Professor Jeff McMahan | University of Oxford
Definition of word morality in dictionary
Definition of word morality in dictionary
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Professor Jeff McMahan

Being a morally good, and in some ways self-sacrificing, person is one of the best ways to have a life that is not only objectively good, but also subjectively satisfying. This is something that psychologists have been confirming and I think people have known it for a long time. People who are less self-absorbed, who devote their activities to projects other than their own self-advancement and pleasure, who care about things outside their own lives, tend to be subjectively more satisfied, as well as having objectively better lives.

It seems there’s a tension between our immediate self interest and the greater good – what practical tips would you give to someone who wants to have an enjoyable, but also morally good, life?
One practice would be to think about the people you know who you think are really admirable. For most of us, those will be people who are morally good and have what we consider to be satisfying lives. Then we can in part, or at least in some relevant ways, model ourselves on these people we admire. I know I’ve done that.

 

Who would you consider to be admirable?
Most of the people whom I admire are historical figures, and a lot of them are philosophers. John Stuart Mill was a very admirable person; Henry Sidgwick: another estimable British philosopher; Samuel Johnson: the English lexicographer, literary critic and writer; John Ruskin I find very admirable in a lot of ways. There are other people whose ideas and work I admire who are models in certain ways, for instance Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

They were all people who were highly reflective about how to live, who got closer to the truth than most people do, and also strove to live in accordance with their beliefs, even if it involved some considerable sacrifice. 

 

What components do you think make up a happy life?
There are different ways of understanding what it is to have a good life, of understanding wellbeing. Many people think that wellbeing is reducible to one thing, like happiness, where happiness means something like subjective satisfaction or contentment – you are pleased with the way things are going, you’re in a good mood much of the time.

I think this is what at least the older psychological studies of happiness measure, when they ask people in different countries ‘How happy are you, on a scale of 1–10?’ What they’re really getting is a measure of subjective satisfaction. That’s a mistake – people can be mistaken about whether they have a high level of wellbeing, about whether they have a good life.

For example, when things were going well for Hitler, when he was controlling Germany and had plans for making the things happen that he believed ought to happen, if you’d asked him ‘Are you happy?’, he probably would have said ‘Yes, deliriously happy – I’m getting what I want and achieving my aims.’ But I think he had a terribly bad life for him. One good test for this is, if you love somebody for their own sake, say your child, you can ask yourself ‘Would I want this person to have a certain type of life for their own sake?’ That’s a good way to figure out what you really think. So, you would never wish for a life like Hitler’s for your own child. You’d rather your child be less subjectively satisfied, but more an objectively good person with the objectively good things in life.

The objectively good things include things like close personal relations based on mutual sympathy and mutual understanding, achievement of worthy aims, having knowledge, and aesthetic experience and creativity. These things are the elements of a good life, it seems to me. It’s not just a matter of how you feel or whether you’re satisfied with the way things are going.

 

Do you think there’s any way of cultivating that objective perspective and applying it to your own self-improvement?
One could start with a claim from Socrates: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’. That’s a bit of an exaggeration but, nevertheless, for many people a really important ingredient of having a good life is being reflective about one’s own life and making a determination to live one's life well. For most of us, a good life, and being a good person, involves hard work.

Most people recognise that having a good life involves living a morally good life. Again, you can see this by asking what you would want for your child for his or her own sake. I know that if my child were at a crossroads and could either act in ways that would lead to a morally good though less subjectively satisfying life or a morally less good life with more subjective satisfaction, or happiness and pleasure, I would want for my child to have the morally better life with less pleasure.

One of the happy accidents is that being a morally good, and in some ways self-sacrificing, person is one of the best ways to have a life that is not only objectively good, but also subjectively satisfying. This is something that psychologists have been confirming and I think people have known it for a long time. People who are less self-absorbed, who devote their activities to projects other than their own self-advancement and pleasure, who care about things outside their own lives, tend to be subjectively more satisfied, as well as having objectively better lives. Devotion to aims that transcend one’s self-concern is one of the ingredients of a certain type of good life, and maybe the best life.

 

What’s your main research interest?
What I work on are, primarily, life and death issues in moral philosophy. That has involved some work in metaphysics; I’ve done a lot of thinking about what kind of entity we are, so that I can understand the conditions of our beginning to exist and ceasing to exist, in relation to issues like abortion, euthanasia and so on.

But I’ve also written a lot about permissibility and impermissibility of killing, about the morality of self-defence and the defence of others, and extending that to war and the ethics of war.

 

In terms of abortion and euthanasia, when would you say we are alive?
I think that we need to ask two questions here. Not the question that people sometimes ask: ‘When does life begin?’ – I think that’s a terribly misleading question. Rather we should ask: ‘When did this organism that’s sitting in the chair here begin to exist and to be alive?’ and ‘When did I begin to exist?’ Those questions have the same answer only if I am identical with this organism sitting in this chair. And I think I’m not. I am a particular subject of consciousness. If my brain were transplanted into another body, I would then be in that other body and my current body might continue to stay alive indefinitely, but it would not be me. So I am not this organism.

I think that I came into existence, and that we come into existence, when a conscious subject or an entity that has the capacity for consciousness begins to exist, which in the case of human persons like ourselves, is sometime between 22 to 28 weeks after conception.

 

On the other side of things, with euthanasia, would you say when someone ceases to have consciousness ‘they’ cease to exist?
I think we cease to exist when we irreversibly lose the capacity for consciousness. Our bodies can go on living even after we have ceased to exist.

 

How did you get to where you are now in what you’ve chosen to specialise in within philosophy?
I grew up in the American South and I grew up as a hunter; I went around shooting and killing things. When I was in high school I decided to stop doing that because it seemed wrong. Then I became a vegetarian. So, right from the time that I entered higher education, I was concerned with moral issues about causing suffering and killing. For much of that time the Vietnam War was still in progress and I was influenced by the social upheaval in the United States caused by that.

The way I got into philosophy was reading Bertrand Russell while I was an undergraduate studying English literature – he had written books about war and nuclear weapons that I read. In the late 1970s, when I became a graduate student, Ronald Reagan was about to become president, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and the Cold War started heating up. I joined CND and wrote about nuclear weapons. While I was a graduate I wrote a book on British nuclear weapons policy and another on Reagan’s foreign policy. All along I’ve been concerned with issues of international politics, and war as the main one of those.

 

You’ve mentioned Bertrand Russell; what other works changed your thinking about moral philosophy?
The book that changed my way of thinking about moral philosophy, by far the most, was Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit, who lives here in Oxford and has been a fellow of All Souls for almost all his adult life. I think that’s the best book in moral philosophy for hundreds of years. Derek is someone who all of his life has been obsessed with the question of what we have most reason to do, how we are to live. He has another, very substantial and significant work called On What Matters which is devoted to trying to show that things really do matter independently of what we think and what we actually care about. Parfit’s works have been the major influence on my philosophical thinking.

 

Do you think there’s any difference between getting those moral lessons from philosophy or from great works of fiction?
I think you can learn from both. You’re going to find the arguments by and large in philosophy rather than in literature. But sometimes you can find compelling illustrations, demonstrations of practical wisdom, in literature. One person whom I’ve failed to mention thus far is George Eliot – I think in many ways she was the wisest of all novelists. I get a lot out of reading George Eliot’s fiction. I wish she had written some philosophy.

 

What would you like to achieve with your work?
I’ve followed a certain trajectory in my choice of topics to write on that I don’t regret. I do think these issues of life and death, of killing and letting die, are of fundamental moral and political importance. What I would most like is to have got some things right and for that to be influential in moral and political practice in some ways.