Okay, let’s construct this in a simple fashion. I want to write about death, or rather about giving death(“donner la mort”) and it’s moral context. In most religions “Thou shall not kill” is one of the main moral guidelines. Yet in most cultures some forms of death-dealing are excused or justified. The question is obvious, how can we reconcile these opposing standpoints?
Let’s begin with a short list of the forms of death-dealing frequently encountered in our culture. I did this in the title of this entry, naming murder, abortion, euthanasia, war and the death-penalty. This list is not exhaustive of course, but it gives us a clear picture of the number of situations, where the exact same thing (taking a life) is treated differently. Most would agree that murder is inexcusable, but abortion and euthanasia are “controversial”, while war is often cheered and executions in some parts of Texas are treated as something of a show.
Conditio humana. One moral criterion, which seems important to the point of obviousness to most of my carnivorous brethren that of the human condition. Humans are considered to be different from other beings, because they have a soul. This allows us to kill and eat animals, without moral concern, because they are soul-less (or at least they do not share our Humanity) and are therefore expendable. But clearly this does not form an absolutely respected law. People lawfully kill other people, so the soul-criterion is not set store by. The death penalty is a clear example of this, but so is war. In our televised wars, it seems that people don’t die, they become lost, like soldiers in a computer game. Alas I remind everyone, that in war people die!
Another criterion which is often called upon is the criterion of innocence. People who are “innocent” are never intentionally sentenced to death. They have to be found guilty of horrible crimes, ironically usually of taking a life. But the innocence criterion goes much deeper then what can be decided by courts and laws. The Bible teaches us about the original sin, due to which none of us is innocent. But my favorite theologian Kierkegaard, would argue that point. He wrote that “children are not capable of sin, only of bad temper”. According to him, a mind has to go past a certain point of self realization, before it can stand in the presence of God and thus be capable of sin. Only then is an original innocence replaced with original sin. I wrote about this earlier.
If we accept this then we reconcile objections to abortion with consent to war or the death penalty. However in turn, we raise many other extremely difficult questions. When can we decide that a person already lost their innocence? Do we determine it by age?, deeds?, a psychological test? What about mentally-impaired people, who never stop being children?
But let us be crude and accept some estimate of innocence, the birth for instance. Once a person is born it has the potential for loosing innocence, so let’s consider it guilty until proven otherwise. This doesn’t really solve our problems, only translocates them, because now we have to deal with our carnivorous behaviors. Animals, after all will never be capable of sin and thus will always remain innocent. We cannot kill innocent animals and object to abortion at the same time if we are guided by the innocence-criterion.
So, is there a solution? But of course there is! All we need to do is to combine the two described criteria into a rule-set. We cannot kill innocent beings, which at the same time possess the human condition. What a nice solution. Starting out from “Thou shall not kill”, we arrive at a situation in which we can kill anything and anyone we wish, as long as they are born.
Doesn’t this violate some basic law of logic? Of course it does and I hope I’ve made it obvious. If we allow ourselves to set moral laws, and then create exceptions in them, or use them in sets, we and up with a combinatorial ethics, which is no ethics at all! If we can set un-absolute rules, then they are no longer rules, but parts of a relativistic theory, which can take on any form we desire according to our mood or situation. If we are free to combine the above mentioned two criteria, then why not take a third one along with them? There’s not reason not to.
When it comes to death dealing, we really shouldn’t play moral combination theory. The stakes in such game — lives (human lives, innocent lives, or just plain lives) are too high. “Thou shall not kill” is a rule, which applies in the same way to murder, abortion, euthanasia, war and the death-penalty. If we choose to accept it, let’s be faithful to it. And if we choose at any point to reject it, let’s not pretend to be holier-then-thou when talking about abortion or the death-penalty…
Vegetarian food, anyone?