Torbjörn Tännsjö Thou Shalt Sometimes Murder!

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Torbjörn Tännsjö
Thou Shalt Sometimes Murder!

An Inquiry into the Ethics of Killing




Chapter 1. Method

Chapter 2. Three Bold Conjectures

Chapter 3. Murder

Chapter 4. Capital Punishment

Chapter 5. Suicide

Chapter 6. Assisted death

Chapter 7. Abortion

Chapter 8. A Survival Lottery

Chapter 9. Killing In War

Chapter 10. The Killing of Animals

Chapter 11. The Trolley Cases

Chapter 12. What Are We to Believe?


I started to work on this book at Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS) in Uppsala in fall of 2008. A first draft of the entire book was finalised in the spring of 2011 at Centre for Advanced Study in Bioethics in Münster. The penultimate draft of the ms was discussed during an advanced course I gave at Stockholm University in the spring of 2013.

Work on the book has been rendered possible because of a generous support from the Swedish Research Council. Riksbanken Centenary Foundation and Granholm Foundation have given additional support for my surveys of opinions on killing in China, Russia, and the USA.

I presented the chapter on the trolley-cases (Chapter 11) in a preliminary form in a Keynote speech at the Swedish Philosophical Association in the spring of 2011.

Some of the chapters in this book draw on material previously published, even if they do not appear hear in exactly the same form. Chapter 1 draws on the article ‘Applied Ethics. A Defence’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Vol. 14, 2011, pp. 397-406. Chapter 3 draws on ’Capital Punishment’ in Ben Bradley, Fred Feldman, and Jens Johansson (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Death (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). Chapter 8 draws on material from ‘The Ethics of Killing. An Example: Abortion’, in Rysiek Sliwinski and Frans Svensson (eds.), Neither/Nor. Philosophical Papers Dedicated to Erik Carlson on the Occasion of His Fiftieth Birthday (Uppsala: Uppsala Philosophical Studies 28, 2011). And Chapter 10 draws on material from my short book, Animal Ethics (Stockholm: Thales, 2010). I thank the publishers for allowing me to use it here.

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When I was in my late teens I was already interested in philosophy. But the interest was theoretical. I wanted to know what it means to know something, whether we can know something or not and, if so, on the basis of what kind of understanding. However, two simultaneous personal experiences drew me to moral philosophy. I was conscripted to military service, and my gut feeling was to refuse to serve. I did not want to kill other people. This seemed to me wrong, if not in principle, so at least in practice. There were no serious military threats facing Sweden, and if the situation would change there was no guarantee that I would serve among the good guys rather than among the bad ones. Moreover, the kind of values for which I was supposed to kill, such as democracy and national independence, were better served, I thought, through non-violent action. This was during the heydays of the civil rights movement in the American South. My arguments were met with no sympathy from the military authorities. They threatened me with jail, if I was not prepared to serve.

At the same time my farther got ill. It soon turned out to be serious. He suffered from cancer in his liver with metastases in many places of his body. The prediction was that he should be dead within a few months. This prophecy was born out by realities. My farther reacted with good sense and courage to the prophecy. He was sad to leave in such an untimely manner, he told my mother and me, but he had had more than fifty rich years, so he wasn't resentful. And he swiftly took care of all sorts of practical matters relating to his death. However, something he had not expected happened. His sufferings turned out to be unbearable. The medical doctor who treated my farther was his personal friend, and my farther was given morphine and all sorts of palliation. However, his pain could not be controlled. His last weeks were terrible. He sometimes fell asleep. When he woke up he was still in a delirious state caused by the morphine, and he asked me, his only child, and my mother, whether he was dead or alive. We had to tell him he that he was not yet dead, he had to struggle on for yet another while. He asked his doctor to assist him in his dying. He begged for euthanasia. His doctor turned down his request with the words that euthanasia was not only illegal, but it was ‘at variance with the principles of medical ethics’. My father's agony increased and culminated in a state of terminal agitation and ended only with his very last breath.

I was much concerned with what had happened. It did not only affect me emotionally. I was intellectually in a state of deep confusion. How could it be that I had a legal obligation to kill people I did not know, and who did certainly not consent to it, while my father's doctor could not help my father to die when my farther asked for it? My consternation brought me to moral philosophy and a life-long search for an answer to the question when and why we should, and when we shouldn't, kill. I began to study the ethics of killing.

The present study started with a preliminary but in many ways similar book in Swedish, Du skall understundom dräpa (Thou Shalt Sometimes Kill, 2001), which was also published in German (Ethik des Tötens, 2007)) and in Norwegian (Noen ganger skal man drepe, 2008). I have not attempted to translate the old book into English, however. I have started from scratch, so this is a new book in its own right, and I have developed my argument in many ways since then, but I rely, in the present book, as I did then, on surveys of the public opinion about crucial forms of killing, such as murder, suicide, assisted death, abortion, the killing in war, and the killing of animals. It is helpful to learn what other people think about these matters, when you want to make up your own mind. It is not that such findings can serve as evidence for any moral theory in particular, but they can help you to a better understanding of your own thinking. More about this in the sequel.

I came to realise, however, when I wanted at first to survey the public opinion in Sweden about these matters, how sensitive they were. I had obtained funding from the Swedish Research Council for the survey and I approached the Swedish state authority for official statistics and asked them to perform my survey, only to receive the following letter from the chief executive of the authority, called SCB (the Central Bureau for Statistics):

After careful discussions within the authority SCB has decided not to undertake the proposed survey you describe in your letter of 4 February 1999. The reason is that SCB, like other institutes in the world, has very little experience of the gathering of this kind of highly sensitive data. We do not want to risk that a survey like the proposed one should initiate psychological reactions among the respondents that are difficult to handle. We think here of respondents who have suffered in war, who are suicidal, or who have experienced difficult decisions in relation to abortion ... The final decision was taken by the Executive Chief of SCB after a discussion within the board of the office. (My translation)
I do not deny that the problems I discuss are sensitive. However, since they are also in a sense mundane — they are questions we have to face now and then in our lives — I think we had better ponder them. And it is a good idea to do so before any problem of killing becomes a live issue! So I have not hesitated to discuss them, and I have also managed to find another research institute, the private business, SIFO, who has taken on of the surveys, which have, this time, been conducted in China, Russia, and the USA. I was pleased in particular to learn that, eventually — there was some initial concern — the questions could be put also to a representative sample of the Chinese population.

When we, the writer and my readers, are confronted with these results of the surveys, this helps us, I hope, to transcend to some extent some of our cultural biases that tend to stop us from pondering the problems in the right, detached way, which it is only possible to do when you sit down and think about them in a cool hour.

I pursue my discussion on the assumption that moral facts exist, independently of our thought and conceptualisation (moral realism). It is possible to be mistaken about them. When two moral assertions contradict one another, at least one of them must be false. Moral nihilism, the idea that all positive moral assertions are false, since there is no fact of the matter to be right or wrong about, is grotesquely implausible. There are arguments in defence of moral nihilism, from relativity (with regard to actual moral opinions), from queerness (with regard to moral properties), and so forth, but they are less convincing than is often thought.1 And since moral nihilism has moral implications (all moral theories are false, all particular moral assertions are false as well, according to moral nihilism) we may safely argue from any firm moral belief against moral nihilism. We know, for example, that it is wrong to inflict pain on a sentient being for no reason whatever (doing so makes the world a worse place, we have not promised to do it, the being doesn’t deserve it, and so forth). But if this is so, then moral nihilism is false.

However, even if moral realism is true, even if moral facts exist independently of our thought and conceptualisation, and even if we have some moral knowledge, this does not mean that we have any systematic moral knowledge. I believe we can approach such systematic moral knowelege, however. This means, though, that we must be careful in our choice of a method of moral investigation. In the first chapter of this book I will indicate how I conceive of such a method.

There are several (good) books on the ethics of killing. Just to mention three excellent examples: Jonathan Glover’s Causing Death and Saving Lives, Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, and Jeff McMahan’s The Ethics of Killing. Problems at the Margins of Life. What is special in this book, which in various different ways distinguishes it from these, is my methodology. I am sceptical of any attempt to establish moral principles through swift and abstract arguments. In this respect I am more sceptical than Glover and Singer. It is not possible to show that a moral principle is correct in the abstract. Moral principles always surprise us in concrete applications. We need therefore a more indirect, and inductive method. We need to tease out the implications of various different moral hypotheses in particular cases and confront them with the content of our considered intuitions. Are the hypotheses intuitively adequate, i.e. are their implications compatible with the content of our considered intuitions? Can they explain the content of our considered intuitions? If more than one hypothesis are intuitively correct, which one gives the best explanation of our intuitions? When we know that we can make an inference to the best explanation of our intuitions. We have evidence in support of the hypothesis (or, we say more cautiously, that it has been corroborated). In this respect I am less sceptical than McMahan. I believe it is reasonable to search for a single principle that can explain the content of all our considered moral intuitions.

In chapter 1 I present and defend my very special methodological approach in more detail. I tell you in that chapter about the method l put to use in this book and I argue that it is a good method. My defence of the method is, in the final analysis, pragmatic in nature. We do not know whether a comprehensible true moral theory exists in the first place; however, only if we resort to the method I advocate will we be able to unravel it — if indeed it does exist. In the rest of the book I try to show how moral understanding can be obtained, within one narrow field: the ethics of killing. In the simplest terms possible the book could be described like this. I apply three basic moral principles to problems of killing and I discuss whether their various different implications are reasonable or not.

The three basic ideas I discuss are the ones I believe first come to mind. (1) The simple deontological theory that there are certain kinds of actions that are just plain wrong. We are never allowed to perform instances of them, regardless of the consequences. And if any action is plain wrong in this way, it must be something like the intentional killing of an innocent human being. (2) The idea that we own (at least) ourselves and, hence, are permitted to do as we see fit with ourselves, unless we violate the rights of others. So we are not allowed to kill others against their will but we are allowed to kill ourselves — and we are allowed to kill others at request. (3) Utilitarianism, the idea that we should maximise the sum total of happiness in the world. On this theory, the end justifies the means and it may sometimes be all right to kill.

With an exception for the concluding chapter I discuss these theories in their pure forms. My ambition is to be true to the rationales behind them. The theories can of course be modified; compromise positions can be sought between them, and so forth. However, my strong impression is that intellectual compromise often comes at too high a price. So at least we should try out the pure forms of the theories before we attempt to find compromises between them.

A strong reason to do so is that each one among the three theories has a strong intuitive appeal. If you like good ideas your initial reaction, when you are at first told about these theories, is probably that you want to hold on to all three of them. However, as we will see, they give conflicting advice in the area I have chosen as my moral laboratory (the ethics of killing). Hence, there is no intellectually and morally acceptable way of accepting them all.

My own considered opinion is that utilitarianism gains the upper hand in the competition I have arranged. It is unique in that it gives the right implications with regard to the different types of killing, and it can explain why these implications are the right ones. It can also explain the relative success of the competing theories.

This is a highly controversial claim, of course. Many of my readers will not share it. However, I believe that those who do not share my assessment will yet have something to learn from the book. As a matter of fact, the last concluding chapter, where I take stock and sum up the arguments, could have been written in many ways. I have suggested one way, my own preferred one. The reader is invited to re-write — or at least re-think — the concluding chapter for herself!

My hope is that the reading of the book, irrespective of whether it leads the reader to the acceptance of utilitarianism or not, will bear witness to the fact that critical and systematic progress is possible in normative ethics.

Chapter 1. Method


In this chapter I describe and defend the method I will use in this book. The main thrust of my argument in the chapter is that in our search of the truth in normative ethics we need to resort to a kind of applied ethics (turned upside down). Applied ethics (turned upside down) provides a unique route to deep moral understanding.

Even if intuitions, as we will see, play a role in the method I advocate and use, the method must be characterised as hypothetical deductive rather than intuitive. This is a distinguishing characteristic of this book, as compared to many other books in the same field (on the ethics of killing). I try out the implications of ethical theories in what I will speak of as crucial experiments. This is how I will proceed.

To get a grasp of the method used we should take our departure in a traditional way of doing applied ethics. In applied (or practical) ethics, we seek answers to practical questions about what to do. These questions are as varied as human life. They range from individual questions (what ought I to do with my life?) to very general political questions (ought we to abolish capital punishment?). In this book, each chapter is devoted to one such question. Practical questions include also, as we shall see, problems raised by thought experiments. In the present context, the questions raised, are all of them questions about killing.

The reasonable way of answering a practical question is as follows. We find a moral principle, which is applicable to the case at hand, we make an account of the relevant non-moral facts, and we deduce the answer to our question:





By so doing, if we take as our point of departure a true moral principle, we get moral guidance; we learn what to do. Moreover, since the argument has the structure of an ordinary covering-law explanation in science, where the practical conclusion plays the role of our explanandum, and the moral principle the role of the statement of a law of nature, we also learn why we ought to do what we ought to do. It is assumed here that the moral principle has a kind of necessity built into it, quite similar to the one built into a law of nature. We can project it onto unknown cases; it supports counterfactuals, and so forth. The principle is an essential part of the explanans. The principle specifies right- and wrong-making characteristics. Hence, by referring to it, we can make moral explanations.

The application of the model is sometimes quite straightforward. If we apply a simple deontological principle, such as the one that it is wrong intentionally to kill an innocent human being, to a case where an innocent human being was killed intentionally, we can deduce the conclusion that this was wrong. Moreover, if the principle specifies a wrong-making characteristic, we can claim that we now know why the action was wrong. It was wrong because it was an example of intentional killing of an innocent human being.

However, more subtle principles, such as utilitarianism, are more demanding of non-moral factual information. Here we need to have recourse to various different auxiliary, 'bridging', hypotheses, and even methods of decision-making motivated on utilitarian grounds, in order to reach a tentative conclusion about a particular case. Or, we apply it in a though-experiment, where we have abstracted from all kinds of uncertainties. It then yields definite implications.


These are two obvious uses of the model; it can give us moral guidance and moral understanding. But it can also be put to a more mundane use. In many discussions about controversial issues, there is little understanding of the principled aspects of the issues. By putting the model to use, and by tentatively trying out various different putative moral principles, which may seem plausible to different people involved in the controversy, we can shed new light on it. This is something that will be done in passing in this book, sometimes with rather unexpected results. There are at least six possible outcomes of such a study, which it is useful to keep apart.
(i) Practical disagreement based on fundamental moral disagreement. We can learn that the reason that people disagree, or should disagree, is that the different principles to which they adhere, yield different conclusions, ones the relevant non-moral facts (relevant to each one of the principles involved in the controversy, that is) are on the table.
(ii) Practical agreement based on an overlapping consensus. We can learn that even if people disagree on basic principled moral questions, they should agree on the practical question at hand, since each principle, given its relevant non-moral facts, yields the same practical conclusion.
(iii) Practical disagreement based on non-moral factual disagreement. We can learn that the disagreement that surfaces in the discussion must depend, not on different principled moral stances (since upon closer inspection those involved in the controversy agree about these); the disagreement, if it is recalcitrant, can be traced to different beliefs about the relevant non-moral facts.
(iv) Practical disagreement based on logical mistakes or the use of different systems of logic. Two persons who agree about moral principles and relevant non-moral facts may yet disagree; at least one of them may have made a logical mistake, or they may be relying on different systems of logic. Even in logic, and in particular in deontic logic, there is room for some reasonable disagreement.
(v) Practical disagreement which is merely verbal; it is possible that the parties speak at cross-purposes. They use the same moral terms but use them with different meanings.
(vi) Complete practical agreement based on agreement about basic moral principles, all the relevant facts, the same understanding of rules of logic, correct reasoning, and a common understanding of the terminology used.
As we will see, in some situations considerations such as these can also help us to ‘debunking’ explanations of what at first seem to be strong moral intuitions.


All this is important as such, but there is an even more important lesson to be learnt from applied ethics, of crucial importance in the present context. The answer to the practical question at hand depends on a correct understanding of the moral principles that are applied. However, it is not possible to know, without applying them to real and hypothetical cases, which moral principles are true and which are false. Applied ethics, however, can help us to justified beliefs about moral principles. But then we must move, not top down but bottom up, from the conclusion to the premises. This will be the standard method used in this book.

If we hold a strong and considered (in a sense to be explained) moral intuition about how the practical question should be answered, then a principle that explains the content of this intuition gains some evidential support. And the principle that gives the best explanation of the content of our moral intuition gets inductive support by this content (we make an inference to the best explanation). We may also speak here of ‘abduction’.

By an intuition I mean an immediate (not preceded by an conscious reasoning) reaction to a particular case; a reaction to the effect that this is right, this is wrong, and so forth. It is crucial that our intuitions have a propositional content, then. But I will also generalise the notion of an intuition to what has sometimes rather been called rational insights, i.e. immediate reactions to abstract propositions, varying in generality, and including quite general claims such as the one that one should never tell a lie.

In having propositional content intuitions are similar to perceptions (on many theories of perception, at any rate). They are also similar to perceptions in that they sometimes remain after we have lost our faith in them (like the observed stick in the water that looks bent even after we have learnt some optic theory). And, again, they are similar to perceptions in that they are often theory-laden. If we want to take the content of an intuition as evidence for a moral theory, the intuition must not be the result of a conscious inference from the theory put to test, however. I will return to this requirement at the end of this chapter.

Applied ethics, turned upside down, is the tool we need to resort to, if we want to improve our general and principled moral understanding. This is what I will do in the present book, in a restricted manner: I will focus on three moral theories, conceived of here as bold conjectures, and they will be tested against the content of our considered moral intuitions about various different forms of killing. I am interested to see if they yield the right or the wrong implications in each case, and I am interested in finding out, when there is overlapping consensus, which one among them gives the best explanation of our data (intuitions).

It should be kept in mind, though, that when I say that one theory in particular gives the best explanation of our data (the content of our considered moral intuitions), this judgement is restricted to the competition I have arranged. It explains our intuitions in this restricted field better than the rival theories also put to the same test.

When we make the move bottom up, from the conclusion to the premise, in an attempt to find the best explanation of our data, it is often helpful to turn not only to real cases but to crucial thought experiments as well. This will be done in many places in the book and it will be the main theme in chapter 11 of this book, where I discuss the so-called trolley-cases. There I will also return to the methodological discussion pursued in this chapter.


The use of the method of an inference to the best explanation, the resort to abduction, goes naturally together with a coherentist criterion of justification. On a standard notion of coherentism, if p is a member of a set of all the beliefs B, of a person S, at a time t, then, the more p coheres with B, the more justified is S in his belief at t in p. Or, if there are some incoherent members of B that are in no way relevant to the truth of p, this should not mean that S is not justified in his belief in p. A way of handling this would be to require that p should cohere with a — conservatively — revised version of B.

Given this proviso, we may say that the more p coheres with B, the more justified is S in his belief in p. And coherence is not merely a matter of consistency, but a matter of how deeply p is imbedded among the rest of the beliefs as evidence for them, or as explaining them. The justification we find for our beliefs, when they form part of a coherent set, has to do with the simple fact that, the more coherent our web of beliefs is, the higher the intellectual price of giving up any single member of the web. I defend this view elsewhere.2 It should be observed that even if a person is strongly justified, at a certain time, in a certain belief, this belief might well be false. Justification (for a person at a time, in a belief) is one thing; the (absolute) truth of the content of the belief in question is quite another thing.

What is the relation between the method here advocated, the abductive method of an inference to the best explanation, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, John Rawls’ idea of a reflective equilibrium? Well, the coherentist notion of justified belief just is an idea of reflective equilibrium. This is just another name for the same criterion. However, some philosophers (including Rawls himself) speak of a ‘method’ of reflective equilibrium. And some claim that the ‘aim’ of our intellectual endeavour should be to arrive at a reflective equilibrium. All this is extremely misleading.

Our goal, or aim, what we are after, when we pursue normative ethics, is the truth about what we ought to do and why we ought to do it. We do not aim at any reflective equilibrium. We would not have succeeded in our endeavour if we ended up with all our ideas in reflective equilibrium but, alas, way of the mark. This is a possibility, since justification does not guarantee truth. And it would indeed be a failure.

Furthermore, when we make an inference to the best explanation of our data, namely the content of our considered moral intuitions, there is no way that we could just give up on the data, no way of ‘negotiating’ about them, no way of ‘going back and forth’ between theory and our more particular judgments in order to obtain a perfect ‘fit’ between them. The theory should fit the data, as they appear to us, otherwise we must consider the theory disconfirmed by them.

Of course, there may be something wrong about some of our reactions, and we should consider that possibility seriously. I will say a lot about this in this book. However, if there remains any singular recalcitrant intuition, after we have exposed them all to what I will call cognitive psychotherapy, we must reject the hypothesis that could not account for it. Or, if we find ourselves holding a very strong belief in the theory, we may hold that our recalcitrant intuition must be mistaken; we must believe, then, that it can somehow be explained away (even if, for the time being, we do not know exactly how to provide the necessary explanation). This is the only permissible manner of setting it to one side.

The same goes for intuitions held by other people, who are equally competent as yourself, equally knowledgeable, and so forth, but who hold intuitions inconsistent with your own ones. You are not allowed to put them to one side unless you are prepared to judge that somehow these people must have made some kind of mistake.


If I am right, we cannot gain justified moral belief, let alone moral knowledge, unless we resort to the method I have advocated, where we put moral principles to test, in both real cases and in thought-experiments, and where we systematically try to arrange with crucial tests, where different moral principles, given the relevant non-moral facts, yield conflicting practical conclusions. Here the content of our considered intuitions should serve the role of observation in science. But are we allowed to rely at all on our immediate intuitive responses? Well, if not, there is no possibility that we should gain justified moral beliefs.

It might be thought that it is a category mistake to believe that an intuition can be evidence for a moral theory. Intuitions are psychological events and a moral theory does not have any implications about how we actually feel, or think about moral matters? This objection is very often made. Peter Singer writes, for example:

A scientific theory seeks to explain the existence of data that are about a world 'out there' that we are trying to explain ... A normative ethical theory, however, is not trying to explain our common moral intuitions. It might reject all of them, and still be superior to other normative theories that better matched our moral judgements. For a normative moral theory is not an attempt to answer the question 'Why do we think as we do about moral questions?' ... A normative moral theory is an attempt to answer the question 'What ought we to do?'3
A similar argument has earlier been used by R.B. Brandt when, in a foot-note to his Ethical Theory, he compares the role of intuition or feeling in morality to observation in science and makes the following qualification:
Physical theory, taken with a description of the experimental setup, may logically imply ‘The ammeter will point to 30’ and we can observe whether or not this is the case. Whereas, although in ethics we may reject ‘There is no obligation to do X’ by appeal to the fact that we feel a strong obligation to do X ... we cannot say that ethical principles entail anything about how we shall feel — at least not in any direct way.4
The argument is popular, then, but mistaken. The simple answer to it is that it is the content of our moral intuitions that is taken as evidence. And the content of an intuition is a moral proposition to the effect that this is right or this is wrong, and such propositions are implied by moral theories. So the content of intuitions can be evidence for the truth of moral theories, there is no logical problem involved in this claim. And yet, for all that, the content of all intuitions is not evidence. Only the content of considered intuitions is evidence. An intuition is considered, I will say, when it has passed scrutiny from the point of view of something I will speak of as cognitive psychotherapy. In this kind of therapy we get clearer about the origin of our reaction.

Here I just take for granted that we are justified in our belief in the content of some of our moral intuitions. We have reason to accept their content; we are justified in taking them to track the truth. This is not the place to defend this bold claim. Let me just gesture at what I believe is the best defence for this position. We hold some very simple and firm moral beliefs such as the one that it is wrong to torture a sentient creature for no reason whatever. We cannot give up on them. This is psychologically impossible. Now, since ought implies can this means that we need not give them up. We are permitted to hold them. This is not a positive reason to stick to them, however. But there exists also a positive reason to stick to them, to the extent that they are consistent with the rest of our beliefs. Our epistemic justification is practical. We are justified in relation to our epistemic goal in holding beliefs. Our epistemic goal is, roughly, to hold a realistic view of the world, to believe important true propositions and to avoid believing false propositions. Now, if I believe that it is wrong to torture a sentient creature for no reason, moral nihilism comes with a price. It means that I must give up on this belief. But since I hold it, it would be irrational (in relation to my epistemic goal) to give it up. If I could give it up, and if I would give it up, I would stop believe what I believe is an important truth.5

This is so only if I do not know of any strong argument in defence of moral nihilism, of course. I know of no such argument. This is not the place to go into this problem, which I have discussed at length elsewhere.6

Admittedly, we have better positive reasons to stick to some of our observational beliefs, because we know more about their causal history, then to our moral intuitive beliefs. And we have better positive reasons to stick to some of our linguistic intuitions than to our moral intuitions. It is less daring to say that we should allow our intuitions to decide what it means to have knowledge, say, than to allow them to be decisive when we want to know what to do. And yet, this does not mean that we have no reason to stick to some of our moral intuitive beliefs. Once again, there seems to exist no alternative to this kind of approach.

This does not mean that we should always trust our moral intuitions. Just as we have to be sceptical with regard to some of our observational beliefs we need to be sceptical with regard to some of our moral intuitions. This means that we need to ponder the question when to rely on them and when not to do so. In order to answer this question it is important to know more about their origin. In this our moral beliefs are no different from our observational ones.


The proper way of approaching our intuitions, then, is to see what our reactions to the practical examples we confront are, once we know about the origin our intuitions. We should not rely on our intuitions before we know all that can be known about how they have come about. We should expose them to what I have liked to call a kind of cognitive psychotherapy.7 Only if they survive this test should we count them as evidence.

This is reminiscent of Henry Sidgwick, who once wrote:

But though probably all moral agents have experience of ... particular intuitions, and though they constitute a great part of the moral phenomena of most minds, comparatively few are so thoroughly satisfied with them, as not to feel a need of some further moral knowledge even from a strictly practical point of view. For the particular intuitions do not, to reflective persons, present themselves as quite indubitable and irrefragable: nor do they always find when they have put an ethical question to themselves with all sincerity, that they are conscious of clear immediate insight in respect of it. Again, when a man compares the utterances of his conscience at different times, he often finds it difficult to make them altogether consistent: the same conduct will wear a different moral aspect at one time from that which it wore at another, although our knowledge of its circumstances and conditions is not materially changed. Further, we become aware that the moral perceptions of different minds, to all appearance equally competent to judge, frequently conflict: one condemns what another approves. In this way serious doubts are aroused as to the validity of each man’s particular moral judgements.8
However, the remedy, according to Sidgwick, is somewhat unexpectedly that we should set these doubts to rest ‘ ... by appealing to general rules, more firmly established on a basis of common consent.’9 It is a better idea, I think, to submit our own favoured moral intuitions to cognitive psychotherapy. After all, if we turn to general rules, what we will find is, once again, disagreement among competent judges. Instead we should see if the content of our considered moral intuitions can indeed be best explained with reference some general moral principle. We should expose them to cognitive psychotherapy.

The result of our session in psychotherapy may be just that we gain knowledge about the place of our intuitions in the culture in which we have been brought up. But it may also include knowledge gained from neuroimaging of our brains and studies in experimental psychology. No such information can contradict the content of any of our intuitions. Such information provides no evidence against them. But it can help us to undermine the justification for the content of some of the intuitions, in the same way that my knowledge that psychologists sometimes project holograms in front of me – in order to be able to mock me and my philosophy lectures where I claim to know that there is a table in front of me – would undermine my justification for my belief that there is a table in front of me.

There are in fact two ways our credence in an intuition may go away. We may simply lose the intuition, when we learn more about its origin in our thinking. Or, we may still retain it, but stop treating it as evidence any more. This is what happens when we learn about optics, as I suggested above. We still see a stick in the water as bent, but we do not believe, for this reason, that it is bent any more. Something similar can happen to some of our moral intuitions. Examples of this will be given in the book.

Tradition can be one source of error. In particular, if we learn that people think differently about a phenomenon such as abortion, if they belong to different cultures, we should become suspicious about our own intuitions about abortion. We should try to transcend our narrow cultural horizon.

There is at least one more possible source of error to keep in mind. When we confront competing moral purported principles in a crucial test (such as a thought-experiment) to see if they fit the content of our considered intuitions (which have passed our test of cognitive psychotherapy) we must beware. In many situations it is highly likely that we have simply deduced the content of an intuition from one of the theories put to test. If this is the case, the content of this intuition lacks independent evidential force. The word ‘intuition’ is now a misnomer.

What if we find, after having gone through the process of cognitive psychotherapy, that we hold some intuitions that are inconsistent with the intuitions of other people, who have gone through the same procedure? They are just as cleaver as we are. Must we then give up our intuition?

I think not, but if we retain it, we must impute some error to the other party (even if we are not capable of identifying it).10 I commented on this in passing above. The same is true in the intrapersonal case, as I then claimed. If I hold one recalcitrant intuition at variance with a theory I think otherwise well-confirmed, I cannot reasonably accept the theory unless I impute some kind of mistake to myself (even if I cannot identify it).

Intuitions have a special favoured position in our moral thinking that is similar to the position held by observations in science. Even on a coherentist notion of justification, we grant them this favoured position, because of our belief that, by and large, they track the truth.

In this chapter I have used 'applied ethics' as a name of the kind of approach I defend. This may seem a bit rhetorical. However, if I am right, there is a rationale behind this piece of rhetoric. I have argued that applied ethics, as I conceive of it, is possible and useful. It can not only help us to the answer to practical questions and to explanations why we ought to do this rather than that in those situations, it also helps us to bring more consistency and clarity into existing public controversies about practical issues. Moreover, and most importantly, applied ethics, as here described, turned upside down, can help us to a deeper understanding of normative ethics. But then we need moral theories that yield definite implications, at least in abstract thought examples.

This optimistic claim, that applied ethics turned upside down can lead us to a deeper understanding of normative ethics has not been established, of course. It is predicated on the assumption that there exist true deterministic moral principles yielding definite implications in practical cases. I have not in this chapter attempted to show that this is the fact, let alone have I attempted to show which (deterministic) moral theory is the correct one. For all we know, at this preliminary stage of my investigation, intuitionists of Ross variety, claiming that there are moral principles, but only of a prima facie kind, yielding no definite implications in particular cases where they conflict, or particularists, denying that any true moral principles at all exist, may be right. If I am right, however, in my eventual claim that utilitarianism gives a plausible account of the ethics of killing, a first step towards showing them wrong has been taken.


Chapter 2. Three Bold Conjectures

If the best way of making progress in normative ethics is through the testing of bold conjectures, and given that this will be done in the present context in relation to a specific problem, the problem of killing, then which are the most promising candidates for the trial? Which are the best bold conjectures to confront with the problem of killing? Three candidates come to mind. I will speak of them as deontology, an ethics of rights, and utilitarianism respectively. They can be seen more as research programs than as finalised theories, so I will try them out in different versions. The idea is to find the best versions of each one in relation to the problem discussed: when should we, or should we not, kill, and why?

Why these three theories or research programs? First of all, they are all intuitively plausible. In their explanations of why it is wrong to kill (when it is, according to each theory), they point at facts that seem morally relevant: the intention behind the act, the violation of rights, the consequences for the victim and the world at large. Secondly, they give, at least in principle, definite answers to all the problems I raise. In these they are different from views such as, for example, virtue ethics. Virtue ethics in the moral sciences shares a weakness with psychoanalysis in the social sciences: it doesn’t lend itself to falsification. You cannot find clear refuting cases.11 Thirdly, they give promising explanations of various conflicting intuitions people claim to have in the area. They are clear, general and fairly simple. And, finally, the problem I have chosen for confrontation of the theories, the ethics of killing, is such that it provides us with crucial tests of them. The three theories give in many cases interestingly different (inconsistent) answers to the questions posed.

Finally, if we combine elements from these three theories, we can construct something that has been called common sense morality. I will try that tack as well.

It is worthy of note that, while the ethics of killing may seem to provide the best possible chances for a successful outcome of the test with regard to deontology and the moral rights theory, the ethics of killing seems to provide a correspondingly hard ground for utilitarianism. After all, if there are any actions that are absolutely prohibited, as deontoloty claims, some kinds of killing should be among them. And if there is anything we own and hence have a right to dispose as we see fit, it should be ourselves, as is taught by the moral rights theory; so the implications of the moral rights theory with regard at least to subjects such as murder, suicide and assisted death should be regarded as initially very plausible. This can be contrasted with utilitarianism, with its implication that even murder is sometimes right, which may seem to fly in the face of common sense moral thinking. So if it can be shown, as I think it can (even though, as the reader will note, this turns out to be a real cliff-hanger), that utilitarianism in the final analysis does gain the upper hand in the competition I have arranged with, this should be a finding of no little consequence.

It may be objected to this project that these theories are all of them way of the mark. The true ethics of killing is provided by some other theory. I doubt that, but there is no possibility in the present context to provide any rationale behind this scepticism with regard to other theories. The reader will have to live with the selection I have made, or simply stop reading here. However, in the final chapter 12, I will consider the possibility of striking some kind of intellectual compromise between the theories. As was suggested above, with elements from each of them we can construct a kind of common sense morality. I will ponder if there exists any such alternative to each and any one of them, constructed out of elements from these three theories, and superior to all of them. My own assessment of this possibility will be an outright rejection, however.


The simplest answer to the question why it is wrong to kill, when it is wrong to kill, is that this action, the action of killing, represents a prohibited kind of action. There are certain actions that we, moral agents, are not permitted to perform (and there are actions we ought to perform), irrespective of the consequences of particular instances of them. And if there are any prohibitions of this kind at all, the most natural one must be the one given in the commandment that thou shalt not kill. If this is not forbidden, then anything goes, one may think. Then the end must justify the means.

Of course, all sorts of counterexamples come to mind. What about capital punishment, what about killing in war, and so forth? In order to cater for these exceptions, if we want to stick to the idea that it is wrong, absolutely, to kill, we must work out a subtler version of the idea, which allows us to explain the exceptions we want to make in a manner that is not completely ad hoc. Perhaps it is possible to do so. This is a possibility I will try out in this book.

Now, the idea that it is wrong to kill (in certain ways), irrespective of the consequences of the individual act of killing under consideration, is an idea with strong support in the big monotheistic religions and there are many philosophers who have tried to work out a defence of this idea. The most important thinker in this tradition is Immanuel Kant, both in his defence of the deontological approach in general, and in his defence of the prohibition against killing in particular. I will discuss his ideas repeatedly in this book. But there exists what one may call a Thomistic deontological tradition as well, often called in the present discussion the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine. I will examine this version of deontology as well.

It may seem that deontology, in both versions, is a very narrow theory, implying sometimes that an action is wrong, but, in many cases, yielding no normative implications whatever, since none among the alternatives contemplated means that any killing will take place. However, as we shall see, both Kantianism and the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine, come with additional ideas, allowing us to consider them as complete moral theories. More about this soon. First, however, a few words on Kant.

I discuss Immanuel Kant’s philosophy without pretending to he a Kantian scholar, and without any claims to the effect that in my interpretations of his philosophy I make best sense of his real intentions and ideas. I do claim, however, that the version of his doctrine I go for is the one that makes it as plausible as possible, in our search of an ethics of killing.

I will work out this idea about the absolute wrongness of killing in detail in chapters to come. Here I will just give a very rough sketch of the view I depart from in my discussion. First, however, a brief comment on a point where I part company with many contemporary Kantian scholars. It has to to do with how we should understand what is often considered as the heard of Kant’s deontology, his so-called categorical imperative.

It is often thought that the categorical imperative, in its first Kantian formulation, is in itself supposed to provide an answer to the question, why actions are right and why actions are wrong. This is how Kant famously states the imperative:
There is, therefore, only a single categorical imperative and it is this: act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law. (Groundwork, p. 31, emphasis in the original)
The idea then is that an action is right, if and only if, and because, it is such that the agent can will that the ‘maxim’ behinds it become a universal laws. This idea does not make good sense of Kant and I doubt that this is what he meant. It is more probable that he conceived of this version of the categorical imperative as a kind of heuristic device that helps us to find out what it is that makes actions right and wrong (the maxim behind the action). The problem with the idea that the first formulation of the categorical imperative should state a basic moral principle has to do with the role of such principles. Remember that we want them to explain the rightness or wrongness of particular actions. This means that they specify right- or wrong-making characteristics. Now the fact that an act is an act of murder may well function as an explanation of why it is wrong. It is wrong, then, because it is an example of intentional killing of an innocent rational human being. This is not so with the fact that the agent could not will that the maxim behind it became a universal law, however.

I do not say that we have very strong intuitions about what the right- and wrong-making characteristics of our actions are. If we had strong such intuitions the problems in normative ethics would have been solved long ago. However, we have at least a hint about what kind of characteristics could play this role. The fact that an action is an action of killing (or murder) is a plausible candidate to such an answer, as well as the other ideas to be examined in this book (it could be wrong because it violates a basic moral right, or because it makes the world as such a worse place). However, the fact that the agent could not will that the maxim behind it became a universal law is of a different order. To see this, ponder the following conversation:

— It was wrong of you to kill my daughter.

— Why was that wrong, I do not see that.

— Because you cannot will that the maxim behind your action became a universal law.
The answer strikes me as offensive. It is so offensive, that I cannot believe that this is how Kant would himself have explained the wrongness.
In this it is different from:
— Your killing of my daughter was an act of murder and murder is wrong.

— Your killing of my daughter violated her right to life.

— Your killing of my daughter robbed her of the future of her life, for no reason at all. By killing her you made the world a worse place.
All these answers have some initial intuitive plausibility.

The problem with the idea that, the wrong-making characteristic should be that the agent could not will that the maxim behind the act be universalised, is that what is here referred to is too detached from the patent, the agent, and what does actually happen in the situation. This invites the answer: So what? What if the kind of action is not repeated? Then what was wrong with what I did?

Perhaps the imperative is supposed to help us to an understanding of a more general characteristic behind all wrong actions: they are ‘irrational’, in some sense. But, once again, it is hard to see that the irrationality of an act of murder could really explain its wrongness. And it would be strange if an act of murder and an act of lying would both be wrong for the very same reason (their irrationality). It would be less strange to say that an act of murder and an act of suicide are wrong for the same reason, for example that they mean the intentional killing of an innocent human being. So I will pay no respect to this formulation of the categorical imperative in this formulation. Rather than trying out versions of the categorical imperative, in this version, that yield different implications than the ones Kant himself believed follow from it, I will focus on those (categorical) views he actually defended.


There is another strand in Kantian thought, apart from his explicit claim that it is wrong to kill, which has bearing on the ethics of killing. It is expressed in his second formulation of the categorical imperative:
So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means. (Groundwork, p. 38)
This is an enigmatic view. On the face of it, it could very well function as the specification of a wrong-making characteristic. There is nothing strange in the idea that an action is wrong because it means that a person is treated as a mere means. However, it is far from clear what this means. In contemporary discussions about Kant, in particular within the field of bioethics, we often find the idea that, in order to avoid treating someone merely as a means, we should seek consent from her, before we use her for any purpose whatever, either for her own purposes, or for the purposes of others. However, this was certainly not Kant’s own view. It sits very ill with his idea about capital punishment, as I will explain in the chapter devoted to this subject. We do not seek consent (either actual or hypothetical) from the murderer before we execute him. We could of course say that, when someone commits murder, she implicitly consents to being executed, if found out. However, this notion of consent stretches credulity, and we would certainly not want to rely on it in a more mundane discussion of typical problems in bioethics.

This understanding of the theory is also hard to reconcile, as we will see, with Kant’s view of suicide. Certainly, he who kills himself deliberately consents to being killed. And yet, this is wrong, according to Kant, and it is wrong exactly because it means that the person who kills himself is using himself as a mere means. In the chapter on suicide I will try to make sense of this.

There is a third strand in Kant’s moral philosophy, which I will take as part of deontological thinking: his retributivism. This aspect of his theory will be explained when time has come to apply it, i.e. when I discuss capital punishment and killing in war.


The hard core of Kantian deontological thought I will concentrate on is mostly the simple idea that it is just plain wrong to kill, regardless of the consequences, and I will try to find out the best elaboration of this idea. And in doing so I will not rely on Kant’s own heuristic device, the first formulation of the categorical imperative. I have not found it helpful. I will also acknowledge, however, that Kant thinks that, apart from such perfect duties, as the one to the effect that one should not kill innocent human rational beings, or treat them as mere means, he also thinks that there exists an imperfect duty of beneficence,12 which can roughly be seen I suppose as a duty to maximise happiness among your fellow human creatures. It is not quite clear how strong this duty is, however, and it is clear that we are never allowed to fulfil it in a manner that means that we violate a perfect duty. Yet, when this weakly ‘utilitarian’ strand of thought is added to Kant’s deontological prohibitions, we get a complete moral theory, allowing us to derive implications from it in all the cases to be considered in this book.


I will also speak in many places in this book of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine. This is a term used by both those who defend and those who attack the kind of ideas I will discuss. Hence I will not hesitate to use it. We may also speak of it as a ‘Thomistic’ version of deontology.13 However, it should be noted that the religious associations the term gives rise to should not be seen as part of the meaning of the doctrine. Many people who believe in this doctrine also believe in various different religious principles, but the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine, as here conceived of, is a moral (deontological) doctrine, and it can be defended regardless of any religious beliefs. It has no religious implications whatever. The idea is that some kind of life, to wit, human and innocent life, must not be taken.

Why should innocent human life not be taken? The explanation, according to a typical defence of the doctrine, is that it is ‘sacred’, or has a certain ‘dignity’, or ‘value’. These are all expressions used to explain the wrongness of killing. However, as was just noted, the word ‘sacred’ is a bit misleading, because of its religious connotations. And the word ‘value’ is even more likely to mislead. It is tempting to think here of something’s possessing value as something’s to be pursued or even maximised. If those who defend the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine think of the value of innocent human life in those terms, then they are open to the following kind of attack levelled at them by Jonathan Glover:

I have no way of refuting someone who holds that being alive, even though unconscious, is intrinsically valuable. But it is a view that will seem unattractive to those of us who, in our own case, see a life of permanent coma as in no way preferable to death.14
But those who adhere to the doctrine can, and do usually, avoid this kind of objection by holding that the value of human life is different from what Glover here refers to as life’s being ‘intrinsically valuable’. They can stick to their view that even a life in permanent coma possesses the kind of value they speak about. Human value, or dignity, is not a value to be pursued. It is rather like a taboo; the appropriate attitude to something exhibiting it is to keep your hands off it. When you are in contact with something exhibiting this kind of value you realise that you are not allowed to intrude on it; your are not allowed intentionally to kill an innocent human being for any reason whatever.

Thomas Velleman has argued along these lines. On his version of the theory, it is the ‘rationality’ of a person that is destroyed in a suicide. Our rationality is the source of our dignity.15 Wayne Sumner has commented on Velleman, and he objects that, if I decide to kill myself, in order to avoid needless future suffering during my last phase of a terminal disease, this may very well be an exercise of rationality; he makes the point with reference to Anita and Bill, two patients he has described in his book on assisted death:

Furthermore, when freely elected by Anita or Bill it [their suicide] would also be an exercise of her or his autonomy or self-determination in a way that does no harm to any other persons. It seems to me that there should be much for a Kantian to like in such a decision.16
But this is not correct. The decision to commit suicide followed by an act of suicide does indeed destroy the capacity for rational thinking and deliberation. The fact that it is undertaken deliberately makes it worse, not better, from the Kantian point of view — as well as from the Thomistic version of deontology (the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine).

One may of course wonder whether anything is gained by the claim that innocent human life (or our rationality, in the Kantian version of the theory) 17 is sacred (or has a certain dignity or value), and, hence, must not be taken. The fact that a life is human and innocent gives it dignity, according to this line of reasoning, and the dignity possessed by this life in turn explains why it must not be taken. Why not instead say that the mere fact that a life is human and innocent renders it wrong to take it?

It seems as though, in many cases, nothing at all is gained by the introduction of the middle step in the argument, the idea of dignity, sanctity, or value. However, as we will see, the best way of making sense of Kant’s objection to suicide, relies on this middle term in the argument. We treat ourselves as mere means when we kill ourselves: when we do, we sacrifice our dignity only in order to gain a better quality in our lives. And this is wrong, according to Kant.


The deontological theory I focus on, regardless of whether it can find a support in Kant’s categorical imperative, in any of its versions, or in the Thomistic tradition, is the view that it is wrong intentionally to kill an innocent human (rational) being. But what does it mean to kill intentionally? This can be clarified with reference to the principle of double effect, which is usually taken to be a part of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine. This is also how I will understand the doctrine. To kill intentionally is wrong, but when the death of the person you kill is merely a foreseen, but not intended side effect, of a morally permissible kind of action, and when there is a reasonable proportion between the (badness of the) death you foresee, and the good you intend, and provided you do not use the death you foresee as a means to the good thing you intend, then the merely foreseen killing may be all right. It should also be added that, if there had been a way of securing the intended effect, without killing, this way should have been chosen.18

There will be many occasions to return to the principle of double effect in the discussion of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine in this book. I will try to stay close to the characterisation here given. As a matter of fact, I will defend this standard notion of the principle of double effect against criticism to the effect that it should be too permissive with regard to killing as well as criticism to the effect that it lacks a clear meaning. It is meaningful, I will argue, and it makes the best of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine.

When I see the doctrine of double effect as part of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine this means that I can see the doctrine as a complete moral theory. The addition of the principle of double effect means that the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine yields implications with regard to all the problems to be discussed in this book. The principle of double effect forbids the agent to ‘tolerate’ merely foreseen harm of her actions, if the harm does not stand in any reasonable proportion to the good effects she intends and strives for. Just like Kant’s inclusion of an imperfect duty to maximise the happiness among our fellow human being makes his deontology depart less from utilitarianism than it would without it, the principle of double effect means that the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine too is closer to utilitarianism than what first meets the eye.

This completes my rough account of deontology. In the rest of the book I will belabour the view here put forward in detail.

Each individual subject (or person) ‘owns’, in a moral sense of the word, herself. Hence she is at liberty to do as she sees fit with herself, so far as this does not mean that she violates any rights of anyone else. This is the hard core of the moral rights tradition elaborated upon by John Lock in his Two Treatises on Government, and most famously defended in our time by Robert Nozick in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia. There is a difference between the two, however, that is important in the present context. In Nozick’s version of the theory, self-ownership is unrestricted. We are allowed to kill ourselves, if we like. In Locke’s version it is restricted in the following manner:
But though this be a State of Liberty, yet it is not a State of Licence, though Man in that State have an uncontrollable Liberty, to dispose of his Person ... , yet he has not Liberty to destroy himself.19
In my discussion of the theory I will focus on the stronger, Nozickian version of it. This version strikes me as the most plausible one. I suspect that Locke is here just yielding (perhaps not even sincerely so) to religious prejudice. If there is anything we fully own, it must be ourselves. But note that it is only the hard core of the theory, the idea of self-ownership, that I will discuss. Of course, unless the theory is somehow expanded, it cannot be seen as a complete moral theory. But there are many different ways of expanding it to include also a complete theory of justice. I will say a few words below about this, even if it is irrelevant to the purposes of this book, where I focus exclusively on the hard core of the theory: self-ownership.

One may wonder whether this is not just another version of deontology, in its Kantian version. And Nozick sometimes refers to Kant in his defence of the theory. Does this mean that what we here meet with is Kantian deontology? It does not. Kant rejected in strong words the notion of self-ownership:

Man cannot dispose over himself because he is not a thing; he is not his own property; to say that he is would be self-contradictory; for insofar as he is a person he is a Subject in whom the ownership of things can be vested, and if he were his own property, he would be a thing over which he could have ownership. But a person cannot be a property and so cannot be a thing which can be owned, for it is impossible to be a person and a thing, the proprietor and the property.20
The moral rights theory, then, is a moral theory in its own right. But how are we to understand self-ownership? Does this idea make any sense at all?


G.A. Cohen has presented a formidable attack on Nozick’s libertarian theory of rights. However, in his attack on Nozick’s theory of rights, he is careful not to base it on Kant’s rejection of the notion of self-ownership. The notion of self-ownership is not inconsistent, Cohen claims. The argument I quoted above from Kant can be reconstructed, according to Cohen, in the following manner.21
(1) Man is a person.

(2) Nothing can be both a person and a thing.

(3) Hence, Man is not a thing.
(4) Only things can be owned.

(5) Hence Man cannot be owned

(6) Hence, Man cannot own himself.

This argument is question-begging, according to Cohen. Kant is using as a premise — (4) — the idea that only things can be owned. But this is what should be shown. I tend to agree. However, the idea that a person could own herself still strikes me as odd. Doesn’t the relation of ownership require two distinct relata, the one who owns, and that which is owned?

A way of meeting this concern would be to claim that self-ownership means no more and no less than that everyone has a right to do as he sees fit with himself. But then the notion of self-ownership cannot be evoked as a rationale behind these rights.

Is there any other way of making sense of self-ownership? I think there is. Suppose I am an organism. This means that I have (possess) a body, a heart, a personality, and so forth. Now, even if I cannot own myself, strictly speaking, I can own what constitutes me, all my parts, as it were. This is in line with how Warren Quinn has accounted for the core of the theory:

A person is constituted by his body and mind. They are parts of aspects of him. For that very reason, it is fitting that he have primary say over what may be done to them — not because such an arrangement best promotes overall human welfare, but because any arrangement that denied him a say would be grave indignity.22
I will continue to speak of self-ownership in this book, but when I do so, this is how I understand the notion. It is not really an idea of my owning myself, but rather an idea of my owning the parts making up, or constituting, myself.

If the core of the moral rights theory is the notion of self-ownership, then we have no clear understanding of the theory if we do not know where to draw the line between the body and the rest of the world. I own my own body, of course, and I also own all the vital organs of the organism I am. But do I also own my hair? What about the skin cells I leave behind all the time? It is clear, I think, that, when it comes to parts of my body that play no biological functional role, there is a limit to my self-ownership. At least we are allowed to say that when I leave them behind, I give up my ownership of them. On the other hand, if I receive an organ such as a heart, through a method of transplant surgery that violates no rights of anyone else, it becomes part of my body. But who owns my body when I am dead? The number of such questions is legion.

Where exactly this line between my body and the rest of the world should be drawn is difficult to say, then.23 However, in the present context we need not bother with this problem. I will take it for granted that those who adhere to the theory can give a satisfactory answer to these questions. And since I will here focus on the right to the entire living organism and to the organs vital to the normal functioning of this organism, many of these questions are simply irrelevant to my investigation.


C.A. Cohen, who defended the claim that the notion of self-ownership is coherent, doesn’t himself defend any moral rights theory based of self-ownership. He doesn’t reject such a theory either.24 But more typical ‘left’ libertarians stick to self-ownership,25 even if they quarrel with the idea that you can gain a right to the fruits of the labour of other people than yourself (such as your employees). Some such expansion of the theory is necessary if we want to conceive of it as a complete moral theory. The libertarian moral rights theory does not stop at self-ownership. According to the theory we can also acquire individual rights to property. The right way to acquire property is to be the first to get hold of it, or to receive or purchase it from someone who already owns it. There is also a right to restitution. If something, which belongs to you, has been taken away from you, your right to it has been violated, and you have a right to take it back. Furthermore, you have a right to defend what you own. And since you own yourself, this includes a right to self-defence. No one is allowed to kill you, at least not unless you have hired him to do so or have consented to it for one reason or the other. So you are allowed violently, if necessary, to resist any attempt at your life.

There are many problems with the extension of the theory beyond self-ownership; here are some of them. How more exactly can we, even assuming that we own ourselves, acquire additional property in the first place? Locke has a famous proviso, stating under which conditions this is possible. Robert Nozick, in modern times has his own (narrow) interpretation of this proviso. I will glance over the problems to do with the proviso in the present context since this is irrelevant to the question of killing. Here only the hard core of the theory matters: the idea of self-ownership. One might think that, if there is any truth to the theory at all, this is the part that should be true. If there is anything we can ‘own’, in a moral sense of the word, it is ourselves. Even those who resent the theory because of its putative neo-liberal implications with regard to the ownership of material things (property) may want to ponder the question whether persons do not at least own themselves. Moreover, only if the theory comes out successfully from the crucial test (in relation to the ethics of killing) I have here set up is it any point in elaborating on it further.

It is wrong to kill a moral subject, who has not consented to it. Is it also wrong to expose a moral subject for the risk of being killed, if she has not consented to it? I think not. I here part company with Nozick himself and many adherers of the moral rights theory, who think that some kinds of risks are acceptable while others are forbidden. I think the theory is more plausible if understood, like I have done with utilitarianism and (implicitly) with deontology as taking the actual (not the probable) consequences as decisive for the moral status of actions. In a complex society we all the time expose one another for the risk of being killed; we do so when we drive our cars, in particular. This does not mean that it is wrong to drive your car, at least it is not wrong because of the slight risk you expose others to, when, cautiously you drive your car. However, if the risk you expose others to would materialise, if would you kill an innocent bystander when you hit him with your care, however improbable it was that this should happen, then you have indeed violated his right to life. Actively you have killed him.

I opt for this understanding of the theory because it strikes me as not only much simpler than Nozick’s own version (where it is far from clear which risks are acceptable and which risks are not) but also more intuitively plausible. However, in the examples I discuss risk will play no role, so I suppose this choice of interpretation is of little importance in the present context. It will not affect my arguments in any important way.

There is another strand in Nozick’s understanding of the theory, which I find problematic for ‘immanent’ reasons. I see no point in accepting that a violation of rights that has been compensated for is a violation of rights. Suppose I need to trespass on your property, in order to save a life. Suppose I need to push you to the side when I come to someone’s rescue. Suppose I even need to harm you slightly. Suppose there is no time to ask you for your permission. I harm you slightly and save a life. Does this mean that I violate your property rights, your self-ownership? Yes, it does, if you are not prepared to consent to what I have done. But suppose you give your consent post factum. If you do, I did not violate any of your rights.

Suppose instead that you demand and get fair compensation from what I did to you (perhaps from the person whose life I saved), does this mean that your rights have still been violated? I think not. If you get fair compensation there is no violation of rights.

What then is ‘fair’ compensation? This is up to the person to decide, who is the victim of an act of trespassing. I suppose it should be decided most plausible ex ante, in some kind of hypothetical deal. The kind of compensation that would make the person consent to an act of trespassing is a fair kind. The basic notion, then, is, as it should be, consent.

Nozick does not accept this. His main reason for not accepting all boundary-crossing acts that are compensated for has to do with fear.26 We may fear being used as a tool when a life is saved, even if we know that we will be fully compensated for the harm done to us. This may be so. But to produce fear in a person is in itself a violation of the right to self-ownership, one might argue. So even the fear should be compensated for. But then I see no problem any more with such boundary-crossing acts. If we are compensated for them, and even for the fear they cause in us, to be exposed to them is no different from going to the dentist in order to secure a healthy status of your teeth at the cost of some temporary fear.

Nozick also adds that if we allow boundary-crossings, given that they are compensated for, this ‘embodies the use of persons as means’.27 Again, I see no problem in this, if consent is indeed given (in the form of fair compensation). It is the use of one another as mere means that should be problematic, from the point of view of the moral rights theory, not the use as such of one another as means.

If boundary-crossings, that get compensated, are no violations of right we may also stick to the idea that ‘all rights are equal’. It is wrong to violate rights, period. There is no such thing as some rights-violations being more wrong than others. For an action to be wrong means that it is morally prohibited, period. Prohibitions do not come in degrees. However, some boundary-crossings, such as pushing a person to the side, when you save the life of another person, is all right, provided the person pushed is duly compensated. Even serious acts of boundary-crossings, such as the sacrifice of one person’s limb for the sake of the life of another person, may be all right, provided compensation is paid. However, it is hard to see how the killing of one person, in order to save the life of another, could get compensated. Hence an absolute prohibition against killing.

On this understanding of the moral rights theory we avoid a problem of ‘asymmetry’ discussed by Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen. Rasmussen is worried by the idea that while some rights-violations, such kicking a person unconscious for a while, can be outweighed with reference to the little harm they do to a person, killing is not treated in a similar vein, even though it may rob a person of exactly the same time of experienced life. However, if we grant that boundary-crossings that get compensated for are no violations of rights, then there is no asymmetry there to explain. 28 If the person knocked unconscious is given compensation, then her rights have not after all been violated. If she refuses any amount of compensation available, however, it is simply wrong to knock her unconscious, even if this would save a life.


The moral rights theory and deontology are similar in that they operate with side-constraints on our actions. According to both traditions, there are types of actions, which we are not allowed to perform, irrespective of the consequences of the performance of particular instances of them. But while deontology has the agent, or even the act itself at focus, the moral rights theory has what one could call a patient perspective. Our obligations are there because of the existence of basic rights, founded on self-ownership. The notion of rights is basic. This may be seen as both strength and a weakness. It is a weakness in one respect, at any rate. Robert Nozick himself struggles with the objection that, if rights are so important, then why should there be side-constraints. This is how he articulates the problem:
How can a concern for the nonviolation of C [a side-constraint] lead to the refusal to violate C even when this would prevent other more extensive violations of C?29
Why not indeed violate rights, if this means, on the whole, that fewer rights are violated? Many philosophers who defend theories of rights have bent over backwards in attempts to answer this question,30 but, it seems to me, in vain. It has been claimed that, when we refuse to violate the rights of a person, even to stop other violations from taking place, we show the utmost respect for this person and his rights. And this is true, of course. But, as has often been pointed out, at the same time we show our complacency with regard to those individuals, who because of our resistance to violate the rights of this person get their rights violated. A deontological thinker like Kant need not bother with this problem. He is not interested in the patient. In his strict deontological philosophy, the obligations are there, and if we do not abide by them, we lose our moral standing. It is the agent who matters, not the patient.

Even if I see this a theoretical problem with the moral rights theory as a thorn in its side I will not discuss it any further. Again, I will look more directly at its moral implications and try to assess how plausible they are.

Deontology (in both its Kantian version and its version as the Sanctity of Life Doctrine) and the moral rights theory share the feature that they operate with absolute constraints on our actions. There are things we must not do, regardless of the consequences. Some see this is a merit in the theories, and Kant, for example, is famous for the claim that justice should reign ‘even if all the rascals in the world should perish from it’.31 If our exclusive focus is on the act it self, and the person who performs it, the agent, then it makes sense to adopt this absolute view of the constraints. By abiding by them I do what I ought to do, and that’s what morality is all about. I keep my hands clean. But others see this aspect the theories as deeply problematic. They want to hold on to one of the two types of theories, but only with the proviso that, if terrible consequences would ensue if one did not kill an innocent human being, or if one did not violate a right, it would be all right to do so. This proviso means that the rationale behind the theories get somewhat compromised, of course. The proviso could be seen as too much of a concession to utilitarianism, the next theory to be discussed. It might be objected, that the incorporation of an imperfect duty to maximise happiness, acknowledged by Kant, and the principle of double effect, wedded to the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine, are enough. To make any further move in the direction of utilitarianism is to get too close for comfort.

Many people who adhere to deontology believe in God. They may comfort themselves with the thought that if they assume responsibility for their own actions, someone else, God, takes responsibility for the rest of the world. And yet, perhaps the best versions of the theories do indeed incorporate such a proviso. After all, even the possibility of such bad consequences of abiding by the theories may be seen as a problem for the theories. Robert Nozick, who had no religious backing of his moral rights theory, did indeed contemplate the possibility of such a proviso added to his theory:

The question of whether these side constraints are absolute, or whether they may be violated in order to avoid catastrophic moral horror, and if the latter, what the resulting structure might look like, is one I hope largely to avoid.32
In my discussion of the theories I too will leave it open whether they do incorporate such a proviso or not. This means that I will not hold against any of the theories that it is absurd to say that we should observe the constraints even if this means that heavens will fall. I will avoid such examples in my discussion, hence leaving room for interpretations of the theories with the proviso in place.


Utilitarianism is the theory that we ought to maximise the sum total of happiness in the universe. This is the classical version of the theory upon which I will focus in this book. This choice of focus has to do with the fact that the classical version of the theory strikes me as the most plausible one. However, in many ways, what I say about classical hedonistic utilitarianism is applicable also to versions of the theory, which operate with ideas that differ from the hedonistic idea that it is happiness, and happiness only, that we should maximise. Hedonistic utilitarianism competes with other versions of utilitarianism, according to which it is desire satisfaction or some items on an ‘objective list’ (such as knowledge, friendship and achievements) that should be maximized.


The version of hedonistic utilitarianism I discuss takes as its point of departure the thought that there exists a single scale, our happiness scale, upon which all sentient beings can all be plotted. At each moment, I am at a certain hedonic level. My total experience has a definite hedonic tone. If I am above the line where life begins to be worth experiencing my happiness is positive. If I am below it is given in negative terms. On this version of the theory, which I have defended in many places, we need not enter into complicated comparisons where we ask ourselves if a certain dinner yesterday was more or less pleasant than, or equally pleasant as, a certain concert we listened to the day before. What causes your hedonic level at a time can be extremely varied, but it is the effect on you that counts. At each moment you are in a definite mood. You can go wrong in your description of it, but it feels the way it feels.

Given this very simple notion of happiness we can speak of a sum total to be maximised (in a day of my life, in a life, or in the universe).

A problem with any idea about maximisation is of course to do with measurement. Does it make sense to say at which hedonic level I am right now? Are intrapersonal and interpersonal comparisons of happiness possible? The classical utilitarian takes for granted, not that it is possible in practice to make such assessments, but that they make sense in theory. There is a true answer to the question how happy I am right now. This is how they used to explain this.

The needed hedonic unit is typically (for example in Bentham and Edgeworth) conceived of as the least noticeable difference with regard to happiness.33 It is taken for granted that a least noticeable difference has the same magnitude (1) irrespective of where it takes place along the scale from agony to bliss. In the present context I will take for granted that something of the kind works. It is also assumed that the unit is the same for all sentient beings. Hence, both intrapersonal and interpersonal comparisons of happiness make sense.

Of course, if we add to the picture of what it is that should get maximised — if it is not only happiness, but also say knowledge, friendship, and so forth — then the problem with a measurement and with interpersonal comparisons is magnified. I will not enter into this problem. I will take for granted that there are at least some versions of utilitarianism that make sense.

This is a general trait of this book. I will now and then touch upon difficult metaphysical and methodological problems associated with the three theories I examine, but I will labour under the assumption that these problems can be solved, one way or another. My exclusive interest here is in the normative plausibility of the theories. I want to assess their implications in particular cases.

According to the utilitarian criterion of right action what we do is right if and only if it maximises the sum total of happiness in the universe. The fact that it maximises the sum total of happiness in the universe is what makes it right, furthermore. Obviously, it is not easy to tell in a particular case whether an action satisfies this criterion or not. So in a way, utilitarianism implies practical scepticism. However, utilitarians tend to argue that there is a way of handling the problem with scepticism. We should try to articulate a method of decision-making such that, when consistently abided by, it is likely to lead to better outcomes than any competing method we can conjure up would have lead to. In many situation the recommendation is to try to maximise, not happiness, but expected happiness, where we take into account our subjective beliefs about the consequences of the alternative actions we are facing.34 However, the method is bound to be complicated. In some situations it has bad consequences if you calculate the expected outcome of your actions (such as in your dealings with your spouse, your children, or your friends). Then you allow yourself to be spontaneous, at least to some degree. Moreover, in many situations it probably has better consequences if you abide by some rule or habit than if you calculate. Then this is what you will do, if you abide by the favoured method of decision-making.

I will accept that this idea makes sense, even though there are both metaphysical and methodological problems with it.35 Once again, I will simply assume that such problems, facing each one of the three approaches under scrutiny in this book, can be solved. I want to assess them from a moral point of view.

It should also be kept in mind that, even if utilitarianism cannot be ‘applied’ to real cases, it does yield definite implications when confronted with thought-experiments; and this is the kind of confrontation of theory with ‘practice’ that we will mainly meet with in this book. Here utilitarianism does no worse than deontology or moral rights. I see this as a merit in all the three theories discussed in this book; when we want an inference to the best explanation of our data (the content of our considered intuitions) it is important that a theory that this kind of intuitive content. Theories that do not satisfy a ‘practicality’ requirement are wanting, for this very reason.

Even if many versions of utilitarianism are covered by implication in this book, there is one version of it, which is not covered at all, to wit, rule-utilitarianism. I will say a few words about it here but then take no further notice of it. The reason is that it is highly implausible.


Rule-utilitarianism is the view that a particular action is wrong if, and only if, it is forbidden by the set of rules the general obedience or acceptance of which would maximise the sum total of happiness. This can’t be right.

Suppose it has the best consequences if everyone takes to the street in attempt to topple a tyrant — or the acceptance value of this rule is optimal. Then I should take to the streets. But, if, as a matter of fact, no one else does, then this may have very bad consequences indeed. This provides as such a strong objection to rule-utilitarianism.

Moreover, just as we noted in relation to Kant’s first formulation of his categorical imperative, rule-utilitarianism cannot state any plausible answer to the question what it is that makes an action wrong. To say that the action was wrong because it was at variance with a rule such that, had everyone obeyed or accepted it, the consequences would have been the very best, is not a plausible way of answering the question what made the action wrong. Again we have distanced ourselves too much from the patient, the agent, and what really took place in the situation.

It might seem that there exist cases where rule-utilitarianism has more plausible implications than act-utilitarianism. I think of situation where we have coordination problems. Suppose two persons can together achieve something valuable. If both cooperate the desired outcome will materialise. However, if only one cooperates, and the other one defects, we end up in a very bad situation. Not only have we not achieved the desired end, one person has wasted his resources as well. If both defect, the result is bad, but less bad than if one cooperates and one defects.

In the situation, if each person cannot affect what the other does, and both, as a matter of fact, defect, each one has done his act-utilitarian duty. But this means that the result of each one doing his act-utilitarian duty can be suboptimal. Had they instead done their rule-utilitarian duty, the result would have been optimal. Does this speak in favour of rule-utilitarianism?

It does not. First of all, even rule-utilitarianism has this problem. Even if all do their rule-utilitarian duty, the result may be sub-optimal. Suppose all take to the streets where it had been enough if, say, if 75% had done so. In that case the remaining 25% could have done something better than wasting their resources. The outcome is sub-optimal.

Furthermore, there is a way of seeing to it that act-utilitarianism, if generally practiced, does indeed lead to optimal outcomes. We should count, not only what each agent does, in the situation, but also what people do together. It is true that, in the envisaged situation, each person does the right thing if he defects. However, together the two persons act wrongly. They should have cooperated. So if everyone does what he should, individuals and collectivities alike, then act-utilitarianism does guarantee optimal outcomes.

Can collectivities act? Yes, they can. I have argued this point elsewhere, and will not belabour it in the present context. Collectivities can act, they can act wrongly, and there is even a point in having sanctions that set collectivities right.36

In the preceding section I have dealt with rule-utilitarianism as a view motivated by consequentialist concerns. So understood, it fails. However, in the present discussion we often meet with attempts to defend rule-utilitarianism in a different manner. It is taken to be the natural outcome if we adopt a contractualist stance to morality. If we think that a correct moral theory is a set of rules we would accept under certain circumstances, or a set of rules such that no one can reasonably reject them, if they sincerely attempt to regulate life together with other human agents, then it is perhaps possible to claim that what we would opt for is rule-utilitarianism.37 It may also be claimed that this view, rule-utilitarianism, is not only a version of utilitarianism, but also a version of Kantianism (of Kant’s categorical imperative, in its first formulation). This is the theme of Derek Parfit’s highly influential book On What Matters.38

I am very sceptical about this approach. It is not clear to me what conclusions we should draw from the fact that a set or rules would be generally accepted under some more or less ideal circumstances. Some contractualist philosophers are moral nihilists. This seems to be true of David Gauthier, who offers the set of rules we can agree about as an ersatz for morality.39 He furthermore claims that this ersatz is more like common sense morality than we would have expected. This kind of contractualism is of no interest in the present context. Here an attempt is being made to find the truth in morality.

In other versions of contractualism, it is less clear how the result of the hypothetical contract is thought to function. Is the idea perhaps that what we would contract on must be a true morality? Suppose a set of rules (for example rule-utilitarianism) is such that it could not be ‘reasonably be rejected’ by people in the search of a set of rules intended to regulate their lives together (to use Thomas Scanlon’s way of putting it).40 It strikes me as just plain wrong to conclude that the kind of morality that would be accepted under such ideal circumstances must be true. Moreover, if the result turned out to be rule-utilitarianism of some kind, we would have to conclude that the version of rule-utilitarianism agreed upon, could still not help us to explain why some actions are right and some actions wrong. It is not a right-making characteristic of an action, even on this view, either that the action conforms to an ideal set of rules, or that it conforms to rules that people would opt for, under ideal circumstances. What makes, say, an act of murder wrong, if it is wrong, is not that it is a variance with an ideal rule, but that it is an act of murder (provided there is a rule against murder). In this I suppose even a contractualist rule-utilitarian most concur.

But if this is so, contractualism, even if it would favour rule-utilitarianism, doesn’t really provide us with an alternative to the moral principles discussed in this book. Rule-utilitarianism cannot as such be put to the kind of test I here arrange. What should be put to test are really the attempted moral explanations of the rightness and wrongness of particular actions, that adherents of this view are prepared to give with reference to each one among the rules contained in the optimal set of rules we have contracted for (or could contract for). What should be put to test are those individual rules, such as the rule that one should not steal or murder, and so forth. Do they best explain the content of our considered intuitions? But if they do, we get evidence, not for rule-utilitarianism, but for these rules themselves.

According to utilitarianism, killing is all right if it maximises the sum total of happiness. So if an act of killing is wrong, it must be wrong because, in the circumstances, it robs the universe of happiness. This is often the case. And when it is the case it often has to do with the fact that, when a person is killed, she is deprived of all the happiness her future life would have contained. This is true of all victims of murder that would have lead lives, had they not been killed, that were, on balance, worth living (they would have contained a positive sum of happiness). Here we deduct negative happiness (misery, the state where life is worth not experiencing) from positive happiness (states worth experiencing).

On the version of utilitarianism here discussed the loss suffered by one individual may be morally outweighed, however, by the larger gain by someone else, or by a sum of small gains pertaining to many people. On this total view merely hypothetical individuals count in the moral calculus. According to this view, loss in quality of life may be morally compensated for by gain in the number of lives lived. All this is of little significance in many discussions about the moral status of killing, but it becomes relevant in discussions to be undertaken in this book about abortion where I will discuss it at length.

According to utilitarianism many acts of killing are in fact wrong, either because they deprive the victim of future possible happiness, without any compensating gain for others, or because of the bad side effects on others than the victim. In particular, when someone is murdered, this often means suffering for those who are near and dear to the victim. This counts from the point of view of utilitarianism, and it is an important part of the utilitarian account of the ethics of murder.

Furthermore, when it comes to legislation, the effects of the laws are of importance from the point of view of utilitarianism. We ought to make the laws that help us maximise the sum total of happiness. This means, as we will see, that utilitarians take up a strong stance against murder — even against individual acts of murder that are morally permitted. Utilitarianism is different from both deontology and the moral rights theory in that it condones a system of double standards. It recommends the criminalisation of some actions that are, according to the utilitarian criterion of right action itself, morally right.

We now have the three bold conjectures in rough outline, and it is time to put them to test. The idea is to confront them with various different kinds of killing, to see what implications they yield, and to assess whether they can explain our considered moral intuitions about the cases at hand.

The task is to discuss the implications of the theories and, at the same time, to try to put our own moral intuitions under scrutiny — to submit them to cognitive psychotherapy. Then it is helpful to know what other people think about the cases. Here my empirical surveys will provide important input.

It is also interesting to know whether there are any systematic cognitive mistakes, which underlie our intuitive reactions to the cases. Are some of our reactions mere expressions of disgust, like our fear of snakes? Or, do they have their origin in a lack of moral imagination in relation to large numbers? In such cases, even if we cannot avoid them, we should perhaps not trust them in our pursuit of moral truth.

Let us now put the theories to test.

Chapter 3. Murder
Suppose a woman is stalked by her EX-husband. He does not threaten to kill her, but he never leaves her alone and she thinks that this makes life meaningless for her. She asks the police for help but receives none. She then kills her EX. She comes forward, assumes responsibility for her action but claims that she had no choice. Is it possible that she did the right thing?
Chinese Russians Americans

yes 10% 27% 44%

no 86% 68% 51%

don't know 4% 5% 4%

Should she be punished?
Chinese Russians Americans

yes 86% 78% 67%

no 9% 16% 28%

don't know 5% 6% 5%

In my survey I asked a rather abstract question, so what my respondents reacted to was a mere thought experiment. Alas, the example is not very exceptional or far from realities, however. Here is a real life case, which comes close to my imagined one:

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