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J Med Ethics 39:1-2 doi:10.1136/medethics-2012-101259
  • The concise argument

A concise argument: on the wrongness of killing

  1. Thomas Douglas, Associate Editor

In this issue, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Franklin G. Miller (see page 3, Editor's choice) argue that what makes killing wrong, when it is wrong, is not that it ends life, but that it causes complete and irreversible disability—what they call total disability. They hold that the wrongness of killing should be explained by reference to the harm that killing causes to the person who dies. And the only harm of this sort that killing causes, they argue, is the harm of being totally disabled: once one is totally disabled, there is no further harm to one in losing one's life. It is no worse to be dead, and thus totally disabled, than it is to be totally disabled but alive.

In fact, Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller (henceforth, the Authors) concede that the story may be more complicated than this. For example, it may be that what makes killing wrong, when it is wrong, is not that it causes harm, but that it is intended to do so, or that it violates a right which protects against harm. But either way, harm plays a crucial role in explaining the wrongness of killing, and the relevant harm, they claim, is the harm of being disabled, not that of losing one's life.

The Authors’ argument has important implications for medical ethics. Their view implies that killing a person need not be wrong when that person is already completely and irreversibly disabled (i.e. totally disabled). This suggests, for example, that the dead donor rule in organ donation is mistaken. Contrary to the rule, it could be morally permissible to harvest organs from a living donor provided that the donor is totally disabled. Harvesting organs will kill the donor, but it will not disable her, since the donor has no abilities left to lose.

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