Sunday, February 10, 2013

Early Death vs. Non-Existence

Consider what we might call the "Pure Deprivation Account" of the harm of death, that death is worse for you the more (of a good future) it deprives you of.  So it's a grievous harm to die the moment after you come into existence. McMahan objects to this kind of view on the grounds that it would render it "profoundly important to prevent the existence" of one who would otherwise immediately die (whereas he takes it that such preventive measures are not profoundly important).  Ben Bradley, in 'The Worst Time to Die', offers the intriguing response that it isn't always important to prevent great harms.  In this post, I want to explore this idea further.

Bradley writes (p.300):
Remember that death is a harm that is merely extrinsically bad for its victim. Death is harmful because of what it prevents; it has a sort of extrinsic value. When determining whether there is any reason at all not to perform the action, we should never consider the extrinsic values of the results of the action. For example, suppose you save my life by curing me of a debilitating disease and, as a result, I live an extra ten very happy years. I then die from an unrelated cause, and my later death deprives me of yet another ten happy years. Your saving my life was an indirect cause of my later death, and my later death was very bad for me. But my later death was merely extrinsically bad, and in evaluating how good it was that you saved my life, the extrinsic badness of my later death is irrelevant. Before my death I would not be justified in complaining, “Yes, you saved my life and gave me ten happy years, but you also indirectly caused an event that will prevent me from getting another ten happy years; so the bad you caused cancels the good you caused.” The reason this would be an unjustified complaint is that your saving my life, rather than letting me die, did not prevent me from getting those later ten years of a happy life that my later death prevents me from having. Similarly, in the case at issue in McMahan’s argument, the act of allowing a person to come into existence, rather than preventing his existence, does not prevent that person from getting the goods of which his death deprives him. Even though the act of allowing the person to come into existence indirectly causes another event that is very harmful to the person, that fact is not relevant to the evaluation of the act.

The upshot of this argument is that it matters greatly how we would prevent the harm of death.  We have very strong reasons to prevent death by ensuring the continued living of the subject.  But we have no such reasons to prevent death by preventing the subject from ever existing at all.  The harm of death, on Bradley's view, is just that it deprives the subject of future goods, but non-existence is no better in that regard.

Does that really seem right, though?  I'm dubious.  Consider two possibilities in turn.  First, suppose we accept some broadly "biological" view of identity, such that an embryo is one and the same entity as the person it grows into.  Here we run into the spontaneous abortion objection: it just doesn't seem true that we typically have very strong reasons to save the lives of embryos that would otherwise be spontaneously aborted (with no-one aware that a pregnancy had even taken place).  There's no real "harm" there.

On the other hand, suppose we instead accept a broadly "psychological" view of identity, such that we don't come into existence until we acquire something close to mental "personhood" -- as toddlers, say.  It's now clear that we have reasons to ensure the continued living of the subject, but the second claim is now in doubt: should we really think that the death of a toddler is no worse than simply failing to conceive it would have been?  The early death of a person seems to me positively bad in a way that mere non-existence is not.  (Do you agree?  It's obviously instrumentally worse, e.g. for the emotionally-invested parents, but even bracketing all that... it just seems worse, in itself, to have more people exist with brief, tragic lives.)

This might be taken to suggest that death is not only extrinsically bad after all.  Early death, on this alternative proposal, introduces an element of tragedy that plausibly contributes positive disvalue to a state of affairs.  So even if Bradley is right that the extrinsic badness of early death is no reason to prefer non-existence, this additional aspect of death's badness might furnish such reasons after all.

Another possible explanation is opened up if we accept actualist partiality. On this view, it is only for people who actually come into existence that we can be presented with "personal" (as opposed to merely "impersonal") reasons.  So, in cases of early death, we have personal reasons for regret that we would not have in the case of mere non-existence.  (There we could at most have impersonal reasons for regretting that the world doesn't have an additional happy person in it.)  We would have additional reasons for thinking that things had turned out badly -- that it would be so much better had the person lived on.  Had they never existed, we would not have such strong reasons to prefer that they had existed.

But this does not yet get us the conclusion that early death is worse than non-existence.  To get that, it seems we need some further principle to the effect that it's better to prevent deeply regrettable events.  But this brings us back to Bradley's original argument (just with "deeply regrettable events" substituted for "great harms").  So I don't think actualist partiality can do any real work here.  If early death is worse than non-existence, then this must simply be a basic datum in our (impersonal) axiology.

What do you think?


  1. Would Singer's (2011/1980) "moral ledger" view be helpful here? On this view, it seems we have impersonal reasons not to bring into existence beings whose preferences will be mostly unsatisfied. It would be wrong to do so. In contrast, it would not be equally wrong not to bring existence beings who would be spending happy lives. We do not have as strong impersonal reasons to create such beings as we have not to cause miserable lives to occur. (Of course, the view is helpful only on the assumption that "early death" pertains to beings with conscious preferences.)

    Singer writes:
    "The debit view of preferences explains why this should be so: to bring into existence a child, most of whose preferences we will be unable to satisfy, is to create a debit that we cannot cancel and is therefore wrong. To create a child whose preferences will be satisfied is to create a debit that will be erased when the desires are satisfied. On the debit view, this is ethically neutral." (114)

    I'm not sure this solves the problem, and obviously this would only insofar as we're concerned with conscious beings, rather than with early death per se. Still, the idea is, preference frustration rather than mere deprivation can account of a judgment to the effect that early death is, other things being equal, worse than non-existence.

    Also, the reason why, as you write, "[t]he early death of a person seems... positively bad in a way that mere non-existence is not" may lie in Singer's account of preference-universalization. For:

    "there is a significant difference between putting yourself in the place of other existing beings who will be affected by your act and putting yourself in the place of beings who might not exist at all. In one case, we are satisfying existing preferences, and in the other, bringing preferences into existence" (116)

    I'm skipping lots of complications Singer (3rd edition 2011) considers about possible universes, but, interestingly, Singer concludes that the judgment depends on some kind of preference-independent value - the (intrinsic) value of a Peopled Universe as opposed to that of a Nonsentient Universe (117-118).

    1. Right, yes, something along those lines seems plausible to me.


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