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Killing and the Time-relative Interest Account


Jeff McMahan appeals to what he calls the “Time-relative Interest Account of the Wrongness of Killing” to explain the wrongness of killing individuals who are conscious but not autonomous. On this account, the wrongness of such killing depends on the victim’s interest in his or her future, and this interest, in turn, depends on two things: the goods that would have accrued to the victim in the future; and the strength of the prudential relations obtaining between the victim at the time of the killing and at the times these goods would have accrued to him or her. More precisely, when assessing this interest, future goods should be discounted to reflect reductions in the strength of such relations. Against McMahan’s account I argue that it relies on an implausible “actualist” view of the moral importance of interests according to which satisfactions of future interests only have moral significance if they are satisfactions of actual interests (interests that will in fact exist). More precisely, I aim to show that the Time-relative Interest Account (1) does not have the implications for the morality of killing that McMahan takes it to have, and (2) implies, implausibly, that certain interest satisfactions which seem to be morally significant are morally insignificant because they are not satisfactions of actual interests.

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  1. I write “wrongful” killings because not all killings are necessarily wrong. However, for brevity, I shall simply discuss “killings” in what follows.

  2. I should emphasise, again, that I am here assuming that the wrongness of killing should be explained entirely in terms of the badness of death. Apart from considerations of the interest in surviving, McMahan also accepts a requirement of respect, according to which it is equally wrong to kill (autonomous) persons. I briefly return to this requirement and its importance for the present discussion at the end of the Section.

  3. Elsewhere, I defend an account of what prudentially matters that is quite similar to McMahan’s. Like him, I argue that an individual’s present interest in a future benefit is a function both of the size of the benefit and of the degree of continuous physical realization of relevant psychology between this individual now and the beneficiary at the time the benefit falls. See Holtug (2007a, 2010, Ch. 4).

  4. Apart from future benefits and the relations that prudentially matter, McMahan allows that the badness of death may depend on factors such as narrative unity, retroactive effects, desert and desires (independently of the contributions these make to benefits and the relations that prudentially matter). However, in the present context, we can ignore these further factors. See McMahan (2002, 174–185).

  5. The distinction between actual and merely possible interests should not be confused with a different modal distinction, namely that between necessary and contingent interests. An interest is necessary, relative to a particular comparison of outcomes, if and only if it exists in all the outcomes compared, and contingent if and only if it exists in only some of these outcomes. For further (critical) discussion of actualist and necessitarian accounts of interests, see Holtug (2010, Ch. 2).

  6. Christoph Fehige defends such a “frustrationist” account with respect to preferences in his (1998). See also Singer (1993, 128–131).

  7. McMahan (1981, 100). This view has famously been defended by Jan Narveson; see his (1967, 69–71). For a powerful critique of Narveson, see Sprigge (1968, 338).

  8. I elaborate this objection to the Asymmetry further in Holtug (2004, 138–140, 2010, 249–251). There, I also point out that the Asymmetry is incompatible with a plausible person-affecting solution to the so-called non-identity problem.

  9. I argue this in greater detail in Holtug (2004, 146–148, 2010, 270–272).

  10. Therefore, I also believe McMahan should reject the claim that the abortion issue hinges on identity. I propose an account of abortion that has just this implication in Holtug (2010, 103–111, 330–334).

  11. I develop and defend such a prioritarian view of justice in Holtug (2006, 2010, Ch. 8). But note that the claim that we should give priority to the 20-year-old is equally compatible with, for example, egalitarianism, leximin and sufficientarianism. Thus, everything else being equal, saving the 20-year-old rather than the 80-year-old will promote equality, the welfare of the worst off, and the welfare of the worse off below the sufficiency threshold (assuming that the 20-year-old is indeed below the threshold).

  12. Thus, it is usually assumed that “whole lives” are the appropriate temporal units in a theory of justice; see, for example, Arneson (1989, 85); Daniels (1996, 256–264); Dworkin (1981, 304–305); Nagel (1991, 69); and Rawls (1971, 78).

  13. I consider the idea that because identity is not what prudentially matters, justice is sensitive to the timing of compensation—and its implications—in much greater detail in Holtug (2010, Ch. 10). Parfit also considers this idea but concludes, in my view mistakenly, that the resulting principle of justice will roughly coincide with negative utilitarianism (Parfit 1984, 344).


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I would like to thank S. Matthew Liao, Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, Christian Munthe, Ingmar Persson, Thomas Søbirk Petersen, participants at the International Society for Utilitarian Studies conference in Berkeley 2008, and two anonymous referees for The Journal of Ethics for helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.

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Correspondence to Nils Holtug.

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Holtug, N. Killing and the Time-relative Interest Account. J Ethics 15, 169–189 (2011).

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  • Abortion
  • Jeff McMahan
  • Killing
  • Time-relative interest account