Monday, March 06, 2006

When Death Doesn't Harm You

One sort of case where death doesn't harm you is when you have a life that is not worth living. In such cases death might even be positively good for you. But now I want to discuss another type of case, wherein there is no "you" to be harmed. (This builds on my old posts on "animal ethics" and "soulless materialism".)

I propose that there are two broad classes of harms (or benefits):
(1) qualities of experience - e.g. pleasure and pain - that can affect any conscious being; and
(2) qualities of a life - e.g. global preference satisfaction - that only arise for beings with a personal identity, i.e. "persons" (in the philosophical sense that includes intelligent aliens, and excludes newborn babies or vegetative humans).

Death is a harm of the second type. It's not a bad experience, because it isn't any sort of experience at all. But the deprivation it involves might be seen as detrimental to one's life as a whole. (See also the old discussion here.) If I would prefer to live and experience pleasure, rather than die and not experience anything, then death is bad for me, for precisely this reason.

But what of creatures that, though conscious, lack any 'global preferences' or sense of self? Such creatures have no persisting identity over time. We might say that a chicken is the same physical object now as it was last week. But it is not the same mental being. There is no persisting chicken-mind that has interests over time. The fact that the chicken is conscious suffices to give it type-1 interests, so that inflicting pain on it would be bad. But it has no future-directed interests, so it is not harmed by a painless death.

One might object that the killed chicken is deprived of pleasant experiences. But that presupposes that the same chicken-mind would persist into the future, which I think is not the case. The mental chicken merely lives from moment to moment. If the physical chicken lived longer, then some new chicken-moments would get to experience life. But this is just the same as a new chicken being born. (The fact that the new mental life occurs in an old body is a fact of no moral significance.) In this sense, the lives of non-persons are replaceable. That is to say, there is no difference in value between:
(a) The one creature living for X amount of time and experiencing Y units of pleasure; versus
(b) Two creatures living consecutively, each for X/2 time and experiencing Y/2 units of pleasure.

It is good to have chicken-pleasure in the world. But it doesn't much matter which chickens have it. If some die and are replaced by others which go on to have just as pleasant an experience, this change makes no moral difference.

People are not replaceable in this sense, due to their persisting identities and future-regarding desires. They would be harmed by death. Moreover, each individual is unique, and thus 'irreplaceable' in the sense that any new person will be significantly different. The lives of people are distinct and distinguishable in a way that the lives of chickens are not. So when one person dies and is "replaced" with another, something is lost that has no analogue in cases of chicken-replacement.

One might object that considerations of mental 'personhood' count just as strongly against some humans (say infants or the severely mentally disabled) as against animals. Here I simply bite the bullet. If an infant has no persisting mental identity, then it is not harmed by its death either. (Though its parents might well be.)

Still, such judgments are dangerous, and open up grave potential for abuse (say if those in power decide to extend this judgment to include disfavoured minority groups!). So for indirect utilitarian reasons we might want to posit "human rights" that protect all humans without exception -- even those that aren't really persons -- because we don't want to risk miscategorization.

A final, somewhat disturbing, thought: imagine a 'baby farm' (where 'baby oil' comes from!), which grows test-tube babies in artificial wombs [so as to avoid any complications regarding the exploitation of women]. The babies have a pleasant enough experience, and are killed before developing any sense of identity. They then go on the BBQ, alongside the pork and chicken kebabs. Is there anything morally objectionable about this scenario?

My analysis suggests that there isn't. It's emotionally repugnant, I certainly agree with that. But it isn't clear whether there are solid reasons for thinking that anything bad is going on here. No-one is harmed in the scenario. (We might worry that the people involved would become psychologically twisted by it. That could provide indirect utilitarian reasons against such depravity, of course. But let us bracket such concerns by stipulating that there are no such unforeseen consequences. Their world is exactly like ours in every respect apart from the baby farm itself; it has no broader implications.) So we rationally must conclude that the baby farm is morally permissible. So much the worse for our moral intuitions, eh?


  1. I chicken may very well be no more than a number of consecutive and largely unrelated 'chicken experiences', but im not sure an infant can be considered to not be harmed by death, as unlike chickens, they are definately losing their future capacity to enjoy the 'qualities of a life' like you say.

    Interesting thought for the abortion debate?

  2. Raza, the infant has no such "future capacity". Whether the physical body is killed or not, the infant's mentality will not survive beyond infanthood. It is not the sort of entity capable of such persistence. Perhaps the infant will be replaced by a person, or perhaps it will simply die. In neither case does the infant itself have a future.

  3. Richard: When you propose your distinction between the two sorts of harm/benefits, in what sense do you do mean the distinction to be true? ie. is it just a sort of template that we place over the great disordered mass of lived experience, to find some order in it, as we say "apples are either red or green"; or do you mean the distinction to be more precise and formal than that? I ask this because I am not sure that there is any such thing as an instantaneous experience, isolated from all past and future experiences, which (as I understand it) you attribute to chickens and idiots. Also, I am not sure that you can talk about fully globalised desires, because when we try to think about what we want in our "whole" lives, we are bound to miss out some parts of it.

    My instinct is to think that it would be safer to say something like: one of the variables involved in harms is the scope/extent/breadth (or any such term) of the desires that the harmful act interferes with.

  4. Yeah, I guess that softer distinction would do the trick. Thanks for the suggestion.

  5. Richard:

    i think that in a certain sense there isn't anyone here anyway (if you take seriously the new neurological ideas of brain structure). if the ego is an illusion, we are all free game?


  6. I think it's beyond question that people exist in some sense. If there's another "certain sense" in which they don't, then so much the worse for that sense of the term.

    There is something very different between the mental lives (and continuity) of people and chickens. Whatever that difference is (and it surely has some neurological underpinnings), it's that I'm pointing to here.

    I don't think you could plausibly hold that there's no difference here, and that we're thus all "free game".

  7. "I think it's beyond question that people exist in some sense. If there's another "certain sense" in which they don't, then so much the worse for that sense of the term...."

    This is just like some religious arguments. both invulnerable and elusive.

    Still with this sort of fuzzy aproach I find it hard to see how you can be so absolutist with the clear line you can draw here with humans and chicken.

  8. no, of course not. i eat chicken and would probably not eat Genius. but i think it would be very hard to establish beyond discussion when a person is not/no longer "there". which is to say: i don't think your arguments hold.
    par example:

    "(1) qualities of experience - e.g. pleasure and pain - that can affect any conscious being; and"

    we do not know that chickens do not feel pain (they certainly fear it and cry out when hurt); nor do we know that they are not conscious; they possess the same consciousness-making apparatus -- remarkably similar in any case -- as we do. (i forgot the reference, an american MD With an italian-sounding name, starts with a D).

  9. > and would probably not eat Genius.

    that's good to know!

  10. Gawain, I'm actually assuming that chickens are conscious. That's why I think animal cruelty is wrong. (If they couldn't feel anything, then presumably we could do anything at all to them and they could never be harmed by any of it.) My argument was more limited. Although inflicting pain harms creatures with a fleeting mental life (i.e. moment-to-moment consciousness but no mental identity binding these experiences, and in particular no future-directed desires), death itself is no harm to them. That's what I was arguing.

  11. yes, i have been thinking about that while up on the mountain. the question is, i suppose, how do we know that chickens have a merely fleeting mental life? Research shows that they form both lasting enmities and alliances(friendships is what we humans call them)--so they seem to have a sort of memory. But how would we test whether or not they are capable of planning for the future?
    Also, where does this put humans with short term memory loss? The feedlot? ;-)

  12. ah, yes, the baby farm. i suppose that is -- in part -- what the stem cell research hoopla is about. yes, stem cells come from fetuses, and these, so far, are by-product of abortion; but fetuses could be MANUFACTURED to make stem cells (that was one of the accusations in the recent Korean fiasco); thats a sort of -- baby farm -- in embryo, right?
    personally, i am all for baby farms and growing clones to harvest organs. just grow them without frontal lobes, please. ;-)

  13. Congratulations! You're number 1 google hit of 'chicken pleasure'.

  14. Unfortunately, just before I read this, I read (too stupid to make a proper link, sorry). So I no longer think I have a real stable self. Having read this piece, I now think I am a chicken/candidate for the baby farm. This is no problem to me as I do not care too much about the person that I will be by the time I have finished this comment, but I wonder how you would feel about eating a chicken that thinks the same (Given the weirdness of the internet, I'm not even going to suggest eating me)? Seems to me your argument exposes the danger of basing morality on self-hood - I don't even begin to think baby farming is acceptable - interesting though. Cheers, bob.

  15. I'd be very surprised if that were truly your situation; but if you genuinely don't have any future-directed concerns, goals, or interests, then surely it's right to say that death wouldn't harm you. (How could it? It doesn't thwart any of your desires.)

    Unless one can address these arguments, it doesn't seem legitimate to stubbornly hold to one's prejudices/intuitions and object that it "exposes the danger of basing morality on self-hood". Obviously I wouldn't expect anyone to initially believe that baby farming could be acceptable. It is rather a conclusion that is rationally forced upon us (or so I argue) once we become more reflective about our moral judgments.

    Are you instead proposing that morality should be based on something other than harms? But that seems awfully arbitrary.

  16. Yes, I agree death wouldn't harm me, and yes I don't base morality on harms. It seems to me that morality does not need an explanation, but immorality does, and I base my explanation of immorality on self and precisely the projection of desire and fear into the future. It's a fairly old idea of a 'fall' into knowledge, the separation of self awareness. As soon as thought creates a separate self, separate selfish interests arise and with them immorality. Morality is then the rejection of all that. Hense all this strange 'irrational' stuff about loving your neighbour, whether your neighbour is a baby, a chicken or a selfish human. What is so rational about being selfish?

  17. Not much. But who said anything about selfishness? I've assumed throughout that we shouldn't harm others. (Nothing "irrational" about that.) My argument is instead that for non-personal entities, death doesn't harm them.

    You write: "I don't base morality on harms"

    But how could it be wrong to do something harmless?


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