Category Archives: Jeff McMahan

Jeff McMahan

The main reason for thinking that nuclear war would be worse than Soviet domination where future generations are concerned is that nuclear war could lead to the extinction of the human race, and it is considerably more important to ensure that future generations will exist than to ensure that, if they exist, they will not exist under Soviet domination.

Jeff McMahan, Nuclear deterrence and future generations, in Avner Cohen & Steven Lee (eds.) Nuclear Weapons and the Future of Humanity: The Fundamental Questions, Totowa, New Jersey, 1986, p. 331

Jeff McMahan

A person who is among the poorest 10 percent of the people in the U.S. today may rightly feel unfortunate, even if she is quite well off in absolute terms and better off than 95 percent of the world’s current population and 99.9 percent of the world’s population over the past five millennia. [T]he judgment that she is unfortunate is based on a comparison with other contemporary Americans.

It is important to notice, however, that these comparative judgments presuppose different comparison classes. When we judge that I am not unfortunate for being unable to walk on walls (even though flies can and I would certainly be better off if I could), the relevant comparison class is the entire human species. If a significant enough fraction of the human population were to acquire the ability to walk on walls, then I might feel unfortunate, just as I would now if I were unable to walk at all. In the case of the poor American, the comparison class is narrower. In other cases, it is even narrower still. During his recent tribulations, Michael Jackson elicited a copious flow of pity for his unfortunate condition, the assumption being that anything less than perfect bliss must count as a deprived state for a star entertainer.

Jeff McMahan, ‘Cognitive Disability, Misfortune, and Justice’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 25, no. 1 (Winter, 1996), pp. 3-35

Jeff McMahan

It is arguable […] that a further effect of our partiality for members of our own species is a tendency to decreased sensitivity to the lives and well-being of those sentient beings that are not members of our species.

One can discern an analogous phenomenon in the case of nationalism. It frequently happens that the sense of solidarity among the members of a nation motivates them to do for one another all that—and perhaps even more than—they are required to do by impartial considerations. But the powerful sense of collective identity within a nation is often achieved by contrasting an idealized conception of the national character with caricatures of other nations, whose members are regarded as less important or worthy or, in many cases, are dehumanized and despised as inferior or even odious. When nationalist solidarity is maintained. in this way—as it has been in recent years in such places as Yugoslavia and its former provinces—the result is often brutality and atrocity on an enormous scale. Thus, while nationalist sentiment may have beneficial effects within the nation, these are greatly outweighed from an impartial point of view by the dreadful effects that it has on relations between nations.

I believe that our treatment of the severely retarded and our treatment of animals follow a similar pattern. While our sense of kinship with the severely retarded moves us to treat them with great solicitude, our perception of animals as radically “other” numbs our sensitivity to them, allowing us to abuse them in various ways with an untroubled conscience. We are not, of course, aggressively hostile to them the way nationalists often are to the members of rival nations; we are simply indifferent. But indifference to their lives and well-being is sufficient, when conjoined with motives of self-interest, for the flourishing of various practices that involve both killing and the infliction of suffering on a truly massive scale and that go virtually unchallenged in all contemporary human societies: factory farming, slaughtering animals for food or to take their furs, using them for the testing of cosmetic products, killing them for sport, and so on. When one compares the relatively small number of severely retarded human beings who benefit from our solicitude with the vast number of animals who suffer at our hands, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the good effects of our species-based partiality are greatly outweighed by the bad.

Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life, Oxford, 2002, p. 221

Jeff McMahan

There are phonograph records purporting to contain “the wit and wisdom of Ronald Reagan” which, when played, are entirely silent. It might be suggested that a book on the Reagan administration’s foreign policy should similarly consist only of blank pages.

Jeff McMahan, Reagan and the World: Imperial Policy in the New Cold War,  New York, 1985, p. 9

Jeff McMahan

Suffering is bad primarily because of its intrinsic nature: it is bad in itself. Suffering of a certain intensity and duration is equally bad, or almost equally bad, wherever it occurs.

Jeff McMahan, ‘Animals’, in R. G. Frey and Christopher Heath Wellman (eds.), A Companion to Applied Ethics, Malden, Massachusetts, 2003, p. 529

Jeff McMahan

I recall my eventual dissertation supervisor, Bernard Williams, saying to me once that he didn’t think that anyone could do ethics competently without a thorough grounding in logic. I nodded solemnly as if to register agreement, though I had never spent a minute studying logic and didn’t even know what a modus ponens was—in fact, I still don’t, though I know it has something to do with p and q.

Jeff McMahan, in Thomas S. Petersen and Jesper Ryberg (eds.), Normative Ethics: 5 Questions, 2007, p. 69

Jeff McMahan

Pain that is equally intense may be equally bad even in the absence of self-consciousness. It is not necessary to have the thought “I am in pain” in order for pain to be bad. As people who have experienced the more intense forms of pain are aware, pain can blot out self-consciousness altogether. Intense pain can dominate consciousness completely, filling it and crowding out all self-conscious thoughts.

Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life, New York, 2002, p. 229

Jeff McMahan

Almost any shift away from the ways in which meat is currently produced and consumed would be better for both animals and people.

Jeff McMahan, ‘Eating Animals the Nice Way’, Dædalus, vol. 137, no. 1 (Winter, 2008), p. 76

Jeff McMahan

[A]lthough I defend the permissibility of abortion and thus welcome the introduction of the abortion pill, I do not believe the debate should end until we have the kind of intellectual and moral certainty about abortion that we have about slavery. It is important to notice that the ostensible victims of abortion—fetuses—are not parties to the debate, while of those who are involved in it, the only ones who have a significant personal interest or stake in the outcome are those who would benefit from the practice. There is therefore a danger that abortion could triumph in the political arena simply because it is favored by self-interest and opposed only by ideals. We should therefore be wary of the possibility of abortion becoming an unreflective practice, like meat eating, simply because it serves the interests of those who have the power to determine whether it is practiced.

Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life, Oxford, 2002, p. viii

Jeff McMahan

[I]t is difficult to believe that the way in which an agent is instrumental in the occurrence of an outcome could be more important than the nature of the outcome itself. Consider the value of an entire human life—of all the good that the life contains. Now suppose that one must choose between killing one person to save two and allowing the two to die. Is it really credible to suppose that how one acts on that single occasion matters more in moral terms than the whole of the life that will be lost if one lets the two die rather than killing the one?

Jeff McMahan, ‘Killing, Letting Die, and Withdrawing Aid’, Ethics, vol. 103, no. 2 (January, 1993), p. 279