I walk into Corpus Christi and I’m greeted by Jeff McMahan, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Oxford. He’s just had a long chat with a student of his, and there’s a faux changing of the guards as McMahan hugs his student goodbye and then shakes my hand.
McMahan seems agitated, and tells me he’s had a rough few days as he apologises for being late. He beckons, and I follow him up a winding flight of stairs into his office; papers are scattered across a table. Hazy light seems trapped within the oaky study and it’s strangely intoxicating. McMahan points me towards a large armchair and as he sits opposite me I sink into the soft seat.
Jeff McMahan is renowned for his expansive analytical work on ethics, particularly on war and killing. It’s not easy to summarise his wide range of views, and indeed the space on my page does not permit me to condense our 80-minute conversation any more than it does to outline McMahan’s varied stances.
“In many ways. I’m not really a proper philosopher,” he begins. “I’ve worked on the issues that have seemed important to me, mostly life and death issues.”
He goes on to explain his career focus on population ethics, which he admits is “very difficult” and a topic within which “very little progress has ever been made.” I take that as a sign to press him on some of his more controversial views, and question him about his opinion on aborting severely disabled foetuses.
In many ways. I’m not really a proper philosopher. I’ve worked on the issues that have seemed important to me, mostly life and death issues.
“If we have good reason to believe that [a foetus’] life is just going to be full of suffering and not containing any positive well being of any significance, then [aborting it] can be considered euthanasia, that is a good death,” McMahan says. He goes on to state that this would be permissible even with a nine month old foetus.
I ask if this could lead to problematic consequences. Is there a moral difference between a foetus nine months inside the womb, versus the moment it comes out of the womb?
“There is no moral difference,” McMahan responds confidently.
His perspective on the sanctity of life is not confined to binaries but reflects a continuum of human development and consciousness. “The difference between abortion and infanticide is just a matter of geography,” he expands, challenging the notion that the moral status of a being could hinge on its location relative to the womb. He critiques the legislative absurdities that have arisen from such positional distinctions, highlighting the need for a more nuanced understanding of the moral status of foetuses and infants.
McMahan expands on this, referring to “ludicrous and comic debates in the American Congress about what’s called partial birth abortion.” He shakes his head in half-disbelief, “You know, if it’s a breech birth… if you can see the belly button, then it’s murder. If you can’t see the belly button, it’s okay. Something like that… That shows you the ridiculousness of thinking that anything hinges on whether a being is a foetus or an infant, except that if it’s still inside somebody’s body, that person in whose body the being is existing at the time has some prerogatives over what’s done because it is her body.”
I push back, citing the negative implications of killing babies. McMahan’s answer is long, and he claims that “the extent to which an act of killing harms and wrongs the individual who is killed is a function of the psychological capacities of that individual.” I want to push back once again, but I realise no more progress will be made. The subject is sensitive, and his stance is clearly not a straightforward one. Indeed, he admits there are multiple caveats when it comes to such practices.
And yes, I think that it should be completely illegal to operate a factory farm and to torture animals in these places where most of the meat comes from that people eat.
Our discussion shifts to his vegetarianism and veganism. Recalling his own experiences, he muses, “When I was doing PPE here at Corpus a long time ago, I was the only vegetarian in the college. The only thing that the kitchen could do for me was a tiny little nasty frozen pizza from lunch with some baked beans. That’s what I had every day for lunch…I don’t know what this fucking place would have done if I had actually been a vegan.”
I laugh, but I’m impressed by his commitment, as much as I am his range. McMahan is down-to-earth and surprisingly relatable, as he admits to sometimes breaking his view that “people should be vegan.”
Wanting to probe further, I ask “What do you think about pushing veganism on students?” bringing up Meat Free Mondays as a topic of contention. Colleges and the university itself have certain policies policies in place to tell us what we should do ethically and morally. To what extent do they have the right to tell students what they should and shouldn’t eat?
“I’ve never thought about this before,” McMahan grants, “but it seems to me that something here hinges on what the nature of the relation is between the institution that’s providing food and those who are consuming it.” At his house, no one coming for dinner will receive meat, he tells me. But, he accepts it’s difficult to justify the imposition of certain diets when students are paying for their meals.
“What if the government starts to implement such policies?” I ask. Bringing it to the national level, I complicate the matter: “You could say, ‘Well, the government has laws against killing people. Why shouldn’t it have laws against killing animals?’ Is this just a political thing? Or is it a personal freedom that a human has the right to eat what they want?”
“I don’t think [humans have this right]. I think that there are all kinds of instances in which immoral action rises to a level at which enforcement by the state is not just permissible but perhaps even required,” McMahan responds. “And yes, I think that it should be completely illegal to operate a factory farm and to torture animals in these places where most of the meat comes from that people eat. That should be illegal. These are torture chambers and centres for the slaughter of sensitive social beings.”
“Should it be illegal to provide and sell the meat of animals that had been raised humanely and given lives that are worth living, albeit cut short by painless killing? Probably not; that probably shouldn’t be illegal. Is it morally permissible? I doubt it, but it’s not so obviously impermissible that it should be illegal.”
What they’re saying is, ‘We share this grief. We need to learn to live together. We’re ordinary people. We’re ordinary human beings. We’re like each other. We’re not just Palestinians and Israeli Jews, we’re human beings. Let’s live like human beings and not like two antagonistic competitors.’
I leave the most topical discussion to the end and shift attention to the current conflict in the Middle East. McMahan is clearly very passionate, but also troubled, as he tells me that his views have instigated criticism from Israelis he considered friends.
“They’re both wrong,” McMahan asserts, referring to Hamas and the Netanyahu government. He traces the roots of the conflict to Israel’s longstanding refusal to “give justice to Palestinian people,” a stance he believes has perpetuated the struggle. As he continues, he critiques Israeli settlements in the West Bank, characterising it as “creeping aggression” and “naked thievery,” unequivocally denying any entitlement to the land through conquest.
However, McMahan does not spare the Palestinian leadership either, branding their historical preference for violence over nonviolent resistance as “stupid.” He suggests that had Palestinians been led by a figure like Gandhi, they might have achieved statehood half a century ago.
McMahan does not hesitate to express his unequivocal views on the actions of Hamas, claiming that they are “worse than the Nazis”. Yet, he is careful to distinguish between the actions of the few and the beliefs of the many. “Not all Palestinians are Hamas – the majority of Palestinians don’t support Hamas,” he clarifies.
McMahan’s vision for peace hinges on an ethic of generosity and reconciliation, highlighting the ‘Parents Circle’ as a model, where bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents unite in grief and a shared desire for peace. His words are a clarion call for a shift in strategy, “The only way to stop the hatred between the two peoples is for one side to behave with generosity,” he states, placing the onus on Israel, because of its “power.” He envisions an Israel that extends a hand of friendship to Gaza, offering economic aid and health care instead of military might, a gesture that could transform the conflict’s dynamics.
I ask if this is is realistic, given Hamas’ actions, and his acknowledgment of the atrocities they have committed.
In response, McMahan provides me with what he calls “historical evidence”, as he partially recounts the harrowing history and the inspiring resolution of a 60-year conflict in Colombia.
“People were unbelievably divided. The rich people had their right-wing militias that slaughtered the peasants. The peasants had their guerrilla armies that kidnapped and slaughtered the other people. The army of the state was murdering people…And they had their groups, there was ‘We’re the FARC’ and ‘We’re this’ and ‘We’re that’, just like, ‘We’re the Palestinians’, ‘We’re the Israelis.’”
In a positive turn, Colombia has since taken steps toward peace and unity. McMahan explains that “they are living together now”, describing the profound process of confession and reparation, where perpetrators from all factions have come forward to acknowledge their crimes and make amends to their victims.
McMahan describes his personal experiences in Colombia, where he went as part of a delegation to advise a court that had been established there with the Peace Accords and involved meeting with the Constitutional Court, the former president, and the FARC leader. He shares a poignant encounter with victims and former combatants, illustrating the raw emotional landscape of forgiveness.
McMahan’s eyes turn red as he recalls witnessing the embrace between a former kidnapping victim, a former army Major involved in the false positives scandal and the representative of the victims’ families. He sees the potential for a similar path to peace with Israel and Palestine. Tears rush to his eyes as he reflects on what is happening in Gaza. Bringing up the ‘Parents Circle’ once more, McMahan explains that “What they’re saying is, ‘We share this grief. We need to learn to live together. We’re ordinary people. We’re ordinary human beings. We’re like each other. We’re not just Palestinians and Israeli Jews, we’re human beings. Let’s live like human beings and not like two antagonistic competitors.’”
He concludes by naming these people as the heroes of this conflict, commending those who are “willing to recognise the wrongs of their own people, and the needs of the other people.” As he wipes his eyes, he claims that this is “the only way this is going to stop” and that “killing more children is not going to solve anything.”
Treat people with respect with civility, listen to them. Try to understand, seek reconciliation, and try hard to do as much good for other people as you can.
As our conversation draws to a close, I ask McMahan if he has a message for the young people at this university.
“Try to understand what motivates other people to believe the horrible things they believe,” McMahan urges, advocating for a compassionate curiosity rather than judgmental dismissal. He encourages a dialogue built on respect and civility, a conversation where one listens to understand rather than to respond.
McMahan’s counsel extends beyond campus. His is a call to engage with the world at large with both intellect and empathy. “Give them reasons, give them arguments, speak to them courteously, and respectfully,” he advises. “Treat people with respect with civility, listen to them. Try to understand, seek reconciliation, and try hard to do as much good for other people as you can,” he advises.
We wrap up and McMahan puts on a reflective yellow safety vest, ready to cycle home. He’s admirable in his willingness to share his opinions and explicitly tells me to “quote” him.
In a time when division often seems the norm, McMahan’s tears strike me quite particularly. I am unsure whether his solutions are practicable. Yet, his plea for recognising humanity seems overwhelmingly desirable.
As I step out into the fading light of the day, I feel more confused than when it was still sunny. My moral clarity has been obfuscated. I feel obliged to do more. The heaviness in McMahan’s words both weighs down and anchors my feet as the strangest mix of pessimism and hope takes over.