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?