First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
Considering a Generalized Ethic of Killing
Rev. Samuel A Trumbore March 17, 2002


Killing the Wolf

[....] We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy; how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable side-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes--something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

*  *  *

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

Leopold, Aldo: A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, 1948, Oxford University Press, New York, 1987, pp. 129-132.



Killing is a fact of existence. All things that arise into being will eventually pass away. On the microscopic level, a war rages within each of us as white blood cells surround and destroy toxic bacteria threatening our homeostasis. No matter how you slice it, the food we eat requires the termination of life, or in the case of an egg or seed, a potential life, of an animal or plant. We are hardly alone in our consumption. Teeth chew and claws scratch up the world on a daily basis. Billions and billions of life forms are ending and beginning each minute in the grip of a constant life and death struggle played out on our isolated blue-green planet hurtling through empty space.

Even though taking life is a natural part of having life for animals like us, we have built into our social mammalian programming a reluctance to kill, particularly those of our own species. Having the genes to hunt and also the socialization to refrain from killing drives our need to create and follow an ethics of non-violence.

The inspiration for this service comes from Reese Satin who bought this sermon slot during the 2001 service auction. When he suggested I outline a generalized ethic of killing, I wondered how I would handle the topic in an uplifting and inspiring way. Topics like infanticide, murder, suicide, and triage just don't send people home with a smile on their face. But as I explored what such an ethic might look like, I found the topic opening up in some unexpected directions that I hope will have personal meaning for many of us.

I have but a short time to present my generalized ethic of killing. This topic would easily make a good PhD dissertation or a series of books. I'll sketch out some of my ideas and hope there is a graduate student in the congregation or on the Internet who will find this interesting and refine it with my blessing.

Reese was emphatic that the topic would need to cover more than individual decisions such as murder, suicide, abortion and euthanasia. He wanted me to cover society as a killer. Society can become a killer through war, police actions or capital punishment. Society can also become a passive killer through its social policies. If our society has the capability to feed everyone but withholds food, people will die from starvation. If our society has the capability to house everyone but doesn't make sure there is a place for everyone to be housed, some will die from exposure. If our society has the capability to provide medical care and doesn't provide access, people will die from disease.

Whatever ethic I construct will need to meet three criteria. First the ethic must be self-consistent. The elements of the ethic cannot work against each other so contradictions are discovered. The second criteria for this ethic of killing must be adequacy. One should not need to go outside the ethic to make a life or death decision. Finally it must be practical. We must be able to live with it and use it as we make decisions and choices in our lives.

The inspiration for the ethic I'll be presenting this morning comes from some of the research I've been doing at the SUNY library. Much has been written about some of the subject areas this ethic covers but not very many have looked carefully at a generalized ethic of killing. In fact, I couldn't find anything on the subject. The closest I came was an interesting anthology called, Matters of Life and Death: New Introductory Essays in Moral Philosophy (Second Edition). The book covered the areas I've already mentioned and the concluding chapter was on a search for an environmental ethic. In reading that chapter, I came across an idea of Aldo Leopold, the author of the meditation I offered, called "the land ethic" he outlined in his 1948 book titled, A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches of Here and There. Born in 1887, Leopold has been called the father of wildlife conservation and inspired many others to begin to think about the environment ethically.

The land ethic is rather simple but at the same time quite profound in its implications. Stated simply: The land ethic enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, collectively called the land. Leopold writes:

This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these 'resources,' but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state (p204).

This got me thinking, what if we took the land ethic seriously as the foundation for all ethics. If we step off the evolutionary throne we claim and consider ourselves just one species among many, what ethic might we construct that would stand above and include a human ethic? Could I create an overarching ecological framework for humanity just as personal ethics must function within a social ethical framework? Thus the highest ethic would be planetary followed by a social ethic and lastly a personal ethic.

The axiom of this ethic, my central value begins with this statement:

What is currently alive should have a preference of continued existence. Our actions should support and encourage the continuation of life that currently exists and, in addition, the growth of life. This argues for the maintenance and the growth of the quantity of life. Rainforests are thus better than lifeless deserts because they support vastly more insects, plants and animals.

Following this closely is the second axiom of this ethic:

The whole direction and result of the process we call evolution seems to be the growth of more and more complex organisms in greater and greater diversity. A fierce unrest, a restless wish, throbbing through the world urges the project of creation on. From organic molecules, to single celled organisms, to multi-celled organisms, from trilobites, to ferns, to fish, to insects, to dinosaurs, to mammoths, and finally to homo sapiens, life keeps increasing in quality of life

Notice I haven't made any God references in laying the foundation for his ethic? The ethic I seek to construct will be independent of belief in God and revelation. The earth will not be considered a launching pad for the trip to another place nor an expendable means to another realm such as heaven. This ethic will rest on what we can know about this universe. Being independent of revelation, it is an ethic that can cross religious boundaries.

The continuation and the expansion of life and its increasing complexity and diversity form the moral universe out of which I will next construct an ethic for human society. The first social ethic, really a corollary, will be derived from the value of increasing complexity. If increasing complexity has value then:

This seems intuitively obvious but needs to be stated. Lower life forms like bacteria do not have the same moral weight as human beings. Killing a mosquito has less moral weight than killing a person. Eating bread made from the termination of the life project of thousands of wheat seeds should concern us less than the morality of killing a cow for a hamburger or a steak. This ranking becomes very important as killing one life form is compared against killing another.

For human society, the most important value we can articulate follows directly from the highest good being the continuation and expansion of life:

As I said earlier, we must kill to survive so killing is necessarily part of what we can and will do. But to uphold the value of continuing and expanding life on this planet, we must keep our killing to a minimum level that does not interfere with the continuation and expansion of life.

So what are the implications of minimizing killing? War is definitely immoral but cannot completely ended. A society is sanctioned to use lethal force as a deterrent in self-defense. Allowing one's people to be killed is as wrong as killing others. Society must act to prevent a group of its members being killed, especially in the case of genocide. And if they can do it without killing, all the better. The goal of any military action will be to minimize killing. But total war such as nuclear conflict, the use of biological or chemical weapons would be wrong as they do not minimize killing. But there still could be a chance that their use could minimize killing. The morality of killing depends on the situation.

Minimizing killing has a direct use in social policy. Society has a strong obligation to feed, house, and care for its population. It must work to care for all the people not just a resource rich few. Resources must be shared to support everyone's continued existence.

And there are limits to what any society can do. The next corollary expresses that limit:

Society cannot consume the environment to serve only those at the top of the complexity heap. To support the continuation and expansion of life in greater complexity and diversity, we must limit ourselves. We cannot drive other species to extinction. We cannot wipe out other species habitat. Yet we can act as a planetary steward to cull herds of deer or stimulate the wolf population, relocate plant and animal life, and use breeding techniques to come up with new species and varieties. We are part of the biosphere but only a part and we dominate it at our own peril.

Part of living in sustainable balance requires us to prevent life by controlling our own population. Our population can only expand at the rate life on the planet expands and supports that growth. Some scientists believe we are already exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet and need to reduce our population.

This could be used as an argument for euthanasia and abortion but that goes against the social ethic of minimizing killing. We need one more layer of ethics to complete this system - the individual ethic.

The primary individual ethic may surprise you:

The origin of this is biological. To maximize complexity and diversity in biological systems, randomness is required. Mixing up genes during reproduction allows for mutation. The maximum mix will be driven by unorganized mating patterns. Randomness and disorganization as seen from the systemic viewpoint is another name for freedom.

Like society, maximized individual freedom also has limits in this second individual ethic:

When applied to killing, the individual should have the freedom to decide whether to begin new life or bring its life to an end within the constraints of social and environmental ethics. The individual must weigh the decision to terminate a life in the womb based on it's complexity (a blastocyst is far different than a fetus that is viable outside the womb) and the social context (the balance of society and the environment). This individual ethic could change based on the state of the population. In threat of extinction, having a baby has far more value than in the state of overpopulation.

In this ethical system, the ending of a life racked by disease and old age a few days or months early has little impact on society and the ecosystem as a whole and could be even supportive of it in a condition of overpopulation. Suicide, capital punishment and murder however would violate the overarching principle to minimize killing as well as disrupting the sustainable balance within society.

So there you have my generalized ethic of killing built using an ecological approach. It begins with the highest value on the continuation and expansion of life in increasing complexity and diversity. It affirms that killing must be minimized while acknowledging that killing can and will continue. It recognizes that social systems must live in sustainable balance with the environment. It honors the need to maximize individual freedom to support the continuation and expansion of life in increasing complexity and diversity. It also recognizes that the individual must live in balance with the larger society and, by implication, the environment.

Again, notice this whole system is built without any revelation or religious commandments about killing. It is an ethic that is built on two axioms that make eminent sense. Their opposites, the ending and elimination of life and decreasing the complexity and diversity of life would be abhorrent to us. Even maintaining life exactly the way it is would be ridiculous since change cannot be stopped. Growth is built into this ethic.

We don't need tablets brought down from the mountaintop to build an ethic that prevents killing. But the ethic isn't dualistic. Minimizing killing doesn't rule it out.

Let's test my ethic to see if it meets the requirements of self-consistency, adequacy and practicality. Minimizing killing and maximizing individual freedom in balance with society and the ecosystem seems eminently simple and practical to me. It is adequate as it covers all the areas of killing from abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, murder, capital punishment, war, suicide, animals, and the environment. It extends from individual action to social action. And while it needs far more rigorous testing, I believe it is self-consistent.

What I like about this ethic is it is useful for each of us as we make our personal decisions. In fact, this is critically important if the ethic will have social significance in a democratic society made up of individuals. The individual is granted wide freedom for growth and creativity, high ecological values, while subordinating that freedom to live in sustainable balance with society and the environment. The individual and society are directed to minimize killing as way to create a good life and generate ethical social policy.

As we are a non-creedal congregation, I offer you this ethic not as a commandment or even revelation, but as stimulation for your own reflection as you consider how to decide whether or not to kill. It is a wide ethic that includes all life on this planet and could be logically extended beyond it. Yet it is specific enough to be used to make individual decisions in daily life.

I offer this generalized ethic of killing to you hoping you too will share these values and use them to reshape our world which desperately needs them.


Copyright 2002 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.