Now that I’m past the midpoint of Jeff McMahan’s book The Ethics of Killing, I fear it will be impossible to send further news to the outside world. The jungle is very thick, everything is covered in vines, and the trails are serpentine. I barely know if I will make it out alive myself.
So here’s just one last missive. What the book has been about so far, in a nutshell, is the difference between deaths. The plot gradually thickens throughout the book, because there’s much more to deciding whether you can justify killing an individual than deciding just how bad a thing it would be if they died. That’s just one piece of a big, intricate puzzle.
But that’s what all my posts about the book have focused on–how bad a thing is it when a newborn dies, when an animal dies, when…etc. Are there differences between the seriousness of different deaths?
Just to sum up, and correct any impressions I’ve probably created by focusing on this bit, and then that bit, of McMahan’s book, here’s this, from a page of the book (p. 184) that sums things up. The badness of a death (he says) depends on the individual’s interest in going on living, at the time of death. The strength of that interest is greater depending on… a lot of stuff. Paraphrasing, McMahan says the interest is greater if:
(1) The good that would have existed in the remainder of the life was great. (2) The individual at the time of death was strongly connected to later selves, by myriad “prudential unity relations.” (Tricky concept–I posted about it earlier.) (3) The individual had so far gotten little out of life. (4) More life was needed to bring “the story of his life” to completion. (5) The individual had invested a lot in his future. (6) The individual would have deserved the good things that would have happened later, if it weren’t for the death. (7) The goods ahead were ones that individual desired or valued.
Using these criteria, plus many factual assumptions, McMahan arrives at a ranking that sees the death of infants, the very elderly, the severely retarded, and animals, as less serious than the deaths of …well, you and me. But don’t think it follows that it’s open season on individuals in these “marginal” categories. The dark thick jungle that I’m plowing through is all about the sort of reasons we must have to be able to justify ending a life. It’s complicated.
If I survive the rest of the trip, maybe I’ll have one last report. Don’t worry about me–I’ve had the proper vaccinations and I’ve got plenty of water.