Fearful Thoughts

Stephen Mulhall

  • The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life by Jeff McMahan
    Oxford, 554 pp, £35.00, February 2002, ISBN 0 19 507998 1

Two-thirds of the way through this dense, involved and exhausting book, its author acknowledges that his views about the nature of persons have the following implication. Suppose that a woman, without family or friends, dies giving birth to a healthy infant. At the same hospital there are three five-year-old children who will die if they do not receive organ transplants, and the newborn has exactly the right tissue type. If Jeff McMahan’s theory is right, it is morally permissible to ‘sacrifice’ the orphaned infant in order to save the other three children.

We can hold off for a moment on the question of why his theory has this implication. The simple fact that it does, as he points out, appears to be a reductio ad absurdum of his position. And McMahan has the grace to confess that he ‘cannot embrace’ this implication ‘without significant misgivings and considerable unease’. But he embraces it nevertheless, since he continues his examination of abortion and euthanasia for a further 150 pages, still drawing on the same account of the nature of persons that led to the apparent reductio in the first place – as if simply acknowledging its existence constituted a sufficient settling of accounts with it.

Reduction to absurdity is, of course, a fate that any philosophical theory might meet – although it is relatively rare for a theorist simultaneously to underline and ignore this flaw in his progeny. But such split-mindedness is peculiarly disturbing when the theory concerns itself with morality, since in such a context a reductio argument confronts us with moral absurdity – or, to put it more bluntly, with the morally intolerable, the morally unthinkable. Elizabeth Anscombe once said that anyone who thought in advance that it was open to question whether an action such as procuring the judicial execution of an innocent person should be entirely excluded from consideration showed a corrupt mind. She thereby expressed a (highly controversial but hardly unintelligible) fear not only of evil actions, but of thinking evil thoughts – a fear of the dulling and degrading of moral sensibility that such acts of contemplation can encourage and express. The analogy with McMahan’s moral absurdity is not exact. A morally innocent victim is certainly central to his cautionary tale; but while (to his credit) he cannot bear explicitly to accept this evil consequence of his theory, he also cannot bear to reject the theory on its account. On the contrary, he acts as if his claim to be a serious moral thinker would be more severely damaged if he took such evil consequences as sufficient reason to abandon his theoretical endeavour. Being a fearless thinker matters more, it seems, than avoiding morally fearful thoughts.

In this respect, his work is representative of the mainstream of contemporary practical ethics in the Anglo-American philosophical world. Take the fact that the moral intolerability of his theory is revealed by invoking an imaginary case. The Ethics of Killing is full to bursting with such thought-experiments, or ‘cases’ as McMahan calls them. Their deployment is a central technique in the modern moral philosopher’s tool-kit; it is even the way some philosophers achieve a kind of immortality – as with Judith Jarvis Thomson and her ‘case’ of the woman to whom a violinist is hooked up for life support, a case designed to illustrate a certain argument for abortion (McMahan’s critical discussion of it is the best I have seen).

The Ethics of Killing puts this technique to more systematic and imaginative use than any other book I know of. McMahan’s cases even get a separate, and very useful, index – although its enigmatic entries (‘The Pipe Sealer’, ‘The Accidental Nudge’, ‘The Whole-Body Transplant’) irresistibly reminded me of the ‘Concordance of Nicola Six’s Kisses’ in Martin Amis’s London Fields (‘The Rosebud’, ‘Clash of the Incisors’, ‘The Turning Diesel’). However, inventing, varying and examining such cases requires and encourages the exercise of a certain kind of imagination – the kind evoked by the label ‘thought-experiments’. These cases are devised rather than created, modified rather than rewritten, analysed rather than entered into; they invite precisely the epithets with which McMahan’s book has been greeted – ‘novel and ingenious’, Peter Singer tells us on the dust-jacket, rather than, say, ‘wise and insightful’.

McMahan’s ‘Sacrificial Newborn’, with which we began (my title, not his; strangely, it doesn’t appear in his index), is a case in point. Its sole rationale is to present us with a lightly clothed calculation. Eliminate anyone with whom the newborn might have a human relationship (since their distress might complicate the sums), and whistle up enough older children to outnumber our orphan (thereby forcing us to acknowledge that three is at least three times greater than one). It’s an arithmetical tale, morality by numbers – and the simpler the texture, the clearer the point.

But what if our concern were not clarity but understanding, or an engagement of our moral imagination with something resembling the texture and complexity of human reality? Not only is medical unlikelihood bypassed for McMahan’s purposes (no tissue-typing problems); we hear nothing of the family and friends of the three five-year-olds. This is presumably because their obvious joy at the redemption of their children would simply shift the balance of calculation even further in the same direction. But what if the mother of one of these children discovers the source of her daughter’s new organs? Would her joy be untainted by this knowledge? Is it obvious that she, or any of the parents involved, would regard it as legitimate for a healthy orphan to be thus abused? Is it obvious that any of them, or indeed any of the hospital staff, would not feel an obligation to the memory of the newborn’s dead mother that might make them hesitate over its ‘sacrifice’?

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