Immortality, Identity, and Desirability
University of the Pacific
Bernard Williams’s famous argument against immortality rests on the idea that immortality cannot be desirable, at least for human beings, and his contention has spawned a cottage industry of responses. The arguments against his view involve a certain view of identity and a certain view of desire. The former concerns a difference between the perspective one takes on survival; the second a question about the possible desirability of the unknown. Showing that there is some sense of identity and desire that support Williams’s conclusion goes some way toward providing support for his argument, if not a full-fledged defense of it.
Williams presents a dilemma: in living forever, either one retains the same character, or one’s character changes. Neither case, he argues, can present us with a desirable prospect. On one hand, an immortal being with a fixed character must face endless boredom; while this argument has received a great deal of attention, I will focus on the second horn of the dilemma. If one’s character undergoes endless change, Williams argues, the resultant person will soon enough (perhaps after a few centuries, but certainly given a few millennia) cease to resemble me and undertake projects unrelated to anything resembling my present aims and desires. If my projects and desires (technically, my categorical, desires, or desires not conditional on my remaining alive) are normally what sustain my desire to go on living, it would make no sense to want to go on living forever despite such anticipated radical changes in those desires.
A standard response to this argument notes that one’s character can undergo significant change even in the course of an ordinary, mortal life. Since this does not make the continuation of ordinary life unappealing, it should make immortal life no less appealing. So long as changes in our character do not involve sharp breaks, but are the product or continuous alteration, there is no reason an immortal life should not be an endlessly appealing one.
An interesting feature of this argument is that it makes Williams’s position not simply untenable, but incomprehensible. Surely Williams was aware enough to recognize that the changes we undergo in everyday life do not cancel out its desirability. This response to Williams, then, either displays a bizarre blind spot in Williams’s view or fails in its application of the principle of charity. I think there are two ways to read the argument charitably: by focusing on the attitude toward identity involved, and by examining the kind of desirability in question. I will focus on these questions.
On the question of identity, we may note a debate over the significance of empathy in survival. Marya Schechtman has argued that some changes in personality are survival-threatening; the idealistic Russian nobleman who fears that he will become a conservative landowner in his later years is one such example. Though Schechtman does not hold that the nobleman ceases to exist as a result of such psychological change, she suggests that his survival is threatened in a “subtle sense.” Those who adopt such a forward-looking perspective may reasonably worry that survival in this subtle sense is necessarily undermined by immortality; if my character undergoes gradual change for millennia, I will become a kind of person with whose projects I cannot currently empathize.
Peter Goldie has argued against the empathy view on the grounds that being able to change radically enough to lose empathy with our past selves, far from undermining survival, is necessary for growth and maturation. I call this perspective backward-looking because, rather than looking forward to an anticipated change in character, it is taken from the point of view of someone who has already undergone the changes and found them to be survival-preserving. But in evaluating the desirability of an immortal life, there is no point from which such a perspective can be taken and a verdict rendered on the desirability of that life.
Nor is it clear what we might desire in desiring an immortal life. If a desire to go on living is normally dependent on projects, we may ask what becomes of our projects in immortality scenarios. While we need not hold, as some have, that immortals cannot have projects, their projects ought to be fundamentally different from ours. Our projects are constrained by mortality; theirs are not. They cannot, in principle, be constrained by a need for holistic meaning, nor by similar temporal limits. Imagining such a life from our perspective may be impossible; desiring it equally so.
The Being-Toward-Death Who Also Mourns:
Ethical Implications of the Singularity of Death in Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida
In this paper, I examine the account of being-toward-death in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time and attempt to draw out an ethics of mourning from it. Heidegger’s text foregrounds the role that death has in disclosing the singularity of human beings and highlights how one’s death can only ever be one’s own—even someone who sacrifices her life for another cannot die for that other person. Though Heidegger does not examine the ethical implications of this view in Being and Time, I argue that the singular nature of death can provide a basis for ethical thinking about the treatment of others, specifically emerging from the tradition of response ethics associated with a number of twentieth-century and contemporary philosophers beginning with Emmanuel Levinas. Response ethics emphasizes the irreducible alterity of others and argues for an asymmetrical ethics based not on other people’s similarity to myself, but rather to their essential difference or distinction from myself. Heidegger’s account of being-toward-death reveals that this difference or singularity can best be observed in the phenomenon of death. I claim that if death is what discloses our singularity to both ourselves and to others, it can therefore provide the basis for an ethics of respecting the alterity of others. Specifically, this is revealed through the experience of mourning others who have died.
In mourning, I acknowledge the loss of an other who is irreducibly different from me. My memories and grief remind me of that other person, but her death is an event so irreducibly beyond my comprehension that the practice and process of mourning can never bring her death into the complacency of understanding. In making this argument, I draw on Jacques Derrida’s account of mourning, as well as both the analysis of Heidegger’s notion of death that Derrida develops in Aporias and The Gift of Death and Levinas’s analysis of Heidegger in the lecture course God, Death, and Time. I claim that Derrida and Levinas both miss the significance of Heidegger’s account of death and therefore are unable to perceive the ethical implications that may be drawn from it—ethical implications that are quite close to both Derrida’s and Levinas’s own conceptions of ethics. Both Levinas and Heidegger reveal the nothingness at the heart of the phenomenon of death, such that what individualizes a person—whether her relation to her own death or to that of another—is the paradoxical abyss of something entirely other which individualizes Dasein down to itself. And if we draw upon Heidegger’s brief account of being with those who have died in Being and Time in conjunction with his emphasis on being-toward-death, we in fact find resources for an ethics of mourning that may provide an addition to Derrida’s notion of mourning (developed particularly in Derrida’s obituaries for Paul de Man and Levinas).
Heidegger’s distinction between one’s own death and the death of others is in fact precisely what allows for the possibility of a being-with others in dying, and ultimately an ethics of mourning. Failing to distinguish between one’s own death and the death of others reveals an inauthentic understanding of what death actually is—its character as only ever one’s own. This lack of distinction would equally overlook the difference between others and oneself. If we take the difference between others and oneself to be crucial for the practice of ethics and the necessary basis for a genuine response to the other, then we can see how a genuine understanding of the nature of death—which may paradoxically entail the notion that death is never given to our understanding tout court—can provide the basis for a response ethics. Furthermore, the experience of mourning others who have died can be a way to conceive of genuine relationality that feels the difference between the other and myself in a particularly revelatory manner.
Absolute and Comparative Bads, Rational Fear and Death: Lessons from Alzheimer’s
University of California, Riverside
Is it rational to fear death? Recently, Kai Draper (“Death and rational emotion”), inspired by Epicurus, has argued it isn’t—that is, Draper argues that death is not a fitting object for fear. I disagree with Draper’s position, and I argue that death is a fitting object for fear.
Draper’s argument is founded on a distinction, which he finds in the writings of Epicurus, between two ways in which something can be bad for someone. A state of affairs is absolutely bad for someone if it is itself bad for that person. For example, being in pain is an absolute bad, because a person is simply worse off in virtue of it alone. Alternatively, a state of affairs is comparatively bad for someone if that state of affairs is less good (in an absolute sense of ‘good’) than some comparable state of affairs. So, for example, when I visit Bjorn and Sven’s House of Swedish Massage, if I get a wonderful massage from the less competent Bjorn, this is comparatively bad for me, because I could be getting an even better massage from the more talented Sven.
Clearly, my receiving a massage from Bjorn doesn’t merit fear. We can conclude, then, that not all comparative bads are fitting objects of fear. But Draper makes a further claim. He claims that no comparative bad, unaccompanied by an absolute bad, is a fitting object of fear. Moreover, he holds that death is a mere comparative bad—that is, we are not worse off in virtue of death itself; rather, we are worse off in virtue of death depriving us of a better state of affairs. Draper thus presents the following argument:
P1: If neither death nor its consequences can be absolutely bad for the one who dies, then one’s own death cannot merit self-interested fear.
P2: Neither death nor its consequences can be absolutely bad for the one who dies.
C: Thus, one’s own death cannot merit self-interested fear.
Contra Draper, I argue that one’s own death canmerit self-interested fear. I argue this primarily by challenging P1. P1 derives from Draper’s general claim about comparative bads—that they never, unaccompanied by an absolute bad, merit fear. He establishes this claim by generalizing from a few cases in which it seems fear is only merited if its object is an absolute bad. I challenge P1, then, by considering a comparative bad that seems to be a fitting object of fear: Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease patients often fear the progression of their disease, and this fear seems warranted; rarely does anyone criticize an Alzheimer’s patient’s fear of the disease. But if Alzheimer’s disease is a mere comparative bad, which I argue it is, and if Alzheimer’s is a fitting object for fear, then it appears Draper’s claim that no mere comparative bad merits fear is false. And this gives us reason to doubt P1.
Nevertheless, even if some comparative bads merit fear, this does not imply that death merits fear. To argue that death is a fitting object of fear, then, I return to Alzheimer’s disease, providing an explanation for why Alzheimer’s patients often fear their disease. I argue that Alzheimer’s disease is frightening because it deprives one of one’s agency and practical identity. Such a deprivation is frightening, I hold, because being a person involves caring about one’s agency and practical identity. And such care opens one up to fear when those things are threatened. Death, though, like Alzheimer’s disease, also deprives one of one’s agency and practical identity. If Alzheimer’s disease is a fitting object of fear, then, and if an Alzheimer’s disease patient’s fear of the disease is explained by a deprivation that Alzheimer’s shares with death, then it appears death is also a fitting object of fear. Thus, I conclude that death is a fitting object of fear.
Lastly, I consider whether losing one’s agency and practical identity might be an absolute bad. I argue that even if this the case, Draper’s argument does not go through. If losing one’s agency and practical identity is absolutely bad, I contend, we have reason to reject P2 of Draper’s argument.
For whom is death bad? A short answer is that death is bad only for persons who have categorical desires. So it isn’t bad for fetuses, neonates, animals, those in PVS or with advanced Alzheimer’s. I want here to explain, defend and qualify this.
Bad for and Bad that.
An immediate qualification—death isn’t bad for fetuses etc. in a way that matters. I hold a liberal view about badness, thinking rust is bad for tractors, improper recharging bad for a batteries, drought is bad for plants. Such things can enter a worse condition. But do we therefore have reason to oil tractors, charge batteries, water plants? No. Even if we should intervene on behalf of their owners, there is no reason to intervene on behalf of the things themselves. And I want to say the same for fetuses, animals etc. Premature death may be bad for an organism without it being bad that, or a bad thing that, this organism should die.
Suppose this distinction is challenged. The neonate, if it dies, fails to live out a worthwhile life it would otherwise have lived. And this is something we should regret. I want to say, if that is true, then we should regret also (and perhaps more) the death of an embryo, and regret as well the prevention of conception, when conception is close. But few people believe this.
The things that, in a familiar philosophical sense, we call persons have a distinctive and complex psychology. They can think about times other than now, and think about themselves as existing, and also as not existing, in those different times. It is an empirical question as to which things have such a psychology, but I want to suggest that most adult human beings are in this sense persons, while fetuses, neonates and most non-human animals are not.
Not only can they have beliefs, but persons can, while non-persons cannot, have desires about times that are clearly times other than now. They can wish they’d done things differently in the past, hope to do such and such in the future.
Williams’ distinction between categorical and conditional desires is relevant here. The former, he says, give us reasons to want to remain alive, while the latter are in play only on the assumption that we remain alive. The viability and usefulness of the distinction has been challenged, and I acknowledge (and will here in some detail explore) its shortcomings. Nevertheless, there remains something right within it, and it does link up with further ways of making the key distinction I need here. Here’s one way to put this. We might have reason to subject a person to some painful operations, in order that it might live, and be able to satisfy certain of its future-directed desires. But we don’t similarly have reason to subject a non-person to such operations. For they don’t have the requisite sorts of desires. They don’t, as often we do, want to live on. (Of course, we might often have reason to save the life of an animal, fetus etc. for the sake of others).
1. I underestimate animals. They do have desires that ‘propel them into the future’—a cow makes for the better grass some ten minutes walk away.. Or they will suffer pain in order to extend life—a fox chew off a leg to escape from a trap. I consider and reply to such claims.
2. I seem committed to holding, counterintuitively, that is not bad when a temporarily depressed person, lacking future-directed desires, should die. I distinguish , in reply to this, cases where on recovery there is in effect the starting of a new life from those where the old life is restarted. Death is bad in the latter case.
3. I illegitimately compare the ending of a life with the failure to begin a life. In the first case there is a victim, in the second there is none. I claim that victimhood is being overrated—in both cases there is one less worthwhile life being lived.
The Epicurean View holds that death is never bad for the one who dies. The Deprivation View holds (roughly) that it is bad when it curtails a life worth living. Mine is an amended version of this view—it is bad when it curtails the worthwhile life that someone wants to live. This middle position. I contend, fits better with many of our intuitions.
Resources for Overcoming the Boredom of Immortality in Fischer and Kierkegaard
Leiden University College
In “Why Immortality Is Not So Bad,” and other work, John Martin Fischer disagrees with Bernard Williams and his fellow “immortality curmudgeons,” who argue that immortality would be undesirable, at least in part because it would become intolerably boring. Among other things, Williams holds that the pursuits and pleasures that make life attractive would soon be exhausted if it persisted indefinitely (or maybe even just a little longer). Fischer, joining a chorus of other critics of Williams’ views on immortality, feels that Williams is “insufficiently attentive” to the nature, duration, and variety of activities and pleasures that life has to offer. Focusing primarily on what he calls “repeatable pleasures” (as distinguished from “self-exhausting pleasures”), Fischer sees no reason to think that an immortal life consisting at least in part of such welcome repetition would be less fulfilling than a similar mortal life. Since I have eagerly anticipated Major League Baseball’s opening day each spring for decades now, and it is not clear why I would necessarily lose interest after several hundred more of them go by, I am inclined to side with Fischer.
Despite our general agreement, I am concerned by Fischer’s peculiar criticism of Kierkegaard, whose pseudonymous aesthete “A” in Either/Or seems to rely upon a similar “crop rotation” of pleasures. Because “A” is ultimately unfulfilled by his rotation, Fischer finds both he and his creator guilty of “underestimating the repeatable pleasures.” I find this criticism unfortunate because it seems to me that Fischer not only misses something about Either/Or, but he also misses the opportunity to consider some of Kierkegaard’s other ideas, which might actually support his case against the position that immortality would be tedious.
It could be that what is indicated by the boredom “A” feels is that a finite life of repeatable pleasures would not be fulfilling. Maybe his attitude is not meant strictly as commentary on the repeatable pleasures themselves, but also on the fact that they will eventually cease; given the finitude of life, we need to find something more durable from which to derive our meaning. Since immortality in the here and now does not seem to be an option for “A,” Either/Or seems to suggest that he look to the ethical realm in order to participate in something greater than his temporary individual existence. Another of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms lends credence to this reading: “only in the ethical is there immortality and eternal life; understood otherwise…[the affairs of the world go] on and on, but the observer dies, and his observing was perhaps a very important—pastime.” However, if indefinitely extended existence in this life were possible, which is the hypothesis underlying Fischer’s interaction with Williams, maybe this could provide the lasting significance that is missing in the aesthete’s merely temporary rotation.
But Kierkegaard need not see an indefinite existence engaged in purely aesthetic pursuits as meaningful in order to support the possibility of a thoroughly engrossing and fulfilling immortal life in the here and now. In a discourse on death, he argues that an earnest appreciation of the uncertainty of its “when” leads one to focus more upon the matter of “how” one lives than upon “what” one accomplishes, because the latter requires time that cannot be guaranteed. A life of reflection upon how one lives, on the other hand, has no temporal requirement, and therefore, can never be exhausted: “earnestness, therefore, becomes the living of each day as if it were the last and also the first in a long life, and the choosing of work that does not depend on whether one is granted a lifetime to complete it well or only a brief time to have begun it well.” The pseudonym Johannes Climacusbuilds on this idea in his discussion of the ethical life as one of constant self-reflection and self-improvement. He explains, “the way of the ethical becomes exceedingly long…the more profoundly one makes it, the more one has to do”; it lasts “as long as life lasts.”
While I hope to draw attention to the affinity between certain aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought and Fischer’s views on the desirability of immortality, I also want to highlight the additional resources that Kierkegaard offers those combatting “immortality curmudgeons,” which Fischer does not quite consider.
Constructing Death as a Form of Failure: Addressing Mortality in a Neo-Liberal Age
Oxford Brookes University UK
For the last thirty years, Western politics has been dominated by a particular account of what it is to be a human subject. This model of subjectivity owes much to the Enlightenment vision of the self as rational, autonomous, and defined by the ability to choose. In late capitalist societies this construction of the subject has taken on a particular form, reflecting changing economic structures. In its contemporary iteration the ‘neo-liberal’ subject is one capable of shaping individual destiny through exercising the ability to make rational choices; choices, moreover, that are played out in terms of the ability to purchase and consume the material goods held as necessary for a meaningful life.
This paper explores the shaping of success under this model of the subject, and focuses explicitly on the problems such accounts of the successful life have when confronted with the inevitability and inescapability of death.
Defining success in terms of the individual’s material attainment and personal achievements leaves little space for engaging with that which haunts all success: namely, the possibility of failing to achieve what one desires and thereby being deemed ‘a failure’. Avoiding acknowledging failure has a corresponding effect upon the ability to engage with that with which failure has increasingly been conflated: namely, loss. The life cycle is punctuated by common, everyday losses which result from the natural processes of ageing, death and decay. In a context where success is construed as attainment, it will be difficult to find a place for those things that reveal the limits of human life. Against such a backdrop death only has meaning so long as it is avoided; this notion of avoidable death affects medical practices, medical ethics and even the ability to mourn.
The aim of this paper is two-fold.
Firstly, it will detail the problematic conflation of failure and loss in an age dominated by neo-liberal constructions of subjectivity. Attention will be given to responses made to chronic illness as a means of illuminating this conflation. In the sick body, we are confronted with a reminder of mortality, for none of us have ultimate control over the body. Societal responses that seek to isolate the sick body – or that over-emphasise the ‘responsibility’ of the sick for their ability to be well – limit the extent to which the apparently ‘healthy’ are able to engage with their own vulnerability and, crucially, the dependence we all have on others as mutable subjects.
Secondly, the paper will suggest an alternative response advocating a more explicit engagement with death and loss, enabling the inevitability of both to act as a spur to thinking differently about our lives and commitments. This reflection allows different values to emerge and challenges current cultural constructs of success. Reciprocity and generosity will be explored as qualities arising from taking vulnerability seriously, allowing for richer accounts of what it means to live well.
Subjective and objective guilt, moral dilemmas, and end of life decisions
North Dakota State University
Everyone in their right mind would agree that the work of a making end of life decisions for another person or moral subject is not an easy task. Not only is there a struggle by surrogates to figure out which criteria they should use to make such a momentous decision for another person or moral subject – e.g., do we do it based on what is best for the individual or what the person would have wanted? – the emotional reactions to the decisions can be psychologically harmful. Even when a surrogate believes that she has decided rightly, for instance, she often feels overwhelming guilt for what she has done.
The question then arises as to whether surrogates who feel guilty should react this way. After all, if they think that they have done the right thing, then it would be appear to be irrational to feel guilty. Guilty feelings, it would seem by definition, are an appropriate emotional reaction if and only if someone believes that she actually committed a wrong or somehow else violated a moral obligations she has, and as a result of the wrongdoing, bears a burden for which she must make amends. Feeling guilty when one believes that she is not guilty of wrongdoing is a failure in one’s reason, and possibly, one’s morality. Therefore, those who feel guilty should do what is required by rationality, and make their emotions fit what their reason dictates.
But there might be grounds to argue that surrogates feel guilty because they actually are guilty of wrongdoing, and it is their reason that has led them astray. When making end of life decisions for others, surrogates might be in a technical moral dilemma that makes it impossible for them to act ethically. Patricia Greenspan and Martha Nussbaum, for instance, describe situations in which an agent must select death for one of her two children and between the destruction of a war fleet and the killing of a daughter, respectively. These types of moral dilemmas are of a technical sort distinguished from the everyday kind in which it is merely difficult to decide what to do or how to get motivated to do what one should. In technical dilemmas, every alternative action open to the agent is either morally required or forbidden so that performing any one action will necessarily entail a failure to do one’s duty. In the case of surrogates, it could be argued that they fulfill their duty as a surrogate while simultaneously violating other obligations, such as to respect life or not harm one’s loved ones. If true, then their emotional reaction is appropriate and their belief that they have done the right thing is false.
I contend that there is a pragmatic middle ground between the two approaches: surrogates have not done anything wrong when they select death for others, yet guilty feelings may indeed be appropriate for the surrogates to have. I will limit my investigation of guilt to Earl Conee’s notion of subjective and objective guilt. The former is based on what the agent chooses to feel through, whereas the latter is based upon absolute, universal principles. The guilty feelings involved in technical moral dilemmas, therefore, are justified only on subjective grounds and not on objective grounds. Therefore, surrogates can be justified in thinking that they have done the right thing, while simultaneously being justified in feeling guilty for doing it. In addition, I will show that subjective guilt is sufficient to make the agent attempt to avoid the conflict situations about which Ruth Barcan Marcus is especially concerned.
Rationally Not Caring about Torture: A Reply to Johansson
University of California, Riverside
The most popular account of what makes death bad for the one who dies is what has been called the “deprivation approach.” On this view, death is overall bad for a person if and only if, and to the extent that, she would have been on balance intrinsically better off if it had not obtained. One worry for this account of deathʼs badness is the Lucretian symmetry argument: since we do not regret having been born later than we could have been born, and since posthumous nonexistence is the mirror image of prenatal nonexistence, we should not regret dying earlier than we could have died. Anthony Brueckner and John Martin Fischer have developed a response to the Lucretian challenge by arguing that it is rational to have asymmetric attitudes toward posthumous and prenatal nonexistence. Recently, Jens Johansson has criticized the Brueckner/Fischer position, claiming that it is irrelevant whether it is actually rational to care about future pleasures but not past pleasures. What matters, according to Johansson, is whether it would be rational for us to care about past pleasures had we come into existence earlier.
In this paper, I argue that one of Johanssonʼs criticisms is incoherent. I begin by sketching Brueckner and Fischerʼs view. I then consider Johanssonʼs two main criticisms of the view. The first of these has received more attention in the interchange between Johansson and Brueckner/Fischer, but the second is susceptible to a challenge (or so I will argue) that has not yet been raised. I contend that, once Brueckner and Fischerʼs view has been sufficiently spelled out, this second worry is actually incoherent. More specifically, I argue that Johanssonʼs criticism relies on a thought experiment that, once it has been modified to apply to Fischer and Bruecknerʼs refined view, is incoherent. My main claim is that it cannot be rational for a person X not to care about being tortured as long as both (1) it would have been rational for X to care about the torture if X had been tortured and (2) X would have been on balance worse off if X had been tortured. To demonstrate this, I will provide a case that I take to exemplify Johanssonʼs thought experiment. Once the details have been filled in, though, it will be clear that this type of thought experiment cannot present a coherent objection to Fischer and Bruecknerʼs position. This is good news for Fischer and Brueckner since, as they confess in a footnote of their most recent article, they would prefer not to accommodate the counterfactual attitudes that Johansson claims their view must accommodate. I have argued that there is an additional reason not to take one of Johanssonʼs criticisms as an incentive to accommodate counterfactual attitudes, namely that the criticism is not coherent.
The Temporality of Investment:
A Project-Bound Account of Mourning, and the Possibility of Authentic Being-With
University of New Mexico
Heidegger’s account of being toward our own death is meant to demonstrate that the looming inevitability of our inability to be, of the absence of our subjectivity from any meaningful projects, radically founds human experience. Our death, on his account, is the fundamental intentionality—that about which all of our projects are. Our finitude permeates our lives as the foundation of our personal investments, significations, and most intimately entwined personal identifications. The inevitability of our becoming impossible is, therefore, our own. Death, on Heidegger’s account, is not shared. In its own death, the self-alone faces its impossibility; this solitude is the foundation of authenticity. My paper will argue that being toward the death of another is a fundamental intentionality—often neglected by the phenomenological and existentialist traditions—and that it, furthermore, is just as fundamental to the development of authenticity as is being toward our own deaths.
I will attempt to show that both mourning and the anticipation of another’s death co-determine the significations which most radically shape our lives: those significations which make existential death possible. They delimit the degree of investment we have in one another—our proximity to others is founded upon our futural expectations, upon the possibilities inherent to those relationships, and thus to some degree on the other’s mortality. The projects which most define us have deep roots in the deaths of others. As such, being toward the death of another is just as fundamental to life as are our awareness of and anxiety over our own deaths. In looking at both mourning and anticipation, I think that an often underappreciated facet of authenticity might show itself. Anticipating the death of another is itself a form of anxiety, which might inhabit the self-alone, throwing it into a worldless nothing wherein the significations that had previously defined it become impossible. Mourning, on the other hand, is a communal phenomenon. And this iteration of being-with is one which I will argue heightens the effect of the world-collapse caused by the death of the other. Condolences and community cannot and do not assuage the pain of loss. Authenticity is not contingent upon the isolation of the self from others. Rather, it might arise within certain communal experiences.
Mourning and mournability are, thus, contingent on the possibility of a survivor’s “existential death”—of the failure of the significations most fundamental to their own conception of self and their life—and thus can be seen as contingent on these same expectations. My project will take into account the roles life-prolonging technologies — by virtue of the futural dimensions of this fundamental intentionality — might play in dictating which relationships shape our lives and dictate our projects, as well as an analysis of something I will call a “metaphysics of averageness”, undergirding this Technological influence.
Posthumous Harm and Happiness as Virtuous Activity
Murrary State University
Contemporary viewpoints that defend the possibility of posthumous harms typically focus on addressing two problems, what I will refer to as the subject problem and as the timing problem. First, given that a person, after her death, could not be the subject of posthumous harms, what is the subject of them? This question is pressing enough that some (Partridge, e.g.) hold the view that posthumous harms are not possible at all precisely because there is no subject that could be harmed. Second, while the events that constitute the harm do not occur until after the person’s death, when, exactly, is it that the harm occurs? Does it occur together with the event, so that there is no harm that occurs until after the person has died? Or does the harm occur at some other time, perhaps even during the person’s life? Now on one viewpoint (held by Feinberg), even though the person has died, something of the person can survive death, an interest. Furthermore, an analysis of harm shows that it is not a person directly that is harmed, but an interest that a person has. Thus, posthumous harms can occur because the interests of a person that survive the person’s death can be affected, and these interests function as subjects of harm. A different view (defended by Luper) makes the direct subject of harm, not an interest of a person, but the person himself, and while a harm may not occur until after the person’s death, it is the person, while alive, who is harmed by it. On this view, Jones would be harmed now by the fact that Smith will, after Jones’ death, knowingly and intentionally destroy Jones’ reputation by spreading false information about him.
The above viewpoints address the subject and timing problems. However, these viewpoints cannot adequately address a third problem that ought to be considered in the discussion of posthumous harm. According to these viewpoints, our fundamental assessment of the status of a person’s life–whether we regard the person as having had a good life, or a choiceworthy life, for example–can be changed by posthumous events. On the first view, it is possible for posthumous events to so seriously harm a person’s interests that even if we regarded the person as having had a happy life before then, we would afterwards regard him as having had an unhappy life. On the second view, it would seem possible to give an assessment of a person’s life only after we would no longer be interested in doing so. Indeed, since posthumous events can harm a person while that person is living, even a self-assessment of the quality of a life isn’t possible. We would need to wait until all the facts are in, and it is possible that they will not be in until well after the person has died. Thus, neither of the above viewpoints can satisfactorily address what I term the problem of finality: in what sense does death finalize our assessment of the quality of a person’s life?
Aristotelians have an alternative available that does address the problem of finality. Aristotle maintains that it is the person, as the initiator of the virtuous activities constituting his happiness, who is harmed by posthumous events. Events that affect a person’s virtuous activities are events that affect that person’s happiness. Furthermore, many of the activities that a person engages in persist after their initiation; indeed, many activities can persist long into the future, even after the death of the person who initiated them. Virtuous activities can be inhibited or negated altogether after the person who initiated them has died, and such events therefore impact the happiness of the person. Nevertheless, such events do not change the fundamental assessment we would give of a person’s life. On Aristotle’s viewpoint, the fact that Jones lived a happy life is not a fact that can be altered by any posthumous event. In previous work I have defended the above points as an interpretation of the final chapters of book I of the Nicomachean Ethics. Here, I defend the Aristotelian viewpoint on posthumous harm against its major contemporary rivals.
On the Desirability of Body-Bound Immortality
University of Southern California
In his 1971 paper, “The Makropoulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality,” Bernard Williams argues that it is good that humans are mortal because, if given enough time, we would all eventually fall into an intolerable boredom and have no reason to go on. The Makropoulos Case, which serves as the inspiration for Williams’ argument, refers to a Janáček opera that details the life of Elin Makropoulos, a celebrated singer who loses all zest for life after taking an elixir that allows her to live for 300 years. Having run out of reasons to live, Elin refuses to take another elixir that would have allowed her to live an additional 300 years. Williams imagines that the same fate would befall us all, if we were to live long enough.
A lively discussion has sprung up over the years since the paper was published, with a few defenders of Williams’ position as well as many objectors who have proposed various ways that an body-bound immortal life might not be boring. However, a lack of clarity about the structure of Williams’ argument has led many to too easily dismiss the idea that immortality necessarily leads to boredom. In order to engage Williams’ question in a context that treats the question as theoretically meaningful rather than absurd or merely speculative, I motivate Williams’ assumptions about personal identity, desire, and boredom that underlie his argument.
In particular, I develop an account of what I call justified fundamental boredom, building off of Cheshire Calhoun’s account of boredom and valuing as developed her 2011 article “Living with Boredom.” Crucially, I argue that whereas everyday fleeting feelings of boredom occur when we perceive an insufficiency of value-qualities to engage our capacities, justified permanent boredom would occur if this perception tracked reality.
The thought is that if given enough time, all of a person’s currently held categorical desires, desires of the type that give her a reason to live, will be exhausted in the sense that they will no longer be able to engage her capacities so as to keep her interest. The agent must adopt wholly new categorical desires or else fall into a state of justified permanent boredom. Williams sees this forced modification of one’s motivational set as a loss of identity and a fate worse than death. However, even if we allow for a person’s categorical desires to forever gradually change in this way over the span of her life while retaining her identity, there still might be reason to think she will approach fundamental boredom. We might think that there are a finite number of interestingly different pursuits, in which case, given an infinite amount of time she would exhaust them all such that there would be no desires that she could adopt that would relieve her boredom.
After bolstering Williams’ argument in this way, I will argue that even on the most charitable interpretation, it ultimately fails. Contra Williams I argue that it is a contingent matter whether any particular person would find an immortal body-bound life livable. I argue that not all categorical desires are exhaustible in the way Williams assumes. There exist certain categorical desires, the pursuit of which produce endless and endlessly interesting opportunities for engaging one’s evaluative capacities. While the infinite pursuit of these categorical desires might be repetitive in a certain sense, they would not be repetitive in the sense relevant to causing justified boredom just as long as they continue to present a person value data that is different from the data she has already consumed. I provide two classes of examples: certain desires based in self-improvement (e.g. a desire to paint the best painting I have ever painted,) and desires that depend on the changing state of the world (e.g. a desire to do a good deed per day). As long as the agent has or could adopt a desire that belongs to one of these classes, she should not fear that living forever would lead to fundamental boredom.
In the first section of my paper I address objections to Williams’ argument by John Martin Fischer, Jeremy Wisnewski, Mikel Burley, Timothy Chappell, and Jonathan Glover. The strongest version of Williams’ argument, I argue, is immune to these criticisms. In the second section of my paper I develop accounts of categorical desires, narrative personal identity, and fundamental boredom that can be used to argue towards Williams’ conclusion. In the third section of my paper I present my negative argument against Williams, which concludes that whereas some lives if lived long enough will be unbearable in the way he predicts, the desirability of body-bound immortality is a contingent matter.
Epicureanism, Extrinsic Badness, and Prudence
Karl Ekendahl & Jens Johansson
Critics of the “Epicurean” view that death is not bad for the one who dies often accuse it of being in conflict with some of our most fundamental views about prudence. In particular, the opponents charge that the Epicurean view takes away the main prudential reason for avoiding one’s own death—namely, precisely that death is a bad thing for the person who dies. And it seems obvious that if your future life would be very good for you, then you ought prudentially to live on. In this paper we offer a reply to this objection. Not even anti-Epicureans, we argue, should take the badness of death for the victim to be relevant to her prudential obligation to avoid her own death.
Our response to the objection begins by noting that anti-Epicureans take death to be, not intrinsically, but extrinsically bad for the one who dies. This position is typically based on a general account of extrinsic value for a person, “EV”: an event is extrinsically bad (good) for a person to the extent that she would have been on balance intrinsically better (worse) off had the event not occurred. We argue that given EV—whatever its merits—extrinsic badness for people should not be ascribed any prudential significance. What does have prudential significance is intrinsic value—and, crucially, this is something that the Epicurean, too, could happily accept.
First, suppose you have to perform one of three alternatives: if you do A, you will have a well-being level of –100; if you do B, you will have a well-being level of 0; if you do C, you will have a well-being level of +100. Except for these differences, the outcomes are relevantly similar. It seems clear that it would be prudentially impermissible for you to do B. But this is not because B is extrinsically bad for you. For instance, if you do B, and would have otherwise done A, then EV tells us that B is extrinsically very good for you. Nor, we argue, is extrinsic badness (as understood by EV) relevant here in some less direct way. The explanation that B is prudentially impermissible for you is instead simply that there is an alternative (i.e., C) that would maximize your receipt of intrinsic value. We argue that these considerations show that extrinsic badness, given EV, is irrelevant not only in this sort of case, where the agent has more than two alternatives, but also in cases where she has exactly two.
A second, more indirect consideration starts out from the fact that we can make an extrinsically bad event extrinsically less bad, and even extrinsically good. For example, given EV, you can prevent your death from being extrinsically bad for you by making sure that the future that you would have had if you were not to die would be terrible. That, however, would clearly not be a good idea. And the reason for this is that, no matter how much extrinsic badness it would prevent for you, it would not result in any additional intrinsic value for you.
In various ways, then, extrinsic badness can be seen to be prudentially insignificant, even on EV. In light of this, the anti-Epicurean might want to revise EV, in order to secure a close connection between extrinsic badness and prudence. Perhaps, for example, an event E is extrinsically bad for you if and only if there is some alternative event E* that makes you intrinsically better off than E (regardless of whether E* would have happened if E hadn’t occurred). However, we argue against this proposal, partly on the grounds that there is no plausible way to identify the relevant set of alternative events. It will not do, for example, to take the alternatives to E to be all the events that could or might have happened instead of E. We also criticize the possible suggestion that an appeal to indeterminacy regarding the relevant counterfactuals will help the anti-Epicurean.
Thus, Epicureanism should not be rejected on the grounds that because we are often prudentially obligated to prevent death, death must be bad for us. We conclude by dealing with the potential worry that the Epicurean view loses much its interest unless it is taken to imply that we have no prudential reason to avoid death.
The deprivation account for the evil of death is the most promising explanation for why death is bad, when it is bad, and thus seems to provide a good reason to fear it. But the deprivation account leads straightaway to Lucretius’ perplexing symmetry argument: if death is bad because it deprives us of time we could have enjoyed had we not died when we did, then the same holds for when we were born; for if we had been born earlier than we were, we could have enjoyed that time. It seems that if death can deprive us of time at the end of our lives, as the deprivation account holds, then so too can the time of our birth; so we should either relinquish our negative attitudes toward our own deaths or try to hold similar attitudes toward when we were born.
Neither choice seems very plausible to me, though each has its defenders. By developing Thomas Nagel’s early attempt to deal with this problem, I deny that the time before my birth is symmetrical to the time after my death. I argue for an asymmetry of possibilities: it is not possible for me to exist earlier than I do, whereas it is possible for me to live longer than I will. Because it is metaphysically impossible for my physical organism (or my DNA or whatever we take to be my metaphysical essence which identifies the same entity across possible worlds) to exist much earlier than it does, it is also impossible for any person (read: biographical self) associated with that particular organism to exist earlier as well. The fact that my organism could have grown up in, say, rural Spain is irrelevant, since in neither case—the actual or the possible—could my organism and thus the biographical self that I am now have existed earlier. This is a real difference in possibilities: since it is not possible for my organism (or whatever we take to be my metaphysical essence) to exist earlier than it does, it is also not possible for biographical me to have existed earlier; whereas it is possible for biographical me to die later than I will, since we just imagine a continuation of my established biography into the future. Since this is a genuine difference of possibilities, we do not have to have similar attitudes toward them, and so we can think that death can deprive without thinking that birth can too. This, I submit, answers Lucretius’ symmetry argument.
John Martin Fisher and Jeff McMahan, among others, question my solution to the symmetry argument. In his most recent reply to my view (Social Theory and Practice, January, 2011) Fisher maintains his “Parfitian” or “temporal bias” approach to the symmetry problem, while criticizing my attempt to show a genuine metaphysical difference between pre-vital and post-mortem times. Fisher’s approach may well explain our temporal attitudes, but it fails to address questions regarding a metaphysical difference between those times. Fisher’s view is not incompatible with my proposal, for if it is metaphysically impossible for me to exist earlier than I do, then a “Parfitian” approach would at least not be irrational. In response to Fisher’s criticism of my proposal, I argue that a proper understanding of metaphysical essences and persons (“thin” and “thick” persons) will show how it is metaphysically impossible for me to exist earlier than I do.
McMahan also takes what appears to be a broadly psychological approach to the symmetry problem. He argues that while a person could exist earlier than she in fact does, the details of the life of that earlier individual would be wholly alien to the person alive now. Caring about the particulars of our actual lives makes an earlier possible life unattractive to us. I think that McMahan has too quickly conceded the metaphysical point to Lucretius that an earlier existence is possible, so like Fisher and others, he must argue that our asymmetric attitudes about pre-vital and post mortem times turn on some aspect of our psychology, such as our preferences or cares.
I think that this approach fails to address the larger Epicurean challenge at issue, and within which the Lucretian symmetry argument is situated, namely, whether it is rational to fear death. Lucretius argues that is irrational to fear death because pre-vital and post mortem times are symmetrical. Once we concede that, we must then try to explain our attitudinal difference by reference to some feature of our psychology, to which Lucretius (and Epicurus) would reply that that is precisely the problem. They claim that there is no rational basis for our attitudes. In my view, by contrast, one can legitimately fear death without having also to think that the same applies to the time before one’s birth, because while one might live longer, one cannot exist earlier. Therefore an early death can deprive, whereas a late birth cannot, or so I argue.
Can the brain dead be harmed or wronged?
A comparative analysis of harms and wrongs to post-persons
Florida State University College of Medicine
Among philosophers and bioethicists who reject the equivalence of brain death with biological death, it is common to nonetheless assert that brain dead individuals cannot be harmed due to their irreversible unconsciousness. However, as evidenced by the rich philosophical debate on the posthumous harm thesis, it is not uncontroversial that insensibility entails immunity from harm. Furthermore, being harmed is distinguishable from being wronged. Therefore the purpose of this paper is to investigate whether the brain dead can be harmed or wronged. In particular, I address this question in the context of organ procurement that occurs under circumstances in which the moral legitimacy of consent for organ removal is questionable.
I begin with a brief review of the case against equating brain death with biological death and its implications for consent for heart-beating organ donation. Patients in irreversible apneic coma (i.e. brain death) can engage in a number of regulatory, homeostasis-maintaining functions which together manifest a clear anti-entropic capacity of the organism as a whole, and thus biological life. Although the person has arguably ceased to exist in such cases, the use of the term “dead” to describe patients in irreversible coma, without qualification or clarification, is misleading. This is especially so in the context of consent for organ donation, such as when a person checks a box on her driver’s license to donate organs “after my death”. Were a patient to become a heart-beating organ donor on the basis of consent given under these misleading circumstances, this may seem prima facie morally objectionable. Yet on what grounds? Once entering irreversible coma, does an individual have any interests at all? Is it even possible for such individuals to be harmed or wronged?
To address these questions, I distinguish harms from wrongs, define precedent autonomy, and distinguish welfare interests from investment interests. I define a “post-person” as a biologically living individual that was once, but is no longer, a person in a Kantian or Lockean sense. That is, the individual was once able to have and give reasons for her behaviors; she was self-aware and had a conception of self as extending into the past and the future; etc. However, as a result of injury or illness, she no longer has these capacities.
In light of this background, I consider three post-persons: An individual with severe end-stage dementia, who is barely sentient but no longer sapient; an individual in the vegetative state, who is considered to manifest wakefulness in the complete absence of awareness; and an individual in irreversible apneic coma, who is neither sentient nor sapient. I sequentially compare the possibility of harms and wrongs to each of these individuals. I argue that there is a morally relevant distinction between the individual with dementia and the other two, specifically with respect to hedonist welfare interests, due to the preservation of sentience. Thus there is a difference in the harm that can be visited upon this individual compared to the others. However, there are no morally relevant differences between any of them with respect to precedent autonomy or investment interests, nor are there differences with respect to such commonly accepted deontic constraints such as the right to bodily integrity. Therefore, whatever obligations are owed to the first patient, the same are owed to the second and third. Hence I conclude that the irreversibly comatose can be wronged. This includes the removal of organs in the absence of adequate consent, along with the violation of bodily integrity and theft of organs that such an action entails.
I consider an objection—that inadequate consent for organ donation is better than no consent at all—and find it unconvincing. Through discussion of this objection I clarify that an irreversibly comatose individual could be wronged by failing to remove organs (were that her will) just as much as she could be wronged by removing organs. The difference will turn on whether she would have consented had she had adequate information about the process of heart-beating organ removal.
Finally, I conclude by considering the implications for public policy on organ transplantation. If consents for organ removal are not sufficiently informed, it would follow that inadequately consented organ removal can wrong the brain dead post-person. The morality of the organ transplant enterprise, as it is now practiced, would then need reevaluation, carefully weighing the beneficial consequences of organ transplantation against its wrong-making features. One of these features will be the wrong done to some post-persons in irreversible apneic coma.
Back for seconds? How death is irreversible
The Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) states that death occurs at the irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or the irreversible cessation of all brain functions. However, several interpretations of the UDDA have been offered, because “irreversible” can be interpreted in different ways. For instance, ethical irreversibility (when we cannot ethically intervene to resuscitate a patient), autonomous irreversibility (when the patient cannot reverse her own condition), and present technological irreversibility (when reversal is impossible with current technology) have been suggested. Obviously, each of these will lead to very different tests for death and protocols for vital organ procurement. But which is correct?
In this paper, I examine our concept of death—in medicine, law, philosophy, and theology—in order to assess what kind of irreversibility belongs to our concept of death. The history of medicine shows that we have rejected criteria for death if we could reverse the patient’s condition after the criteria were met: we no longer prick, pinch, or move the patient to check for responses, since patients have recovered even after an unresponsive period. This is evidence that we do not identify death with any specific condition; otherwise, we would continue to associate death with this condition even once it becomes reversible. Instead, we identify death with a state we cannot reverse, and we look for new criteria. Law also gives examples of death’s irreversibility: the difference between murder and assault, for instance, is best explained by the fact that the murder victim cannot possibly recover. And while philosophers disagree about the kind of irreversibility that death has, it is nevertheless true that certain questions are much more interesting if death is irreversible in some strong sense. “Do we survive death?” is a fascinating question if death is something final; a trite one if death can mean the temporary cessation of my heartbeat. Even theology, which offers doctrines about resurrection and reincarnation, does not claim that death is reversible in just any way—rather, the reversal of death is seen as divine intervention, impossible for us to achieve with medical technology. By taking into account how we think of death in these cases, I can eliminate some types of irreversibility we have attributed to death.
Ethical irreversibility, for instance, does not capture our concept of death since it is too easily reversed—laws could be changed, or a patient could revoke her DNR order. Autonomous irreversibility is likewise insufficient. We would not want to say that a now healthy patient is no longer married, or that her property is distributed among her heirs, because she required medical intervention to restart her heart. Even present technological irreversibility does not match death; if it did, a breakthrough in technology could cause a patient who was “dead” five minutes ago to be “alive” now, without changing her physiology—the mere existence of new technology would make her alive. Future technological irreversibility (when someone is dead if she is in a condition which we will never have the technology to reverse) makes death problematically contingent on our decisions. It seems wrong to say that someone’s death could have occurred later if we had invested more in medical research, regardless of whether this technology would reach her. Physical irreversibility is problematic in a different way: the laws of physics do not directly prevent us from reanimating a corpse. If we can (even theoretically) reassemble the molecules that made up any organism, there are no physically irreversible conditions. Logical or absolute irreversibility—which makes the concept of reversal incoherent—is too strong. A belief in resurrection may be false but isn’t obviously incoherent.
I conclude that metaphysical irreversibility—when reversal is contrary to or beyond the scope of metaphysical laws—is the best candidate for our concept of death. It puts the reversal of death out of our reach while admitting that an omnipotent being could manipulate these laws. It is not problematic to say that death is contingent on metaphysical laws: everyone in the same physiological state in a universe with laws like ours will be equally dead (or alive). Metaphysically irreversible states of organisms are definitely possible. Someone who believes organisms cease to exist at death and that identity requires non-intermittent existence, for instance, is ideally situated to claim that death is metaphysically irreversible. I conclude this paper by briefly mentioning three theories that could accommodate this view: McMahan’s embodied mind theory, Van Inwagen’s materialism, and Shewmon’s hylemorphic dualism.
The many deaths of Jacques Derrida
University of Redlands
No philosopher writing during the past fifty years—if we leave out the early Heidegger, whose primary writings on death occurred in the 1920s—has written more about death than Jacques Derrida. The problem, or, depending on one’s perspective, the opportunity, is that Derrida wrote so much about death under so many differing authorial ‘identities’, and he used so many compelling metaphors while writing. He writes about ‘aporias’, ‘hauntology’, ‘spectres’, ‘crypts’. And he comments, in his endless midrash on recent theory of all kinds, on the work of Freud, Marx, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Aries, Patocka, Abraham and Torok and Lacan. No one escapes his notice.
Yet, no commentator has attempted to read all of his works on death as a single body (pun intended) of work. I propose to read Aporias, The Work of Mourning, The Gift of Death, Spectres of Marx, Postcards,“Fors” and “Freud and the Scene of Writing”. This is by no means an exhaustive list but it covers enough different treatments of death that taken together these works might suggest some general things that Derrida wants to say about death.
Is there one thing or a Wittgensteinian family of things that Derrida references in his use of ‘death’, ‘spectre’, et alia?
Or are his textual encounters with the term and the event truly postmodern? That is, is death for Derrida a ‘self-consuming artifact’, that is a term that deconstucts itself in such a way as to undercut all possibilities for asserting any level of family resemblance?
My hunch is that when Derrida proposes death as aporia, in contrast to Heidegger’s claim in Being and Time to provide an ‘existential analysis’ of dying ‘as such’, and when he develops his tongue-in-cheek ‘hauntology’ in Spectres of Marx he is suggesting a kind of negative theology for death, a way to define it as a richly informative gap in both being and explanation. I will use Kierkegaard’s ideas on subjective proof from his Concluding Scientific Postscript, as he uses the credo quia absurdum principle to argue for the rationality of religious faith, as well as John Caputo’s ideas about religion without religion, as these are developed in The Prayers and Tears of Derrida to make my case. I will suggest that Derrida’s representation of death as aporia does not mean that death has no meaning, but rather that death is, as Derrida describes it, a “waiting together at the boundaries of truth,” an event that, pace Heidegger, Derrida sees as both inherently social and inherently indeterminate, rather than lacking in, meaning.
Death, Longevity, and Companion Animals
Most of the discussion about whether or not death should be postponed, whether or not a longer life is a better life, and whether or not life should be extended has been applied only to human beings. In this paper, I raise these questions in regard to non-human beings, in particular, our animal companions (“pets”). I am interested in whether or not the deaths of our animal companions should be postponed; whether, both for them and for their human companions, a longer life is a better life; and whether our animal companions’ lives should be extended, or their life spans remain as they are. These questions can be considered both in regard to individual animals and in regard to species characteristics. Pursuing them may shed light on the analogous issues for human beings, but also is worthwhile for its own sake.
I approach these questions by posing and evaluating three main arguments purporting to show that animal companions’ deaths should not be postponed, that in regard to animal companions, a longer life is not necessarily a better life, and that their life spans should remain as they are. The arguments are 1) that animal companions’ current life spans and deaths are part of the natural cycle of their lives; 2) that animal companions’ lives are currently long enough; and 3) that the costs (monetary, medical, scientific, environmental, and social) of extending their lives are not justified.
In response to argument 1), I suggest that there is little that is natural about the lives of companion animals, who are the results of millennia of human shaping through deliberate breeding and selection. The burden of proof is on those who would claim that life extension is different in kind from other ways that human beings have shaped companion animals’ lives. The significant moral questions are, instead, about the means of extending companion animals’ lives, and the effects of that extension on the animals themselves.
In response to argument 2), I question by what criterion companion animals’ lives can be judged already long enough. There are two perspectives here: a) that of the animal, and b) that of the human being(s) with whom they live.
a) From the perspective of the animal, it is not mere existence that is valuable; it is the nature of the life lived that makes it valuable (or not). And provided that the animal’s life is a good one (I do not argue for prolonging the lives of animals who are suffering), it will be worthwhile to the animal to prolong its capacity for further good experiences. Moreover, the longer the animal lives, the more bonded to its companion human beings it is likely to be, and the more important the relationship. Therefore, if companion animals enjoy their lives and love their human companions, then there is an important justification, from their perspective, for extending their lives.
b) The human friends of animals know that companion animals’ lives are fleeting compared to ours. Human beings’ life spans are increasing; it would be good to have animal companions who live longer. Companion animals are not interchangeable and easily replaced; they are individual beings with unique lives and personalities. Going through the deaths of animal companions repeatedly never makes it easier, and the fact that an animal has lived for a species-typical number of years does not make its death less painful to bear. Indeed, the longer-lived the animal, the longer there is to develop a relationship with it.
Argument 3) provides the strongest support for the claims that animal companions’ deaths should not be postponed and that their life spans should remain as they are. For it seems evident not only that increasing the life span of companion animals would demand a large expenditure of limited resources, but also that only the privileged “pets” of privileged and “selfish” citizens of the West would benefit from such an extension. My response is that life span extension programs should, ideally, benefit all companion animals, but, more importantly, that such programs should only be attempted in concert with serious, wide-ranging, and effective measures to contain animal populations, both by reducing (and where possible, eliminating) all human uses of animals that harm the animals themselves, and by substantially reducing the breeding of companion animals so that every such animal is wanted and valued. Thus, social policies for companion animal life extension should be closely connected to other beneficent social policies with respect to companion animals.
Hume on Suicide
University of Houston-Downtown
David Hume wrote the essay “On suicide” in 1755, but it was not published under his name until after his death. In it Hume argues that suicide is not immoral; he makes the case by discounting three possibilities: that suicide violates the law of God, that it causes harm to society, and that is does harm to the individual who commits suicide. The essay as a whole is fairly short, but even so, the last point—that suicide is not immoral due to a wrong caused to the person who commits suicide—is given very little space. This is unfortunate, since it is, I think, the most important of Hume’s points to contemporary ears. In this paper I will look closer at what Hume says about suicide and the harm to self. There are three parts to the project: first, I will try to pin down exactly what Hume is trying to prove in this part of the essay. Next, I will discuss why I think his conclusions are mistaken. Lastly, I will look at Hume’s broader writings, in an attempt to explain why he made the mistakes he did on suicide.
The first question is whether Hume intended to argue that suicide is sometimes morally acceptable, or whether it always is. I argue that in the considering our duties to ourselves, at least, Hume’s conclusion is that it always is. Hume’s analysis of why suicide is not a wrong to the self centers around his claim that anyone who commits suicide must have a good reason for doing so. This is because our instinct to preserve our lives is so strong that it cannot be overcome without very compelling reasons. Given the enormity of the act of suicide, Hume concludes that all acts of suicide must result from an individual genuinely realizing that they are better off dead than alive. Thus Hume concludes that no suicide is ever a harm to the person who commits it, even if it may look that way from the outside.
I think that Hume is wrong about this. We do not, as a rule, allow depressed suicidal people to simply kill themselves, and the reason is that we assume that whatever is driving them to suicide is a temporary position. Even if the suicidal person seems (to themselves) to be acting in their own best interest, we presume that their reasoning is based on mistaken beliefs, such that if they are given time or treatment, they would no longer think that suicide is in their interest. Furthermore, there is good reason to think that this attitude towards suicidal people is correct—research on suicide suggests that for many suicidal people, simply making the act difficult is enough to prevent them from ever killing themselves. This really only makes sense if the suicidal person is basing their decision on a passing set of beliefs and circumstances.
The final part of the paper looks at why Hume made this mistake. It comes, I think, from two places. The first is an over-emphasis on reason. Hume was confident that if someone acts from the kind of desperation that would drive them to suicide, that this feeling must be the only one at work. For Hume, if there is a competing set of emotions in a suicidal person, these would be unstable—that it would soon resolve itself into a pure passion, and if this passion is one that leads to suicide, then it is a rational one. The other problematic factor for Hume is his unquestioned assertion that we all love life as a natural instinct. This is why he thinks that suicide cannot be done lightly, but he does not consider that the love of life may be absent, or wavering, in some people.
Criteria for a Successful Account of the Harm of Death
University of Wyoming
While a good deal of the recent analytic philosophical literature has addressed the question of the badness of death, and its corresponding puzzles (e.g., Bradley 2004; McMahan 2003; Smuts 2012 to name only a few), not much has been written about the harmfulness of death.1 Moreover, while proposals of alternative theories of harm to the ‘standard’ counterfactual comparative account abound in recent literature, few of these accounts’ proponents tackle the issue of death head on. In this paper, I consider the peculiarities about death that make it a problematic instance of apparent harm, and I clarify the sense in which death might be a harm for the person who dies, if it is to be a harm at all. I argue that the harmfulness of death need not track the badness of death. Death may not be bad even though it is harmful.
I then suggest several criteria that an account of harm must satisfy if it is to successfully accommodate the harm of death. Minimally, an account of the harmfulness of death must be uniform with the account’s treatment of other harms—it must not make an ad hoc special exception for the harm of death—nor should it take on any controversial metaphysical commitments concerning the well-being properties of the dead. For instance, it is a controversial matter whether the dead possess levels of well-being. Thus, an account should not require that the dead possess levels of well-being at times after their death in order to count death as a harm. I argue that, given these plausible criteria for a successful account of the harm of death, virtually every general account of harm fails. Among the theories I consider are Judith Thomson’s recent ‘state-based’ counterfactual comparative account (Thomson 2011), Justin Klocksiem’s schematic counterfactual comparative account (Klocksiem 2012), Elizabeth Harman’s and Seana Shiffrin’s non-comparative accounts (Harman 2004 and 2009; Shiffrin 1999 and 2014), Matthew Hanser’s event-based account (2008 and 2011), and Lukas Meyers’s threshold account (Meyer 2003). Each of these accounts either makes an ad hoc special exception for the harm of death or requires certain controversial metaphysical commitments in order to count death as a harm. From these failures, I draw the lesson that, in order to satisfy the criteria for a successful account of the harm of death, the account must yield its verdict about the harmfulness of death by assessing the relationship between death and the value of a person’s whole life rather than the state that she is in after her death. I then apply this observation to the theories mentioned above. Only a schematic version of the counterfactual comparative account seems to be amenable to whole-life comparisons. I close by asking whether a theory of the harmfulness of death must also provide an answer to the question of the times of death’s harmfulness.
Deletion and Second Death: The Moral Status of Digital Remains
There has been increasing discussion, both in popular outlets and in research across philosophy (Stokes, 2012), psychology (e.g. Kasket, 2012), sociology (e.g. Gibson, 2007; forthcoming) and information technology studies (e.g. Gibbs et al, 2012) of the way in which the online presence of internet users can persist after their death. As social media becomes increasingly ubiquitous, both service providers and users have begun to develop strategies for dealing with the aftermath of the death of users. At the same time, emerging online mourning practices have created both new spaces for collective grief and, more disturbingly, new opportunities for denigration of the dead (Phillips, 2011).
These putative forms of posthumous persistence intersect with heavily-discussed questions on the ontological and moral status of the dead. In previous work, I have developed an approach to these questions according to which the dead persist as objects of moral obligation precisely because in memory we give them the same phenomenal presence that made them morally compelling while they lived (Stokes, 2011), and have applied this approach to the status of the dead to the question of the ontological status of dead social media users (Stokes, 2012). Using an important emerging distinction in the contemporary literature on personal identity between selves and persons (cf. Schechtman 2007, Johnston 2010) I argued that one can survive one’s death online (in a radically diminished way) third-personally but not first-personally.
In this paper, I return to the moral status of the online artefacts left behind by the dead. The self-person distinction entails that digital artefacts such as social media profiles, though separable from the self,understood as an irreducibly first-person-perspectival subject, form part of the instantiation of the person, understood as a unity of physical, psychological, social, historical and narrative forms of continuity. Narrative approaches to personhood (which I’ve argued elsewhere may be useful with respect to personhood but may not adequately capture selfhood e.g. Stokes 2015) suggest that it’s through the narrativising of these elements that persons are constituted—in which case platforms like Facebook have arguably become a key site of narrative-self-constitution for a great many users. They have become a major way in which persons are phenomenally present in the life of others.
This raises the interesting question of what sort of moral status to accord the social media traces left behind by the dead. There has been some attention paid outside philosophy to the difficulties raised by dealing with ‘digital remains’ (Gibson, forthcoming), but little examination of the ethical status of these artefacts themselves. Given the ways in which the dead both exist as objects of moral duty yet are dependent upon the living to preserve that status, I argue that their social media traces partake of the same persisting-but-nonexistent ontological ambiguity as the dead themselves. If we accept the claims that a) social media profiles are a major site of the instantiation of many persons in the sense given above, and b) the dead rely upon the living to remember them in order to persist, and so c) we therefore arguably have a moral obligation of remembrance, do we have pro tanto reasons to preserve the online remains of the dead? There is an observation often attributed to Goethe that we die twice: first when we stop breathing, then when those who knew and loved us die. Is the deletion of a person’s social media presence in fact a form of second dying: a destruction of the person as a phenomenally-present object of moral duty?
Two New Problems for Categorical Desire Accounts of Death
Deprivation accounts of the badness of death are almost universally accepted among those who hold that death can be bad for the person who dies. In its most basic form, deprivation accounts hold that death is bad for the person who dies to the extent that it deprives her of the net value she would have gained had she not died at the time she did. Along these lines, life deprivation accounts hold that the degree to which death is bad for a person is determined by the extent to which death deprives that person of a good life. Contrast this with desire deprivation views, which hold that the degree to which death is bad is determined by the strength and number of that person’s (relevant) desires thwarted by death. In this paper I will mainly be concerned with a certain class of desire deprivation views, which I will refer to as categorical desire accounts. Categorical desires are desires that are not conditional upon one being alive, although they do provide reason for the agent to continue living to ensure that these very desires are satisfied. Categorical desires may be contrasted with conditional desires, which are desires that one has only on the condition that one is alive. For instance, I might have a conditional desire to eat lunch tomorrow and a categorical desire to publish my monograph on the metaphysics of death. In this paper, I argue that categorical desire accounts are subject to two serious problems that life deprivation accounts can handle without issue. I first argue that existing categorical desire views generate the wrong verdict about whether it is good for someone to have his bad death reversed. This is best illustrated by considering the following case.
: Unlucky Louie undergoes a heart transplant in the hopes that he will continue to live to see his many categorical desires satisfied. Being unlucky, however, Louie dies on the operating table. But Louie’s bad luck need not get the best of him this time. For as it turns out, Louie’s doctor is skilled enough to bring Louie back to life. Louie’s doctor knows that since Louie is now dead, he no longer has any categorical desires and, if left alone, will never again. She reasons that although Louie’s death was bad for him when he died, since he presently lacks any categorical desires and will (if left alone) continue to do so, not reviving Louie is not bad for him. Since not reviving Louie is not bad for him, the doctor lets him remain dead.
At this point, I consider six different ways proponents of categorical desire views attempt (and could attempt) to generate the right verdict in Operation, arguing that all such responses either fail or presuppose a life deprivation view. I then argue that cases with the same structure as Operation reveal a deeper problem with all possible desire deprivation views. It is unclear whether any desire deprivation view has the resources to overcome this deeper problem.
In the next section, I argue that categorical desire views cannot account for cases in which it is good to prevent beings from coming into existence or cases in which it is good to prevent them from continuing to exist. To see this, consider The Island of Suffering.
The Island of Suffering
: Sorcerer Steve has the power to either ensure or prevent a person (call her Suffering Susie) from coming into the existence in the near future. If Susie does come into existence, she will end up isolated on the Island of Suffering, enduring many years of constant agony before finally dying. No one will be able to help Susie once she exists. Prior to, and during, existence Susie has no categorical desires.
My second case may be thought to pose a two-horned dilemma for categorical desire views: either nothing is good or bad for Susie since she lacks categorical desires or the evaluative rankings of some events are dependent on something other than categorical desires. Any categorical desire view committed to the first horn should be rejected on the grounds of a reductio ad absurdum. Plausible ways of accepting the second horn either assume the truth of a life deprivation view or a new, alternative, kind of desire deprivation view I develop. Neither option is good for proponents of categorical desire views. After considering and rebutting various objections, I conclude that we have strong, yet defeasible, reason to reject categorical desire accounts.
Love and Death
SUNY New Paltz
It is commonly thought that there is a connection between love and death. But what can be said philosophically about the nature of that connection (if indeed it exists)? In light of the imposing nature of this question, my aim in this talk is a somewhat modest one: to survey some of ways in which love and death have been linked, and to suggest how many of those approaches are philosophically inadequate. As a scholar of ancient philosophy, I take my cue from—and structure my talk around—some key moments in Plato’s Symposium, a text in which eros and thanatos are both central.
The Symposium suggests at least three possible ways in which love and death might be connected:
1. Love and the willingness to die. In his speech Phaedrus makes the descriptive claim that only lovers are willing to die for one another. Yet this is plainly false, as there are plenty of situations (e.g., military platoons) in which non-lovers and even strangers are willing to die for one another. Likewise, it would be false to claim (as an empirical generalization) that all lovers are willing to die for one another. But what if we understood this as a normative claim? Should lovers be willing to die for one another, such that it would be a moral failing if one of them lacked such a willingness? Yet this moral claim appears to be too strong as well, as there are at least some situations in which a willingness to sacrifice one’s life for a loved one is not morally obligatory (e.g., children for the sake of parents).
2. Love as a kind of death. Aristophanes’ speech presents us with the powerful idea that love is a kind of yearning for wholeness or completeness, as we each seek out our perfectly matching “other half”. Aristophanes claims further that—if it were possible—we would all delight in having Hephaestus literally fuse us together with our matching half, such that we would become a single (unified) organism. Yet as a claim regarding the ultimate telos of love this cannot be right. Literal (Hephaestus-style) fusion would itself be a kind of death, as it would entail a loss of one’s individual self and separate identity. It is doubtful that those in love ever actually desire such an end-state; and it is even harder to see how such an end-state could be desirable. In my view, it is more plausible to think that love involves a desire to enlarge or transcend the boundaries of the self, and not a desire for the death of that self in toto.
3. Love and immortality. In Socrates’ speech we encounter one of the fundamental claims of the dialogue: that love is (or always involves) a desire for immortality (“a desire to possess the good forever”, as Socrates puts it). This suggests that love is somehow a result of our mortality, the fact each of us will eventually die. But this claim is ambiguous between two possible meanings. First, Socrates might mean that our mortality is the ultimate explanation for love (that because of which we seek love). In other words, mortality is what steers us toward love—something that could be understood either as a conscious preoccupation with death (à la some existentialism) or as an unconscious drive (à la Schopenhauer’s Will). In either case, however, I believe that the underlying assumption is flawed: for if death is ‘the’ factor that steers us toward love, then it follows that immortal beings would not seek out love or need love. Yet it is far from clear that immortal beings (at least if they were embodied) would in fact have or be content with loveless lives. Instead, I suggest that if we are intent on identifying an ultimate “explanation” for love—a project that may itself be doomed to failure—then it is more plausible to locate it within human embodiment and/or human finitude, and not our mortality per se.
Second, Socrates might mean that our mortality is an adequate justification for love, at least to the extent that an erotic relationship allows us to actually attain the immortality that we all supposedly seek. But spelled out in these terms the claim quickly becomes absurd, for Socrates himself notes that no incarnate relationship can actually bestow immortality. Moreover, if a potential beloved is to be judged based on his/her ability to bestow immortality, then we run the risk of treating him/her merely as a means (and this is a point which Socrates conspicuously fails to appreciate). In my view, it is better to say that love provides a kind of salve for us in the face of death, and perhaps (if one were so inclined) an element in a Camus-style revolt. Yet even if this is to count as a ‘justification’ for love, it is at most a partial one, and pertains only to the value of love in general. The particular beloved in one’s life would seem to remain unjustified and indeed unjustifiable.