When is it okay to kill?

So, there’s a lot of controversy over the decision of a Pheonix bishop to remove the Catholic affiliation with a hospital over an abortion that was performed there, but that was deemed medically necessary (ie the foetus was not going to survive regardless, but the mother would survive if the abortion was performed).  Details here:


Ophelia Benson’s been going on at length about it, and here she almost reads and comments on a lengthly defense of the principle that the bishop was purportedly following:


Now, she can’t get all that far in it before exploding in moral indignation, but here’s the direct link to the comment from Ronald Conte Jr.:


Now, he’s fairly wordy and circles back to the same arguments repeatedly, and a lot of his arguments are Catholic specific, but it does raise a very interesting philosophical position.  So after all that preamble, here it is:

Is it okay to deliberately kill someone to save the life of someone else?

With the added corrolary:  Even if the person you’d be killing is going to die anyway?

Let’s get the whole “a foetus isn’t a person!” argument out of the way immediately.  Catholics think it is, and if it isn’t then there wouldn’t be any discussion here worth having.  You’d just do the abortion and be done with it.  So the moral debate in this specific case — where the mother will die if the abortion doesn’t happen — is over killing something that whose life we might want to protect to save the life of someone else.  The debate over the personhood of the foetus is for other cases, not this one, because judging this case is done primarily on the idea of “Do you not even make an exception for the life of the mother?”.

I guess the best way to focus the debate is to say that the criticism of the bishop and the Catholic position here is, in fact, based on the Catholic position.  Since the Catholic position here gives the foetus personhood, it must be judged taking that into account; you can’t hold the Catholic Church here to a position that it doesn’t hold.  That’s why the main debate topic here is over whether the Catholic position should indeed hold that an abortion is not allowed even when both the mother and foetus will die if it is not performed.

And that leads to the question raised by Conte’s essay:  when is it okay to kill someone to save someone else’s life?

Now, at the outset, let me state that I lean very much towards the position that if both the mother and the foetus will die if an abortion is not performed, but that only the foetus will die if it is performed, that in those cases the right thing to do is to allow or perform the abortion.  But Conte’s essay challenges that, and reminds me that morality is no where near as simple as some — and even I — think it is.

Because he bases his judgement on this principle:  what the doctor/hospital/whatever is doing in that case is taking a direct action to kill someone.  And taking a direct action to kill someone is always wrong, no matter what good consequences you intend by it or what bad consequences it is avoiding.

One of the issues for me is that this does seem to fit into Stoic philosophy, which I very much lean towards.  For the Stoics, it is always wrong to commit a vice, no matter what the circumstances.  Killing someone is a vice, and you shouldn’t do it no matter what threats or consequences come from it.  You only control what you do, not the consequences, and you’re not responsible for bad consequences that arise because you refused to act viciously.  So, if killing is always a vice, then you should never kill a person, even if it’s to save the life of someone else.  The Stoics are clear about this, noting that threats to your own life or the life of others should never get you to commit any vice, no matter how minor.  Killing’s not minor.

Note that even the famous trolley cases seem to hint that this intuition is fairly common.  When given the choice to switch the track so that one person dies instead of the five on the other track, most people choose to switch the track.  However, when they’re asked to push someone onto the tracks to stop the train and thus save five people, most people say that that wouldn’t be morally right.

When this experiment was run on me recently in class, I answered based on the idea that it was not right to take someone else’s life directly, even to save someone else’s, and was in agreement with the majority.  So it does seem that, intuitively, it is at least plausible that we have objections to killing someone directly to save the life of someone else.   And that is what Conte says is happening in the Phoenix case.

Now, there is a difference, and the difference is one that Lysaught is relying on and that Conte is replying to:  in that case, the foetus was going to die anyway, no matter what happened.  There was no chance of it coming out this any way but dead.  Thus, she argues, it’s not a direct killing, but what might be called “indirect”, and thus in accordance with Catholic morality on the matter and, in fact, in accordance with the trolley case.  The switch is indirect, and the pushing is direct.  Lysaught wants to claim that the fact that the foetus will die anyway changes it from the second example in the trolley case to the first, from direct killing to indirect killing.

Well, clearly, that’s not a well motivated argument.  That someone is going to die anyway does not change the fact that you are still taking a direct action to kill someone.  For example, if someone is infected with a fatal disease and you shoot them before it can spread to others, you’re still killing them.  You could have simply left them to die.  So Conte is right to point that out.  But the really interesting question is if it changes the moral permissability of the action.  In short, is it ever okay to directly kill someone, and does the fact that the person is going to die anyway make it okay?

A trite, useless, but somewhat entertaining answer would be to argue that life is, in fact, a terminal disease; everything that comes down with it eventually dies.  We’re all going to die anyway, so that would mean that you can kill anyone, anytime and it would be okay.  Whether you consider this a nice fringe benefit of the argument or whether you consider that this pretty much refutes it probably depends on your moral character.  But it’s not relevant to the overall discussion; clearly that’s not the sort of case under discussion, and most people do think that claiming that life being fatal is just a bit of sophistry.  So that case need not be considered.

So we can turn to a more relevant example.  Imagine that someone, say, is diagnosed with terminal cancer.  They are, in fact, going to die from it, whether over the next few days, weeks, or months.  Now imagine that you’re told to kill that person or someone else will be killed.  Does the fact that they are going to die anyway make it right?

I think most of our intuitions say that it doesn’t.  On the Stoic side, it clearly doesn’t seem to matter that they’re going to die anyway; the consequences aren’t important.   Killing is still killing.  And I think that most intuitions seems to accept that, unless it involves loved ones.  Though this is a little dodgy, but I think everyone accepts that this is a little dodgy.  True Utilitarians would accept it if the other person would give more happiness, but then they’d accept pushing the person in front of the train, too.

But there’s a hidden premise here:  someone is indeed threatening to kill someone else.  We aren’t responsible for their moral choices, and so we can excuse ourselves by saying that their immorality in killing someone else is not our problem.  And that’s certainly the Stoic line.

So, what happens if there isn’t a person involved, and we’re just faced with nature taking its course?  After all, that’s what’s happening here.  Essentially, we’re coming across a case where if we let nature take its course, two people will die, but if we intervene, one person will die.  And intuitively, our immediate reaction is that we should intervene and save one of them.  Now, does that intuition hold when we have to directly kill someone?

So, imagine this case:  There are two people trapped in separate airlocks on a spaceship.  Air is slowly leaking out of each airlock, and in a matter of minutes both of them will suffocate.  You have access to a button that will shunt the air from one airlock to the other and seal that one off, saving the life of one person while killing someone else.  Do you hit the button?

(Note:  the above example is a slightly modified version of a “love test” from Space: 1999).

Anyway, I think that in considering this case most of us feel a strong wrench in our moral reasoning systems, but think that we really should save at least one of them, and so should hit the button.  However, the Stoics and quite possibly the Kantians would argue that you probably shouldn’t:  the Stoics because it’s still a vice, and the Kantians because it treats the person you kill as just a means, and not an end.  Note that pretty much all of the objections go away if one of them willingly volunteers to be killed to save the other.

Now, let’s alter it slightly, so that one of these people has access to a button that will save themselves but kill the other person.  Is it right for them, in that case, to kill the other person?   And I think this gets a little harder; we feel a little less certain when the person taking the action gets to save their own life at the expense of someone else’s.  That being said, we probably all do think it okay.  The Stoics and Kantians, however, would disagree for the same reasons as stated above.

So, let’s assemble the case in detail.  We have two people, the woman and the foetus.  Both of them will die will if the action is not taken, and the foetus will die and the woman will live if the action is taken.  The action is, in fact, direct killing.  Is it morally right?  Following our example above, the Stoics, the Kantians and, of course, the Catholics would say “No”.  Utilitarians would say “Yes”.  It’s not clear how others would answer.  So it isn’t anywhere near as clear a question as people think.

Now, all of this would go away if the foetus could choose to sacrifice itself for the mother, and say “Go ahead and kill me”.  That eliminates all of the objections.  But the foetus cannot willingly sacrifice itself because it isn’t capable of making that decision.  Normally, such decisions would default to the parent, but the woman is the most directly relevant parent and she has a direct interest in the foetus dying.  And surely we wouldn’t want someone who has a vested interest in the death of the foetus deciding if it should willingly sacrifice itself.  So the decision shouldn’t default to her.

So, what we need is a willing decision by a moral agent to accept the direct killing and save the other life.  But the foetus — like a baby or someone in a coma — can’t make that moral decision.  They aren’t capable of making it at this point in time.  So, for such people, all such decisions are made by some appointed and relevant moral agent.  That moral agent must be concerned mainly with the best and, preferably, best moral interest of the person they are appointed to make decisions for.  This clearly leaves out the mother.  The father might be acceptable unless he has a bias like, say, he doesn’t really like the mother.  So, ultimately, the doctor or some kind of ethics board must be appointed to settle the issue, and represent the interests of the foetus because no one else can or will.  So, acting in the moral interest of the foetus, and making the moral decision that it should make, what decision should be made?

They should decide to allow the procedure, because that, morally, is what the foetus should do.  It should sacrifice itself because, for it, it changes nothing but it can indeed save the life of someone else.  This may not be demanded by the Stoics or Kant, but it’s almost certainly demanded by Catholicism.  So the duly appointed representatives who may make choices for the foetus should make that choice.

Conte is right that Lysaught is wrong to think that the foetus dying either way changes it from direct killing to indirect killing.  However, what this does change is that if the foetus was capable of making a moral choice, it should choose to sacrifice itself to save the mother.  And if that is what it should choose, then those appointed to make choices for it and represent its legal and more importantly moral interests should choose that as well.  And taking that into account, the abortion should be allowed.  Surely that is what Jesus would want us to do if we were in the foetus’ situation.

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