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9/1/09

Buddhism, Animals, and The Desire To Live

Is there a philosophical link between Buddhist thought and the nature of animals? In his book The Ethics of Killing, Jeff McMahan claims that your interest in continuing your life depends on your understanding of the continuity between "you" and later "you's". Animals, he says, are not as connected to their later selves.

As a reviewer of the book puts it, "The interest in going on living that you have at a particular point in your life (your “time relative interest” in going on living) depends—says McMahan—on the “prudential unity relations” between you at that time of your life and you or you at later times."

McMahan says that animals have a tenuous connection to this continuity. The reviewer of his book has questions about McMahan's thesis. The implication is that animals have "a weaker stake in going on living." The problem, as the reviewer sees it, is that "it implies that certain kinds of people have a weaker interest in going on living than the rest of us."

This sounds reminiscent of Buddhist teachings on putting out the fire of desire and living in the now. Or, people who no longer believe in their religion. Or, those who lose themselves in intense activity--Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow. (He has a book titled Flow.) In all these three cases there is less continuity between your present and future self. Does this mean you and animals have a weaker desire to go on living?

The reviewer has this to say about Buddhists: "You’ve taken heed of Buddhist wisdom that desire is the root of all suffering, so you 'live in the present' and limit your desires about the future as much as possible."

As for me, I think McMahan is way off base. Apropos of not very much at all, I once heard a story about a captain, a first mate, an ordinary seaman, and a pig. Floating at sea in a life boat after their ship sank, they discussed how to stay alive with only a cask of water and a pig. They would have to ration the water, but how could they ration the pig? If they killed it, it would rot under the hot sun and they would starve. The captain and first mate thought it best to cut off a little chunk of the pig at a time, first a little here, then a little there. The ordinary seaman then pointed out one small matter. They were in a very small boat and the pig would violently resist any attempt to diminish it.

If you want to read the review of his book, here it is. More

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