10 December 2003

Jeff McMahan on Dogliness

There are, I confess, moments when one doubts the superiority of the goods of human life, at least in comparison to those of certain types of animal life. If, for example, one has ever had a dog, one must surely at some point have suspected that a dog's life contains more pure, unalloyed joy than one's own. But even if it is true that, as a sober and responsible adult, one seldom seems to attain quite the peaks of ecstasy that a dog experiences at the prospect of going for a walk, most of us can remember having, as a child, a capacity for almost boundless delight in various equally simple and trivial activities. Thus one may console oneself with the reflection that one's life as a whole contains much the same goods that a dog's contains, and much more besides. This reflection, however, has little bearing on the comparative evaluation of human and animal death, since the simple ecstasies of childhood are, for most of us, in the past. Still, it seems that even adult human life tends to contain its share of exuberant joys that rival in intensity those experienced by dogs. They are simply not so conspicuous as they are within the lives of dogs, where they dramatically punctuate days otherwise given over to torpor and sleep. Human well-being, by contrast, is more continuous, dense, and varied, so that the ecstatic moments, which may be more diffusely spread over longer periods, are less salient. And what fills the intervals between these moments is normally altogether better than the dull vacancy of a dog at rest.

(Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life [New York: Oxford University Press, 2002], 195-6 [italics in original])