Jeff McMahan and John Broome discuss the value of life and the badness of death
Wednesday the 6th of February saw two of the most prominent ethicists of our time engage in a (friendly) debate on two crucial, related philosophical questions: the value of life and the badness of death. (You can listen to the podcast of the debate here.) In a room filled to capacity at the Oxford Philosophy Faculty, Jeff McMahan, Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University, and John Broome, White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford, discussed their respective views on these questions, explaining in turn where they agreed and disagreed with each other and why, using rigorous, sophisticated philosophical arguments.
As a newcomer to this debate, the first thing I learned was that it is important to distinguish between two different possible senses of the question of the badness of death. The first one has to do with the badness of human mortality: how bad is it that we are all condemned to die at some point, rather than being able to live forever if we so wish? This question was e.g. already addressed by Epicurus when he undertook (not particularly persuasively) to reassure us that “death is nothing to us” and that it is irrational to regret it or worry about it. No matter how important this might be as a philosophical issue, it isn’t the one that McMahan and Broome were concerned with. Rather, the question they focused on concerned the badness of particular deaths. How bad is it for someone to die, say, at age 60 in an accident, rather than living for twenty more years? It is the badness of death in this sense that was at the centre of the debate.
As a starting point for the discussion, Jeff McMahan presented the approach favoured by Broome, according to which, in order to assess the badness of death for a person like the one just described (and by extension, anyone else), we should compare the net amount of good that his life will have contained if he dies now in the accident, to the amount it would contain were he not to die in the accident and to live for two more decades. We then determine how bad it is for this person to die right now by considering the additional goodness that life with two extra decades would entail, compared to the same life ending now. (If the additional years would actually be dominated by suffering and misery, we ought to conclude that it is in fact better for this person to die at 60.) McMahan termed this approach the “Life Comparative Account” of the badness of death (LCA). He contrasted it with his own “Time-relative Interest Account”.
McMahan’s own view follows LCA up to a point by agreeing that we should look at how much goodness the person’s extra twenty years would have contained in order to evaluate the badness of his death at 60. Yet to this McMahan adds that we should also discount the goodness in question, in proportion to the degree to which the person would be psychologically discontinuous (e.g. in terms of his memories, desires or personality traits) with his future self at the various points in this extra period. One reason he suggested why his view might be preferable to LCA is that it avoids an undesirable implication of the latter view: namely that the worst, most tragic death possible for a human being is one that occurs immediately after we begin to exist (rather than at, say, twenty years old). McMahan’s account circumvents that implication, which most of us find implausible, by pointing to the lack of psychological connections between an embryo and the adult that would develop from it, which on his view requires that we significantly discount the badness of the former’s loss of future life.
John Broome then took the floor. After acknowledging that an objection he had previously raised to McMahan’s account actually bore on a distinct view that McMahan did not hold, he presented a new objection, according to which the Time-relative Interest Account makes our assessment of the value of different lives dependent on our choice of which lives we are comparing. This leads to a transitivity problem about our comparison of these lives in terms of their respective value. In order to avoid that problem while preserving the intuitions McMahan referred to regarding e.g. the badness of the death of an embryo vs. that of an adult, Broome described an alternative approach, which he calls “Critical Level Utilitarianism”. According to this view, each of us comes into existence with a significant “debt” of well-being that is progressively repaid as we develop into full-fledged persons. Given that an early embryo has yet to repay any of that debt, all the future goodness that death would deprive it of will be offset by the presence of the remaining debt, yielding the plausible implication that the death of an embryo is much less bad for it than the death of a twenty year-old. McMahan briefly replied to Broome by denying that he held the view targeted by the latter’s new objection. The Time-relative Interest Account, he said, is only meant to explain the degree to which people have reason to be prudentially concerned about their future. It does not purport to offer an analysis of the value of lives considered from an impersonal perspective; when it comes to such an analysis, McMahan declared himself in agreement with Broome.
The debate elicited many questions from the audience, one of which concerned its real-world relevance. While legitimate, this question has a clear answer. Both McMahan’s and Broome’s views have implications about significant practical matters. Consider for instance the issue of abortion. An influential argument for the view that abortion at all stages is wrong appeals to a variant (though not Broome’s) of LCA: namely, killing an embryo deprives it of all the good that its life would have contained had it gone on living, which might well be a very large amount. Assuming that killing people is wrong largely because of the deprivation of future goods it imposes on them, how can we avoid concluding that the killing of an early embryo constitutes murder pure and simple? The accounts of McMahan and Broome offer a response to that challenge: though for different reasons, they both imply that the badness of death for an embryo is in fact not so great, despite all the future goodness it might deprive it of, and therefore that killing it does not cause a significant harm. While in agreement on this occasion, their views seem to differ in their implications for other issues, such as the rationality of caring about one’s future well-being in a case where one has developed a neurodegenerative condition like Alzheimer’s disease, a condition that will weaken one’s degree of psychological connectedness to one’s future self.
Despite its technicality, then, the philosophical debate between Broome and McMahan isn’t a mere intellectual exercise. As the very phrasing of its topic suggests, it has consequences for the decisions we should make, both individually and as a society, about nothing less than matters of life and death.