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.”

Leave a comment ?


  1. Well I will take the position of the Buddhist for the purposes of this discussion, since of all the religions, Buddhism has always made the most sense to me (excluding reincarnation which makes no sense to me).

    I think that a Buddhist would argue that the account of attatchment offered by McMahan is basically correct, or at least one good account of how dukkha comes about, but by this very token would come to a very different conclusion about the value of such attatchment.

    In other words, building a highly goal driven life where one envisions every current moment as being connected to a series of future moments which will satisfy a comprehnsive set of coherent goals determined by present you is going to create potential for some very serious dukkha. Actually this IS what McMahan is saying if I read you right, i.e. that

    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**.

    So in fact the two positions are in agreement, it’s just that the Buddhist is actively trying to reduce his dukkha whereas presumably McMahan thinks that generating attatchments to coherent selves over time is a good thing for humans to be doing,

  2. Yes, I can see how Buddhists can welcome the idea that they have lowered their stake in going on living, by focusing so little on the future. They expressly want to see life in a way that makes death less important. Possibly the “flow”-ers could accept that too.

    The weirdest case is the converts. It seems bizarre to think that you lower your interest in going on living, if you are open to major changes in your convictions or desires. Intuitively, someone who’s going to cling to the same outlook all their life has no more of a stake in going on living than someone who’s open to change.

  3. I don’t know how long I’ve had that book sitting on my desk unread…. I’d really love to get around to reading it someday… maybe this summer.

    The easy way to get around this would be to say that its not in the actual making these future connections, but having the mental capacity to make these future connections. That would cover all the cases you’ve covered, and exclude animals…. As well as include humans who have become diminished in their personhood.

    As for the convert…. I’m not sure I’d really say that this person has fewer persistent beliefs…. This person has a new persistent belief replacing an older one. Before they believed in God, now they believe in the non existence of God. So unless they simply abandon an idea without replacing it with anything (which is rather hard to do…. tantamount to forgetting it) they wouldn’t have less of a claim on living.

    So perhaps the more problematic case would be the amnesiac, who went from having many persistent beliefs, to very few, and needs to begin the long process of re-acquiring beliefs (but my capacity modification could take care of these cases too.)

  4. Wayne, I’ve had it for a while myself. It’s very, very clearly written, but still daunting because it’s thick and it explores so many issues, instead of having a single clear trajectory. I find it extremely illuminating, but not light reading (little pun there).

    Hmm, I’m not sure the capacity to make connections really has the same intuitive relevance to whether I have a stake in my future. If I have all sorts of desires and plans having to do with the year 2010, then I have a stake in getting there…or at least, that makes some initial sense. But if I merely could have such desires and plans, how does that give me a stake in what happens to me in 2010? I don’t really see it.

    As to the convert. McMahan sees persistence of the very same beliefs as giving me a connection to my future self and a stake in what happens to her. If I change my mind a lot, and get new beliefs, some of that connection weakens. Or so he says. Maybe the idea is simply that persistence of mental states makes the later self more of an extension of my current self.

  5. How about a patient with a painful terminal illness who sees a very clear future, that of pain, invasive and uncomfortable treatments, astronomical hospital bills which bankrupt her family, diminished ability to do what brings her joy in life? Her connection with her present self and future self is very tight, much tighter than the guy who lives joyfully in the present moment, without a thought for the morrow.

  6. michael reidy

    The characterisation of the Buddhist and the convert seem a little fluffy and unrelated to known facts. Let us take the Dalai Lama as the paradigmatic Buddhist. Does he have plans, projects, objectives, desiderata and whatever you’re having yourself. Yes he does and he is tireless in their pursuit. How does he differ from me and perhaps you? By the irony with which he projects himself into the future. In the classical view
    There never was a Bodhi Treee
    Nor bright mirror standing
    From the beginning not one thing exists
    So what is there left to choose.

    Nihilism as a philosophic doctrine is not the same as Quietism. It is a way of detachment not from action but from the metaphysical underpinning of reality. You act because you are in motion and that cannot be denied so Dharma/Dhamma is a way of at least drawing the poison of egoic attachment to ends.

    The convert has not been utterly cut away from his past however powerful his new insights may be. Associations, projects and, relationships still maintain their grip on the individual. The literature on this is vast. Putting on the ‘new man’ is not a new jacket.

    Jeff McMahan from the few papers that I have read is something of a Keatsian,’half in love with easeful death’. His philosophy may be said to be the WD 40 of this easement.

    Cynical of me perhaps but I think the Egyptian slaughter of the pigs is Islam expressing itself at the expense of the Christians and others. There is no scientific reason for it. The newsreaders here have started referring to the A virus, science or not we have rashers to sell.

  7. Grendels Dad

    The convert is interesting because it gives a sharp delineation to something we all experience over a lifetime as our minds develop and we shift priorities. Did I have a smaller stake in living when I was a child, since I never became the astronaut I dreamed of? Surely McMahan’s view isn’t that my current stake in life is contingent on the future outcome is it? I’m sure I’m not getting the gist of his ideas yet. What are the “right sort” of continuities with our future selves, that we have access to now, that we can evaluate in regard to our stake in life?

  8. I think it’s important to bear in mind that McMahan is just trying to give an account of what it is to have a stake in whether you live or die. Simply having a stake isn’t all that’s relevant to life and death decisions. The idea is that having a stake is a matter of degree, and depends on all these continuities–persistence of psychological states, present desires being linked to later gratifications, etc. I’m still plowing through the book, but it’s pretty clear this view is going to lead to seeing the death of animals, fetuses, infants, etc., as a less serious matter than the death of older human beings.

    OK–so as to Buddhists and converts. There’s not need in this context to try and give a really careful, realistic portrait of these people. The point is just that people who have tons of desires for the future will have a stronger link to their future selves…so a larger stake. People who have the same beliefs all their lives will also have a larger stake. Really, we don’t need to talk about converts and Buddhists here at all. We could talk about someone who has a radical change of political outlook, or someone who just likes living in the moment.

    Still, the example of the converts has extra pizzazz. How strange, if it’s true, that in letting yourself give up/get religion, you would reduce your stake in whether you live to a ripe old age. McMahan’s view is both very intuitive and very counterintuitive.

  9. Maybe I don’t understand the point, but at first glance one’s stake depends on how much one values one’s life, which is entirely subjective. Viewed from another angle, one could imagine a situation in which doctors, given a shortage of medicines or organs to transplant, have to decide which life to save. In that case, the continuity of one’s life project might be a factor, but it would depend on one’s life project: for instance, the unchanging life project of a serial killer might be of less value than that of someone who has just given up a life of crime in order to dedicate herself to nursing. However, one could argue that the person who has a radical change of project has more stake in living since she has a whole new world (the new project) before her to explore while the person who remains unchanging has less to discover before her. Frankly, I think that it’s up to each person to evaluate what his or her stake is. The very idea of an objective scale, except in the case of doctors in an emergency room outlined above, is ethically repulsive.

  10. As to the convert. McMahan sees persistence of the very same beliefs as giving me a connection to my future self and a stake in what happens to her.

    They have to be the *same* beliefs? Why? Would an indecisive person suddenly have a weaker claim to life? Animals on that note would at least have very similar intentions throughout their entire lives, and consequently may have a stronger claim to life (although rarely are those intentions about the future).

    I can buy into the idea that they need to have beliefs about the future to bridge themselves etc… but I’m not sure I can buy into them being the same beliefs.

    I’m not sure the capacity to make connections really has the same intuitive relevance to whether I have a stake in my future.

    It may not be intuitive, but it does the job. 🙂 Say I don’t think much about the future at all. I say Carpe Diem, live in the now. But you’re quite concerened about the future. Just because we place different emphasis on our beliefs doesn’t mean we have a different claim to living. I have capacity, you have capacity. We have equal claim to living.

    If McMahan is saying that the quantity of beliefs alter the claim, and animals have fewer, that just seems incorrect. An Air Traffic Controller is constantly thinking about future events far more than I am… And so when making a decision between saving he or I in a burning building, you should save the ATC?

    If this is what he’s saying, then I have to agree with you Jean, its an odd position.

    But my capacity argument does have intuitive appeal I think in many ways. I think I’m more important than a dog, and the reason (well one among many) is that I have the capacity to reason better than the dog. That doesn’t mean I actually do…. Lets say Lassie and I are in the burning building, and I’m have terrible critical thinking skills, and have made some terrible decisions in my life, where as Lassie continually saves Timmy from the well. I’d still say you should save me over Lassie, because my capacity is greater, even though I have not actually exhibited it… (maybe my critical thinking skills here are flawed and you should save Lassie…)

  11. Amos, I think he’s trying to develop concepts that will help us think about death and killing for the whole spectrum of cases–fetuses, infants, animals, the intellectually impaired, etc. Part (just part) of the issue is whether an individual has a stake in continuing to live or not. Not everything does, presumably. I rather like the idea that this is a matter of degree, not a yes or no question. On the other hand, the specific view McMahan defends has some strange implications.

  12. Wayne, There are multiple questions here, only subtly different from each other. If the question is who to save, Timmy or Lassie, then one thing you want to compare is the total value of what would be saved in each case. The capacities of the two are surely relevant.

    But suppose I know they’re going to painlessly die of smoke inhalation in their sleep. Plus, I have a duplicating machine. Does it violate their interests to lose the chance to go on living their own lives? I think McMahan’s answer is yes, in both cases, but more so in Timmy’s case, because of the greater psychological connection between his present and future selves.

    The bit about mental states persisting actually helps him make the case that there’s some violation of interests, if Lassie is left to die. Animals might not have a lot of goals and desires for the future, but they do have persisting mental states. The Timmy-love Lassie has today will persist into next year and the year after.

  13. The test of any theory seems to be if anyone would be willing to put it into practice. Would anyone with a one-year old baby, who has no future projects, be willing to give less priority to saving the child’s life than that of an adult full of projects? Would McMahan give priority to saving an adult rather than his own one
    year old child? The theory is so cold, so abstract, so sinister that it makes me cringe.

  14. You’re jumping to conclusions! This business about the interest an individual has in going on living is just one piece in a big puzzle. It doesn’t lead anywhere, without adding more pieces. In the case you describe, where the baby is yours and the adult is just “some adult,” there are clearly lots more relevant considerations. For example, there’s the possible duty of a parent to a child. There’s also the fact that a child loses more years, in dying, than an adult. I don’t know yet what McMahan has to say about such a situation (and you haven’t fully described it, by the way).

  15. If it’s your duty as a parent that leads you to prefer the life of your child to that of a random adult, then you’re
    not what I would call a “loving parent”. The duty of a parent might oblige you to attend meetings with teachers in your child’s school, which are probably the most boring situations I’ve ever sat through, but
    when your child’s life is at stake, it’s not duty that leads you to try to save him or her. It’s love or basic instinct. Any loving parent would put more value on the life of his or her child than on that of Barack Obama, to name an adult whose life is so highly valued by society that he travels with a full medical team and bags of blood for a possible transfusion.

  16. michael reidy

    It’s all about measurement and the criteria used to establish units. In some ways it seems like a reductio of the mad scheme to create a universal scale. You are a refugee in a camp and have been there for 20 years so your marks for continuity will be good but poor for outcome. Result: sorry it’s not personal but it would be better if you absented yourself from infelicity forever. I will therefore refuse to promote this charade of a life and give you any aid. If God were an accountant this is what he /she/it would be saying. In the absence of God the universe or evolution must take on the job. Laissez faire, let it work itself out, let’s not interfere too much in this, there’s a purpose in aids, famine and, warfare that makes it a natural calculating engine.

  17. michael reidy

    McMahan on Cognitive Disability,
    Misfortune, and Justice


  18. Y’all continue to jump to conclusions. Based on what I know so far, it’s not obvious what McMahan thinks about any specific real-life scenario. So far, all I now is what he’s saying about loss of life.

    Here’s an interesting point from the page I’m on–

    Part of the tragedy of death is losing many valuable years. So we think it’s more of a tragedy when a 30 year old dies than when an 80 year old dies. But if that was “end of story,” then you’d have to think there’s nothing more tragic than the death of a newborn baby. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Why? Because the baby doesn’t yet have the sort of ties to her potential future that an older person has. She doesn’t yet have plans, goals, desires, hopes, etc. She doesn’t have the same stake in her future (yet) that an oder child does.

    What follows? Well, there are lots of possibilities and no reason to pin any particular pernicious view on McMahan. At this point, I just have to confine myself to thinking about whether McMahan is saying the right things about what it is to have an interest in going on living.

    By the way, he’s not a utiltiarian, so accusing him of overly mathematical thinking about morality misses the mark.

  19. I keep coming back to love. Jean, you brought love up the other day with Mr. Frankfurt, who seems to be “realer” than Mr. McMahan. So, when a newborn baby dies, it’s not her lack of goals that make her death less tragic than the death of a 20 year old, but the fact that those around her haven’t formed solid bonds with her, those bonds being otherwise known as love. On the other hand, the death of a one year old child, who still has no plans, goals, desires or hopes, can be terribly tragic, because those around her have formed solid bonds with her.

  20. michael reidy

    So what is 30 and 80 and more and less about if not quantification? He’s saying that we have these intuitions which we rationalise on a quantitive basis but doesn’t this basis dissolves when it’s looked at with any degree of rigour.
    Please pardon this extensive quote but it puts my non-rational point perfectly.

    We already have light years, can we have Hawking years, Kazez years, parent years, child years?

    Death is Smaller Than I Thought
    Adrian Mitchell

    My Mother and Father died some years ago
    I loved them very much.
    When they died my love for them
    Did not vanish or fade away.
    It stayed just about the same,
    Only a sadder colour.
    And I can feel their love for me,
    Same as it ever was.

    Nowadays, in good times or bad,
    I sometimes ask my Mother and Father
    To walk beside me or to sit with me
    So we can talk together
    Or be silent.

    They always come to me.
    I talk to them and listen to them
    And think I hear them talk to me.
    It’s very simple –
    Nothing to do with spiritualism
    Or religion or mumbo jumbo.

    It is imaginary.
    It is real.
    It is love.

  21. Ah, now I get it. I didn’t see the connection to the 80/30 business. I like the poem.

    By the way, McMahan’s book is full of references to literature and poetry. It’s just that he’s also willing to put issues about death and killing under the “cold light of reason.” I think (though I’m not 100% certain) that that’s appropriate.

  22. Michael: Very moving and real poem. I saved it.
    Thank you.

  23. Great poem.

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