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Killing and disabling: a comment on Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller
  1. Jeff McMahan
  1. Correspondence to Professor Jeff McMahan, Rutgers, Philosophy, 1 Seminary Place, New Brunswick, New Jersey 08901, USA; jmcmahan{at}

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Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Franklin Miller have presented an account of why killing is wrong that implies it can be permissible to kill certain human beings in order to use their organs for transplantation.1 Since I am going to criticise their arguments, I will begin by applauding their willingness to defend an unpopular position and by registering my agreement with their substantive conclusion about organ procurement. The criticisms I will offer are intended to be friendly in spirit; but they are also, of course, meant to be effective.

Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller (to whom, for brevity, I will subsequently refer as ‘the authors’) argue that the wrongness of killing is reducible to the wrongness of disabling, in particular, the wrongness of totally disabling. ‘The rule against disabling,’ they write, ‘fully explains all that is bad and wrong with…killing.’1

One might think that their view is just a slight modification of the familiar view that the wrongness of killing is reducible to the wrongness of harming. According to this view, killing is normally gravely wrong because it inflicts on its victim a particularly grievous harm by depriving him of all the good that his future life would otherwise have contained. If the authors' view were just a restatement of this harm-based account of the wrongness of killing, one might conclude that their emphasis on disability is needlessly provocative. But in fact their view is quite different. This is because disabling is only one form of harming. On might seriously harm a person—for example, by causing him to experience mild chronic pain for the remainder of his life—without in any way disabling him. He would retain all his abilities but would be less comfortable while exercising them. Because there are thus forms of harming that are not instances of disabling, a rule …

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  • This paper criticizes the view, advanced by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Franklin Miller, that the wrongness of killing is fully explicable in terms of the wrongness of disabling. I argue that this view has unacceptably inegalitarian implications.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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