Author Archives: Jean Kazez

One Last Postcard

182326-jungle-vines-0Now 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.

Who’s the fairest of them all?

More polling fun at Leiter. Who were the best pre-modern philosophers?  Plato and Aristotle have been vying for top place all week.  Plato overtook Aristotle a couple of times, but Aristotle’s back in the lead. I think it’s going to be a photo finish. My opinion: Plato.  But not for a terribly honorable reason.  As a writer, Plato is a total genius.

Animal Projects

eight_belles_breakdown1There’s a picture of an animal’s life that’s just about standard, and even favored by many animal advocates: an animal’s life is all choppy. Your dog lives moment to moment, without the moments being connected together into “wholes.” By contrast, there is lots of connection in the life of a human being. This difference (people assume) has relevance to the value of animal lives, the badness of animal deaths, and the ethics of killing.

To wit: this sort of contrast is made especially starkly in Jeff McMahan’s book The Ethics of Killing. He has a rich notion of the “wholes” that matter in the lives of people. For one, there’s the whole formed when you anticipate a later time and wish it to be a certain way–you want to lie on the beach in Hawaii in three months. All signs are that animals don’t have thoughts like that. But that’s not the only sort of continuity that counts.

McMahan attaches importance to the “complex narrative unity” of a life (or parts of a life). That unity can be tragically ruined by death. The bride dies right before the wedding, the student is killed in a car accident on the way to graduation, the author doesn’t get to see her book posthumously published. He writes–

As an animal continues to live, goods may continue to accumulate in sequence, but the effect is merely additive. There is no scope for tragedy–for hopes passing unrealized, projects unwillingly aborted, mistakes or misunderstandings left uncorrected, or apologies left unmade.

But surely the lives of animals are full of premature endings. For example, last year Eight Belles collapsed moments after coming in second at the Kentucky Derby, because of two broken ankles. That broke off a story before it was over. Are we really to think that a horse that races madly to a finish line is not engaged in a “project,” that no project has been “aborted” if the horse falls to the ground?

I have the feeling we spend too much time around denatured pets and farm animals to realize that animal lives don’t just consist of a series of moments. Beavers work for months to build dams. Rutting season doesn’t end as it’s supposed to if the animals are shot by hunters before there’s any mating. Emperor penguins spend weeks trudging back from the sea to feed their young–an effort that ends badly if the chicks have died in the meantime.

I know what some people are going to say. The animals don’t think about the future–Eight Belles wasn’t looking forward to her victory lap; the deer aren’t thinking about copulating; the penguins don’t desire a reunion with their young. But narrative unity is supposed to be a further factor affecting the significance of a death, one that goes beyond the issue whether death prevents desires from being fulfilled. In the human case, it does not seem true that an incomplete project is only tragic to the extent that the agent had a particular set of desires and thoughts. All that adds to the tragedy, but isn’t all there is to it.

Thinking of an animal’s life as a series of discrete moments makes its death matter less, and so makes it easier for us to kill with a clear conscience. We need to think about the lives of animals without so much eagerness to find the sharpest possible differences.

Babies and Beasts

Another postcard from the dense jungle that is Jeff McMahan’s book The Ehics of Killing.  Having fun, wish you were here!

As I said in my last post, what I really want out of this book is illumination about the killing of animals, and how it’s the same or different from the killing of people. The beauty of this book is that it’s a comprehensive, ground-up examination of the ethics and “metaphysics” of killing.  If you want to think about fundamentals, this book is extremely helpful.

Anyhow, as I was saying in the last post, McMahan thinks the badness of dying is not just a function of what someone loses by dying (the good in the rest of their life), but of their “time relative interest” in going on living (and other things–this book is anything but simple).  And that depends on the strength of the psychological connections between their present self and their later selves.   See the previous post for details.

So, before we get to the beasts…what does this analysis say about babies? It says it is not as bad for a baby to die as it is for an adult.  Suppose a 30-year-old woman has just had a baby.  Both she and the baby have a life-threatening illness and there’s only enough of a drug to save one.  So it must be asked which death would be worse–practically, and not just for philosophical entertainment.  McMahan would say that if we think about it clearly, we have to say the woman’s death would be worse.  She should receive the drug.

A passage, for your reading pleasure:

Consider again the death of a newborn infant.  Intuitively, it is the vast psychological distance that there would have been between the infant and itself later as a person that explains our sense that the death is a less serious misfortune than the death of an older child or adult–despite the greater magnitude of the good it loses.  An infant is unaware of itself, unaware that it has a future; it therefore has no future-directed mental states: no desires or intentions for its future.  Because its mental life is so limited, there would be very few continuities of character or belief between itself now and itself as a person [later]. And if it had lived to become a person, it would then remember nothing of its life as an infant. It is, in short, almost completely severed psychologically from itself as it would have been in the future This is the principle reason why its time-relative interest in continuing to live is so weak. It is almost as if the future it loses might just as well have belonged to someone else. (pg. 170)

Obviously, people are devastated when they lose an infant.  Don’t think McMahan is denying that!  But if we must judge which is worse, the death of the baby or the mother in my example, is he right that the mother’s death would be worse?

Ground rules–don’t think about the impact on others.  The question is just about the badness of these two possible deaths, taken on their own.  Next up:  how serious it is when an animal dies?

Pigs, Converts, Buddhists

s-egypt-swine-largeAll 300,000 pigs in Egypt are in the process of being slaughtered today—an awfully peculiar strategy for preventing swine flu.  Apart from the sheer irrationality of it all, it makes you think about killing animals.  Is each and every pig being wronged—to be precise, having its (his, her) interest in going on living violated?  Do animals have an interest in going on living?

I write about this in my forthcoming book, but there’s never time to read everything, and now that I’m done, I’m doing some remedial reading—to wit, I’m reading Jeff McMahan’s very thick and detailed book The Ethics of Killing.  I’m only part way through, so can’t say yet how the story is going to turn out, but here are some gleanings from part one.

The interest in going on living that you have at a particular point in your life (your “time relative interest” in going on living) depends—says McMahan—on the “prudential unity relations” between you at that time of your life and you*  or you** at later times.  He says it’s a question of degree—the more continuities (of the right sort) between you and you* (etc) the stronger your interest in going on living.   But animals, he says, are connected to their later selves by only a fraction of these required continuities.

The continuities that make you (now) have a stake in the welfare of you* (later) are all “mental,” says McMahan.  You have certain beliefs, and they persist in you*.  You have certain desires about your future, and they get satisfied by you*.  You are searching for something, and you* completes the search.  The more continuities there would have been between you, you*, you** etc., the worse it is for you if something bad happens, and you die before you get to be you* or you**.   The argument about animals, then, is that their past and future selves are united more loosely; there are fewer of these continuities.  So they have a weaker stake in going on living.

I’m going to save the issue of animals for a later post, but there’s something puzzling about this view of the interest in living.  It implies that certain kinds of people have a weaker interest in going on living than the rest of us.  To wit–

The convert. If you lose your religion, going from belief to disbelief, or the other way around, then there’s less continuity between your present self and your future selves.

The Buddhist. You’ve taken heed of Buddhist wisdom that desire is the root of all suffering, so you “live in the present” and limit your desires about the future as much as possible. Again, this is going to make for weaker “prudential unity relations.”

The “flow”er (to use the language of the psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi).  This is someone who frequently loses herself in intense activity, losing awareness of the past and the future.  Bear in mind–this is supposed to be a desirable psychological state. Once again, this person’s past and future selves are going to more weakly united, compared to a person who constantly obsesses about the future.

It would be awfully odd to think these three types of people had a weaker stake in going on living, considering that there’s nothing undesirable about the states of mind they’re in (perhaps just the opposite).  Should we really take it on board that mental continuities are the basis for having a stake in going on living?


A few footnotes: (1)   There’s a lot of hairy stuff in this book about identity.  For you (now) to have an interest in the welfare of you* (later), must you (now) be identical to you* (later)?  Let’s ignore that question.  I’m not taking a stand on it by multiplying names (“you”, “you*” etc.) ike this—they’re just a convenient shorthand.  (2) Don’t jump to the conclusion that McMahan thinks it’s not so bad to kill these three types of people.  The issue (so far) is just about the level of their interest in going on living, not about the ethics of killing them.  (3)  McMahan does have things to say about some of these cases–pages 81-82–but in the interest of spurring discussion, I’m not revealing his “solution.”

Philosophy Fun

You might want to check out Brian Leiter today.  After you follow the links on swine flu (an elementary school near me closed today–how nervous should I be?), you might want to read the discussion that’s brewing up about a seriously idiotic editorial in the New York Times which says academia should undergo an extreme make-over. Plus there have been some fun polls lately (with high-quality Kant-bashing in the comments), not to mention a recent post about the newly designed Philosopher’s Magazine website last week.  I used to think the blog was all news about professional comings and goings, but I’ve become a fan.

Your Friendly Village Atheist

Are the new atheists militant, strident, obnoxious, evangelical…in a word, bad? All those accusations have become a way for many people to close the book on a view they find unsettling. How convenient to have a way to dismiss the challenge to religion. See–they’re evangelical! They’re just like the people they criticize! So we can ignore them.

I think this is all pretty dubious. I rather like the new atheists. To be quite honest, I hugely enjoyed the four authors who get lumped together under this epithet–especially Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. But I’m going to praise a different sort of atheist–a friendly atheist. And don’t get too concerned that I’m using a nice word for the type of atheist I have in mind. There are millions of nice words in the English language. If I praise a violin for the way it sings mellifluously, does that mean I’m criticizing drums for being percussive? No, not at all.

I’m going to call you (me, anyone) a friendly atheist if you meet these conditions (I’m in the mood for a little precision):

(1) You’re firm in your belief that the world is deity-free, and possibly you enjoy debate, but you doesn’t particularly want to convert anyone.

(2) Atheism is not a basis for your identity. When you think “I am an X,” perhaps you think “I am a liberal democrat” or “I am an American” or …. whatever. But you don’t think “I am an atheist.” Why not? Because the beliefs and values you consider important are ones that cut across boundaries defined by religious belief.

(3) Outside of a forum for no-holds-barred intellectual debate, like a philosophy class, you want your discussions about religion to have a tone of mutual respect.

Alright, so here’s my thesis (can this possibly be daring?)–it’s good for there to be friendly atheists. What’s good about them is that they “play well with others.” That was one of the abilities we used to get graded on in elementary school, back where I come from, and I think it’s important.

Why play well with others? One reason is self-interest. Atheists are not fully included in public life, in the US. Over 50% would not vote for someone who didn’t believe in God. There are various reasons for the distrust of atheists. Some have nothing to do with whether atheists come across like violins or drums. Nevertheless, I do think the friendly atheist is much more likely to be welcomed as “one of us” and trusted to represent the interests and aspirations of various voting blocs.

It’s also important to be able to interact respectfully with non-believers because it’s so important to make common cause with people who share your desire to…fill in the blank. An interesting feature of Peter Singer’s new book on extreme poverty is that he doesn’t hesitate to appeal to the reader’s religious motivations to give, even though he doesn’t share them. It’s also intriguing that, though he has a column in Free Inquiry, he never seems to use it to clobber religion.

If you’ve read Julian’s articles on the new atheists here and here, and the responses to them at various blogs, you can see I’m casting my vote mostly with Julian. I’m just putting the point a little differently. I’m not attacking the drums (let there be drums!), but praising the violins.  There’s also an issue of proportions.  Drums are loud. They tend to drown out violins. That’s why you have a couple of drums in a symphony, and a lot of violins.  I’m really not sure how the symphony of atheists comes across to the public (an empirical issue–and I have very little evidence) but it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t be good if it sounded like all drums.

The Miserable Planet

singer2A final post about Singer’s book.

This book is really meant to get you to give, so responding with deep philosophical angst is sort of missing the point.  So let me say right off the bat–yes, I should give much more.  Singer is right.

But now for the angst.  Let’s have a little thought experiment. For the next hundred years we do everything right, so that affluence increases for all.   There’s a high standard of living and a social safety net that protects the old and incapacitated.  This is the case everywhere on earth. Poverty is a thing of the past.  The whole human race is just as fortunate as the affluent are today.

And then it is revealed.  Space probes discover a very distant planet.  While earth has become all-affluent, the other planet is all-poor.  (Inspiration for this scenario:  the creepy but excellent novel Under the Skin, by Michel Faber.)  it turns out there’s no less misery in the universe than before, but instead all the affluence is concentrated on earth, and all the misery on The Miserable Planet.

Let’s not be distracted by the species on that planet. They’re human beings, and they’re good and bad just like us. Their problems are due to many of the factors that cause problems in the poorest countries today.  The population of the planet is about the same as ours.

Question:  Must we send off rocket-loads full of aid to The Miserable Planet?  Are we obliged to give up (say) half our affluence in order to lift them out of poverty?

Two questions here, best taken in order.  (1)  Must we give up our affluence to aid The Miserable Planet?  (2) If the answer is No, does that tell us anthing at all about our obligations in the real world, where both affluence and misery coexist on the same planet?

More Life, Less Art?

singer1Skipping chapters 6 and 7 (an excellent, honest discussion of aid organizations and the cost of saving a life), here’s something interesting from chapter 9. Singer writes:

dt8[P]hilanthropy for the arts or for cultural activities is, in a world like this one, morally dubious. In 2004, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art paid a sum said to be in excess of $45 million for a small Madonna and Child painted by the medieval Italian master Duccio. In buying this painting, the museum has added to the abundance of masterpieces that those fortunate enough to be able to visit it can see.  But if it only costs $50 to perform a cataract operation in a developing country, that means there are 900,000 people who can’t see anything at all, let alone a painting, whose sight could have been restored by the amount of money that painting cost.  At $450 to repair a fistula, $45 million could have given 100,000 women another chance at a decent life.  At $1,000 a life, it could have saved 45,000 lives–a football stadium full of people.  How can a painting, no matter how beautiful and historically significant, compare with that?  If the museum were on fire, would anyone think it right to save the Duccio from the flames, rather than a child?  And that’s just one child.

What do you think?

The Life You Can Save (chapters 3-5)

singer1Singer seems to hope that by the end of chapter 2, we’ll be convinced that we ought to redirect some of our surplus money to the 1.4 billion people around the world who are living on less than $1.25 a day.  Surely we really should prevent the suffering and death of innocent people with some of the money we spend on luxuries. Surely.

The next question is why we don’t act on that awfully plausible thought more often.  Why don’t we donate more? There’s lots of fascinating research on this question.  Here’s the irony: what’s not likely to get us to give more is a philosophical argument. Not that argumentation is totally ineffective.  Singer says that after his 1999 New York Times article, which included a pitch for Oxfam, the organization’s donations increased by $600,000 over normal contributions.  Now, 10 years later, people still mention his article when they make donations.  But research shows that an abstract appeal is at a disadvantage.

An appeal works better when it’s made on behalf of one person, not two (!) or more, let alone a billion.  An effective appeal focuses on a specific problem, not a general problem; a small problem, not a large problem; a problem that you have the sole power to solve; or if not that, a problem that others are helping with too. The perception that other people are not helping dampens the urge to help.

So what to do to get yourself to give?   You have to find a community in which it’s “normal” to care about some very specific set of problems. That might be a church or synagogue, dare I say?  You have to read about real, 3-dimensional victims of the problem. You have to have a means of making a difference.

Once you’ve given, you ought to talk about it, Singer says. That’s an interesting suggestion, because it’s a standard rule of etiquette that you’re not supposed to talk about your good deeds.  But that’s counterproductive, since the perception that others aren’t giving reduces giving.

My best attempt to give has fit the profile I just sketched.  Through a synagogue, I am involved in a project that helps refugees of the conflict in Darfur.  Within that context, it’s “normal” to care about those problems. I got involved after reading What is the What, by Dave Eggers, a fantastic work of narrative non-fiction.  The book puts a specific face on the huge problems in Southern Sudan and Darfur.   My efforts don’t feel like a drop in the bucket because I coordinate with other people at the synagogue and nationwide.  As a result of the group effort, we were able to give Darfur relief agencies $18,000 last year.

Aside from that, my husband and I do donate to Oxfam and the like, but never as much as we really should.  Now if I can just find a way to trick myself into giving more. It’s interesting that reading Singer sets me in the direction of looking for a good trick, but it isn’t the trick itself.