The Ethics of Creating, Saving, and Ending LivesJeff McMahan (Oxford University)
The Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies
THE BURMAN LECTURES IN PHILOSOPHY 2021
The Ethics of Creating, Saving, and Ending Lives
Sekyra and White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy, University of Oxford
Lecture 1: Abortion, Prenatal Injury, and What Matters in Alternative Possible Lives
Wednesday December 1, 13.15-15.00, Hörsal NAT.D.450
Abstract: There are certain assumptions about the nature of interests and the basis of rational egoistic concern that imply that death is not a misfortune for an individual of our kind for a certain period after that individual comes into existence. If this implication is correct, and if the nature of a fetus provides no basis for attributing to it a moral status that makes killing it wrong even though its death is not a harm, then there may be no moral reason not to have a painless abortion. On these assumptions, having an abortion is relevantly like preventing a person from coming into existence, which most regard as permissible. Yet the same assumptions imply that a fetus has no present interest in avoiding a painless injury. The obvious response is that, although abortion does not frustrate any interest of the fetus, prenatal injury is likely to frustrate interests that the fetus will later have independently of whether it is injured. I will argue, however, that although this is true to a limited extent, it is insufficient to show that prenatal injury will later be worse for the injured person in the relevant sense of “worse for.” I will conclude that the infliction of prenatal injury is often relevantly like causing a less well-off person to exist rather than a different, better-off person.
Lecture 2: The Population Ethics Asymmetry and the Permissibility of Procreation
Thursday December 2, 13.15-15.00, Hörsal NAT.D.450
Abstract: Many people accept that there is a moral reason to cause a better-off person to exist rather than a different, less well-off person. I will argue that most of those who do not already accept this claim ought to do so since, because of Parfit’s Non-Identity Problem, it provides the only plausible basis for a strong moral objection to causing future people to suffer a great range of bad effects as a consequence of such phenomena as climate change. I will also argue, however, that it is difficult to identify an account of the nature of the reason to cause a better-off rather than a less well-off person to exist that is compatible with the common sense view that there is no moral reason to cause a person to exist just because that person’s life would be well worth living. This puts pressure on us to reject this latter view, which, I will argue, is also incompatible with another common sense view with which it is often paired – namely, that there is a strong moral reason not to cause a person to exist if that person’s life would be intrinsically bad, or not worth living.
Lecture 3: Moral Reasons to Cause People to Exist
Friday December 3, 13.15-15.00, Hörsal NAT.D.450
Abstract: I will continue to explore the tensions between the idea that there is a strong moral reason to cause a well-off person to exist when the alternative is that a different, less well-off person will come into existence instead, but no moral reason to cause a well-off person to exist when the alternative is that no new person will come into existence. I will consider, for example, whether it makes sense to suppose that the reason to cause a well-off person to exist is conditional either on the inevitability of someone’s coming into existence or on one’s decision to cause a person to exist. I will argue that there is a reason to cause a person to exist both when the alternative is that a less well-off person will exist and when the alternative is that no new person will exist. If that is right, we must determine how strong this reason is in each case and how the strength of the reason compares with, for example, the strength of the reason to save a person’s life.
All interested are welcome to these lectures!
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