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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.

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8 Comment on this post

  1. Thank you the post and thanks to both Professors whose podcast it motivated me to listen to – albeit that listening to graphic representations was a challenging exercise!
    The topic is so huge that it’s difficult to comment, but I wonder whether it has practical consequences unless one can decide not only the date that one attains personhood, but more importantly what is meant by the quantity of good in a life, what a pschological connection to one’s future life really means* . And a crucial question is who draws the graph that allows us (someone? who?) to get the right answer. (One could of course ask whether there ever is or could be a “right answer”, but that’s another debate…)
    * is, for example, the severely depressed person who sees no future for themselves and refuses to believe that they can ever have a meaningful one “disconnected from their future life?”, and would this imply that their death would be less bad than another’s?
    But thanks for provoking this and many other questions.

  2. Anthony and Clementine: thank you for your comments.

    Anthony: indeed, things would be clearer if we could include John Broome’s graphs. You’re right that the correct conclusion to draw about the value of someone’s future life will be a contested matter; however, that doesn’t mean that we can’t argue about it and decide for ourselves what we think. (If we’re making a decision about whether or not to prolong our own life, then clearly our own judgment will be of crucial practical importance.) How much good, or well-being, we assess a person’s life as containing will depend on our specific understanding on that notion. One popular option identifies well-being with a positive balance of pleasure over pain, but there are of course other views (e.g. well-being as the satisfaction of desires, or as the enjoyment of objective goods like friendship). Some of these views do make well-being easier to measure than others; whether that’s a decisive argument in their favour is, I think, another matter.

    The idea of psychological connectedness or, to use McMahan’s phrase, psychological unity, is a complex one. It includes various kinds of connection, e.g. the simple persistence of certain features like personality traits or memories, but also other things like the relation between a desire and the experience of its fulfillment. (If you’re interested in the details of his view, I’d recommend his book The Ethics of Killing). Whether the depressed person will be psychologically connected to himself in McMahan’s sense will depend on his exact situation. If he’s depressed because he’s been diagnosed with a neurodegenerative condition, then he can indeed expect to lose his connection to his present self in the future. But he might also be mistaken in seeing no future for himself. Suppose he would actually recover from the depressive episode, and return to the well-functioning self he had prior to becoming depressed. In that case, there would at least be some degree of psychological unity between his present and his future self. Of course, there would be even greater unity between the person’s past self and his future self; it would be interesting to hear to what extent McMahan thinks this affects the reasons the person now (in his depressed state) has to care about his future self.

  3. Interesting debate. Thank you. I often wonder why humans automatically expect a long life. When we are born there is nothing to guarantee that our lives will be the biblical three score and ten, or longer. We are literally a heartbeat away from death and the world contains so many hazards, I think it’s a marvel that so many reach the ripe old ages that they do. If death is a natural end to a human life, it doesn’t really matter how or when it ends, does it. We all have to go sometime and we go by whatever means is appropriate for our bodies.

    I won’t go into my religious beliefs here, but I used to get very angry when I saw roadside crosses marking spots where young people had died in tragic motor accidents. I don’t want to sound heartless, but were these deaths any more important or tragic than the death of someone who died in a cancer ward at the age of 20 or 40? Would the families of the cancer patients be allowed to erect crosses in the hospital wards or on the lawns of the hospitals? Of course not. Who decides which people are more tragic to lose than others? Every human life is precious and no-one, despite their station in life, should be treated as a lesser being than anyone else.

    I hoped I haven’t gone off the track here, but I find it a fascinating subject.

  4. Hello,

    Many thanks for the post; it was an introduction to an important question for me. At first, Critical Level Utilitarianism struck me as a not very good description of our (my) moral intuitions. It then occurred to me that one could think of it in terms of “Return on Investment”. Here’s what I mean:

    – From the perspective of “Society” or a social planner, there are a set number of resources that society invests in generating a new life (i.e. opportunity costs for the time & resources spent by parents, relatives, etc.) .

    – Like any sound investment, that new life will presumably begun to produce a return for society after maturity (say, adulthood).

    -This accounts for the negative value at the beginning of the life that eventually gets “paid off”;

    – Comparisons about the relative cost of death at different points can be done in a manner analogous to financial analysis; it depends basically on the “yield curve” of the individual life

    I would imagine that this must be an already well-established (refuted?) viewpoint; I would be interested in getting your thoughts.

    Many thanks.

    1. It would be cheap to state that if ethics were to take economics as a model, we’d be in the same ethical mess as we are economically, so I’ll refrain.
      However, on the point of discounted life flows, yield analysis and other similar approaches, I would have to agree with Jane Wilkinson that every human life is precious and no-one’s death should be treated as more tragic because of the value that others judge their lives to have had or that they brought to the rest of us.
      It might be argued that it is clear that there are people who have brought wonderful things to humanity, in science, or in medicine or the arts or other fields (sorry, I haven’t listed economics). But I do not see that admiring the beauty that Schubert brought to us should lead us to think that his death was more tragic than anyone else’s. Or, to give another example, that we should pardon Alan Turing rather than any other unknown person convicted of «gross indecency», simply because of his undeniable great talent and contribution to the fight against fascism.

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