A couple of months ago, on Orangephilosophy, I posted descriptions of the following two lives:
Baby. A three-week-old baby, Baby, dies in an accident. Had Baby not died then, he would have enjoyed a happy childhood and adolescence, gone to college, entered a PhD program in philosophy, become a professional philosopher, and lived an enjoyable life until dying at age 80.
Student. A 23-year-old philosophy graduate student, Student, dies in an accident after a happy childhood and adolescence. Had Student not died then, he would have become a professional philosopher and lived an enjoyable life until dying at age 80.
I asked for opinions about whose death was worse for him (and therefore who I should murder, but that was really beside the point). Lots of people responded, and the responses were all over the map. Many people thought Student’s death was worse; many thought Baby’s death was worse; some thought they were equally bad. I think the view that Baby’s death is worse is the only plausible view, and at the risk of boring those who think this is obvious, I have some arguments.
First, take the view that the two deaths are equally bad. The only justification for this view is an Epicurean one: death is never bad for anyone, so both deaths are equally bad. People suggested a couple of reasons to think death isn’t bad. First, some say that death isn’t bad because the dead don’t suffer, so death doesn’t cause anything bad to happen. This is just to ignore the goods death prevents its victim from getting. Second, some say that you can’t harm a dead person – only the living can be harmed. But this is beside the point. The question wasn’t whether Baby or Student would be harmed more after death – the question was whose death is a greater harm. Obviously there’s more that can be said about Epicurus, but I find it hard to believe that anyone really believes the Epicurean view.
Several people said that Student’s death is worse. Some may have thought this had something to do with personal identity – Baby is so young that he is not identical with the (counterfactual) future person who goes to college and such. I think this is false, but if it matters, just substitute a two-year-old or some other suitably young person so that the person who dies is clearly identical to the (counterfactual) future person who does all the good stuff.
The more common reason offered in favor of Student’s death being worse was the fact that Student’s death frustrates many of Student’s actual, deeply held desires and projects; this is not true of Baby’s death. Having a desire frustrated is bad for a person; death is bad in this way for Student, but not for Baby; so Student’s death is worse.
But this is to make the same mistake the Epicureans make: it ignores another way in which Baby’s death is worse. Presumably, if desire frustrations are intrinsically bad, desire satisfactions are intrinsically good. (If not, tell me what is intrinsically good, and see if it makes a difference.) Baby is deprived of 23 more years of desire satisfactions than Student. So death takes 23 extra years of good stuff from Baby compared to Student. It also causes some extra bad stuff for Student, but there’s no way that could be sufficient to outweigh those 23 years of goodness lost. (Of course, this is all given the fiction that some desire satisfaction theory of well-being is true.)
The argument that Baby’s death is worse is straightforward. It starts with the claim that the overall value of an event for a person equals the intrinsic value of his actual life for him minus the intrinsic value his life would have had for him if that event hadn’t occurred. Call this claim C. (Feldman and Broome are among those who hold C or something like it.) C provides the most straightforward way to account not only for bad things caused by an event (like desire frustrations), but good things prevented by it (like desire satisfactions). Applying C to the cases, we first notice that had Baby and Student not died when they did, their lives would have been identical in value. So the worse death is suffered by the one whose actual life is less valuable. And it seems pretty obvious that Baby’s life is less valuable than Student’s, no matter what it is you think makes life worth living.
If you think Student’s death is worse, you have two options: deny C, or say that Baby’s actual life is more valuable than Student’s. If you deny C, you have to put something else in its place. (Suggestions welcome.) That’s what Jeff McMahan tries to do in The Ethics of Killing. In a later installment I’ll talk about his view. If anyone can produce a plausible view that entails that Baby’s life is better than Student’s, I would like to hear it.