Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

Are We Losing Sight of Personhood?

Anyone who has dabbled in philosophy will be well aware of the utilitarian thesis that the right action is that which produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number. One of the problems of this position is that it isn’t clear that the utilitarian has to hold that murder is wrong. Suppose Red wants to kill Blue, and Blue has no friends or relatives. Suppose further that Blue’s life is fairly miserable and Red will derive enormous pleasure from killing Blue. We can construct a scenario along these lines in which happiness is maximised by Red killing Blue, particularly since we will usually assume that, once dead, Blue will experience no happiness or unhappiness to factor into the calculation. Outside the world of thought experiments, there is a strong case that the badness (in broadly utilitarian terms) of death lies in the pain it causes those left behind rather than in what it does to those who die.

The problem with this way of seeing things is that the utilitarian conceives of human life as nothing more than a series of pains and pleasures. This has many uncomfortable consequences (like condoning Blue’s murder) and leads some to reject or revise the philosophy in favour of one which incorporates a better conception of human life. Such conceptions typically introduce, or revolve around, a richer idea of what it is to be a person – not merely an entity which experiences things from moment to moment, but an integral whole with a history, a future, and a distinctive point of view. A whole which has to be respected as such, and which is more than the sum of its parts. The concept is slippery, but the direction of the thinking is clear – as moral agents, we are duty-bound to respect others as equals whose feelings, histories and futures are as important as our own. And this in turn engenders a further commitment – that what is important about our own lives is not the play of pleasure and pain but the memories we carry and the promises we make; not just the present, but the past and future too.

Intuitions about philosophical questions change as culture changes. A couple of years ago, I was teaching undergraduates a course which involved exploring the idea that we all live in a giant simulation of some sort, something I was taught about twenty years ago. One question that always crops up is: does it matter? Twenty years ago, the instinctive consensus was that yes, it does matter. But amongst my undergraduates, the concern was rather that the mechanism underlying the simulation was reliable: so long as their experience was going to be consistent, they didn’t really care if it was real or not. What if, I asked, your boyfriend or girlfriend, or your mum or dad, the person you loved most in the whole world, turned out to be a simulation? Twenty years ago, this would have been a clincher, whereas my class, like the airline hostess in the old joke, understood the question, but could not see the problem.

Two relatively recent pieces of television drama – the 2010 Dr Who Christmas Special and the 2010 Torchwood serial – have told a story in which one life was sacrificed in order to save many. In both cases, the sacrificial victim had no say in their demise, so that in neither case is the narrative one of the self-sacrificing hero. Instead, a tragic narrative is constructed in which we are encouraged to believe that the protagonist has no choice but to sacrifice the life of someone he loves and to feel sorry for the loss he experiences. In both cases, in fact, we are encouraged to feel that it is he who has made the sacrifice, and not the victim.

Naturally, this narrative only functions if we are willing to set aside our ethical objections to the sacrificial act. But it also requires that, in line with the utilitarian position initially outlined, we view death as something whose significance is captured entirely in its consequences for the living.

My own gut feeling about this sort of story is that it is morally bankrupt to the point of being an offence against decency and, to be frank, my standards for decency are not high. As far as I can tell, it is completely novel – I can think of no historical precedent for it. And it seems to represent a sort of cosying up to the simple utilitarian conception of human life as no more than a string of pleasures and pains. It fails to treat the victims as persons, and in constructing the tragedy for the killers, focuses entirely on their emotional experience and not on the deeper questions of character or moral dilemma.

Yet I seem to be in something of a minority on this one. Many people who in general share my moral world view notice nothing special about these pieces, and even when I point it out (by which I mean bang on about it) still don’t really get the objection. And more widely, there seems to be no shortage of people who really feel that when someone murders their grandson (as happens in Torchwood) they deserve our sympathy rather than our approbation.

What can this mean? My concern is that it indicates a shift in our intuitions of what it is to be a person rather like the shift in attitudes to reality exemplified by my philosophy class. We think of human life less in terms of an integrated whole of history, character and commitment and more as a sort of existential roll-call of more or less pleasurable, but essentially unconnected, events. Perhaps thirty years of consumerism and ten years of the war on terror have undermined our old conceptions and made this the natural way to think about our existence. If so, it’s a great loss.

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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