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Homicide Revisited

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009

Philip E. Devine
Harvard Law School


Jonathan Glover and I, while not in such deep disagreement about the ethics of killing as to make all communication impossible, still disagree enough to make sustained confrontation worthwhile. (Very briefly, Glover is a utilitarian, while I am not.) At minimum, such confrontation should make it clear what are the most fundamental issues at stake in ethical arguments about various kinds of killing.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 1980

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1 Glover, Jonathan, Causing Death and Saving Lives (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977)Google Scholar. Parenthetical references in this paper are to this book.

2 The Ethics of Homicide (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1978).Google Scholar

3 Pace the extreme claims made in Hill, Sharon, ‘Self-determination and Autonomy’, Today's Moral Problems, Wasserstrom, Richard, (ed.) (New York: Macmillan, 1975), 171186.Google Scholar

4 On Liberty, Ch. 3.

5 A parallel point needs also to be made against Glover, (pp. 8385)Google Scholar with respect to the right to life.

6 Cf. Hyam v. D.P.P., (1974) 2Google Scholar All E.R., discussed in Kenny, Anthony, ‘Intention and Mens Rea in Murder’, Law, Morality and Society, Hacker, P. M. S. and Raz, J. (eds) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), Ch. 9.Google Scholar

7 As distinct from an operation whose success is doubtful, or one which will, even if successful, not cure the malady at which it is directed but only prolong the period during which that malady is suffered.

8 See for example the argument ascribed to Judge Hercules in Dworkin, Ronald, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1977). 125ff.Google Scholar

9 As does Thomson, Judith Jarvis in ‘A Defense of Abortion’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1, No. 1 (Fall, 1971), 4766.Google Scholar

10 Glover fails to consider adequately at least two cut-off points, both of which deserve serious attention before a final determination is made. One, whose appeal is primarily intellectual, is that point, about two weeks after fertilization, when the splitting or merging of zygotes is no longer possible. The appeal of this cutoff point is not, pace Glover, , that ‘we cannot be sure how many people will result’ (p. 123)Google Scholar, but rather that to acknowledge merging or splitting selves would throw our concept of an individual person into confusion, and thus is to be avoided if possible. The other, whose appeal is primarily emotional and imaginative, is that point, about four to six weeks after fertilization, when the nascent human organism begins to look like a baby. This cut-off point will require careful handling, however, if it is to be defended against the charge of sanctioning every kind of prejudice.

11 Michael Tooley at least displays the virtue of candour when he writes of the kinds of children which ‘most people would prefer not to raise’. (‘A Defense of Abortion and Infanticide’, in Feinberg, Joel (ed.), The Problem of Abortion (Belmont, California, 1973), 54.)Google Scholar

12 Veatch, Robert, Death, Dying and the Biological Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 42.Google Scholar

13 I am here replying to Michael Bayles's criticism of my views, presented at the March 1978 meeting of Amintaphil.

14 For present purposes, I am prepared to grant Glover the premise that the numbers do sometimes count. An adequate defence of this premise would have to respond to Taurek, John, ‘Should the Numbers Count?’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (1977), 293316.Google ScholarPubMed

15 ‘The Conscious Acceptance of Guilt in the Necessary Murder’, Ethics 89, No. 3 (04 1979), 221239.Google Scholar

16 I am not happy with Glover, 's contention (pp. 270271)Google Scholar that it is sometimes right to take part in an unjustifiable war. But it is hard not to see the force of such a contention. Suppose, merely for the sake of argument, we think that the Finns were wrong in deciding not to appease the Soviet Union before the Winter War of 1939–40. (For a good discussion of this issue, see Walzer, Michael, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977) 7073.)Google Scholar Would we really want individual Finns who agreed with us on what is merely an issue of prudence to refuse to take part in their country's war effort? An adequate reply to this question would have to distinguish the morality of beginning war from the morality of continuing war. Capitulation once war has begun can have morally bad aspects that refusing to fight would not have had. And a soldier who supports his country's decision to continue a war can fight in good faith even if he disagreed with its decision to begin it. On the other hand, this way of thinking has embarrassing implications when an unjust strategic decision has been taken concerning the conduct of an originally just war, as Walzer argues was the case with the decision to ‘go North’ during the Korean War (ibid., 117–120).

17 I am indebted to Germain Grisez and Joseph Ryshpan for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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