Saturday, April 23, 2011

Quick question on the badness of death

I'm sympathetic to the idea that the badness of a death depends upon what would have happened if the person lived rather than died. So, I'm sympathetic to the idea that it's worse for the healthy individual to be struck by a bus and killed than it is for an otherwise similar subject who would have died of a burst aneurysm if he hadn't been struck by a bus and killed. (Keep all else similar.) While I'm sympathetic, I do have a worry.

Damien is pretty good at his job. He's a demon bent in killing the young and the healthy. Alice is an angel who isn't powerful enough to prevent Damien from killing. Still, she wants to make things better. So, she might try to hasten a birth so as to extend life on the front end if she thinks Damien will strike the subject down on some particular date. (Maybe she sees that he's penciled in a trip to Detroit twenty years hence.) I think on some occasions, she might make a death less bad by extending life this way. Does she make a death less bad, however, if she straps a ticking time bomb to Damien's victims set to go off after the time of the death Damien intends for them? Intuitively, I don't think this makes the deaths less bad even if it means that Damien's victims don't lose out on as much as other subjects that are victimized in similar ways. Similarly, I don't think Damien can make his subjects' deaths worse by defusing these bombs so that if his attack on them failed they would have lived long lives.

Just curious if others share this sort of intuition and worry about the idea that the badness of a death is a function of the difference the death made.

One potential problem with the example is that the second potentially fatal sequence only determines the magnitude of the difference made by the first potentially fatal sequence if these processes are independent. My initial hunch is that the worry doesn't turn on constructing examples in which the processes are linked in the way I've described, but that's just a hunch. I do feel the pull of the claim that the badness of a pedestrian's death depends upon how long they would have lived if they hadn't been struck by the bus (and the quality of life that awaited them in the nearest world(s) where the pedestrian isn't struck).


Ben said...

Hi Clayton,

I think this is a (characteristically) fun and stimulating post!

I think we can bite the bullet and say that Alice would indeed Damien's victims' deaths less bad. However, in wanting to make things better, that is presumably not what she is really interested in. Rather, what she is interested in is making Damien cause less harm--she wants the quality of the victims' lives to be as close as possible to the quality of the lives they would have had Damien not been involved at all. (Note that by extending the victims' births, strictly speaking she would be doing this, but she would not be making their deaths less bad. The victims would still be *losing* as much had they been born later--they just would've had less to begin with.) But strapping Damien's victims to time bombs would not help her do that. Symmetrically, should he defuse the bombs first, Damien would not be making himself cause less harm than he would have had he left his victims alone.

Gabriele Contessa said...

Hi Clayton,

I happen to share your intuitions about those two cases (but I suspect it would be better to focus on more down-to-earth cases such as ones involving independent snipers). I also sympathize to some extent with the view that the badness of a death is a function of the difference the death made. However, I wonder if the problem stems form comparing the actual world with the closest possible world at which S does not die at t as opposed to the best possible worlds for S (where the best possible worlds for S could be conceived of as the worlds in which S does not die at t but lives on to live as long and happy a life as it is physically possible for S). What do you think? (my main worry is that the notion of best possible worlds for S might be difficult to formulate precisely and coherently)

Neil Sinhababu said...

I can see two ways to treat the counterfactual, and I feel different about Alice's time bombs depending on how we do it.

Here's a way that gives rise to your intuition. If it hadn't been true that Damien was going to kill the victim, Alice wouldn't have put the time bombs on them. (I'm assuming she sets the bombs with foreknowledge.) So the loss of long life is still entirely counterfactually dependent on Damien's killing, and the killing is still just as terrible.

The other way is where we forget about Alice's foreknowledge and leave her actions independent of what's going to happen. This is the way I initially thought of the situation when I read your example, and it made me think that Alice was making Damien's killings less bad by doing something bad herself.

I think this ends up supporting the view that the badness of a death depends upon what would have happened if the person lived rather than died, since the badness depends on how we treat the counterfactual.

Clayton said...

Hi Ben,

Nice point. I think the (allegedly) problematic intuition might be a bit of the moralistic fallacy creeping into the discussion. Her efforts are in the wrong place (so to speak), so it strikes us that her efforts are for not. But, they're not.

Hi Gabriele,

It's an interesting suggestion. I am curious about which worlds to focus on in making these sorts of evaluations. It's something I've just started thinking about as I've just started reading Ben Bradley's book (above?) My main worry about focusing on the best worlds rather than the closest worlds where the subject lives is that we'll lose the ability to account for important intuitions about the comparative badness of two deaths (e.g., pedestrians who get hit by buses where one would have died moments later from a heart attack).

Hi Neil,

I think I had the same sort of worry in mind when I was writing the post, but thought that there might be a way of dealing with it. Unfortunately, I got sidetracked and didn't think much about it since then. I do hope to come back to this, but I've just received my dose of grading.

Gabriele Contessa said...

I suspect no one other than philosophers (or, maybe, actuaries) shares that intuition. If a very young person dies in an accident, I don't think that anyone would feel that his/her death was any less bad when they discover he/she also had a terminal illness that would have killed him/her shortly after (at most it would seem to make the all situation even more tragic). I think that the idea can be supported by the following argument. I think you would agree that it is not better or worse to die killed by two independent snipers then by one. In other words, a causally overdetermined death is no better or worse than one that is not causally overdetermined. But what if Sniper B's bullet is 30 secs late and her bullet would have killed you if only Sniper A's bullet had not done so already? On your view, it would seem like this would make death by Sniper's A bullet less bad, but I really can't see how. Am I wrong?

mekajamjam said...


I think your going in the wrong direction with this question.

Death is something that is unavoidable. It's something that we know is going to happen. So technically death cannot be considered bad.

In relation to your example, Damien can kill the young and healthy but never before their purpose is up. Alice may not have the power to stop Damien but she has the ability to keep the victim alive until he/she has served their purpose.

The death is only bad when you do not know the victims purpose. We all die in our own time, but not before we have completed our required task.

alexis said...

The post evoked me the difference between the common belief that death is an evil and Socrates' creed that it is not. The choose for one of the beliefs would help us for resolving such puzzles as that from your post