Friday, September 05, 2008

Evaluating Life and Death

All this talk of the 'intrinsic badness of death' has gotten me feeling sloppy. It's worth remembering that we can't really evaluate 'death' per se. Rather, we should be assessing the life that got cut short, and in particular the opportunity cost of the death: what other value the person would have gotten out of their remaining lifespan if they had not died right then. Death is typically worse for the young than for the old. For non-persons, it is no harm at all.

We talk a lot about 'saving lives', but we shouldn't -- it's really quite misleading. At best, we may save a few decades of someone's life. Death is never banished; merely postponed. "Reducing" the number of deaths in the world is not a coherent goal: we know there will be exactly one for each life, and there's no changing that (modulo immortality research). What we really mean here is that we aim to extend life. It's worth being clear on this, since not all life-extensions are equal, but a rhetorical focus on 'death' occludes this fact.

So, to ease my philosophical conscience, let my clarify my earlier sloppy remarks: death may be 'bad' in the sense that a person's life has intrinsic value, and their death may cause it to be cut short in such a way that the life is less good than it would otherwise have been. (In other circumstances, of course, death may be a blessing -- if it causes one's life as a whole to be better than it otherwise would have been.)


  1. Sorry for blundering in on these posts, Richard. Please point it out to me if I'm re-covering old ground or misunderstanding you.

    You state here that what matters is the amount of potential life lost at the point of death. In the "When Death Doesn't Harm You" thread, you say this is because it fulfils global preference satisfaction.

    I have a few questions about these:
    1) Does the murder of fifty people with one year to live therefore morally equal the murder of one person with fifty years to live?
    2) Do you feel that your preference for life is less strong than it was a year ago? Surely humans in most circumstances have a fairly equal and strong preference for life, regardless of age?
    3) If I were murdered tomorrow, whether I was 20 or 60 years old would not matter: my preferences would be not to die and then after my death I would no longer have any preferences. Is opportunity cost really a measurable/meaningful factor in these circumstances?
    4) Is there no closet egalitarian motive lurking behind the surface? I say so because if I was on a "God committee" I would be tempted to give a liver to someone much younger at the expense of an older person, even if the chances would be that the older person would get more quality-adjusted life years out of it. The amount of "past" experienced seems to be a factor.

  2. Hi John, great questions!

    One quick correction: I'm saying here that what matters is the [welfare] value (not 'amount' of life) lost due to an early death. But yes, I think global preferences play an important role in determining how well-off we are, and - as per the old thread - are essential to making it the case that depriving one of a future is a harm to them at all.

    (1) There are many possible objects of moral assessment, so it depends what you're interested in here. It's probably a morally worse action, and reflects a more vicious character, to murder 50 old people than one young one. But it's possible that the latter does as much or more harm (i.e. makes the world a worse place). In this post I've really just been talking about 'the good' (utility) and not 'the right'.

    (2) You may be right, but that's not the sort of preference I have in mind. Global preferences concern how you want your whole life story to turn out. Now, if I postpone my death from 20 to 60, and again from 60 to 70, it seems likely that the first case makes more of a difference in allowing me to fulfill more of my global preferences. That is why it does me more good.

    (3) As per the above, we can meaningfully compare alternative life-stories, and see which you prefer.

    (4) I'm no egalitarian, but it's possible that an extra year makes more of a difference to the life of a 20 y/o than it does to a 60 y/o. If so, even a maximizing consequentialist could endorse your leanings. I don't think we can necessarily assume that all QALYs are equal. (For an interesting example of violating simple additivity, consider that we sometimes prefer a longer pain.)

  3. Hi Richard, great answers!

    I think my instinct is to reject the global preference idea on this basis: if someone fulfils more than their quota of global preference all at once (say, by being Michael Phelps and getting as many golds as you'll ever get), would this make you slightly more murderable than the man who came second and has higher hopes for the future? I'd suggest not.

    Global preference seems a very stodgy idea if you assume a single set of global preferences being fulfilled such that you can say "I'm 60 now, and I have fulfilled 70% of my objectives". Alternatively, if one's global preference is not a single conception but is being constantly revised, you could argue that it becomes so radically different at different life stages that there is no good way to compare them, and that since they would only be made with regards to the future, all global preferences are equal, with 100% yet to be achieved.

    I far prefer your welfare suggestion. There are unsettling conclusions which you might be drawn to by following this to its ends, though: the relative worth of a life being (in the absence of knowledge of the future) calculable by actuaries according to how long-lived and happy (overweight/smoking/bipolar/dyslexic/churchgoing/unemployed...) people are in general.

  4. Well, I wouldn't want to say it makes you "more murderable" -- again, that sounds like a deontic claim, about 'the right', whereas this post is merely meant to be talking about utility or 'the good'. So I'm not making any claims about 'murderability' or the rightness of murder at all. Merely the uncontroversial claim that someone who has already achieved most of their life goals is harmed less by being killed than someone who would otherwise get to achieve their goals in future.

    Note that the 'welfare' and 'global preference' suggestions are not entirely distinct. My claim is that [idealized] global preferences are a central determinant of our welfare. But you're right that this raises tricky questions about how or whether this can change over time (see, e.g., here). I mean to discuss this more in future.

  5. Here's a coherent (if otherwise defective) alternative: early death is intrinsically bad. That needs some fleshing out--perhaps "death not due to the body running down at an approximately normal rate"--but it could be defended, and reflects a certain strain of common-sense thinking.

  6. You can rightly or "goodly" say that «[f]or non-persons, [death] is no harm at all», but I really think that that idea is plain wrong.

    Death is no harm at all for non-persons that aren't human.

  7. I thank you very much for you thorough and careful response, but I have to keep my point in not saying that an embryo may be taken as a person.

    And you're right, what distinguishes a sheep from a human is probably their DNA, but there is more in that than what, eg., Aristotle called "vegetative soul" (or, say, neural system) — actually all animals, as sheeps do, have a neural system. But there's a differentia (species) to that animal genus: human beings are rational. Even if "babies" (from conception through middle childhood or something like that) can't be granted full rationality, yet we may say that they're capable of it, or that it exists in them in potency, as the tree exists in potency in a seed. Yes, that's the "future claim" you've antecipated. But it's nonsense just if we don't think in this "future claim" from the human point of view.

    Embryos themselves are a genus, and each one of them pertains to a species, and in this case, it's to the human species, which is relevant when we consider a man as an animal, but a rational one, even if it's just in potency, as in the case of human embryos.

    So I just can't see how the concept of person is relevant to the case of human embryos, since what matters is that they're human and as humans should have their right to life protected by the law.

  8. Heh, I understand the subject matter and should have put the final line in lots of parentheses (couldn't hold myself).

    And yes, the question is that the embryo has a species, that it's a human living organism, and that's why it's harmed by death, and also the reason why the death of an embryo harms "humanity", in its intensional sense.

    Also I see myself in agreement with Ricardo, though his position doesn't seem serious, but kind of satyrical (I don't know where this feeling comes from, maybe from the idea of a "evil twin", etc., or "evil genius" perhaps, as Descartes would have put it).


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