Causing Death and Saving Lives


In Causing Deaths and Saving Lives Jonathan Glover offers a broadly utilitarian analysis of killing. It is, however, not purely utilitarian; Glover makes room for respecting the autonomy of those who wish to go on living even if we cannot determine what it is that makes their lives worth living (perhaps, though, this grounded in some kind of rule utilitarianism). Indeed, Glover thinks that the wrongness of killing (considered apart from its side-effects on others) is explained by either the overriding of another’s autonomy or by reducing the total amount of worthwhile life that would otherwise exist if no life-thwarting action were taken. While this classic volume is easy to read, non-technical, honest, and fair, the foundational assumptions seem to me to be drastically flawed.

Consider his definition of death, which he defines as the irreversible loss of consciousness. This, he thinks avoids a problem posed by a thought experiment: imagine a man’s heart stops and a doctor is poised to revive him fully expecting to get his heart going again. But the man’s heir plunges a knife into his chest before the doctor can do anything. Does the heir violate a corpse or take the life of an innocent human being? He violates a corpse only if the death is defined by the mere cessation of pulmonary circulation. But that is not a plausible definition of death, because it leaves out the condition of irreversibility. Suppose the heir doesn’t interfere and the doctor gets the man’s heart going again, but unfortunately the man never regains consciousness. After the doctor determines that the man’s consciousness has been irreversibly lost, the man’s heir plunges the knife into the man’s chest. Does he violate a corpse or kill an innocent human being? It seems clear that he doesn’t violate a corpse; therefore he kills an innocent human being, which means the definition of death has nothing to do with the irreversible loss of consciousness.

With respect to reproductive ethics, he thinks that the actions of killing an infant and failing to conceive a child via contraception are morally on par with another. If one is wrong, then so is the other; and if one is permissible, then so is the other. (Of course, the parity disappears when we start considering the side-effects of these actions on others). This strikes me as incredible for many reasons, but one will suffice even on Glover’s utilitarian grounds. Failing to conceive is on par with infanticide only if we make two implausible assumptions: (1) reducing the total amount of worthwhile life is equivalent with failing to maximize the total amount of worthwhile life; (2) we are under an obligation to maximize the total amount of worthwhile life. A little reflection shows that there are problems with both of these, of course.  Since Glover denies any morally relevant difference between acts and omissions, the first assumption entails the following generalization: for any agent S, and any quantifiable property p, S reduces p just in case S fails to maximize p. Thus, if I fail to maximize the potential profits of a company, but produce profits for it nonetheless, I have reduced the company’s profits. Conversely, I have reduced the total amount of garbage in the world, by failing to maximize the total amount of garbage I could otherwise produce. Neither of these statements make much sense of what we normally take the word ‘reduce’ to mean. To reduce something does not mean to fail to actualize the full potential of something; rather, it means to bring about less of something actual. As for the second assumption, it is hard to make sense of the harm done people who are prevented from existing. Non-existent entities do not have properties, so they cannot be harmed. Perhaps there is a creaturely essence awaiting actualization; but does the failure to actualize it harm it? I doubt it. Why, then, does Glover make these assumptions? As careful as he is to examine his assumptions throughout his interesting and provocative book, these are overlooked whoppers.

There is more confusion. Glover spends a lot of time arguing against the act-omission doctrine and the principle of double effect, and we are left with the impression that belief in these ideals is false. But he says, “moral beliefs are not in any straightforward way true or false” (pg. 111), so this noncognitivist turn seems to undercut his argument. Another example of undercutting occurs when he says it is absurd to argue for a moral position by claiming that its widespread rejection would lead to bad consequences (pg. 111), but then goes on to argue that the rejection of the ban on the use of nuclear weapons would produce terrible consequences while recognizing that conventional weapons can be used to cause more harm than nuclear weapons (e.g. he cites the now discredited belief that more people were killed in the conventional bombing of Dresden than in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima).

While Glover’s book constitutes a great example the utilitarian challenge to traditional ethics, and is good for assigning to undergraduates to sample various positions, it is not very persuasive.