Ask a Philosopher, Part Two: The Morality of Death

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Ask a Philosopher, Part Two: The Morality of Death

Robert Johnson is a British ethicist and moral philosopher. He is the author of Rational Morality: A Science Of Right And Wrong and commissioning editor of Ockham Publishing. He has kindly agreed to allow us to pester him with questions relevant to veganism. This week, I asked him about the morality of inflicting death upon sentient creatures.

PMF: As vegans, we’re very concerned about suffering. For the layperson, suffering occurs when any creature that doesn’t want something to happen to them, realises that thing has happened to them. By definition, suffering is bad. Can we say the same thing about death?

Is there a moral reason to oppose death without suffering?

RJ: In the previous ‘Ask a Philosopher’ article I was mentioning theories of moral philosophy. One theory which would certainly disagree with the idea that death is a harm, is that of Peter Singer. He’s very much taken the classic utilitarian position that suffering is the true harm, and that through death one does not necessarily suffer, so it is not inherently harmful. Given the assumptions he makes, his argument is right enough. The problem, as I earlier mentioned, is with his assumptions. There’s no reason to believe that suffering ‘simply is’ wrong, and no reason to believe that death ‘simply isn’t’ as a result.

Rationally speaking, we should draw our opinions about death from our most basic and agreed moral beliefs. If we believe these to include something like ‘forcing death on someone is immoral’, which is what we seem to currently believe, then the forcing of death onto human or animal is wrong.

Does this mean there could never be a situation in which forcing death on someone is justified? That’s an altogether more difficult question. Could we justifiably kill a murderer we could not contain in any other way - a futuristic cyborg perhaps? Or, more relevant to this conversation, if we have an injured animal, with no way of caring for them without them experiencing extreme suffering, is it okay to kill them humanely? If yes, why isn’t it okay to extend this allowance for murder when there is an abundance of homeless animals who otherwise will spend their entire lives in small enclosures, experiencing the kind of repetitive movement that leads to something akin to psychosis?

These are difficult questions that many moral philosophers will posit their theories have perfect answers to, but for which I think it’s likely there simply aren’t morally adequate answers. Embracing rationalism in ethics means accepting we might not ever have all the answers.

Paul M Fox is a computer scientist, golf poseur and amateur statistican. He is a vegan activist, Go programmer, electric unicycle enthusiast, and a court-certified expert on the Predator movies. One of these things is not true.

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