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.

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15 Comments.

  1. Perhaps the attempt to read MacMahan will end up with you in the class of those who don’t finish books and whose plans and projects generally only travel mid-way down the road. Don’t forget the L.L. Bean hiking boots.

  2. I’m still unclear about the moment to moment view of animal lives. How does McMahan separate instinctual acts from intentional acts? Is a squirrel gathering nuts for the winter engaged in a “prudential unity relationship” with its future self that will eat the nuts? Or is the concept of a “self” a necessary component for such a relationship? I don’t remember ever reading of a squirrel given the mirror test to see if it recognizes itself.

    I guess the concept of self must be central to McMahan’s views, otherwise the little robot that vacuums my house would have as much of a stake in living as some animals (the robot is programmed to seek out its recharging stand when the power level falls below a preset threshold). Obviously this is just a bit of programming, but the robot is altering behavior in order to obtain a goal in the future.

    As far as I know, birds don’t have this sense of self and will attack their reflection in a mirror as if it was a rival. So, is a bird building a nest engaged in an instinctual, moment to moment activity that results in a home for a family? Would such an activity constitute a prudential unity relationship, though perhaps a weaker one than animals with a more developed consciousness would be capable of, in McMahan’s view?

  3. michael reidy

    Jean wrote:

    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.

    Just as long as you don’t get depressed and fall into the hands of a thanatophile who may say to you – well, yes if you feel like that, it will be painless I assure you.

  4. GD–McMahan is very dismissive about the squirrel’s nut-collecting project, because he thinks the nut collecting is “merely” instinctive and the squrrel doesn’t have a conscious plan.

    I think he’s misrepresenting squirrels a bit–from what I read about animals, they’re not so mechanical as he says. Plus, from what I read about human beings, we’re more mechanical than you’d think. So its a bad idea to respect projects only to the extent that they’re fully conscious and not governed by instinct.

    But yes–we don’t want to think of a vacuum cleaner as having rights. An animal has no interests in going on living unless there’s a “life” there–something it’s like to be the animal.

    McMahan does think animals do have “prudential unity relations” to their later selves. It’s just that the unity is very weak. It is based on very little–just the fact that a lot of the squirrel’s mental states today will be carried forward into the future. Still, he’s an animal advocate, really. An animal’s interest in living is strong enough that we need good reasons to kill them…and he doesn’t think “they’re tasty” is enough.

    Michael–I admit I’m getting a little weary of all this comparative thanatology. When I’m done I’ll read a nice book about angels…or something.

  5. michael reidy

    When I’m done I’ll read a nice book about angels…or something.

    It’s a good thing to occasionally read books which challenge your world view in a fundamental way or which isn’t for some project of your own. Meanwhile back to bunnies and squirrels and the fluffy things of the earth.

  6. Chickens have been known to socialize. I think human dominance over other species is arrogant and dangerous to the progression and evolution of humans. All too many times our theories only make us seem more crude.

  7. How does McMahan demonstrate that the points (1) through (7) are the actual criteria of determing a being’s “interest” in continuing to live? I can see that they might be nice suggestions, but how does he show that these criteria are not only possible indicators of the individual’s interest in continued living but the actual and true indicators of a being’s life-interest? It’s all well and good to offer up some alternative theories and what-not, but one can not simply offer such a theory by itself; one must also provide compelling evidence that such a theory accurately reflects the actual state of affairs, and I’m quite interested in seeing how McMahan defends these criteria.

  8. If you’re interested in seeing how McMahan supports those criteria, I suggest you read the book. The criteria are supported over the course of a couple of hundred pages, and I can’t possibly reproduce all the arguments here.

  9. I’d rather get the book knowing it were a worthwile investment of both my time and money, but perhaps arriving at such a conclusion beforehand is impossible. I did not mean to seem cheap or dismissive, but I merely wondered if there were any sort of systematic effort or method used that could be concisely relayed to impart the gist of the defense. My apologies if my earlier comment came across otherwise.

  10. Ah, looking back that last comment was snippier than I meant it to be. This is a great book, very well reviewed, and very much worth reading–if you have a big interest in this sort of stuff. At 500 pages, it’s very densely argued. So the thought of explaining all the arguments behind those 7 criteria made my head spin. I do explain some of the arguments in my previous posts on the book–if you click on my name (near the title of this post) you’ll see a list of them. “Pigs, Converts, Buddhists,” “Babies and Beasts,” and “Animal Projects” were the titles, as I recall.

  11. Thanks for the responses Jean. It’s a shame that McMahan doesn’t devote more to animal psychology. I was hoping that one of those serpentine trails might cover this ground.

    Still, it sounds like an interesting book, and I agree that there is something intuitively appealing about the ideas you have covered so far.

  12. The jungle is very thick, everything is covered in vines, and the trails are serpentine. As far as I know, birds don’t have this sense of self and will attack their reflection in a mirror as if it was a rival.

  13. 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.

  14. The ethicality of the matter, however, depends on your cultural context and cannot be determined in any absolute way.Jeff McMahan has written a genuinely revolutionary book. He has uncovered a flaw in standard just-war theory.

  15. An impressive share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a co-worker who has been conducting a little homework
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    fact that I found it for him… lol. So let me reword this….
    Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending time to talk about this matter here on your internet site.

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