral? I think it actually provides a better basis for figuring out a host of other issues than starting from the premise that taking life is wrong.

I should point out that despite the claim that killing is not evil in and of itself, the corollary that wasting of life is wrong prevents me from coming to wacky conclusions on the basic moral scenarios.

For example, killing someone for their wallet is pretty clearly a waste; certainly that fails the morality test. And one can generalize this pretty quickly based (perhaps on a technicality) on the inability of one person to judge whether or not another person's life would be "wasted" if they were killed. More to the point: since it's so hard to determine when killing someone would be a waste (who gets to decide, after all?), one must default to the position that it will be wasteful and thus refrain. Of course, we have a number of well defined exceptions where killing is perfectly acceptible (self-defense, for example), but I think my "wasting life" litmus test applies here as well. After all, if someone is lunging at you with a knife, then failure to kill them likely means wasting your own life.

And I don't think that this argument has any actual bearing on the abortion debate. Pick whatever point that you believe that human life begins (see my earlier post on abortion where I argue that this is the real crux of the issue). Prior to that point there is no life to waste (by definition of how we picked the point) so this argument doesn't apply, and after that point then it's pretty clear that the life is being wasted, so it's not OK.

Rather, I think that the distinction about wasting life vs. taking life helps more at the fringe cases - cases where you are balancing interests, or weighing quality of life issues.

Some examples:
  • Hunting and eating meat. Hunting for trophies has always bothered me. But someone who hunts a deer and eats the venison and uses the leather is not wasting the deer - and I have no problem with it. In both cases, the life of the deer is obviously taken, but I think the former case is immoral while the latter is not. This is actually the scenario that got me thinking about the distinction between taking and wasting life - after all, it's the same act as far as the killing goes, so I asked myself why the two scenarios felt so different. Even apart from hunting, eating meat necessarily involves taking a life - but if it's to nourish another, then I don't think it is wasted. Butchering the cow and leaving the meat to rot, on the other hand, doesn't feel morally acceptible to me.
  • Euthanasia. I think the Terri Schiavo case was the perfect example here: the fight was clearly a quantity-of-life vs. a quality-of-life fight, and my "wasting life" argument suggests that quantity of life is not what's important, it's quality. Prolonging suffering in hopeless scenarios strikes me as very much a waste.
  • Death penalty. While I have lots of problems with the death penalty in practice (specifically around my confidence that the system does what it is supposed to do and never executes an innocent person), I don't really have any problem with it from a moral point of view. Assuming that the person truly is guilty and that the crime is serious enough that the death penalty is not unreasonable, then I don't think this is one of the cases where "who decides if it would be a waste" has actually been answered: a jury and several layers of judges.

I think there are many people who have a knee-jerk "life-at-all-costs" philosophy, but I think that this often leads to moral contradictions; I think it makes more sense to focus on why life is important, and that leads to a more insightful understanding of why taking life is sometimes morally acceptible and sometimes not.


peljack said...

Excellent article, but I think your hunting example falls flat.

Wild game is managed on a state (and to a lesser extent federal) basis to preserve the health of the herds and the ecosystem. Left to their own devices, game animals today would quickly reproduce to exceed their niche and the result would be disease, unhealthy herds, and wildlife accustomed to humanity. While one may argue that there is nothing wrong with this result (animal freedom of choice?), as a society we have decided to actively manage our wildlife resources.

Like a shark maintaining the health of a school of fish, every year government entities compute how much wildlife needs to be culled to meet its objectives. At this point the goverment has several choices to meet the goal. One option is for government employees to kill and remove animals, but this is cost prohibitive. Especially when there is a large contingent of volunteers (hunters) who are willing to do the work for free or even pay for the privilege.

My point is that whether the animals are killed for meat, killed for trophies (and of course this option doesn't exclude killing for meat for consumption or for sale to another consumer), or killed and lost and left to rot (and feed hungry carnivores), the net result is the same and though unfortunate for the individual animal, is never a "waste" for the continued survival of the herd. And survival of the herd is why we allow hunting in the first place.

Eric Berman said...

OK, but I think your comment proves my point - you're saying that what I thought was a waste is actually not a waste. OK, I can buy that. Certainly eating the meat/etc. is more unambiguous, but I can see your argument that if it's good for the herd then it's not a waste.

Of course, what's good for the herd is often removal of the weakest/sickest animals. While predators naturally find these animals (as they are the easiest to catch), human hunters rarely have such an even match and as such can just as easily take the strongest as the weakest.

Anyhow, I didn't mean to start a debate on the merits (or lack) of hunting, but rather just point out that hunting per-se - in the abstract - can be moral or not, but it depends on circumstances beyond the mere killing of the animal. I chose one set of circumstances (eating it), you chose another (herd management), but I don't think the particular circumstances matter so much as the merit behind those circumstances.