Is killing wrong?
Can a world without religious values ever be consistent when it comes to ethics?
Published: 10 April 2012 (GMT+10)
The answer to this question is obvious for most people—of course killing is wrong. Most moral codes forbid murder, and in the Bible, the Ten Commandments also forbid murder. But even without these moral codes, most people ‘just know’ that killing is wrong—in fact, if someone needed someone to tell them that killing is wrong, we might question their sanity!
However, finding justification for killing, say, people of a different ethnic group, political rivals—or the elderly and unwanted babies in the womb—is nothing new to the atheistic worldview. In fact, raising such a question is a logical consequence of accepting evolution as truth and rejecting the truth and authority of Scripture. After all, if humans evolved, so did our morality, so who is to say that our morality may not simply reflect what was advantageous for the species over millions of years? What was regarded as moral some years ago might not be relevant today if the world were to face food shortages, for example. If that is the case, then we are left with a solely pragmatic code of ethics, and it also means ethics could change if what’s deemed advantageous for the species changes.
Is murder always wrong?
Recently in the Journal of Medical Ethics1 (which as we’ll see is a very oxymoronic title) this question was posed by two researchers whose ultimate goal is to justify organ donation after cardiac death—where the patient has brain damage and is on life support, but the patient isn’t dead because the heart could start beating again.2
The authors give two scenarios of ‘Betty’ who is shot in the head by ‘Abe’. In the first scenario, she is killed. It would be okay to harvest her organs in this case, because she is dead. In the second scenario, she is not dead, but totally disabled—she is conscious but totally unable to control any of her actions, or even to process thoughts or experiences. The authors argue that ‘Betty’ has already had her ability to experience taken away, so it is not immoral to kill her to take her organs. They argue that there is practically no difference between causing death and causing total disability, because both outcomes result in her losing the ability to experience a pleasurable life. According to their argument, what’s immoral about either is that it causes the total irreversible loss of abilities. If this is the case, it’s not necessarily immoral to take the life of someone who has already experienced this total irreversible loss, because there’s nothing left to take from her.
The first anticipated objection the authors counter is that life is sacred. But, they say, “if life [in and of itself] were really what is sacred, then all life would be sacred. But nobody believes that … After all, weeds are alive. Hence, if killing were wrong just because it is causing death or the loss of life, then the same principle would apply with the same strength to pulling weeds in a garden. If it is not immoral to weed a garden, then life as such cannot really be sacred, and killing as such cannot be morally wrong.”
Most Christians, CMI included, would argue that human life is more valuable than a plant’s, because we are created in the image of God. (Also, humans and vertebrate animals are nephesh chayyah or ‘living souls’ according to the Bible, while plants are not—so the Bible doesn’t view them as living beings as such, though of course biologically speaking they are alive.) But the authors shoo away this objection like an annoying fly without actually answering it. They simply say that this argument “will have no force at all for those of us who prefer our moral theories to be independent of religion.” In other words, they are trying to base their morality on something other than religion.
But their view that humans are ultimately no more intrinsically valuable than weeds is derived from an atheistic worldview that has its roots in evolutionism. This view says that all life is descended from a common ancestor and that, humans are basically nothing more than evolved pond scum. Therefore it’s consistent to say that human life is not inherently more sacred than a weed’s, because several billion years ago, we had a common ancestor. They might even argue that to cull the weak would be acting consistently with these alleged ‘laws of nature’. But of course Christians would define such actions as immoral. This is where the debate becomes like trying to ‘nail Jello to the wall’, because the humanist definitions of what constitutes morality will be ever-changing.
Although the authors claim they want to make decisions independent of religious ideology, their own view is also a religious view, as it makes assumptions about the past history of life on Earth that are not provable (evolution). They have faith that such things occurred in spite of the observable, testable science that most understand. That evolution is science and creation is religion is the single greatest myth that people have swallowed in the entire origins debate, and it is one that clouds the judgment of those holding the atheist position.
But can we be moral without God?
When atheists argue that infanticide is morally acceptable, that people should be able to sue for wrongful birth, and that it is okay to deceive people to believe in evolution, we shouldn’t be too surprised to hear other atheist ethical musings that radically differ from what Christians would consider moral (we pointed out earlier that they can make their own definitions of morality).
A lot of people argue that atheists don’t have a basis for morality, but this is not necessarily true. There is a subtle distinction that needs to be pointed out. Creationists believe that atheists do not have a consistent, logical basis for their concepts of morality. Their ideas are often very contrived and ever-changing as they to try to fill a gap or need that, logically, their ‘dog eat dog, survival of the fittest’ belief system would actually not allow. There are a number of sophisticated humanist or atheist systems of ethics—time does not permit us to examine all the major ones, but one very popular humanist system of ethics is utilitarianism. To a utilitarian, happiness is a moral good, and a moral action is one that brings the most happiness to the most possible people. To give a simplified example of the utilitarian ethic, I shouldn’t kill you because killing you would make you (momentarily) sad and distressed, and would distress your family and friends. But suppose you’re not a very pleasant person and a lot of people would like to see you dead. Then their happiness would potentially outweigh your admittedly brief unhappiness, and the net result of more happiness would justify your murder.
This sounds ridiculous, but one ethicist, Peter Singer, has actually argued for parents to be able to kill disabled newborns, so that they can devote the resources that would otherwise be used for the disabled child to a healthy child. The newborn is said not to be able to contemplate its impending death, and the happiness of the parents and healthy child outweighs the negative effects of murdering a baby. The same ethic is at work when we argue that abortion is justified in cases where adoption would cause the mother mental distress.
So is it always wrong to kill?
So what is a Christian response to “Can Betty be taken off of life support?” It is a complex ethical question, and one that would not even be possible without the blessing of advanced medical technology in developed Western countries—and even then, in many cases the person does not arrive at the hospital in time to take advantage of that technology. There are many factors in this complex issue and we advise not making knee-jerk, one size fits all responses. One has to consider, for example, is Betty actually alive—i.e. is there brain activity (and is brain activity the definition of being alive)? If so, are machines all that is keeping her heart beating and her lungs pumping? Stopping active treatment might in some cases be morally different from actively killing. Let’s discuss a couple of scenarios:
- A person is brain dead and only being kept alive via feeding tubes plus a respirator. Without the aid of the respirator the person would die.
- A person has brain activity and is responsive or even might be in a coma and non responsive. They require feeding tubes to provide sustenance, but do not require a respirator to stay alive.
In scenario 1, it could be argued that although the respirator is reversing the effects of the curse (which is a good thing), if the person does not have brain function are they technically alive? This is not a quality of life issue like being impaired in other ways (like being a paraplegic). Without brain function the body ceases to function independently at all. As gruesome as it sounds it would be akin to having no head. Turning off the respirator might not be morally wrong because one is not killing. The person is actually already dead.
In scenario 2, however, withdrawing feeding tubes would be akin to simply starving a person to death. There is impairment but while there is brain function the person is technically alive.
Without brain function the essence of a person is gone—it could be reasoned that the soul is no longer there. As such, there may come a point when it is actually the merciful thing to do to turn the machines off. Having said that, of course, in the real fallen world of practical patient care, we also need to ask; how sure are we of our technology’s ability to be certain that there really is no brain function left? [For an interesting discussion on this, see http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/brain-dead—Ed.]
These are complex emotive issues that are hard even for experts in intensive care who are solid, Bible-believing Christians. Many of us have had to deal with such situations in our own lives; we are merely trying to providing some food for thought. In our experience, as with so many other issues in this fallen world, it is a wisdom issue that requires a balanced, thoughtful approach, case by case, as one prayerfully seeks to apply the fundamental principles of God’s Word.
But with the authors’ scenario, there is no wisdom. Wisdom comes from God the Creator and the author of life. When recognizing this we are in a position to make a balanced and reasoned decision. Treating humans as nothing more than animals is a radical modern view that is promulgated due to a faulty philosophy emanating from the debate about our origins. Note that in the case of ‘Betty’, it would be immoral to remove her from life support, because she is conscious, albeit brain damaged. In any case, there is really no way to tell to what extent she experiences or feels, or even definitely say that she’ll never have any sort of recovery.
In modern medicine, doctors and family members are faced with choices that wouldn’t have been possible several decades ago—‘brain death’ and ‘cardiac death’ (NB a heart can often be revived—a brain cannot, though it may sometimes recover when many have lost hope) and a whole host of other names for various levels of non-functionality have been distinguished in an era where machines can keep a body functioning in a condition that would have quickly resulted in death in the past.
Of course it is always wrong to murder, and most people know that without being told. Even without the Ten Commandments or a different moral code with a similar proscription, the Bible tells us that the Law is written on our hearts (Romans 2:15). But why should we expect people who have rejected God to follow the Law that He has placed in their hearts? The Bible affirms that the unrighteous suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). However, the power of an ideology can cause people to ‘switch off’ that inbuilt moral or ethical button. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime promoted one such ideology that caused ordinary men and women to become murderers of innocent millions, because they were convinced that those they were killing were ‘less than human’.
It isn’t surprising that atheists attack traditional morality, especially morality that is explicitly biblical. This is because they want to make the rules up as they go along. But believers have an advantage over atheist ethicists—we have the Bible as our foundation for ethics, so we can be confident in the moral standards that God has given us.
- Sinnott-Armstrong, W. and Miller, F., What makes killing wrong?, Journal of Medical Ethics | doi: 10.1136/medethics-2011-100351, 19 Jan 2012. Return to text.
- M. Cook, Is it morally wrong to take a life? Not really, say bioethicists., BioEdge, www.bioedge.org, 27 Jan 2012. Return to text.
Another thing that can be pointed out is the unproven assumption that causing subjective happiness is the ultimate moral good. If that is the case, drug dealers are to be lauded as the greatest of heros. Even better would be a system like in the movie the Matrix where each person lives under the continual illusion of happiness. And what about those people who (although fully functional) have such a difficult existence that it could be argued that death to them would be better than life? This hole has no bottom!
On the other hand I would argue that God is a utilitarian, only that He has a different starting premise: that the greatest moral good is that which teaches others to love. Isn't that what Jesus was all about?
Those articles are very helpful. Thanks.
Thanks for this excellent article. I agree wholeheartedly with the points it makes and the conclusion it reaches. One question: what of the 'God-sanctioned killings' of the Old Testament (e.g. the conquest of Canaan)? I've read various responses to this troubling question, and would greatly appreciate hearing the views of the authors on it. Thanks again. John
I absolutely love how relevant CMI's articles always seem to be. Recently I witnessed a real life scenario on a YouTube video that was similar to the scenario of being brain dead in this article. The situation had me stumped, and at the time, I couldn't quite find an article that addressed a similar situation. I went ahead an asked CMI about it (and received a great answer from Lita Cosner), but I had no idea at the time that CMI was already working on a paper that essentially addresses that exact scenario!
Thank you for all the work you do for the body of Christ. It is so refreshing to know I can come on here to read great answers on a daily basis. And I cannot wait to see what type of feedback this article gets. It seems like atheists get really worked up when the shortcomings of their worldview is pointed out, especially in ethics.