PHIL 176: Death
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PHIL 176 - Lecture 20 - The Value of Life, Part II; Other Bad Aspects of Death, Part I
Chapter 1. What’s Missing from the Experience Machine? [00:00:00]
Professor Shelly Kagan: Last time, I invited you to think about life on the experience machine, where the scientists are busy stimulating your brain in such a way as to give you an exact replica, from the insides of what it would be like having identical experiences to the ones you would have if you were really doing — well, whatever it is that’s worth doing. Climbing the alps, writing the great American novel, raising a great family that loves you, being creative. Whatever it is you think is worth having, the experience machine gives you all the experiential side of those things. But you’re not really doing those things. You’re actually just floating in the scientist’s lab.
And we ask ourselves, would you want to live a life on the experience machine? Would you be happy or would you be unhappy, to discover that you actually have been living a life on the experience machine? Most of us, when we think about this, find ourselves wanting to say, no, we wouldn’t want to have a life on the experience machine. I’ve been discussing this sort of example for many, many years. And there’s always a group of people who think, yes, life on the experience machine is perfect as long as you’ve got the right tape playing. But the vast majority always says, no, there’s something missing from that life. It’s not the ideal of human existences; it’s not the best possible life we can imagine ourselves having.
But that means, if we think something’s missing, we then have to ask yourselves, what’s missing? What’s wrong with the experience machine? The one thing we can conclude immediately is, if you think life on the experience machine is missing something, that the hedonist — and views like hedonism — must be wrong, insofar as they say that all that matters for the best possible life is — for well-being — is getting the right kinds of experiences, getting the right kinds of mental states. Because by hypothesis, the experience machine gets the mental states right, get the insides right. So, if something’s missing from that life, there’s more to the best kind of life than just having the right mental states, than just getting the insides right.
Well, we ask ourselves then, well, what’s missing? I think different people will answer that in different ways. And if we had more time we could spell out rival theories of well-being, which could be interestingly distinguished one from another in terms of how they answer the question, “What’s missing from the experience machine?” on the one hand, and “Why are the things that are missing from the experience machine worth having?” Different theories of well-being might answer that in different ways. Instead of trying to pursue those alternative theories in a systematic fashion, let me just gesture toward some of the things that seem to be missing from that kind of life.
Well, first of all, and most, perhaps, obviously — if you’re just spending your life floating in the scientist’s lab, you’re not actually accomplishing anything. You’re not actually getting the things out of life you thought you were getting. You wanted to be climbing the mountain, but you’re not actually climbing a mountain. You’re just floating there. You wanted to be writing the great American novel, but you’re not writing the great American novel. You’re just floating there. You wanted to be finding the cure for cancer, but you’re not actually finding the cure for cancer. You wanted to be loved, but you’re not actually loved. You’re just floating there. Nobody other than the scientist even knows that you exist. So, there’s a variety of things you wanted. You wanted to know your place in the universe, but you don’t even have that kind of knowledge either, because you think you’re writing novels, finding the cure for cancer, climbing Mount Everest. You’re completely deceived about all those things. So you don’t have the kind of self-knowledge that many of us value.
Well, as I say, different theories would try to systematize these examples in different ways; that we don’t have any kind of accomplishments, we don’t have knowledge, we’re not in the right kinds of loving relationships. Different theories might have different explanations as to — are these things valuable because we want them, or do we want them because we recognize they’re valuable?
Rather than trying to pursue those questions — , And indeed, trying to work out the details of these views would be complicated as well. Take the example of accomplishment. Well, we all think accomplishment’s important, but it’s not as though any old accomplishment is important. If somebody sets themselves — or so it seems to me at least — if somebody sets theirself the goal of making the biggest rubber band ball in the Eastern United States, I suppose there’s a sense of the word that that’s an accomplishment if they’ve got it, but it doesn’t strike me as the kind of accomplishment which makes for a particularly valuable life. So, we might have to distinguish between any old accomplishment and genuinely valuable accomplishments. But again, just put those details aside.
We can say that there are certain things that are good above and beyond experiences — the right kinds of accomplishments, the right kind of knowledge. After all, not every bit of knowledge is equally valuable. It’s one thing to know your place in the universe, or to know the fundamental laws of physics. It’s another thing to know what was the average rainfall in Bangkok in 1984. I’m not clear that that kind of knowledge gives a whole lot of value to your life. So, we need the right kinds of accomplishments and the right kind of knowledge and the right kinds of relationships.
But imagine you’ve worked that out. The crucial point is that it takes more to have the best kind of life than just getting the insides right. It also requires getting the outsides right — whatever that comes to — having in your life not just experiences but the right kinds of goods or accomplishments or whatever term we use for it.
Chapter 2. The Neutral and Valuable Container Theories: What about Life Is Valuable? [00:05:57]
Now, let’s say, instead of pursuing the questions of how exactly that theory should go, notice that if we had that theory we could still evaluate in principle — whatever the practical difficulties might be — in principle we could still evaluate rival lives. We could talk about adding up all the positive experiences along with all the — ask yourself how many goods, how many accomplishments of the right sort were in that life? And that’s on the positive side of the ledger. And against that we would then have to subtract the sum total of the negative experiences, all the failures and deceptions or what have you. Those would count against the overall value of your life. We could still say it’s — how good your life is, is a matter of adding up the goods and subtracting the bads. But we would now have a somewhat broader, or more encompassing or inclusive, list of goods, and a more broad and encompassing list of bads — not just experience, but also these various other accomplishments, whatever exactly that list comes to.
So, we could still evaluate rival lives. My life would’ve gone better had I chosen to become a farmer instead of chosen to become a doctor. Or my life would’ve gone better for this period of ten years, but then it would’ve become worse. Or what have you. Or when we ask ourselves, how will things go for me over the next couple of weeks if I go on vacation versus staying back here? We add up the goods, subtract the bads — whatever our favorite list is — and we come to our best educated guess about the rival evaluations of not just lives as a whole, but chunks of lives.
Now, what do those totals come to? Well, you might think it’s an empirical question, and in fact I am inclined to think it’s an empirical question, varying from person to person. But it’s worth taking a moment to flag the fact that there are people, there are philosophers, who think we can generalize across all humans. You might say that optimists are people who think that for everybody in every case, in every circumstance, the total is always positive. “Life’s always worth living; it’s always better than non-existence.” That’s what the optimist thinks — not just for themselves individually, but for everybody, the total is always positive.
Against that, I suppose, you’ve got pessimists — pessimists who say, “No, no. Although life perhaps has some good things, the overall grand balance is negative for everybody in every circumstance. We’d all be better off dead, or perhaps more accurately still, all be better off never having been born in the first place.” That’s what the pessimists say.
And in between the optimists on the one hand and the pessimists on the other, you’ve got moderates who say, “It varies. And for some people the balance is positive, for some people perhaps the balance is negative, whether for their life as a whole or for certain stretches of their lives.” We then have to get down to facts about cases, try to describe the instance, perhaps somebody who’s in the terminal stages of some illness where they’re in a great deal of pain. And the various other external goods of life, they can’t — because they’re bedridden, they can no longer accomplish things, perhaps their family has abandoned them. Whatever the details might be, we could describe lives and say, whether or not their life was good as a whole, what the future holds out for them is negative. That’s what the moderates would say. It varies from case to case.
Well, however we settle that issue, notice there’s still one other assumption that all these positions still have in common. We’ve expanded our list of goods so that — Nobody’s going to deny that among the goods of life are pleasure and other positive experiences. And among the bads of life are pain and other negative experiences. But we’ve expanded the list of goods so it includes external goods and not only experiential or internal goods.
Still, the views that I’ve been sketching all still have the following assumption in common. How good it is to be alive is a matter of adding up all of the — call it the contents of life. Add up your experiences and your accomplishments and the particular details of your life as what the story is about. It’s as though we’ve been assuming, and I have been assuming up to this moment, that being alive per se has no value. It’s — life itself is a container which we fill with various goods or bads. And deciding how valuable it is, how good it is for me to be alive is a matter of adding up the value of the contents of the life. But the container itself is a mere container. It has no value in and of itself. We could say that what I’ve been presupposing up to this point is the “neutral container theory” of the value of life. Hedonism is a version of the neutral container theory. How valuable — how well off you are, how valuable your life is, is a function of the contents, the pleasure and the pain. We’ve expanded the list of goods that can go within your life, but for all that, we’ve still been acting as though the neutral container theory is the right approach.
But against this there are those who think, no, in addition to thinking about the value of the content of life, we have to remember — so these people claim — that life itself is worth having. There’s a benefit to me above and beyond the question of what’s going on within my life — am I loved, am I accomplishing things, am I having nice experiences or not? Above and beyond the question of the contents of my life, we have to remember that the mere fact that I’m alive gives my life some value. So, these are “valuable container” theories.
Now, think about what it would mean to accept a valuable container theory. You’re saying that being alive per se has some positive value. Well, actually, the first remark is, probably wouldn’t be completely accurate to say, to describe these views as saying, “It’s being alive per se.” After all, a blade of grass is alive, and I presume that even fans of the, what we might call valuable container theories, don’t think that, “Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if — as long as I was alive in the way that a blade of grass is alive.” Life may have value in and of itself, but it’s not mere life. What we want is the life of a human. We want a life in which we’re accomplishing things, there’s agency, and the life of knowing things. Because you have to be a knower in order to have knowledge. The life of somebody who can have an emotional side. So, it’s something like the life of a person that, when we say, when there are people who are inclined to say, that being alive per so is valuable, presumably what they mean is being alive as a person per se is valuable. All right. Note that point; keep it in mind. For simplicity I’ll talk about these views as though they say life per se is valuable.
Actually, I suppose there could be a more extreme view still. It seems implausible to me, but I suppose it’s worth noticing there are people who think, “No, being alive per se, right — even though there I am and my brain has been so thoroughly destroyed that I’m not longer able to know anything, no longer able to relate emotionally to anybody, no longer able to accomplish anything, there I am in a persistent vegetative state, but at least I’m alive.” You can imagine somebody who has that view. I’ve got to say I find that a pretty implausible view. So I’m going to restrict myself, at least when I think about it, to versions that say, it’s the life of a person per se that’s valuable.
Now, notice that if we accept this view to decide how well off I am, or somebody else is, you can’t just add up the contents of the life. You can’t just add up all the pleasures and subtract the pains, or add up all the accomplishments and subtract the failures, or add up all the knowledge and subtract the ignorance and deception. Doing that in terms of the contents gives you a subtotal, but that subtotal is no longer the entire story. Because we also have to add in, if we accept a valuable container theory, we also have to add in some extra positive points to take account of the fact that, well, at least you’re alive or have the life or a person — or whatever it is that you think is valuable in and of itself. So first we get the content subtotal; then we add some extra points for the mere fact that you’re alive.
Now, notice that since we are adding extra positive facts, extra positive points, for the fact that you’re alive, even if the contents subtotal is negative, the grand total could still be positive. Suppose that being alive per se is worth plus a hundred points, just to make up some number. Even if your content subtotal was negative ten, that doesn’t mean you’re not better off alive, because negative ten plus the extra hundred points for the mere fact that you’re alive is still going to give you a positive total, plus 90. So, the point of thinking about the possibility of accepting a valuable container theory is to remind us that in deciding are you better off dead, has death deprived me of something good or not, it’s important to not just focus on the contents but to also remember to add some positive points above and beyond the content subtotal to take into account the value of the sheer fact that you’re alive.
Chapter 3. The Fantastic Valuable Container Theory: The Contents Really Matter [00:17:05]
If you’re a fan of the neutral container theory, you won’t have anything extra to add, because life per se is just a zero. It’s strictly a matter of the contents. But if you accept a valuable container theory, you have to add something more. And so even if, you might say, the way my life is going in terms of its contents is bad, being alive per se might still be a good thing. Have to add some extra points.
How much extra? Well, here we’re going to have, of course, more modest and more bold versions of the valuable container theory. Let me just distinguish two broad types. What we might call modest versions of the valuable container theory say, although being alive per se is good, if the contents of your life get bad enough, that can outweigh the value of being alive so that the grand total is negative. Modest container theories, that is, say there’s a value to being alive, but it can in principle be outweighed. Whether it gets outweighed easily, or whether it’s very, very difficult and the contents have to be horrible to outweigh it, depends on how much value you think being alive per se has. So, those are modest theories — positive value for life, but it can be outweighed.
Against that, you can imagine someone who thinks being alive per se is so incredibly valuable that no matter how horrible the contents are, the grand total will always be positive. It’s as though being alive is infinitely valuable in comparison to questions about the contents. We could call this the “fantastic valuable container theory” as opposed to the “modest valuable container theory.” I suppose that label gives away where I want to come down on this. I find the fantastic valuable container theory fantastic in the sense of incredible. I can’t bring myself to believe it, which — I have some sympathies for valuable container theories, but I also have some sympathy for neutral container theories. Sometimes I’m drawn toward the neutral view; sometimes I’m drawn toward the thought that being alive per se is good for you. But even in those moments when I’m drawn towards valuable container theories, it’s always the modest version. I don’t find myself drawn toward the fantastic version.
Now, if we make these distinctions, then again, remembering that the question we’ve been asking ourselves is, “So why is death bad?” The deprivation account says, death is bad for you insofar as, or it’s bad for you when, by virtue of dying now, what you’ve been deprived of is, another chunk of life that would’ve been good for you to have. And what we now see is that — to see whether that could be the case or not, we’ve got to get clear in our own minds about whether we believe in a neutral container theory, a positive, valuable container theory or — and among those, between a fantastic and a modest container theory.
If we are neutralists, we’re going to say, the question is, what would the contents of my life have been, for the next year, ten years, whatever? If that would’ve been worth having, then — if the next chunk of my life would’ve been worth having — then it’s bad for me that I die now instead of living for the next ten years. On the other hand, if the balance from here on out would’ve been negative, then it’s good for me that I died now instead of being kept alive with a life not worth living. That’s how the neutralists put it.
If we are valuable container theorists, we think the answer has got to be, well, look at the contents, but don’t forget to add some extra points, even if the next five years for you would’ve been, in terms of the contents, modestly bad — perhaps the value of at least being alive at all outweighs it, so it still would’ve been better for you to be alive. But if the contents get bad enough, then you’d be better off dead.
Notice that on the modest view, if we ask ourselves, would it have been good to be immortal? the answer’s going to depend on not just whether we accept Bernard Williams’ claim that immortality would be bad for you, because we now realize that what Williams was talking about was the contents of an immortal life. And that’s no longer an adequate view, or at least it’s no longer a complete story, if we are valuable container theorists. We could say — you could imagine somebody saying, “Oh yes, you’re right, Williams, the contents get negative, but that’s still outweighed by the mere fact that you’re alive. So on balance, being immortal is a good thing.” Whether that’s right or not depends on just how bad would it be to be immortal. Because, of course, if you’re a modest, if you accept the modest version of the valuable container theory, then if the contents get bad enough, that can outweigh the positive value of life.
Against that, fans of the fantastic valuable container theory can say, it doesn’t really matter whether Williams is right. Even if being immortal would become horrendously boring and tedious or worse, it doesn’t matter. The value of being alive per se outweighs that. So you’re always better off being alive. So more life would always be better, no matter how horrible the contents might be. So being immortal really would be a good thing for you. Death always is a bad thing. That’s what you can say if you accept the fantastic container theory. I don’t find the fantastic container theory myself — I don’t find it particularly attractive. I’m inclined to think not only that — not only that the contents of life would be bad, eventually, for all of us if we were immortal — but that it would be bad enough to outweigh whatever value, whatever positive value being alive per se may have for us. So, I’m inclined to think, eventually immortality would always be bad overall.
But let me remind you that saying that does not rule out the possibility of consistently going on to say that even though it’s a good thing that we die, because eventually immortality would be horrible — for all that, death could still come too soon. It could still be the case that we die before life has turned bad. We die while it’s still the case that living another ten years or twenty years — or for that matter five hundred years — would still or could still have been good for us. It’s compatible with thinking that immortality would be bad to think that in fact death comes too soon.
But of course, we now have a return of the division between moderates, optimists and pessimists. You might say, optimists are those — now in this more chastened version of optimism, optimists say, “Even if immortality would be bad eventually after a million years or ten million years or what have you, the next chunk of life would’ve been good for all of us.” So that death — they’re optimists in this strange sense, if they think life would’ve been good, which means of course that that we die is bad for us. Because we all die too soon. That’s what the optimists might say. Against that, the pessimists might say, “Boy, death comes not a moment too soon for any of us. The next chunk of life is always not worth having, always worse than nothing.” And in between these two extremes are the moderates, who say, “For some of us, death comes too soon. For some of us, death does not come too soon.”
There’s a quote I want to read. It’s actually out of place now. I should have read it a lecture or two ago when I started talking about immortality, but I misplaced it. So, I found it this morning. So before I just leave the subject of immortality, let me conclude with some words of wisdom from a former Miss USA contestant. She was asked the question, “Would you want to live forever?” And she responded, “I would not live forever, because we should not live forever. Because if we were supposed to live forever, then we would live forever. But we cannot live forever, which is why I would not live forever.” Isn’t that nice? All right.
Chapter 4. Is Deprivation the Only Badness of Death? Consideration of Inevitability [00:26:56]
So I’ve been talking for, actually now a couple of weeks I suppose, about the central badness of death. Why is it that death is bad for me? And the answer I propose is the deprivation account. The central bad thing about the fact that I’m going to die is the fact that because I’ll be dead I’ll be deprived of the good things in life. And we’ve now seen that that’s a bit crude, right? We have to not talk — just talk about the good things in the life, but the good of life itself, and we have to notice that perhaps on certain views, for certain cases, it’s not really the case that when I die I’m being deprived of a good life. Because the next chunk, or perhaps from there on out, it would’ve been bad. But still, details and complications of the sort we’ve been considering aside, the fundamental badness of death is that it deprives me of life worth having.
But although I’ve been at pains to say this is the fundamental bad thing about death, I think it’s arguable that — I think one could make the case that this isn’t the only bad thing about death, even if we’re focusing on why is death bad for me? There are other features of death, as we experience it, that are separable from the deprivation account, that at least add to the way that death occurs for us, where we then have to ask the question, does this add to the badness of death? Or conceivably for some of these things, perhaps it mitigates it; it minimizes it in one way or another.
So, what I want to do is take at least a couple of minutes and pursue some of these extra features as well. Here’s an example. It’s not merely the fact — it’s not merely true that you’re going to die. It’s inevitable that you’re going to die. There’s no avoiding the fact that you’re going to die. I mean look, you’re all going to college, but it wasn’t inevitable that you go to college. Had you chosen not to, you could’ve avoided going to college. But it doesn’t matter what you choose, you can’t avoid dying. So it’s not just merely the case that in fact we are all going to die; it’s a necessary truth that we’re all going to die. So we might ask, what about this inevitability of death? Does that make things worse? And here I want to distinguish between the individual question about the inevitability of death, and the universal question.
So just start by thinking about the fact that it’s unavoidable that you’re going to die. Does the unavoidability of death make it better or worse? And the interesting thing is, I think you can see — you can get a feel for both possible answers here. On the one hand, you can imagine somebody who says, “Look, it’s bad enough that I’m going to die, but the fact that there’s nothing I could do about it just makes it worse. It’s like adding insult to injury that I’m powerless in the face of death. I cannot escape the Grim Reaper. This sheer powerlessness about this central fact about the nature of my existence is an extra insult added to the injury.”
Against that, however, there are those people who’d want to say, “No. Actually, the inevitability of my death reduces the badness.” You all know the expression, “Don’t cry over spilt milk.” Right? That what’s done is done. You can’t change it. What you can’t change, loses — when you focus on the fact that you can’t change it, it loses some of its grip to upset you. Well, if that’s right, and if we then realize that there’s nothing I can do about the fact that I’m going to die, then perhaps some of the sting, some of the bite, is eliminated. It’s as though you try — try getting upset about the fact that two plus two equals four. Try feeling upset at your powerlessness to change the fact that two plus two equals four. Suppose you wanted two plus two to equal five. Can you work up anger and regret and dismay over that? Well, most of us, of course, can’t. Because when we see that something is just necessary, we — it reduces the sting of it.
The philosopher Spinoza thought that if we could only recognize the fact, what he at least took to be the fact, that everything that happens in life is necessary, then we’d get a kind of emotional distance from it; it would no longer upset us. We could no longer be disappointed, because to be disappointed in something presupposes that it could’ve been some other way. And Spinoza thought if you see that it couldn’t go any other way, then you can’t be sad about it. Well, if we see that our death is inevitable and we really internalize that fact, perhaps that would reduce the badness of it.
Well, maybe that’s right, but going back to the firsthand, I don’t know how many of you have read Dostoyevsky’s short novel The Underground Man. The Underground Man is upset about — if I remember correctly — he’s upset about the fact that two plus two equals four and there’s nothing that he can do about it. So he curses existence, curses God at having made him so impotent that he can’t change the fact that two plus two equals four. And another philosopher, Descartes, in thinking about God’s omnipotence, thought that it wouldn’t be good enough if God as omnipotent couldn’t change the facts of mathematics. And so he imagines that God, as omnipotent, could’ve made two plus two equals five. And so it’s a kind of — ;So, it is indeed a fact of our powerlessness that we’re stuck with the necessities. God isn’t stuck with them. And so Dostoyevsky takes that thought and runs with it and says, “Yeah. It doesn’t help to say that it’s inevitable. It makes it worse.” Well, there’s both sides. And as I say, I myself, in different moods, get pulled in both ways.
What about the fact that not only is it inevitable that I’m going to die, it’s inevitable that we’re all going to die. Does the universality of death make things better or worse? And again, you can sort of feel the pull both ways. On the one hand you say, it’s bad that I’m going to die, but I’m not a monster. It makes me feel even worse that everybody else is stuck dying — or perhaps we should say dying too soon in light of our discussion about immortality. It’s a pity that most everybody, or perhaps everybody, dies too soon. That makes it even worse.
On the other hand, you know, let’s be honest here, we also know the expression, “Misery loves company.” And there’s at least some comfort to be had, isn’t there, in the realization that this thing isn’t just true for me. It’s not like the universe has singled me out for the deprivation of dying too soon. It’s something that it does to everybody. So perhaps there’s some comfort in the inevitability of death.
Chapter 5. Variability and Unpredictability of Death [00:35:16]
Well, here’s a different aspect of death worth thinking about. What about the variability of death? After all, it’s not just the case that we all die. And I’ll stop saying die too soon. Let’s just suppose we understand that clause to be implied in what I’m saying. It’s not just the case that we all die. There’s a great deal of variation in how much life we get. Some of us make it to the ripe old age of 80, 90 a 100 or more. Others of us die at 20, or 15, or 10, or younger.
Even if death were inevitable, it wouldn’t have to come in different-sized packages. That is, it wouldn’t have to have variability. We could imagine a world in which everybody dies — everybody dies at the age of a hundred. Does it make things worse or better that there’s this kind of variability? From the moral point of view, I suppose, it’s fairly straightforward to suggest it makes things worse. After all, most of us are inclined to think that inequality is morally objectionable. It’s bad that, through no fault of their own, some people are poor and other people are rich. If inequality is morally objectionable, then it’s very likely we’re going to think it’s morally horrendous that there’s this crucial inequality: some of us die a the age of 5 while others get to live to 90.
But in keeping with the focus of our discussion about the badness of death, I want to put aside the moral question and think about how good or bad for me is it that there’s variability in death? Well, we might say, let’s look at it from two basic perspectives, those who get less than the average lifespan and those who get more than the average lifespan. From the point of view of somebody who gets less, this is obviously a bad thing. It’s bad enough that I’m going to die too soon. I said I wasn’t going to keep saying that remark, and here I am saying it anyway. It’s bad enough that I’m going to die. But what’s even worse is I’m going to get even less than the average amount of life. That’s clearly an extra-bad. But we might then wonder, for every person who gets less than the average amount of life — suppose we take the median, take the amount of life that’s exactly, 50 percent of the people get more, 50 percent of the people get less. For every person who has less than the median amount of life, there’s another person who has more than the median amount of life. That person gets to say, hey. Well, you know, it’s a pity that I’m going to die or die too soon, but at least I’m getting more than the average. That’s a plus.
So perhaps these two aspects balance themselves out. There are people who are basically screwed by the fact that they get less than the average amount and people who are benefited by getting more than the average amount. So perhaps in terms of the individual badness of death that’s a wash. Maybe. Except it seems to me it’s a further fact about human psychology that we care more about being short-changed than we do about being, as we might put it, overcompensated. I rather suspect that people who have less than the average of something, it hurts them more than it benefits the people who have more than the average of something. And if that’s right — and that seems likely to be the case, especially for something like death — the extra bad of the fact that there’s variability and so some people get less than average — that extra bad, I suspect, outweighs the extra benefit of some people having more than average.
Well, let’s consider a different feature. We’ve had inevitability; we had variability. What about unpredictability? Not only is it inevitable that you’re going to die; not only do some people live longer than others, you don’t know how much more time you’ve got. Now, you might think, well, didn’t we already discuss that when we started thinking about variability? But in fact, logically speaking at least, variability, although it’s a requirement for unpredictability, doesn’t guarantee unpredictability. You could have variability with complete predictability. Imagine that when everybody’s born, on their wrist everybody’s born with a natural birthmark that indicates the precise year, day, and time in which they’re going to die. We could imagine a world like this where it’s inevitable; everybody’s got some date on it. And for that matter, there could still be variability. Some people live 80 years, some people live 20 years. But there’s no unpredictability. Because of the birthmark, everybody knows exactly how much longer they’ve got.
Well, so in our world we don’t have that. In our world, not only do we have variability, we’ve got unpredictability. Does that make things better? Or does that make things worse? Would it be better to know when you were going to die? Well, one way in which unpredictability at least has the potential of making things worse is this. Because you don’t know how much more time you’ve got — You can make a guess based on statistics, but as we saw, there’s wild unpredictability. You can think, look, “the average lifespan in the United States is whatever it is, 82 years. So I probably have, you guys are in your 20s — you know 20 — roughly another 60 years are going.” And as you’re busy calculating all this, you’re walking across Chapel Street and you get hit by a truck and you die. Right? Because of unpredictability, you can’t really know. And because you can’t really know, it’s difficult to make the right kinds of plans.
And in particular, it’s hard to know how to pace yourself. You decide to go off to medical school, become a doctor. And so not only do you put the time into college, you put the time into medical school, and you put the time into your residency and you put your time into your internship. And that’s a very long commitment. It’s a long-term plan, which can go wrong if you get sick and die in your early 20s. Well, that’s a rather dramatic example, but the same sort of thing in principle can happen to all of us. You make a life plan, what you want to accomplish in your life, and well, obviously enough, some of us will die too soon, not just in terms of, “oh, well, life still could’ve had good things,” but too soon in terms of you didn’t get where you wanted to get in terms of your life plan. If only you’d known you were only going to have 20 more years instead of 50 more years, you would’ve picked a different kind of life for yourself. The unpredictability makes it worse.
And indeed, less obviously, it can work the other way as well. You make a life plan, and then, you know, you don’t die yet. You continue to stick around, and then your life has this feeling of — at least we can imagine this happening — being sort of anticlimactic. You peaked too soon. If only you’d known you had another 50 years, that you weren’t going to die young — or James Dean, going to burn out fast and die young — if only you’d realized you were going to live to the ripe old age of 97, you would have picked a different life for yourself.
Chapter 6. Can an Ideal Life Be Planned? [00:43:59]
Now, in thinking about these points, in effect I’m suggesting that the value of your life — so ,we previously were talking about different theories of well-being and what makes for the best kind of life. Here we have yet another kind of feature that we haven’t talked about. We might think of it as, the overall shape of your life matters. What we could also call “the narrative arc of your life” matters.
Let me illustrate the point with some very, very simple graphs. These are not meant to be realistic, but they’ll give you the idea. So, we all know the Horatio Alger story right? Somebody starts out poor and makes his way through hard work and dedication and effort to riches and success. Rags to riches — that’s a wonderful, inspiring life.
Let’s draw the graph of that life. So here’s how well off you are, here is time, and you start with nothing and you end up incredibly well off. That’s a great life. That’s the Horatio Alger life — H.A. Great life. All right. Now, consider the following story. Here are the axes again. Instead of the rags to riches life, imagine the riches to rags life. Starts off with everything, ends up with nothing. That’s the Algers Horatio story. It’s the reverse. [See Figure 20.1] Now, I doubt if there’s anybody here who is indifferent between the choices, indifferent with regard to the choice between these two lives. I imagine that everybody here prefers this life.
But notice that in terms of the contents of the life, at least the local contents, it’s a bit hard to see why that would be the case, right? We’ve got equal periods of suffering and doing slightly better and slightly better and slightly better — equal periods of success and suffering. For every bad period here there’s a corresponding bad period here. For every good period here there’s a corresponding good period here. In terms of the contents of your life, being crude but you see the point, in terms of the contents of your life — equally good. And even if we accept the valuable container theory, and so we say, “Hah, you know, being alive per se is worth something as well.” Well, you’re alive for equal periods of time. So the extra points get added either way.
You might say, look, if we’re not indifferent between these two lives, that’s because we think the overall shape of your life matters as well. The narrative arc, as I put it. The story “bad to good” is the kind of story we want for ourselves, while the story “good to bad” is the kind of story we don’t want for ourselves. Interesting question. Why is that? And this of course should remind us of the puzzle about Lucretius. Why do we care more about future non-existence than past non-existence? When the bad is behind us, that seems less bothersome than when the bad is in front of us.
You may remember the story from Derek Parfit about having the painful operation. Was it going to be in the future or did it take place earlier today? You don’t remember. We’re not indifferent. We want the bad behind us, not the bad in front of us. So, whatever the explanation is, we care about the overall shape and trajectory of our life.
Now, that being the case, we have to worry then that because of the unpredictability of death that our lives may not have the ideal shape. A lot of us might feel that a life like this, where we peak but then we stick around — you know, isn’t — can at least fail to be as desirable in which we end with a bang. [See Figure 20.2] If you start thinking about narrative arcs — imagine a novel, right? It’s one thing to have — it’s not to say that the best — if you want your life to be like the plot of a great story, it’s not as though you think, “All right, the dénouement must occur at the very last page.” It’s okay to stick around for a while, but if the high point of the story occurs in chapter 2 and then there are another 67 chapters after that, you think, this was not a well-constructed novel.
And insofar as we care about the overall shape of our lives, we might worry about wanting it to have the right shape overall. Where and when do you want to peak, as it were, in terms of your accomplishments? Well, that matters to us, but the trouble is, without predictability you don’t know where to put the peak. Because if you try to aim for peaking later, you might not make it to that. If you put it too soon, you might stick around for longer than that, and then the peak has come too soon. All of this suggests then that the unpredictability of our death adds an extra negative element. It makes it harder to plan what the best way to live my life would be. And from that perspective it looks as though it would be better to know how much time you’ve got left. But then we have to ask — so I’ll throw the question out and we’ll call it a day, start with this next time — then we have to ask, would it really be better to know? Would you want the birthmark? Would you want to know exactly how much time you’ve got left? All Right. See you next time.
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