Category Archives: Death & Meaning

Death is an Ultimate Evil

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 2, 2016.)

The story of Ivan Ilyich indicates an inseparable connection between death and meaning. The precise connection is unclear, but surely it depends in large part on whether death is the end of our consciousness. While beliefs in immortality have been widespread among humans, such beliefs are extremely difficult to defend rationally.

If death is the end of an individual human life, the question naturally arises whether this is a good, bad, or indifferent thing. The argument of Epicurus states that being dead cannot be bad for someone, and thus the fear of death is misplaced. Deprivationists argue that we can be harmed by things we don’t experience, but it is hard to see how someone can be harmed if that someone is non-existent. But even if the deprivationists are correct, their view implies the counter-intuitive conclusion that we should regret that we did not exist before birth. In reply, deprivationists try to explain this asymmetry by pointing out that most of us do care more about the future than the past. After considering the arguments, Barry says that death probably is bad for us and nihilism a real possibility. Nonetheless he concludes that we give life subjective meaning by reflecting about our life and death.

Rosenbaum replies that being dead cannot be bad for the dead person—the Epicurean arguments is sound—and fears about death, while explainable, are unfounded. Hanfling stakes out the middle ground, acknowledging the pall that death casts over life while accepting the Epicurean view as palliative. In the end we just do not know the role death plays regarding the meaning of life. Pitcher defends the claim that a dead person can be wronged and harmed, with the caveat that this harm is to be understood as affecting the ante-mortem rather than post-mortem individual. However, it is not clear that this undercuts the Epicurean argument since it is addressed to the post-mortem individual. Luper defends the badness of death by the simple observations that few would reject the offer to live longer, and most believe they could accomplish more if they had more time. These observations make it clear that almost everyone does think that death is an unmitigated disaster, and the Epicurean argument is of limited value.

Benatar relies on an asymmetry to claim that it is better never to have been born, and it would be a good thing if the human race became extinct. Despite its philosophical subtlety, it is hard to believe that Benatar believes his own argument. Can one really prefer eternal nothingness to the possibility of a good life? If I prefer to remain alive, I am not implicitly accepting that life is better than non-life? Does it really make sense to dedicate a book to the parents who harmed you by bringing you into existence? Still, Benatar’s arguments are persuasive enough that Leslie cannot find any knock-down arguments against them, although he cautions us against accepting philosophical prescriptions that, if followed, will result in the death of the species. Surely we ought to tread carefully here despite the power of Benatar’s claims.

These considerations lead to another question. If life is worth something, as most of us generally believe, then why not have as much of it as we like? Lenman rejects immortality for multiple reasons, primarily because immortals would no longer be human. It is easy to see how young philosophers would advocate such a view, thinking that they have enough time to do what they want, but few older, healthy persons could think such a thing. (Lenman wrote this piece when quite young.) For them aging causes the smell of death to be more real, powerful and putrid. As for losing our humanity, that was gained in the course of our long evolutionary history and we will, hopefully, transcend it.

Bostrom picks up the argument here, arguing forcefully that death is evil. Some tell us we will be born again or that death is good or natural, but all such explanations are cases of adaptive preferences. If we cannot do anything about death, we adapt and say we prefer it; but when we can do something about it, almost everyone will rejoice. When the elixir is real, you can be sure it will be used. At the moment we do not know how to prevent death, but we have some scientific insights that could lead in that direction. If some individuals still want to die when death is preventable, we should respect their autonomy, but for those of us who do not want to die, our autonomy should be honored as well. Thus we agree with Bostrom; we should rid ourselves of the dragon—death should be optional.

At the moment, however, death is not optional. Given our predicament—the problem of life that we discussed in the introduction—we have little choice then but to face death stoically, bravely, optimistically. The optimistic attitude prescribed by Michael and Caldwell violates no principles of reason and is practical to boot. A similar kind of optimism was captured in a famous passage from William James essay “The Will To Believe,”

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.[1]

A comparable viewpoint was relayed to me in a hand-written letter (remember those?) in the mid 1990s from my friend and graduate school mentor, Richard J. Blackwell. Replying to my queries about the meaning of life he wrote:

As to your “what does it all mean” questions, you do not really think that I have strong clear replies when no one else since Plato has had much success! It may be more fruitful to ask about what degree of confidence one can expect from attempted answers, since too high expectations are bound to be dashed. It’s a case of Aristotle’s advice not to look for more confidence than the subject matter permits. At any rate, if I am right about there being a strong volitional factor here, why not favor an optimistic over a pessimistic attitude, which is something one can control to some degree? This is not an answer, but a way to live.

This seems right. We really have nothing to lose by being optimistic and, given the current reality of death, this is a wise option. But that does not change the fact that death is bad. Bad because it puts an end to something which at its best is beautiful; bad because all the knowledge and insight and wisdom of that person is lost; bad because of the harm it does to the living; bad because it causes people to be unconcerned about the future beyond their short lifespan; and bad because we know in our bones, that if we had the choice, and if our lives were going well, we would choose to on. That death is generally bad—especially so for the physically, morally, and intellectually vigorous—is nearly self-evident.

But most of all, death is bad because it renders completely meaningful lives impossible. It is true that longer lives do not guarantee meaningful ones, but all other things being equal, longer lives are more meaningful than shorter ones. (Both the quality and the quantity of a life are relevant to its meaning; both are necessary though not sufficient conditions for meaning.) An infinite life can be without meaning, but a life with no duration must be meaningless. Thus the possibility of greater meaning increases proportionately with the length of a lifetime.

Yes, there are indeed fates worse than death, and in some circumstances death may be welcomed even if it extinguishes the further possibility of meaning. Nevertheless, death is one of the worst fates that can befall us, despite the consolations offered by the deathists—the lovers of death. We may become bored with eternal consciousness, but as long as we can end our lives if we want, as long as we can opt out of immortality, who wouldn’t want the option to live forever?

Only if we can choose whether to live or die are we really free. Our lives are not our own if they can be taken from us without our consent, and, to the extent death can be delayed or prevented, further possibilities for meaning ensue. Perhaps with our hard-earned knowledge we can slay the dragon tyrant, thereby opening up the possibility for more meaningful lives. This is perhaps the fundamental imperative for our species. For now the best we can do is to remain optimistic in the face of the great tragedy that is death.

[1] William James, Pragmatism and Other Writings (New York: Penguin, 2000), x.

 

Michaelis Michael & Peter Caldwell’s, “The Consolations of Optimism”

Michaelis Michael is a senior lecturer of the University of New South Wales in Sydney Australia, and Peter Caldwell is a lecturer at the University of Technology in Sydney. In their insightful piece, “The Consolations of Optimism” (2004), they argue for adopting an attitude of optimism regarding the meaning of life.

The optimist and pessimist may agree on the facts, but not on their attitude toward those facts. “This nicely sketches what our thesis is: optimism is an attitude, not a theoretical position; moreover, there are reasons why one ought to be an optimist.”[i]  The reasons for preferring optimism have nothing to do with how the world is—optimism is not a better description of reality. Instead it is that a reasonable optimism is best for ourselves and those around us. To better understand reasonable optimism, the authors turn to the Stoics.

The Happiness of the Stoic Sage – Stoics are often characterized as emotionless, indifferent, individuals who simply put up with their fate, accepting that life is bad. Such a picture is uninspiring. While resignation toward the dreadfulness of life is cynical and pessimistic, this is not how the authors interpret Stoicism. The Stoics counsels us to embrace that which we cannot change rather than fight against it and, in the process, embrace reality. Thus Stoicism is realistic, not cynical.

For the Stoics emotions follow from beliefs.  For example, if we believe that death is bad then the emotion of fear or dread may follow. In this case, Stoics generally holds that the belief that death is bad is unjustified and hence negative emotions should not follow. Now consider cheerfulness. There are good reasons to be cheerful and happy—it feels better than being unhappy. This is the reason to be cheerfully optimistic. But can we adopt this optimistic attitude, is it psychologically feasible? The authors think it is both feasible and reasonable to adopt optimism. While the pessimist might object that optimism provides little consolation, optimism contributes to a happier existence and that is a reason to adopt it. Optimism is more than a small consolation.

But optimism is not a set of beliefs about how reality is; rather it is a response to reality. A stoical attitude does not mean not caring or being indifferent to unpleasant things, rather it doesn’t add lamenting to one’s caring. Stoics do not deny that pain and suffering exist—because that is to deny reality—but accept such evils without resenting them. The Stoics reject responding to situations with strong, irrational emotions that would cloud judgment, counseling instead to remain calm and optimistic. “This way of experiencing pains without losing equanimity is the key to stoical optimism.”[ii] Optimism leads to happiness and is therefore reasonable.

The Rationality of Beliefs – Beliefs represent how things are to us. If we find beliefs do not adequately do this, we ought to reject them; if they do represent the world well, then we ought to keep them. In addition to believing things about the world, we might desire, expect, hope, fear, or want things about the world. If we expect things about the world, we believe those things will happen. If we hope, desire, want, or fear things, we might not believe those things will happen, instead believing only that they might happen. In all of these cases beliefs are about possibilities that are rational to entertain. But what counts as making a belief rational? Here we can distinguish between strongly rational—the evidence is nearly irrefutable—or weakly rational—as a practical necessity we must believe some things that are not certain but necessary for us to act in the world. So the test of a belief system may be whether it is practical in this way.

Optimism & Pessimism – Again optimists and pessimists do not necessarily disagree about how the world is, although they could, but instead project differing attitudes toward it. Since optimism is an attitude, it does not assume any cluster of beliefs and thus cannot be undermined for being irrational like a belief can. Pessimism is an attitude which demands things from reality and resent that reality does not conform to their wishes. Optimists are typically more accepting of the limitations of the world. Of course optimists may lose their optimism when bad fortune strikes, but we are all happier when we are optimistic and less happy when we are pessimistic—this is the rational ground for optimism.

Yet optimism is not wishful thinking. Wishful thinking involves beliefs that are false, whereas optimism is an attitude that does not necessarily involve false beliefs. Furthermore, optimism has positive results, as the case of Hume’s attitude toward his impending death shows. Diagnosed with a fatal disease Hume begins his ruminations on his situation thus: “I was ever more disposed to see the favorable than unfavorable side of things: a turn of mind which it is more happy to possess, than to be born to an estate of ten thousand a year… It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at the present.”[iii] While many fear death or react variously in ways that disturb tranquility “Hume’s calm and sanguine resignation stands like a beacon of reasonableness, calling out for emulation.”[iv] Optimism is a reasonable and beneficial response to the human condition.

Summary – We do not know if life is meaningful or not. For now we might as well be optimistic though, especially when facing death.

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[i] Michaelis Michael & Peter Caldwell, “The Consolations of Optimism,” (2004) in Life, death, and meaning, ed. David Benatar, (Lanham MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 383.
[ii] Michael & Caldwell, “The Consolations of Optimism,” 386.
[iii] Michael & Caldwell, “The Consolations of Optimism,” 389.
[iv] Michael & Caldwell, “The Consolations of Optimism,” 390.

Summary of Nick Bostrom’s,  “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant”

Nick Bostrom (1973 – ) holds a PhD from the London School of Economics (2000). He is a co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association (now called Humanity+) and co–founder of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. He was on the faculty of Yale University until 2005, when he was appointed Director of the newly created Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. He is currently Professor, Faculty of Philosophy & Oxford Martin School; Director, Future of Humanity Institute; and Director, Program on the Impacts of Future Technology; all at Oxford University.

Bostrom’s article, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,” tells the story of a planet ravaged by a dragon (death) that demands a tribute which is satisfied only by consuming thousands of people each day. Neither priests with curses, warriors with weapons, or chemists with concoctions could defeat the dragon. The elders were selected to be sacrificed, although they were often wiser than the young, because they had at least lived longer than the youth. Here is a description of their situation:

Spiritual men sought to comfort those who were afraid of being eaten by the dragon (which included almost everyone, although many denied it in public) by promising another life after death, a life that would be free from the dragon-scourge. Other orators argued that the dragon has its place in the natural order and a moral right to be fed. They said that it was part of the very meaning of being human to end up in the dragon’s stomach. Others still maintained that the dragon was good for the human species because it kept the population size down. To what extent these arguments convinced the worried souls is not known. Most people tried to cope by not thinking about the grim end that awaited them.[i]

Given the ceaselessness of the dragon’s consumption, most people did not fight it and accepted the inevitable. A whole industry grew up to study and delay the process of being eaten by the dragon, and a large portion of the society’s wealth was used for these purposes. As their technology grew, some suggested that they would one day build flying machines, communicate over great distances without wires, or even be able to slay the dragon. Most dismissed these ideas.

Finally, a group of iconoclastic scientists figured out that a projectile could be built to pierce the dragon’s scales. However, to build this technology would cost vast sums of money and they would need the king’s support. (Unfortunately, the king was busy raging war killing tigers, which cost the society vast sums of wealth and accomplished little.) The scientists then began to educate the public about their proposals and the people became excited about the prospect of killing the dragon. In response the king convened a conference to discuss the options.

First to speak was a scientist who explained carefully how research should yield a solution to the problem of killing the dragon in about twenty years. But the king’s moral advisors said that it is presumptuous to think you have a right not to be eaten by the dragon; they said that finitude is a blessing and removing it would remove human dignity and debase life. Nature decries, they said, that dragons eat people and people should be eaten. Next to speak was a spiritual sage who told the people not to be afraid of the dragon, but a little boy crying about his grandma’s death moved most toward the anti-dragon position.

However, when the people realized that millions would die before the research was completed, they frantically sought out financing for anti-dragon research and the king complied. This started a technological race to kill the dragon, although the process was painstakingly slow, and filled with many mishaps. Finally, after twelve years of research the king launch a successful dragon-killing missile. The people were happy but the king saddened that they had not started their research years earlier—millions had died unnecessarily. As to what was next for his civilization, the king proclaimed: “Today we are like children again. The future lies open before us. We shall go into this future and try to do better than we have done in the past. We have time now—time to get things right, time to grow up, time to learn from our mistakes, time for the slow process of building a better world…”[ii] 

Summary – We should try to overcome the tyranny of death with technology.

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[i] Nick Bostrom, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,” Journal of Medical Ethics (2005) Vol. 31, No. 5: 273.
[ii] Bostrom, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,” 277.

Summary of James Lenman’s Immortality: A Letter”

James Lenman a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. He did his undergraduate work at Oxford University and received his PhD from St. Andrews University.

Lenman’s article, “Immortality: A Letter,” (1995) concerns a letter from a fictional philosopher to her fictitious biological friend in which she presents arguments against taking his immortality drug. She worries that if only some people get the drug, those who don’t will regret it; while if everyone gets the drug, overpopulation will ensue unless people stop having children. But this will lead to more unhappiness, as people want to have children.

Most importantly immortality would undermine our humanity by transforming us into different kinds of beings. Just as an angel who gives up immortality to become human would transform into a human, so too would a human who accepts immortality give up their humanity. To be granted immortality is to become a different kind of being. In addition an immortal life might become boring. And finally the value of life derives in large part from its fragility, which would be undermined by immortality. Lenman’s letter concludes:

The problem with your discovery is that … it precisely wouldn’t be a human good that was advanced because so much of what makes us human would then be obsolete. And human good … is the only sort of good we can make much sense of or coherently view as intrinsically worth our wanting. Nothing … is intrinsically worth anybody’s wanting and what is worth our wanting can only be our good. There is no such thing as the good. Our proper concern being rather with … the good for man.[i]

Summary – More value will be lost than gained if we become immortal.

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[i] James Lenman, “Immortality: A Letter,” Cogito 9 (1995): 169.

John Leslie’s, “Why Not Let Life Become Extinct?”

John Leslie (1940 – ) is currently Professor emeritus at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. In his essay “Why Not Let Life Become Extinct?” he argues that we ought not to embrace the view that extinction would be best.

Some argue that it would not be sad or a pity if humans went extinct because: 1) there would be nobody left to be sad; or 2) life is so bad that extinction is preferable. Leslie maintains that this issue has practical implications since someone with power might decide that life is not worth it, and press the nuclear button (or bring about some other extinction scenario.) Fortunately most do not reason this way, but if they do there is a paucity of philosophical arguments to dissuade them. Moreover, philosophers often advance arguments that we should improve the lives of the worst off and, since so many people live wretched lives, it is easy to see that a solution might entail killing a lot of people.

But what of letting all life go extinct? Some philosophers argue that we have no duty to prevent this, that even if life is a good we have no duty to propagate it, or if someone is about to lose their life we have no obligation to save it. The principle behind such thinking is that though we ought not to hurt people, we have no duty to help them. Other lines of thinking may lead to similar conclusions. A utilitarian might argue that life should go extinct if it is sufficiently unhappy now or will be so in the future. Other argue that we have no duties to produce future people no matter how happy they might be, for the simple reason that these possible people cannot be deprived of anything, as they do not yet exist. Leslie counters that deciding whether to produce a situation should be influenced by what the situation will be like, by its consequences. If one is deciding whether to produce a certain future, the most relevant fact is whether that future will be good.

He now makes some concessions. First, it is morally good to want to make the lives of the worst off better, but not if this entails destroying the entire human race. Second, actual people are not obligated to make all sacrifices for possible people, anymore than you are obliged to give food to others when your own family is starving. Third, given overpopulation, we are not obligated to have children.

And since ethics is imprecise, we cannot be sure that we have duties to future generations. Still, the universe has value despite the evil it contains, leading Leslie to speculate that there might be an “ethical requirement that it exist…”[i] In other words a thing’s nature, if it has intrinsic value, makes its existence ethically required. But how can the description of a thing’s nature lead to the prescription that it ought to exist? Leslie argues that we cannot derive that a thing should exist from a description of its nature. Perhaps it would be better if no life existed. But suppose we agree that life is intrinsically good, would we then have an obligation to perpetuate it? Leslie answers no. A thing’s intrinsic goodness only implies some obligation that it exist, since other ethical considerations might overrule that obligation. For instance a moral person might think it better that life ended then have a world with so much suffering. The upshot of all this is that there are no knockdown arguments either way. Competent philosophers who argue that it is better for there to be no life probably are equal footing with those who argue the opposite. Leslie continues: “Still, pause before joining such people.”[ii]

In the end, we cannot show conclusively that we should not let life become extinct because we can never go from saying that something is—even happiness or pleasure—to saying that something should be. And it is also not clear that maximizing happiness is the proper moral goal. Perhaps instead we should try to prevent misery—which may entail allowing life to go extinct. Philosophers do not generally advocate such a position, but their reluctance to do so suggests that they are willing to tolerate the suffering of some for the happiness of others.

Summary – There are strong arguments for letting life go extinct, although Leslie suggests we generally reject them because life has intrinsic goodness.

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[i] John Leslie, “Why Not Let Life Become Extinct?” (1983) in Life, death, and meaning, ed. David Benatar (Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 128.
[ii] Leslie, “Why Not Let Life Become Extinct?” 130.