Ben at OrangePhilosophy and Jonathan at Fake Barn Country have been discussing whether it’s more harmful to the victim if (1) a three-week-old baby is murdered or (2) a 23-year-old graduate student is murdered. To my mind, the question cannot be answered without having more information, and this leads me to ask a different question. Consider the two lives described below and ask yourself this: “Would each suffer the same degree of misfortune in dying or, if not, which would suffer the greater misfortune?” (I’ll talk about “dying” rather than “being murdered” just in case some think that being murdered involves some extra harm in having one’s autonomy violated.)

Gilbert is 23 years old and is just starting graduate school in philosophy. Gilbert has the goal of becoming a philosophy professor. In pursuit of this goal, Gilbert has sacrificed a great deal. He’s spent many long and lonely hours studying so as to get the highest marks in all his classes. This has been a struggle, as he only recently overcame a learning disability. As a result of all the extra effort he’s put into his studies, his social life has suffered. He’s had little time for friends or lovers and has been very lonely for the past 23 years. Fortunately, though, his sacrifices are now starting to pay off. It looks like he has a bright future as a graduate student and a future professor. Furthermore, having overcome his learning disability, he’s had more time for a social life. He’s made some new friends and has even found what looks to be a life-long lover. For the first time in his life, he is happy.

Ted is 23 years old and is just starting graduate school in philosophy. For him, life so far has been almost effortless. He’s extremely good-looking, naturally athletic, good at sports and games, and extremely bright. He breezed through primary school, secondary school, and even college with little effort. Graduate school has been significantly more challenging, but he’s risen to the occasion. In fact, it looks like he has a bright future as a graduate student and a future professor. He’s made some new friends and has even found what looks to be a life-long lover. He is as happy as ever.

As I’ve described these two lives, the only significant difference between them is that whereas Gilbert has had to sacrifice a lot to get to where he is now, Ted has managed to get to the very same place with little sacrifice. Let’s assume that despite their disparate pasts, their futures are identical, or, at least, they’re as identical as two different people’s futures can be.

After I’ve heard from others, I’ll post a defense of my own position about which, if either, would suffer the greater misfortune in dying, but for now I’m curious about what others think and why.

10 Replies to “Who Would Suffer the Greater Misfortune?

  1. This is an interesting question, Doug. I do not know the answer, though I suspect the answer is that they both suffer the same amount of loss in dying. But I have the urge to say that Gilbert’s death is a much worse thing than Ted’s death.

  2. My intuition is that Gilbert suffers far more by dying now than Ted would. This is because he has sacrificed so much in the past – sacrifices that are only just beginning to pay off. But if he dies now, then all that would be for naught.
    Ted, by contrast, has not had to make these sacrifices. Of course, it would still be terrible for him to die, but at least he has already lived an enjoyable life. Unlike Gilbert, Ted has not been ‘cheated’ out of reaping the benefits of his previous hard work.
    It seems to me that Gilbert has invested more heavily in his future than Ted has. This is why depriving him of that future is a greater harm than it would be for Ted.

  3. I say equally bad for Ted and Gilbert. But since Gilbert seems to deserve more good than Ted based on the stories, I might want to say that Gilbert’s death is worse *for the world* than Ted’s death.

  4. I find it sort of weird that you expect people to have an intuition about this (if really you do).
    I think neither suffer misfortune by just dying. It’s not like their ghosts will hang around feeling disappointed. If they had become impaired in some way, and had the capacity to dwell on their loss, then that’s misfortune.
    The question seems more like “What would we, as observers, feel about their deaths,” and I guess I would say I’d feel worse about a guy for whom life was just starting to pan out. But I don’t think my reaction has any connection to do with anything (like misfortune) suffered by Gilbert. If he died, just like that, in a flash, then there is no misfortune, just the end of his life. However, Gilbert’s girlfriend, still a subject of experience, suffers something, perhaps misfortune, whatever “fortune” is.

  5. I agree with Will; I don’t believe either suffers from dying. Those still living who cared about Ted and Gilbert may suffer depending on how or if their lives were significantly touched. Physical harm or disease may be harmful, but I don’t believe death is; it just is, and I believe it is simply a change in the form of energy (ashes to ashes or being a “spark” of the universe). Would the question have been raised if the age instead of being 23 were 73?

  6. Doug,
    Interesting question, and one that I’m not sure how to answer. But here are a few models. Oddly, none of them seems to vindicate my initial intuition, which is that Gilbert suffers the greater misfortune.
    First, you might ask “who’d be giving up the better life,” and then we’d want to ask who has the better life. If we did it additively, over the history of their lives, Ted seems to have the better life (assumptions: Ted’s easy successes aren’t vacuous, and Gilbert’s hardships are things we’d not prefer, on reflection, to face in life), even though Gilbert has the unique positive point that he’s overcome hardship. Second, you might ask who’s future was brighter, and who’d be giving up the better future. Here, as you’ve set it up, and with the limited information we’ve got, it seems like we’ve got a rough tie. Gilbert, again, has the unique claim to having overcome hardship, but as described, this adds no unique instrumental value to anything else in his future. Finally, you might ask who has had the more meaningful life, where ‘meaningful’ means something other than ‘better’, as it might in colloquial usage. Here Gilbert might ‘win,’ given the struggles he’s tackled, but it’s not obvious to me.

  7. I don’t think that past events directly influence the harm of death, so plausibly, your two people come out equal. But other factors may enter into it: Gilbert’s more difficult experience may have caused him to *want* various things in his future more than Ted does, in which case, death frustrates Gilbert’s desires more than it does Ted’s. But if all things are equal, then so is the harm of their deaths.
    But commentors above are right — we are more moved by the tragedy of Gilbert’s death than we are by Ted’s. This is something that I have to explain away in order to hold my view — I do this by describing it in terms of human empathy. We like Gilbert. He has our sympathy. Gilbert’s life would make a better novel than Ted’s. But human emotion don’t always track moral truths — a lot of people, for instance, would be more moved by reading about the murder of a kitten than that of a philosophy student.

  8. I found the comments more interesting in a way than the question originally posed. The trend so far is Gilbert positive because of the effort of will it took him to arrive at a positive future, and therefore more expressions of greater loss. While I also believe that death is death and the losses are equal to each, I feel compelled to defend Ted to the extent that a life of easy achievement is never as easy as it looks, and since his efforts were not as self directed as Gilbert’s, perhaps he was a pivotal person in the lives of many others, friends and families alike. It is an interesting observation that a life of perceived hardship is the more admired while if given the choice, few of us would rather be a refugee than a teen from 90210.

  9. i would suppose, in contrast to many others posts, that ted would suffer grater loss as he would “fall from a greater plane.” take this: Experience cake:
    flour = innate cognition (a priori)
    eggs = pure intuitions (time and space)
    water = sensation (a posteriori)
    salt = substance
    sugar = causality
    as one would break down the two experiences from one to the other you would find great qualities of happieness through out ted’s cake, while gilberts would be rather sour and perhaps one might find causation to such an end.

  10. Thanks to all of you for some interesting comments. It seems that some of you share what is my own intuition, i.e., that Gilbert suffers the greater misfortune. Of course, many of you don’t share my intuition. I wonder whether your intuitions are corrupted by your philosophical views.
    Will and E.B.: You seem to presuppose what’s sometimes called the “Narrow Experience Requirement,” which holds that an event (e.g., death) can be bad for someone only if it results in her having a negative experience. I think that this requirement is implausible, but I won’t repeat all the arguments against it here.
    Jonathan: Contrary to you, I would claim that past events can affect the harm of death. If one makes sacrifices for the sake of a future that death deprives one of, then death can render one’s sacrifices pointless. And I would argue that pointless sacrifices are prudentially worse than efficacious sacrifices.
    Those of you who are interested in why I accept this strange view, please see my latest post: “The Uphill versus the Downhill Life.”

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