Gary Varner’s visit

15 05 2016

Gary Varner visited in March, to give the last CSAW seminar of the year. This has taken me ages to write up as my group had a whole hour or two with him, and the answers to the questions we asked took some thinking to summarize. But it was a great meeting (and great overall visit): Gary’s lovely (as well as smart) and had already memorized everyone’s names which got us off to a nice start. Then everyone did me proud by asking very thoughtful, articulate questions.

So, does death really matter for an individual, as long as it’s painless? There is an argument, albeit not fashionable now, that death is not inherently bad for the individual who dies, because once dead, they cannot experience this as a harm. Gary really had no objections to this (yay), aside from preferring the view that there is something sad and bad about projects being cut short.

Some ‘deprivation accounts’ of the badness of death thus strongly emphasise the curtailing of this sort of plan or expectancy. But others emphasise something far less cognitive: the mere loss of net wellbeing. Why do philosophers differ in this, we wondered?  A lot depends on whether they want to advance ‘replaceability’ arguments, explained Gary: the well-being of one animal can simply be replaced by the well-being of another (such that six cows who each live a year are seen as the same as one cow who lives six), but individual-specific projects and plans, in contrast, are unique and irreplaceable. (This seems like a white male academic view to me  — “My book! The deep tragedy of it not being finished!!” — but luckily Gary thought that was funny).

As for what we call the ‘pseudo maths’ of utilitarianism, Gary of course had to admit they are imperfect, but did clear up one thing: that arguing for increased average happiness avoids some of the problems (e.g. the Repugnant Conclusion) created by arguing for increased total happiness.

Here is everyone pondering the Meaning of Life: left to right, Gary, Mike, Andrea, Maria, Misha and Jenna.