Monthly Archives: May 2009

Resurrection & Immortality in the Flesh

When I first heard of Ray Kuzweil’s ideas, I assumed he was a science fiction writer. After all, the sort of transhuman future he envisioned is stock sci-fi fare. I was mildly surprised when it turns out that he is quite serious about (and well paid for expressing) his views. I was somewhat more surprised to learn that he has quite a following. Of course, I wasn’t too surprised-I’ve been around a while.

Oversimplifying things, Kuzweil envisions a future in which humans will be immortal and the dead will return to live. While these are common claims in religion, Kuzweil’s view is that technology will make this possible. While some describe his view as a religion, I’d prefer to use a made up word, “techion” to refer to this sort of phenomena. As I see it, a religion involves claims about supernatural entities. Kuzweil’s view is purely non-supernatural, but does have most of the stock elements of religion (the promise of a utopian future, immortality, and the raising of the dead). So, it is sort of a technological religion-hence “techion.” Yes, I like making up words. Try it yourself-it is free, fun and makes you look cool (your actual results might differ).

While the religion-like aspects of his views are interesting, I’ll be looking at the ideas of technological immortality and technological resurrection.

In the abstract, technological immortality is quite simple: just keep repairing and replacing parts.  In theory, this could be kept up until the end of time, thus granting immortality. Even with our current technology we can repair and replace parts. For example, my quadriceps tendon was recently repaired. I have friends with artificial hips and other friends who gotten tissue and organ transplants. It is easy to imagine technology progressing enough to replace or repair everything.

Technological resurrection is a bit trickier. While we can “jump start” people who have died, Kuzweil envisions something more radical. His view is that we might be able to take the DNA of dead people and rebuild them using nanobots. This, he claims, could create a new body that would be  “indistinguishable from the original person.” Of course, having a body that is indistinguishable form the original is hardly the same as having the original person back. It would, rather, be a case of having a twin. To recreate the person, his plan is that information about the original (such as things the person wrote and recollections of people who knew them) would be used to recreate the mind of the original.

Nanobot reconstruction from DNA seems possible. After all, each of our bodies assembled itself using DNA, so we have a natural model for that process. The challenge is, of course, to duplicate it with technology. We also know that the brain accepts external information that shapes the person, so such a “download” would (in theory) be possible. Of course, there is a big difference between the normal experiences that shape us and downloading information in an attempt to recreate a person.

One aspect of both immortality and resurrection that is of philosophical interest is the matter of personal identity. Immortality is only immortality if I keep on going as me. Replacing me with something that is like me does not give me personal immortality. Resurrection is only true resurrection if it is me who has returned from the dead. Recreating my body from my DNA and telling him stories about me does not bring me back to life.

Turning to immortality, the key question is this: would the identity of the person be preserved through the changes? Personal identity does seem to survive through fairly robust changes. For example, I’m confident that at 43 I am the same person as the very young kid who staggered down the aisle of church saying “I’m drunk” after drinking the communion wine. I’m larger now and a bit wiser, but surely still the same person. However, the changes required for technological immortality would be quite radical. After all, eventually the brain tissue will fail and thus will need to be replaced-perhaps by machinery.

This problem is, of course, like the classic ship of Theseus problem: how much of the original can be replaced before it is no longer the same entity? Of course, it is also complicated by the fact that a person is involved and the identity of persons is a bit more complex than that of objects.

Fortunately, there is an easy answer. If whatever it is that makes a person the person she is can keep on going in the increasingly strange flesh, then such immortality is possible. If not, then it would not be immortality, but a strange sort of death and succession. Since I don’t know what it is that makes a person the person she is, I lack a definite answer to this question. I am sure that it is quite a shock that no definite answer has been reached.

Of course, this does not diminish the importance of the concern. Assessing whether we should take the path that Kurzweil desires involves deciding whether this sort of immortality is real immortality or not. That is, determining whether we would go on as the same people or whether we would simply be dying a strange and prolonged death as we are being replaced.

Now, for resurrection. This matter has long been of interest to philosophers. Plato wrote about reincarnation (the difference is that resurrection is supposed to restore the same person and the same body while re-incarnation is supposed to restore the same person with a different body) and Locke explicitly wrote about resurrection. Naturally, philosophers who were also religious thinkers tended to write about this subject.

True resurrection, as noted above, has two key aspects. First, the original body has to be recreated. If you get a different sort of body, then you have been reincarnated (perhaps as a rather miffed squirrel). Second, the original person has to be restored. Locke’s view on this matter is that come judgment day, God will recreate our bodies (hopefully at their prime) and place the right consciousness into each body (for Locke, the person is his or her consciousness).

Recreating the original body seems possible. With DNA, raw material  and those hypothetical nanobots, it would just be a (re) construction project. It would also help to have images of the original body, plus as much other relevant data as possible. So, the first aspect is taken care of.

Getting the original person back in the recreated body is the real challenge. Kurzweil does seem to clearly recognize that the method he envisions will not restore the original person. He seems to be right about this. After all, the method he describes relies on “public” information. That is, it depends on what information the person provided before death and what other people remember of him. This obviously leaves out everything that was not recorded or known by others. As such, it will be a partial reconstruction-a new person who is force fed the scraps of another person’s life. This, obviously enough, raises some serious moral issues.

On the face of it, Kurzweil’s resurrection seems to be moral appalling. That this is so can be illustrated by the following analogy. Imagine that Sally and Ivan have a son, Ted. Ted dies at 18. Sally and Ivan go through all the adoption agencies until they find a baby, Joe,  that looks like Ted did. They rename Joe as Ted and then reconstruct Ted’s life as closely as possible-punishing the former Joe whenever he deviates from Ted’s life and rewarding him for doing what Ted did. Sally and Ivan would be robbing Joe of choice and using him as a means to an end-fulfilling their need to have Ted back. But, they have no right to do this to Joe-he is a person, not a thing to be used to recreate Ted.

The same certainly seems to hold in the situation Kurzweil envisions. To create a human being and force him to be a copy of a dead person is a horrible misuse of a person and a wicked act.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Unread Dust

I just moved an entire print run of a philosophical journal from one room to another.  Published four times each year for about the past 100 years, this was not an easy undertaking.  With a dusty stack of volumes under your nose as you walk from one room to another, you just have time for a potted glance at the last century of philosophy, between your sneezes.  Here’s a taste of the titles chosen as randomly as possible (eyes shut, finger down and keep it unless it’s rubblish), one from each decade, starting with the twenties:

  • ‘The Primitive and the Civilized Mind’
  • ‘Itinerarium Mentis In Deum’ (for Latin slackers, that’s ‘The Journey of the Mind into God’.)
  • ‘Community of Purpose and the Nazi Lesson’
  • ‘Use and Misuse of the Unknown’
  • ‘A Scientific Morality?’
  • ‘Dignity’
  • ‘The Morality of Terrorism’
  • ‘What’s Wrong with Prostitution?’ (and the swift reply ten years later…)
  • ‘Punishment and Repentance’

Here’s another almost random run through the decades:

  • ‘The Philosophy of a Business Man’
  • ‘The Philosophy of Mysticism’
  • ‘The Development of Bishop Butler’s Ethics’
  • ‘Thinking Machines’
  • ‘Berkeley, the Sun that I see by Day, and that which I imagine by Night’
  • ‘More Deviant Logic’
  • ‘On Wanting to be Somebody’
  • ‘Davidson on Intentionality and Externalism’
  • ‘What’s Wrong with Megalopsychia?’ (for Greek slackers, that’s ‘magnanimity’.)

You really can feel the times when you glance at the covers.  You can see the linguistic turn turning, watch behaviourism bubble up and recede, hear wars (largely ignored) in the background, observe falsificationism storm in and, eventually, quietly leave through a side door.   You can feel the floor go out from under religious enquiry.  You can see philosophers marching with jaws set into what you know will turn out to be a dead end and watch them beat countless dead horses.  It might be the latter which lead to a seriously bad Bartleby the Scrivener vibe.

So many philosophers I’ve never heard of, talking about something that never mattered, toiling away, probably proudly, to end up as unread dust.  Maybe worse.  Maybe faintly ridiculous unread dust.  This, by the way, is the fate of the published ones.  God help the ones who aspire to be faintly ridiculous unread dust.   That sad thing said, I’m glad they did it, sometimes even grateful.  Working that one out — how ridiculous unread dust is of enormous value — might be a clue to the point of philosophy.  It’s beyond me right now because I’m going to read ‘What’s Wrong with Prostitution?’  Obviously.

Plato & Risk Compensation

I recently read “Buckle Up. And Behave” by William Ecenbarger and it got me thinking about risk compensation and ethics. Before getting to that, I will need to say a bit about the article and the notion of risk compensation.

The article was written in honor of the 5oth anniversary of the three point safety belt and raises an interesting point: such safety devices might actually increase accidents. This is because humans are supposed to have an innate risk tolerance and this increases as we feel safer. So, the reasoning goes, if you know that your seat belt will better protect you, then you will engage in risk compensation-that is, you will drive with less caution.

The article notes that the phenomenon of risk compensation extends broadly. For example, better flood control has not reduced flood related deaths in the US-because the risk is offset by government insurance subsidies and disaster relief. That is, it costs less to take the risk. As a more dramatic example, some have argued that much of the fatal risk taking in the financial arena was due to the fact that the people making decisions believed that they were not putting themselves in personal risk and that the government would bail them out (which is what has been happening).

Roughly put, the idea is that the safer people think they are, the more risky behavior they will undertake. This often seems to negate the effectiveness of the measure taken to increase safety.

While the consideration of risk compensation is a relatively new on in the behavioral sciences, it is old hat to philosophers and dates back at least to Plato. I am, of course, talking about one of my favorite sections of the Republic: the tale of the Ring of Gyges.

Glaucon begins by asserting that people find it desirable or good to inflict wrongdoings on others but these wrongdoers regarded being on the receiving end of misdeeds as undesirable. When people have been on both ends of misdeeds (giving and receiving), they quickly realize that the pains of being a victim far outweigh the benefits of being a victimizer. To avoid being victims, people come together and forge agreements and dub these agreements with the name “justice.”

Glaucon makes it clear that people do not enter into the agreement that gives rise to justice willingly and that this situation is not regarded as the best. He regards justice as a compromise between what is most desirable to the individual (doing misdeeds with impunity) and what is the most undesirable for the individual (being a hapless victim). He further concludes that people accept justice because they are weak and that a person with the power to successfully carry out misdeeds would be a fool not to do so.

In support of his claims that no one is willingly a follower of justice and that anyone who was free to be unjust would be unjust Glaucon tells the tale of the ring of Gyges. In this tale the shepherd Gyges finds a magical ring of invisibility within a strange bronze horse that has been exposed by an earthquake. Using the power of the ring, he seduces the queen and, with her help, murders the king and takes control of the realm. Given his tale, Glaucon concludes that if identical rings were given to a just man and an unjust man, then both men would act unjustly. This proves, to his satisfaction, that people act justly only under compulsion. By nature, he claims, all living beings desire more than what they are actually due. Despite this, he does consider the possibility that someone might decline to use the ring to perform misdeeds. While such a person would be praised to her face, she would be regarded as a great fool for not using the power in her possession.

While Glaucon does not use the term “risk compensation” his discussion is clearly about that phenomenon. When Gyges lacked the magical ring, he was quite vulnerable to others and hence was not inclined to act against the king. However, the ring provided him with an amazing piece of safety equipment: by making him invisible, it effectively protected him from discovery and aimed attacks. As such, he compensated by taking greater risks-namely killing the king and taking over the kingdom.

This tale also nicely serves to explain some aspects of moral (and immoral) behavior. When people believe (or feel) that their chances of being caught and punished for misdeeds are high, they seem less inclined to engage in such behavior. When they believe (or feel) that they can get away with such misdeeds, then (like Gyges) they will be more inclined to engage in such behavior. Two excellent modern examples include the behavior of Elliot Spitzer and John Edwards. A common explanation for their risk taking (and immoral) behavior is that they saw themselves as powerful men who would be able to get away with their affairs. While they were clearly mistaken, this does help support the claim that people often match their moral (or immoral) behavior with the perceived risk.

Another modern example is the economic mess we are now in. It has been argued that one reason that the business folks behaved so badly is that they were aware that governments would bail them out and that they suffered little personal risk. Since they beleived they had the power to get that undue gain and the equivalent of a magic ring to escape harm, they often decided to do just that.

Glaucon even notes that this tendency to want undue gain is innate to living things. Presumably our innate tendency to take risks is part of this. In fact, one could spin an evolutionary “just so” tale about how the capacity for risk assessment and risk compensation are adaptive traits. After all, by successfully taking more risks an organism can up its odds of reproducing (this assumes the risks have a payoff). Obviously, an organism that did not assess risks well or was too cautious would not do as well.

As Glaucon argued, unjust behavior is a way to increase one’s gains. Naturally, there is risk: being caught and punished. So, to continue our “just so” tale, social organisms would also develop what we call justice-they would limit their behavior to lower their risk of being harmed by others. Of course, the more clever organisms would work on creating “safety mechanisms” that would make unjust behavior less risky for them. Naturally enough, as their safety mechanisms lowered their risk, they would increase the injustice of their behavior so as to secure greater gain.

For example, money, fame and power are effective safety mechanisms. One  plausible reason why politicians and celebrities often behave worse than ordinary folk is that they are aware that they can often get away with more and suffer fewer consquences if they get caught. Of course, the ones who get caught are rather poor in their craft and we have to wonder about the people who have constructed truly effective safety mechanisms-so effective that we think they are just when they are actually the most unjust of all. Or perhaps the people with the most effective mechanisms are completely unknown to us-after all, invisibility is an amazing defense.

If this “just so” tale is plausible, then ethical behavior would be a second rate strategy for second rate organisms-those that lack the ability to develop effective safety mechanisms to allow them to get more than they would be justly entitled to.  The top tier organisms would be unjust, but would have safety mechanisms to conceal their misdeeds or the means to avoid negative consequences for their actions.

Abortion & Torture

For the past few years I have been caught between pro-choice arguments from the left and pro-torture arguments from the right. I had been able to keep them neatly compartmentalized until recently. Somehow, like flu viruses swapping genetic material, they became blended together. This monstrous hybrid enabled me to see the arguments in a new (and probably incorrect) way. Just as the flu “likes” to get around and meet new people, I thought that this idea might like to get out and perhaps make a few people ill.

On the face of it, torture and abortion would not seem to have much in common beyond the obvious: both involve people doing not so nice things to other people (or pre-people), both are very morally controversial, both have devoted supporters and detractors and so on. However, the two do have something very important in common: they both seem to be defended by the same basic moral principle. Since this might seem a bit absurd, I need to make my case for this.

One stock argument in defense of torture is utilitarian: torturing the “bad guys” will yield information that can prevent terrorist attacks. Naturally, torture is “not nice”, but the badness of the torture is outweighed by the harms it can prevent.

One stock argument for abortion is also utilitarian: aborting unwanted fetuses (or products of conception, if you prefer) will result in a better life for the woman than going through with the pregnancy. Naturally, abortion is “not nice”, but the badness of the killing is outweighed by the harms it prevents to the life of the woman.

Abstracting a bit, the common principle is this: Doing something not nice to another person (or pre-person) is morally acceptable, provided that the badness of the action is outweighed by the harms it prevents.

Given this principle, many of those who support abortion and those who support torture share a common ground: they both accept that we can do not nice things to others, provided that it gets the desired results. Interestingly, folks who defend torture tend to be anti-abortion and those who defend abortion tend to be anti-torture. Of course, there are folks who are against both and some who are for both.

I suspect that at this point many readers are thinking: “hey, there are important moral differences between the two!” That would be a correct thought, so I turn now to considering the breaking of the analogy between the two. This is done by examining those important moral differences.

One obvious difference is the moral status of the objects of torture and abortion. In the sort of torture being defended, the target is supposed to be  bad and dangerous people. That is, people who are involved with blowing up civilians with car bombs, with crashing passenger jets into buildings, and with bombing subways and trains.  While this can be debated, these sorts of people do seem to be rather bad. In abortion, the target is clearly an innocent being whose only actions have been limited to growing and perhaps some movement.

Intuitively, harming the innocent seems to be worse than harming the bad. To support this, consider the arguments given for punishment: most tend to hinge on the fact that misdeeds warrant harm. As such, torture would seem to be morally superior to abortion.

Another obvious difference is another sort of moral status, that of being a person. Terrorists, whatever they might have done or planned to do, are clearly people. In contrast, there are many arguments that the targets of abortion are not people. Even if it is granted that the targets of abortion are people, they are clearly lacking in many ways relative to adult terrorists. For example, a terrorist can understand his situation, suffer pain and humiliation, and anticipate that more suffering will be inflicted upon him. In contrast, the target of abortion lacks these capacities or has them at a reduced level. If the suffering of the target is relevant to the morality of an action, then torture would seem to be worse.

A third obvious difference is that torture is not intended to kill the target while abortion is. Intuitively, killing seems to worse than hurting someone-even if the pain is severe. In any case, people seem to regard death as worse-if you give someone a choice between pain and death, people will tend to chose pain. Of course, there are exceptions-especially when the pain is terrible and ongoing. Since torture only  hurts and abortion kills, abortion would seem to be worse.

A fourth obvious difference is the matter of relationship. In the case of abortion, the person making the decision (in most cases) has a special relation with the target-the target is within her body and (potentially) her child. No such relation exists in the case of torture (although someone could torture a relative). This distinction could be used to argue that abortion is acceptable and torture is not. Interestingly, women who support abortion often use some variant of the phrase “keep your hands off my body.” As one might imagine, a torture target could also say that with great feeling. Presumably the targets of abortion would say the same thing-if they could talk.

Of course, one might wonder why this special relationship can be used to justify abortion. One stock argument is that it is the woman who is primarily affected by the pregnancy and this (in part) gives her the right. Of course, the same sort of reasoning could be used in the case of torture. If a woman has the right to an abortion so as to prevent harm to her life (or way of life), then the potential victims of terrorists would also seem to have a comparable right to have terrorists tortured to prevent harm to their lives (or ways of life). If this is correct, then abortion and torture would both be acceptable (or both bad).

This can be countered by insisting that woman has a special right that is somehow grounded in the fact that it is her body and that there is nothing analogous to this in the case of torture. If so, abortion would be justified by that special relationship between the woman and the target of abortion. Obviously, this justification could not be used in the case of torture.


On the face of it, the goal of a translation seems to be obvious: to convert the text from one language to another. However, this is far more problematic than it seems.

Obviously, a word for word translation would not do. That is is the case is nicely illustrated by various accidentally humorous translations such as “drop your trousers here for best results”, “the manager has personally passed all the water served here”, and “Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose.” As such, translators are supposed to properly convey the meaning of the work in question.

Of course, this notion runs smack into the philosophy of language. When I was in graduate school, Quine and those influenced by him were all the rage. I learned that the old notion of meaning had been taken out back, beaten, fitted with cement shoes and dumped into a flooded quarry. Derrida and his fellows also came into vogue at that time, taking the notion of meaning to places where I could not follow. I still have no idea what he was up to. Some of his followers did their level best to enlighten me with phrases like “language confronting itself as itself.” Alas, being a simple fellow from Maine, all that was beyond me. I did gather that talking about the real meaning of texts was out, though. If these views are correct,  the notion that a translator could preserve meaning is nonsense on par with a conservation program trying to preserve unicorns: there are no such animals.

Of course, real translators generally do not let such philosophical messes interfere with their activities. Laying aside these problems, there is still the question of how much a translator should put her mark on the work she is translating. Even if strict meaning cannot be preserved, the intuitive view is that the translator is supposed to translate rather than interpret or re-write. To use an analogy, think of the distinction between an historical documentary and a made for TV movie “inspired by actual events.” A translation, like the documentary, would seem to be expected to stick to the original (events or text). However, the other sort of thing allows greater freedom.

Another analogy can be drawn to visual art. If someone is restoring a work of art, they are expected to return it to the way it was. If someone changes things significantly (for example, painting a statue in a different color than the original), then they are no restoring the work, but altering it. If the changes are significant, then the work can no longer be said to be the same work and it might be wondered if the artist’s name should still be attached to it.

Of course, there are those who think that the translator should take up a role as a co-artist. In what might be seen as an attempt to fire up publicity generating controversy,  Douglas Hofstadter has called on translators to take on the role of “co-progenitors.”

In his translation of  “La Chamade,” he makes changes to the text and even goes so far as using stock phrases (such as using  “bit his tongue” instead of “he said nothing”) and American sayings (“if that doesn’t take the cake!”).  In a fit of cleverness, he also changes the title from the literal translation of  “Wild Heartbeat” to “That Mad Ache.” “Mad Ache: is of course, an anagram of “Chamade.” Naturally, some translators are not pleased by his approach.

On one hand, his approach can be seen as incorrect. After all, he is purporting to translate the work. If the work is still supposed to be “La Chamade” then it has to be adequately close to the original. If it has been altered, then the reader is not getting “La chamade.” Rather, she is getting an altered text. While this is all well and good, the reader should be informed of this fact so she can make a judgment about which version to buy. After all, if she wants to read “La Chamade”, then she will want a faithful translation. If she wants to read a version mutated by Hofstader, then she can select that copy. But she should know what she is getting.

To use an analogy, I recently went to a restaurant to get some pho. When I arrived, I found that the restaurant was under new management. I ordered the pho anyway and found that the usual clear broth had been replaced with wonton broth. On my view, it was not quite pho anymore. It was pho-like and should perhaps be called “photon” instead of pho. Likewise for what Hofstader does: his “translations” should be labeled as like the orginal, but altered. Of course, he did change the title of “La Chamade”-perhaps as a warning to the reader that they would be getting a remix of the book rather than the orginal.

Stop and Search

Further to recent reflection on this blog about the perception of risk (Take risks), it turns out that police in London are using the stop and search powers they have acquired under the Terror Act very often.  Averaged out over time, someone is stopped about every 3 minutes, 24 hours a day, for a year (BBC:  Capital Sees Rise in Terror Stops).  A stop and search involves an individual being detained and questioned.  They are asked to turn out their pockets and the contents of their bags.  They are asked for their name, address and so on, though they can refuse to give such information.   Police can stop and search anyone in any public place, in practice whenever they like, and they don’t have to have probable cause or any sort of good reason — so long as the can show that they are not stopping someone just because of race, gender, religion, etc.  Even if you’ve done nothing wrong, the details of the stop, including your details, are recorded ‘for monitoring purposes’.

170,000 instances of stop and search were recorded last year, presumably all in the name of the prevention of terrorism.  65 of these events led to arrests for ‘terror offences’ — a category which includes quite a lot.  Assuming a perfect conviction record, that’s a success rate of 0.035%, an unexceptional result in exchange for a significant curtailment of personal liberty and an increase in the power of the state.  Do you have to be cynical to conclude that the police are doing something other than preventing terrorism when they stop and search us?

Someone somewhere will say that the loss of individual freedom is worth it if just one 7 July bombing is prevented.  There are lots of arguments to be had here, but there is a largely unnoticed flip-side to this defence of stop and search in particular and other erosions of our freedom in general.  Someone might say that just one or two or even a few explosions are worth it if our freedoms are preserved.  Our governments seem to have extended their power with the first argument.  Reflection on the second argument might make you want a bit of your liberty back.

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.

New Design

Right. It isn’t finished yet, but you should all be seeing the new design. I have to fix broken links, move some stuff around, add stuff, that kind of thing. But you can see the basic template.

So if you have any comments, suggestions, feedback, etc., now is the time to say something.

I’m not promising to follow any advice that people might offer, but I’ll certainly listen to suggestions. Except we’re not having threaded comments! Sorry!