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?

Leave a comment ?


  1. Hi Jean,

    Having not read the book I’m not entirely familiar with the arguments re the value of a person’s life correlating with the strength of connection the person has with the future. But it did make me think of a recent post from clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks.

    He discusses an article in the Boston Globe by Jonah Lehrer, which reviews recent developments in understanding of the minds of babies.

    I’ve always suspected that babies and young children are much more conscious of their surroundings than adults and I was pleased to read the following paragraph:

    Now, however, scientists have begun to dramatically revise their concept of a baby’s mind. By using new research techniques and tools, they’ve revealed that the baby brain is abuzz with activity, capable of learning astonishing amounts of information in a relatively short time. Unlike the adult mind, which restricts itself to a narrow slice of reality, babies can take in a much wider spectrum of sensation – they are, in an important sense, more aware of the world than we are.

    If babies do have greater awareness of the present than adults, do you think this affects McMahon’s thesis at all?

  2. “Is he right that the mother’s death is worse”? Worse for what, worse for whom? It might, for example, depend on what the mother’s projects are. The mother’s projects might be evil. The baby is innocent. Maybe there’s a power thing involved in giving priority to the mother’s life rationalized by McMahan’s theory: after all, the adults pay the doctors’ bills. In fact, McMahan’s theory basically says that the lives of professional, successful adults, those with a coherent life project,
    have priority over less powerful and/or successful beings, young children, people who live from day to day without a coherent project (much more often found among the poor than among the successful members of society), third world people who generally live such precarious lives that they have no coherent project, etc. Isn’t McMahan just rationalizing the power relationships within contemporary society? A tenured philosophy professor has more stake in living, for McMahan, than someone who is homeless and has no idea of what tomorrow will bring.

  3. Jeremy Goodman

    The mother’s death would be worse.

  4. Paul, I think if babies have mental states that are carried forward into the future, that counts towards giving them a stronger interest in their futures. On the other hand, if they have a very special, temporary cognitive architecture that they later lose, then that counts towards giving them a weaker interest in their futures. Of course, it could also be both…

    Amos–I think the intuition JM has (and I share) is that some deaths are inherently worse than others–for the victim. So that’s the question–whose death is inherently worse? I share Jeremy Goodman’s intuition–the mother’s. So, since McMahan’s theory meshes with that intuition, I’m open to it. It’s another matter whether he has all the details right.

  5. Some deaths are inherently worse than others for the victim. Agreed. Some people love life or hang on to life more than others, but that has little to do with whether they have a coherent project which stretches into the future. My objection is regarding the criterion of coherent life project as deciding whether one life has more value than others, even from the point of view of the victim. As a criterion, it has a cultural and class bias (which I’ve outlined above). I don’t intuitively see the mother’s life as more valuable, for instance. Now, you also run into the problem that once I’m dead, whether I had a coherent project has no importance, from MY point of view, because I no longer have a point of view, although it might from the point of view of society. So, strictly speaking, all death have the same value, since you can’t take your coherent project with you, so to speak. There is more wisdom in the traditional view that, dust to dust, ahes to ashes, we are all equal before death. From the point of view of society, you’d have to examine whether the coherent project was good, bad or indifferent. The baby, having no project, is innocent and could develop into the genius who invents a cure for cancer or for that matter, into a serial killer.

  6. Well, the idea is that there are lots of things that create links between past and future selves, not just “projects”. So I think this view is not so grossly wrong as all that, if it’s wrong at all. Actually, I find it in the general ballpark of the plausible. The problem is that there are several views in that ballpark, and they can’t all be right.

  7. michael reidy

    Have to agree with you about the comfort aspect of projects. It’s summed up for me in the job interview question: where do you see yourself in 10 years time? Never having been asked that question I regard as the triple starred section of my C.V.

    Jeff good at devising situations which test principles. Mothers have refused cancer treatment to bring a baby to full term. And died. You never know what mothers are going to do. They may feel a duty to their other children if they have them, they may want to preserve a son and heir or on the other hand take the opportunity to evade the liability of a girl as in Asia. Duty rather than the notional future is often the central but not exclusive principle. Intuitions arise out of more fundamental structures which is I suppose the point of the wandering Socratic dialogues.

  8. Some people put a higher stake on their lives than others. That’s not always a result of reasons nor should it be: Joe, whose life is a mess, wants to go on living as intensely as Jim, whose life is full of plans, projects, goals. I can’t see why Joe has less stake in going on living than Jim does, and to say that Jim does introduces a dangerous class and cultural bias into deciding who has more stake, since, as I said above, the homeless are likely to have fewer plans, projects and goals than tenured philosophy professors or successful businessmen do. Now, Jill, for whatever reasons or lack of reasons, feels that she has less stake in going on living, and that feeling about life should be respected: perhaps Jill will not seek treatment for an illness under given conditions. That is, each person, for reasons or without reasons, opts to value his or her stake in life. Now, from the point of society, some lives are more valuable than others, generally because of the person’s goals and projects. Society has more stake in the continuation of Barack Obama’s life than it does in the continuation of my life. By the way, did society have more stake in the continuation of Dick Cheney’s life or did Cheney’s power dictate that he would receive priority over me and you in any emergency room situation?

  9. Given his argument I’m struggling then to see why McMahon accords ANY value to a babies life:

    This is the principle reason why its time-relative interest in continuing to live is so weak.

    That is, if we accept a baby his minimal time-relative interest, and we also accept that the value of a person’s life is closely related to their time-relative interest, then does McMahon ‘bite the bullet’ and assert a babies life has minimal value? Or am I missing something here?

    McMahon’s argument seems to be designed to show how the babies life is *relatively* less valuable than the mothers, say. Inadvertently, however, he seems to be asking us to accept that it is of a very low value indeed (if we tie value to time-relative interest alone, which we might accept as being very low for babies). In response, we might protest and point out other factors are actually important as well.

    I think examination of these other factors is key, so I won’t be adjusting my intuitions just yet!

  10. Whenever it’s suggested that the value of a person’s life is conditional on something or other, this passage from Frankfurt comes to mind (apols if I’ve quoted it before):

    “One of the best recent moral philosophers, the late Bernard Williams, suggests that it is a person’s ambitions and plans—what he calls the person’s ‘projects’— that provide ‘the motive force that propels the person into the future, and gives him a reason for living.’ These projects are ‘a condition of his having any interest in being around’ in the world at all. Unless we have projects that we care about, Williams insists, ‘it is unclear why we should go on’…”

    “…Surely Williams has it backward. Our interest in living does not commonly depend upon our having projects that we desire to pursue. It’s the other way around: we are interested in having worthwhile projects because we do intend to go on living, and we would prefer not to be bored. When we learn that a person has acted to defend his own life, we do not need to inquire whether he had any projects in order to recognize that he had a reason for doing whatever it was that he did.”

    Frankfurt, H. G., (2004). Taking ourselves seriously and getting it right: The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Stanford University.

    So, when a person acts to defend their own life we generally do not turn round and ask them whether they have enough time-relative interests to justify their behaviour.

    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.

    I may be wrong, but I think you’ve framed the dilemma in a way that presupposes there IS a difference in the value of their lives. Saying it must be asked which one is worst presupposes one death is in fact worst.

    Surely there are situations when loss, suffering and pain are equal? Rather than attempt to calculate the value of something which many would argue is priceless, is it not better to devote resources to figuring out the best way to deal with such situations?

  11. Paul, I think the idea is that X’s time-relative interest in going on living is a function of two things–(1) the links between X’s present and future selves, and (2) the amount of good that lies ahead of X. In the case of a baby, you have very weak links, but the maximum amount of good. The weak links have the effect of discounting the significance of all that good, but since there’s so much of it, they have a non-negligible interest in going on living.

    Amos–Yes, this theory buys the ability to explain big differences by having to countenance small differences, where we don’t see them. So–it elegantly explains the big difference we see (or at least I see) between a newborn’s interest in going on living and a 30 year old mother’s. The price is that it also sees some difference between a 30 year old “planner’s” interest in going on living, and a 30 year old “drifter’s”. Just some difference, though. Not necessarily a lot. Both will have a very strong connection to their future, if you think about all the determinants of these connections (not just plans). Plus, the upshot is not clear. It might be that both 30 year olds make it above a threshold, so that there is so much interest in going on living that there’s no situation in which it would be reasonable to distinguish between the two of them. It’s nothing like the difference between a baby and an adult; a fetus and a 10 year old; a human being and an animal. It’s these sharp differences that McMahan is really trying to establish and explain.

  12. The weak links have the effect of discounting the significance of all that good, but since there’s so much of it, they have a non-negligible interest in going on living.

    The way you present it makes it more acceptable – much more acceptable than the passage you quoted from McMahon! In that passage McMahon comes over as perhaps overly enthusiastic about the importance of weak links!

  13. I think that McMahan is trying to justify things which can’t be justified but which we do anyway, without justification. A dog has as much stake in going on living as you and I do. There may well be evolutionary reasons why we priorize the life of a member of our own species over that of a dog, but there is no “objective” measure of whether dogs or persons have more stake. In fact, the argument is trivial: human beings have more stake because they make plans, and only human beings are capable of planning. Ditto for whether I have more stake in going on living than a newborn baby. (I’ll leave out fetuses, since I’m not sure that they “live”.) Once again, there may be genetic mechanisms which lead us to place less value on the life of a newborn baby because way back when most babies died before reaching age one, but the baby has as much stake as I do. Not everything that people do has an ethical justification nor is it necessary to invent one.

  14. This analysis seems roughly on par with Peter Singer’s analysis of babies (and fetuses contra Amos). I don’t recall if he used the phrase time relative interest but he used something quite like it. Ahh I found it on wikki:

    Singer states that arguments for or against abortion should be based on utilitarian calculation which weighs the preferences of a mother against the preferences of the fetus. A preference is anything sought to be obtained or avoided; all forms of benefit or harm caused to a being correspond directly with the satisfaction or frustration of one or more of its preferences. Since a capacity to experience suffering or satisfaction is a prerequisite to having any preferences at all, and a fetus, at least up to around eighteen weeks, says Singer, has no capacity to suffer or feel satisfaction, it is not possible for such a fetus to hold any preferences at all. In a utilitarian calculation, there is nothing to weigh against a mother’s preferences to have an abortion, therefore abortion is morally permissible.

    So time-relative interest sounds analogous to me to Singer’s notion of “preferences.” In a way McMahan’s addition of “time relative” to “interest” is more comprehensive though.

    Consdider an adjustment to the questoin asked in the OP but instead compare the newborn infant to a terminally ill elderly person on their death bed. Even though the later is fully conscious and can suffer and has a huge resevoir of knowledge and so forth, they have little time relative interest: they have run out of time. In fact we need not even make them old, it just makes it easier to swallow. Compared to such a dying person, the newborn (or a late stage fetus for that matter) would seem to have a higher comparative value if only because they have high potential for developing time relative interest and the terminally ill person does not have any time left.

  15. Paul–As to your Frankfurt comment, further up, I think that’s a very interesting thought. Need to ponder!

    Faust–Yes, I think McMahan’s outlook has a core that’s similar to Singer’s. It’s just much more complex and comprehensive and he doesn’t limit himself to the machinery of preference utilitarianism. Actually, one thing I like about the book is that there’s no visible moral framework. He figures things out, bit by bit, availing himself of whatever moral concepts “shed light” whether from one family of moral concepts or another.

    Amos–My intuitions are closer to McMahan’s–I think there really is a difference between different deaths, different killings, and we need to clarify these differences before deciding how to behave. That is what my book is all about, so (I confess) that “realist” perspective is one to which I’m deeply wedded.

  16. I think if babies have mental states that are carried forward into the future, that counts towards giving them a stronger interest in their futures.

    Again haven’t read the book but I’m not entirely sure what McMahan means by mental states. From what I gather it appears he means beliefs, desires and intentions of which people are conscious of, and can remember. This might be important though, because mental states (even future-directed ones) can, I think, exist without consciousness (indeed conscious mental states seem to be the exception for us rather than the rule). So maybe it’s being conscious of one’s future that matters to McMahan rather than the existence of future-directed mental states per se.

    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.

    I would agree a very young pre-language infant has little consciousness or awareness of it’s future-directed mental states, desires or intentions. However contrary to McMahan I don’t think that means it doesn’t have such states, desires and intentions. Indeed, I would say an orientation towards the future, robust desire and firm intention are defining characteristics of babies. An infant’s goal may be to survive while a philosopher’s goal may be to write a treatise on the ethics of killing, but to debate the merits of their respective goals seems beside the point (or is it?).

    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].

    I think McMahan here is devaluing the basic ideas about the structure of our external and internal worlds, language, emotion, perception and so on which we learn as infants. Furthermore the basic conceptual apparatus we develop as babies appears to form a continuous presence in our lives as we age, albeit quietly in the background.

    And if it had lived to become a person, it would then remember nothing of its life as an infant

    We need to make a distinction between episodic (events, situations), semantic (meaning) and procedural (skill) memory. Sure, we have few episodic memories from our early years but the semantic and procedural memories we formed are fundamental to who we are now – albeit perhaps not consciously available. Much like we can’t remember riding a bike, we can’t remember the really important stuff we learned as infants.

  17. Paul, He recognizes diverse “connections” between a present self and later selves, and no, I don’t think they are all types of conscious thoughts about the future. Some are like that–you consciously plan something for the future, you consciously remember an event in the past. But it’s also an important connection simply to have current mental states carried forward into the future. The baby’s attachment to a certain blanket is “carried forward” into the future, for example. Or some set of associations are learned now, and carried forward into the future. The sheer persistence of the same “mental stuff” gives the present baby some stake in the welfare of the future baby. He does think babies and animals have some stake in their futures, even if neither explicitly think about the future. They just have less than the typical older human being.

  18. McMahan has shown that people like himself, adults with goals, plans, projects, future-directed intentions, have more stake in living than drifters, babies and animals. Isn’t it strange that McMahan has placed himself and people similar to him at the top of the great chain of being? Watch a dog fight for his or her life and you’ll observe the stake that said dog has in living. I myself would give priority to the lives of people (well, some people) over those of dogs, but that’s only because I’m a person and I feel more sympathy/empathy for people, well, for some people.

  19. Paul,

    I am sympathetic to the kind of conerns you are trying to raise here, but it seems to me that you are looking at this from a process perspective where you imagine the infant developing over time. However my sense of the immediate thought experiment is that we are maximizing the extreme cases for the purposes of highlingting certain issues. So in this case we are imaginging an entirely newborn baby. At say Birth+1 second vs 30 year old healthy person.

    I do think generally that the problem with evaluating the status of human children (and fetuses in my view) is that they exist on an ever changing continuum. A fetus at 12 weeks is not the same as a fetus at 24 weeks is not the same as a fetus at 36 weeks is not the same as a newborn is not the same as a 6 month old is not the same as a 1 year old is not the same as a 2 year old is not the same as etc etc. So potential seems to me to always be present as an issue and how we evaluate that potential, that future capacity, is going to be subject to a lot of disagreement. Your discussion above is such an example, even if we can’t remember them you argue, the patterns we develop as infants become the foundation for our later lives, and thus can be considered connected to the future in an important way even if they might not be “planned” in the same way.

    I’m thinking how a baby might use the Frankfurt quote or if it can apply to babies.

    In any case THE difference between a (newborn) baby and an animal (outside of species identification) is potential for developing the capacities of a fully mature human. Outside of that potential at birth +1 second a newborn baby doesn’t have anything going for it in and of itself at that particular instant that a Orangutan can’t match and raise.

  20. This is where I really need to read the book because the strong statements I quoted do appear to require some dilution! Maybe he provides this!

  21. However my sense of the immediate thought experiment is that we are maximizing the extreme cases for the purposes of highlingting certain issues.

    Yes, and re-reading it McMahan is talking about new-borns, not babies generally. While I would still suggest the new-born has non-conscious future mental states, I would withdraw a lot of the stuff about learning of basic concepts which are integral to future selves etc., as it has, be definition, yet to interact with the world.

  22. I’m thinking how a baby might use the Frankfurt quote or if it can apply to babies.

    Well, on my reading Frankfurt’s argument seems to be directed towards a person trying to evaluate their own lives. And my impression is that he believes the question is misguided. That is, I think he believes value is generated by our innate love of living. Love of life does not need further justification, in that living is intrinsically valuable.

    How this allows us to calculate the value of lives of other creatures is beyond me. But I might speculate and suggest it has something to do with the desire the creature has to live. That is, who or what wants to live the most. Then I suppose we’re back to who or what has the most interest in living. Whether we try to calculate this objectively (i.e., calculate how many time-relative interests it has) or subjectively (i.e., how fervently it communicates a desire to live) is unclear to me.

  23. Hmm… Is Frankfurt really that different from McMahon here? Frankfurt would say that something is a moral agent partly because of their ability to formulate second-order desires. I desire X (where X is an action) versus, I desire X (where X is a desire). (I’m simplifying here for the sake of brevity.)

    I desire to have moral desires, would be an example of a second-order desire. Holding second-order desires makes people more valuable than animals according to Frankfurt.

    Now McMahan seems to be saying that we have to have projected into the future our ideas, and the more future connections we have the more valuable we are. In some ways thats kinda like a second-order desire. I not only have this desire about the future, but I desire that it continue into the future. Maybe its a stretch.

    But I agree with you Jean and McMahan, the mom’s death would be the worse one.

  24. Holding second-order desires makes people more valuable than animals according to Frankfurt.

    I was aware he said the defining criteria for being a person or moral agent (as opposed to a ‘wanton’ or an animal) was the ability to form second-order desires, but does that mean that he thought ‘persons’ or moral agents were therefore of greater value? It seems likely he would say that, but not sure whether he has.

    However I didn’t think Frankfurt went into trying to determine the differential worth of different types of human beings or animals, apart from pointing out that the value of person X to person Y derives from the love which person Y has for person X. I thought Frankfurt’s view of the value of others was that it was a very relative thing, and depends on whether you love them or not.

    In that context, the relationship the drug provider has to the new-born or the mother appears to define the value they have to the drug provider!

  25. michael reidy

    In the cross hairs of McMahan triage is an uncomfortable place to be. How credible is the goal of objective criteria that allows us to weigh one life against another? There will always be a finger on one pan. ‘I have to live’ said the beggar to Voltaire. ‘I don’t see the necessity of that’ was the reply. Should the aged with a poor prognosis and only death at the end of a term of expensive care be put down so that the money that they might leave be preserved. A potion to ease them over the bourne from which no traveller returns. Isn’t this where McMahan is going? I’ll wait for another bus.

  26. Not to be picky but…(re: the discussion just above)…

    McMahan is trying to understand what makes an individual have a weaker or stronger “interest” in going on living, not what gives a life, as a whole, value. A baby’s life could have huge value, as a whole, but on day 1, the baby still has a weak interest in going on living, compared to an adult. Or so he argues. To me this has the ring of truth. But aside from that, why should we think about who has more of an interest in living and who less?

    Because we have all sorts of decisions to make that turn on such things. People want to have abortions, use animals in lethal experiments, opt for assisted suicide to avoid suffering. There are lots of cases where people have some reason to want to kill, and we have to decide when it’s ethical. If we don’t reason it out as clearly as we can, then what? Then we’re just left in the clutches of culture, custom, churches, convention, commerce. (Wow, what a lot of “c”s!)

    Case in point–in Laos right now there’s a pregnant woman facing the death penalty for drug smuggling. What should we think about that? I’d rather try to figure it out with careful analysis than leave it to any of the above c’s.

  27. I agree 100% that it’s important to decide when to kill and when not to. However, MacMahan’s formula doesn’t convince me, and I suspect that there is no formula which covers all cases. The reasons why abortion should be permitted have nothing to do with the reasons why animals should be used in lethal experiments at times nor with the reasons why assisted suicide should be permitted nor with the reasons why certain wars are justified nor with the reasons why armed resistance against tyranny is justified. In each of the above cases a separate reasoning process is necessary.

  28. Amos, McMahan does not actually have a formula–he has written a very complicated 500 page book looking at these things from the ground up. I am just exploring one little part of the book here–the notion that an interest in going on living comes in degrees, and depends on the way one is connected to the future. There is much, much more to his thinking. For any “real world” issue, his book brings to bear many more principles then I’ve mentioned.

    It seems dogmatic to be so sure of the independence of all of these issues. In fact it would really be surprising if you had to start all over from scratch to get a grip on each issue about killing. Honestly, I know nobody who “does” applied ethics that way.

  29. It seems to me that killing is so serious that it would be better to take each issue separately. They may have something in common, besides the fact that some being is killed, or they may not. I get the impression that killing makes all of us so uneasy (and yet other human beings and animals are killed in our name and supposedly for our sake every day) that it’s difficult to speak about it frankly.

  30. michael reidy


    “We rightly regard torturers, in general, as the most morally degraded of human beings; but in these rare cases of morally justified torture, the torturer would be, paradoxically, a martyr to higher morality. He would in fact, be doubly martyred, for there would be two dimensions to his sacrifice. He would have to
    accept punishment for having done what, in the circumstances, was morally necessary; but he also would have sacrificed something of
    importance in his own moral nature by having to override powerful inhibitions against a form of action that no decent person could engage in without the deepest moral revulsion.”

    This then is the Himmler manoeuvre in effect. We must apply ourselves to the grim task and yet retain our humanity by being disgusted by what is clearly necessary. As long as you don’t take any pleasure in it, really.

    500 pages. The Critique of Pure Reason was written in less. Reading the little I’ve read of him, a grimly unpleasant duty, I find myself saying ‘get on with it Jeff’, don’t bore me into submission. He does meander. What is the value in elevating our most ignoble responses into a general principle? What would you think of someone who said to a mother whose 3 year old had been killed by a car that at least he wasn’t 15 or 20 with firmer projects. How can you take seriously someone with such a level of blankness, to even think such a thing?

    Just because someone is a professor does not make their Yoo like paltering into wisdom.

  31. Michael, I’ve said all I have to say in defense of McMahan’s basic approach. I don’t see it as pernicious in the way you do, for all the reasons I’ve explained above. He’s a very nuanced thinker, as that torture passage makes clear. Don’t think analytic philosophy is what anyone does in the aftermath of an accident, in order to comfort the bereaved. It just ain’t so.

  32. I think there is a difference between

    a) Using logic and analysis to try and understand what principles we can use in understanding morality and moral dilemmas.

    b) acknowledging the emotional (and spiritual?)difficutlites that surround comming to grips with difficult ethical decisions.

    The fact that the two tend to be divergent is simply yet another instance of an untentable dualism, but one that we are stuck with anyway. Having a degree in applied ethics doesn’t guarantee you will be a particularly ethical person, and not knowing a thing about analytical philosophy doesn’t mean you can’t be the kind of person that the vast majority of people would regard as “very good.”

    Personally I think careful analysis of these issues can be very valuable, provided one does not forget that such analysis in the end will not necessarily help all that much when it’s decision time, that there is another dimension to moral choice that seems to lie outside of merely believing the results of a thorough analysis. I’m thinking here of the problems raised by the Humean theory of motivation.

    I think the repulsion that some people have to this kind of thinking is a concern that it is simply too detached from our concrete concerns but this is almost inevitable when we make laws that affect millions of people so to the degree that we live in a highly abstracted mass culture it seems that some careful thinking about abstractions is better than leaving things up to the gut feeling of the masses.

  33. michael reidy

    How you spontaneously react is a reflection of what you are. A good deal of that fundamental level of response is established in the philosophic mind by long reflection and examination of conscience. What the good man does spontaneously is taken as the good says Aristotle in the Metaphysics. He is connatural with the good. Aristotle in his way captures the common question of the perplexed – what would X do, X being their role model, a character in a story or whatever. Moral teaching has proceeded in this way for millennia and it has been open-ended enough to allow development and new insights. In previous generations the life of a slave or a serf, or a native, might not weigh much but we have moved on since then. Now in the scales are neonates and the elderly of poor prognosis.

    Jeff McMahan, John Yoo and a pretzel are all very nuanced. Indeed they are, they will nuance any way you like. You actually think that a man who holds that there are cases where torture is morally justified is worth paying attention to. But he may be squeamish about applying the humane killer to sheep so his heart is in the right place.

  34. Michael, I have no idea why you’re so determined to savage Mr. McMahan. Your quote comes from an article in which he says, in the very first paragraph, that torture should be categorically banned in law. So to try to associate him with Yoo, one of the legal architects of George Bush’s torture policy, is perverse.

    I have not read the whole article, but I suspect the passage where he talks about torturers as martyrs is about the classic case of the ticking bomb, where somebody’s got to save the entire population of New York before it’s too late. There’s nothing the least bit odious about admitting that in such a case, totally unreal it as it is, somebody would does need to do the dirty deed and save 10 million lives. Sure, you might think differently, but you don’t get to look down on people who prefer 10 million lives to one torture session, as if they were depraved.

    As soon as I can, I’ll post about McMahan’s view of animals, which is what really brings me to his book. Maybe (then?) we can put an end to this discussion of whether he’s a Bad Guy just because he’s prepared to make distinctions among deaths and among killings. At some point, we just have to agree to disagree, and return the thread to what it was suppose to be about.

  35. michael reidy

    You like Christopher Hitchins. This might interest you.

    I expect the point will be that animals do not have expectations great or small and those humans who have a limited horizon are only a little beyond that. Is this assimilation valid metaphysically speaking. Is it perhaps a gross reduction of the actuality of the differences that are more salient than Singer/McMahan would admit. He characteristically dismisses the idea of souls with uncharacteristic brevity as though that were all that could be said against his thesis. What lacunae do you discern in his world view, the other hand stuff? That would be interesting to read.

  36. If only I were not buried under a pile of grading (talk about torture), I could get on with the issue of the beasts. Yes, the limited horizon’s going to count heavily, and I have some thoughts about that. Hopefully I’ll have time in a day or two…if I don’t perish from this ordeal.

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