Thinking about death

18 03 2016

9780199396085

This is us (L to R Misha, Jenna, Mike, Maria and Andrea) discussing the ‘Ethics of Killing Animals’, a book we’ve been reading all fall and winter. It’s proved very tough going, but intriguing.

In prep for philosopher Gary Varner‘s visit in two weeks time, we’ve just re-read the six chapters that we’d already covered to date, working in pairs to (try and) re-explain them to everyone else.

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Tough even the second time around, but we did manage to distil our questions for Gary into three main ones:

I. Does death really matter for an individual, as long as it’s swift and painless?

One view of death is that it is not bad for the individual who dies (providing the death is suffering-free) because after subject dies they no longer exist to experience this as a harm (apparently first advanced by Lucretius and Epicurus; now a principle or stance that the non-existent have no properties). No-one in the book developed this: why not?

II. ‘Deprivation accounts’ of the badness of death

The more common view is that death is bad for the individual because it deprives them of future benefits. But some emphasise future net wellbeing benefits (something any sentient being could have and lose) and others emphasise the curtailing of plans & expectancies for the future (requiring the subject to have a ‘narrative’ about their lives: something only some humans and some animals have). Why do philosophers differ in what they feel death deprives us of?

III. The ‘Pseudo Maths’ of utilitarianism

Is it really possible to weigh up harms vs. benefits in an objective manner?  Why are future harms/benefits given less weight than current ones? And are we then morally obligated to create more and more happy individuals if we can?


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