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