J Med Ethics 39:12-14 doi:10.1136/medethics-2012-100948
  • Commentaries

Killing versus totally disabling: a reply to critics

  1. Franklin G Miller2
  1. 1Philosophy Department, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA
  2. 2Department of Bioethics, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA
  1. Correspondence to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Philosophy Department, Duke University, Box 90432, Durham, NC 27708, USA; ws66{at}
  • Received 24 October 2012
  • Accepted 24 October 2012
  • Published Online First 17 November 2012

We are very grateful to the commentators for taking the time to respond to our little article, ‘What Makes Killing Wrong?’ They raise many points, so we cannot respond to them all, but we do want to head off a few misinterpretations.

Our critics in this journal avoid one careless misinterpretation, but less informed readers (including Glenn Beck) have pressed this misinterpretation in popular venues, so we need to start by renouncing it. We do not deny that killing humans is morally wrong. To the contrary, we argue that killing humans is almost always morally wrong, because killing humans is almost always disabling, and disabling is morally wrong (pro tanto—that is, without an adequate justification or excuse). Here we do not disagree with common sense. We also do not deny that killing partially or even profoundly disabled humans is morally wrong (again, pro tanto). People who are disabled in some ways still retain many other valuable abilities. This should be obvious. To kill a person with some disabilities but many other valuable abilities is to disable that person, so that is morally wrong (again, pro tanto—we will stop adding this qualification although it is crucial in special cases, such as voluntary active euthanasia). Here again we do not disagree with common sense. The one and only surprising application of our theory is to humans who are alive but totally disabled. We argue that, apart from special circumstances, it is not morally wrong to kill live humans who are totally disabled, whereas many people think that it would be morally wrong to kill even in these extreme and unusual cases, because they assume that killing is morally wrong for reasons apart from disabling.

What could those reasons be? DeGrazia mentions three possibilities. First, ‘the harm of killing—in those ordinary cases in …