PHIL 176: Death

Lecture 18

 - The Badness of Death, Part III; Immortality, Part I


The discussion of the badness of death continues by asking whether it is bad that we do not exist before our birth. The views of a number of contemporary philosophers, such as Tom Nagle, Fred Feldman, and Derek Parfit, are introduced. Then Professor Kagan turns to the subject of immortality. Would it be desirable to live forever, and if so, under what circumstances one might enjoy such a prolonged existence? The lecture concludes with Bernard Williams’ take on immortality which posits that no kind of human life can continue to be enjoyable and attractive for eternity.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video


PHIL 176 - Lecture 18 - The Badness of Death, Part III; Immortality, Part I

Chapter 1. The Modest Existence Clause [00:00:00]

Professor Shelly Kagan: Last time I sketched the deprivation account. That’s a story or theory about what it is about death that makes it bad. What’s bad about death is the fact that, because you’re dead, because you don’t exist, you’re deprived of the good things in life. Being dead isn’t intrinsically bad. It’s not like it’s an unpleasant experience. But it’s comparatively bad. You’re worse off by virtue of the fact that you’re not getting the things that you would get, were you still alive. If I’m dead I can’t spend time with my loved ones. I can’t look at sunsets. I can’t listen to music. I can’t discuss philosophy. The deprivation account says, what’s bad about death is the fact that you’re deprived of the good things in life.

Now, that seems pretty plausible, as a basic story goes. But as we also saw last time, there are some philosophical puzzles about how it could be. The question of when is death bad for you, and even more importantly and more essentially, there’s the difficulty of asking ourselves, do we really believe it’s possible for something to be bad for you, when you don’t even exist? We saw a series of difficult choices. If we don’t throw in an existence requirement, if we don’t say — to put it more positively, if we say things can be bad for you even if you don’t exist at all, then we’re forced to say that things are bad for Larry.

You’ll recall that Larry was our name for a potential person, somebody who could have come into existence but never actually does or will come into existence. Well, talk about people who are deprived of the good things in life, Larry’s completely deprived of the good things in life. If we think it doesn’t matter whether or not you exist, for things to be bad for you, then we have to say, “Oh, things are bad for Larry.” And not just Larry, but all of the 1.5 million, billion, billion, billion never-to-be-born people. The number of potential people is just staggering. And if we throw away an existence requirement, we have to say it’s a moral tragedy of unspeakable proportions that these people are never born, that they never come into existence.

Now, there are philosophers who are prepared to say that. But if you’re not prepared to say that, it looks as though you’ve got to accept some kind of existence requirement. Why don’t we feel sorry for Larry and his billions upon billions of never-to-be-born compatriots? Because, indeed, they don’t exist. They’re merely possible. And we might say, you’ve got to exist in order for something to be bad for you. But once we say that, it seems we’re running towards the position that, in that case, death can’t be bad for me, because of course, when I’m dead, I don’t exist. So how can anything be bad for me?

I proposed at the end of class last time that we could try to solve this problem by distinguishing between two versions of the existence requirement — a more modest version and the bolder version. The bolder version says, “In order for something to be bad for you, you’ve got to exist at the very time that it’s happening.” If we say that, then indeed, we can say, “It’s not bad that Larry doesn’t exist, because he doesn’t exist now.” So there’s nothing — even if we wanted to think that there are good things he could be having, that’s not bad for him to not have them. He doesn’t exist now. But it also, if we go all the way to the bold existence requirement, we have to say, “Look, when I’m dead that won’t be bad for me, because, well, I won’t exist then.”

But instead of accepting the bold existence requirement, we might settle for something a little bit less demanding, the thing I dub “the modest existence requirement.” In order for something to be bad for you, there has to have been a time, some time or the other, when you exist. You’ve got to, as it were, exist at least briefly in order to get into the club, as we might put it, of those creatures, those possible creatures that we care about and are concerned about morally. You have to have gotten in the club by at least having existed for some period of time. But once you’re in the club, things can be bad for you, even if you don’t happen to exist at that particular moment.

If we accept the modest existence requirement, then we can say, it’s not bad that Larry doesn’t exist, because, well, Larry doesn’t get into the club. In order to get into the club of things that we feel sorry for, you have to have existed at least some moment or the other. Larry and the billions upon billions upon billions of potential people who never actually come into existence, they don’t satisfy the requirement of having existed at some time or the other. So we don’t have to feel sorry for them. But we can feel sorry for somebody who died last week at the age of 10 because we can say, well, they existed, albeit very briefly. And so they’re in the club of beings that we can feel sorry for and say, look, it’s bad for them that they’re not still alive. Think of all the good things in life they would be getting if they were still alive. So the modest existence requirement allows us to avoid both extremes. Maybe then that’s the position that we should accept.

It may be, on balance, the best possible view here. But I just want to emphasize that even the modest existence requirement is not without its counterintuitive implications. Consider somebody’s life. Suppose that somebody’s got a nice long life. Comes into existence, leads — lives 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 years. Nice life. Now, imagine that we bring it about that instead of living 90 years, they have a somewhat shorter life — 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years. We’ve caused them to die after 50 years as opposed to the 90 years they might have otherwise had. Well, we can say, look, that’s worse for them — to live merely 50 years instead of the full 90 or 100 years. And if we accept the modest existence requirement, we can say that, because after all, whether you live 50 years or 90 years, you did exist at some time or the other. So the fact that you lost the 40 years you otherwise would have gotten, well, that’s bad for you. There. Fair enough. That gives us the answer we want. That’s not counterintuitive.

Now, imagine that instead of living 50 years, the person lives only 10, 20 years and then dies. Well, that’s worse still. Think of all the extra goods they would have gotten if only they hadn’t died then. And if I caused them to die after 20 years instead of 50 or 90 years, I’ve made things worse and worse. Imagine that I caused them to die after one year. Worse still. All this is perfectly intuitive. The shorter their life, the worse it is for them, the more they’re deprived of the good things in life. So 90-year life, not bad. 50-year life, worse. 10-year life, worse still. One-year life, worse still. One-month life, worse still. One day life, worse still. One-minute life, worse still. One-second life, worse still.

Now, imagine that I bring it about that the person never comes into existence at all. Oh, that’s fine.

See? That’s the implication of accepting the modest existence requirement. If I shortened the life they would have had so completely that they never get born at all, or they never come into existence at all, then they don’t satisfy the requirement of having existed at some time or the other. So although we were making things worse and worse and worse and worse and worse as we shortened the life, when we finally snip out that last little fraction of a second, it turns out we didn’t make things worse at all. Now we haven’t done anything objectionable. That’s, it seems, what you’ve got to say if you accept the modest existence requirement.

Of course, if we didn’t have an existence requirement at all, we could say, “Well look, worst of all, never to have been born at all.” Fair enough. But if you say that, then you’ve got to feel sorry for Larry. You’ve got to feel sorry for the 1.5 million billion, billion, billions.

So which view is it that on balance is the — I don’t want to say “most plausible.” I think when we start thinking about these puzzles, every alternative seems unattractive in its own way. Maybe the most we could hope for is, which is the least implausible thing to say here? I’m not altogether certain.

Chapter 2. “Schmoss” of Life: Is it Bad? [00:08:46]

Let me turn to one more trouble or problem or puzzle for the deprivation account. And this particular puzzle arises whether or not we accept an existence requirement, whether or not we accept a bold existence requirement, a modest existence requirement, or no existence requirement, because we’re going to deal with somebody who actually does exist at some time or the other, namely you or me. This is actually a puzzle that some of you may have written your paper on, because it’s the puzzle about Lucretius, the puzzle that Lucretius gives us.

It’s not a direct quote, but Lucretius basically says, look, most of us are upset and anxious at the fact that we’re going to die. We think death is bad for us. There’ll be this period after my death in which I won’t exist. And the deprivation account helps say why that’s bad, because during this period of nonexistence, you’re not enjoying the good things in life.

Fair enough, says Lucretius, but wait a minute. The period after you die isn’t the only period during which you don’t exist. It’s not the only period in which if only you were still alive, you could still be enjoying the good things in life. There’s another period of nonexistence. It’s the period before my birth. I think I’ve just switched the timeline here, but all right. Imagine this is the period before my birth. Just like there’ll be an infinite period after my death in which I won’t exist, and realizing that fills us with dismay, there was, of course, an infinite period before I came into existence. Well, if nonexistence is so bad and by the deprivation account it seems that we want to say that it is, shouldn’t I be upset at the fact that there was this eternity before I was born?

But, says Lucretius, that’s silly, right? Nobody’s upset about the fact that there was an eternity before they were born. In which case, it doesn’t make any sense to be upset about the eternity after you die of nonexistence.

Well, Lucretius doesn’t offer this as a puzzle. Lucretius offers this as an argument that we should not be concerned about the fact that we’re going to die. Most philosophers aren’t willing to go with Lucretius all the way to the end of the bus, bus route. Most philosophers want to say there’s got to be something wrong with that argument someplace. There’s got to be some —

Well, what are the possibilities here? One possibility is indeed to just agree with him, right? Nothing bad about the eternity before I was born. So, nothing bad — of the eternity of nonexistence. So nothing bad about the eternity of nonexistence after I die. That’s one possibility, to agree with Lucretius.

Second possibility is to say, look, Lucretius, you’re right. We really do need to treat these two eternities of nonexistence on a par. But we could turn it around. Instead of saying with Lucretius, nothing bad about this one, so nothing bad about this one, maybe we should say instead, something bad about the one after we die, and so something bad about the one before we were born. Maybe we should just stick to the deprivation account and not lose faith in it. The deprivation account says it’s bad that there’s this period after we die, because if only we weren’t dead then, we would still be able to enjoy the good things in life. Maybe we should say, look, similarly then, when the deprivation account tells us it’s bad that there’s this period before we come into existence, when we don’t exist. Because if only we had existed then, we’d be able to enjoy the good things in life. Maybe Lucretius was right, we have to treat both periods the same. But he’s wrong in thinking we shouldn’t think either period is bad. Maybe we should think both periods are bad. Well, that’s a possibility.

What other possibilities are there? Another possibility is to say, Lucretius, you’re right, there are two periods of nonexistence, but there’s a justification for treating them differently. They’re asymmetrical in a way that makes sense from the point of view of what we should care about.

Well, it’s easy to say that. The puzzle — most philosophers want to take that last way out. They want to say there’s something that explains why it makes sense, why it’s reasonable, to care about the eternity of nonexistence after my death, but where that doesn’t apply to the eternity of nonexistence before my birth. And then the puzzle is to point to a difference that would justify that kind of rationally asymmetrical treatment of the two periods. It’s easy to say it’s okay, it’s reasonable to treat them differently. The philosophical challenge is to point to something that explains or justifies that.

Now, a very common response is to say something like this. Look, consider the period after my death. I’m no longer alive. I have lost my life. In contrast, the period before my birth, although I’m not alive, I have not lost my life. I have never yet been alive. And so, of course, you can’t lose something you’ve never yet had. So what’s worse, this answer suggests, about the period after death, is the fact that death involves loss, whereas prenatal nonexistence does not involve loss. And so, the conclusion comes, and now we see why it’s okay to care more about that one than this one, the one after death and the one before birth. Because the one after death involves loss, and the one before birth does not.

Very, very common response, but I’m inclined to think that can’t be an adequate answer. It’s true, of course, that this period involves loss, because the very definition of “loss” is, you don’t have something that at an earlier time you did have. So this period involves loss. But the period before birth does not involve loss, because although I don’t have life, I haven’t, previous to the period, had life, so I haven’t lost anything.

Of course, there’s another thing that’s true about this prenatal period, to wit, I don’t have life and I’m going to get it. So I don’t yet have something that’s going to come in the future. That’s not true about the post-life period. I’ve lost life. But it’s not true of this period that I don’t have life and I’m going to get it in the future. So this period involves loss.

Interesting. In fact, we don’t have a name for this other state, where you don’t yet have something that you’ll get later, but you don’t yet have it. Let’s call that, not loss, let’s call it “schmoss,” okay? So during this period, there’s a loss of life, but no schmoss of life. And in this period, there’s no loss of life, but there’s a schmoss of life. And now we need to ask, as philosophers, why do we care more about loss of life than schmoss of life? What is it about the fact that we don’t have something that we used to, that makes it worse than not having something that we’re going to? It’s easy to overlook the symmetry here, because we’ve got this nice word “loss,” and we don’t have this word “schmoss.” But that’s not really explaining anything, it’s just pointing to the thing that needs explaining. Why do we care more about not having what once upon a time we did, than we care about not having what once upon a time we will?

Well, there’s some other proposals that we might make. A couple of them have actually been sketched in some of your reading. So for example, Tom Nagel [Nagel 1979], in his essay on death says, look, here’s the difference. It’s easy enough to imagine — and indeed for there to actually be a possibility of — my living longer. Suppose I die at the age of 80 and if I didn’t die, then I’d continue living 90, 100, what have you. There it is. It’s still me. When you imagine me with an earlier — rather with living longer, you’re imagining me living longer. To use the vocabulary that we introduced in thinking about some of Plato’s arguments, we might say although — suppose I die at age 80 — that’s a fact about me, it’s a contingent fact about me. It’s not a necessary fact about me that I died at 80.

Suppose at 80 I get hit by a car. It’s not a necessary truth about me that I got hit by a car. I could have not gotten hit by a car, and lived to the ripe old age of 90 or 100. When you die is not an essential feature of you, so it’s easy for us to think about the possibility in which I live longer. But, says Nagel, when I try to imagine what would the alternative be, if I’m going to be upset about the prenatal nonexistence, we have to imagine my being born earlier. I was born in 1954. Should I be upset about the fact that I was born in 1954 instead of 1944? That’s the analog of being upset about the fact that I die in whatever it is, 2044 instead of living to 2054.

Nagel says, but look, when you try to think about the possibility in which instead of being born in 1954, I was born in 1944 — and for the rest of you, you’ve got to plug in your own birthdates — Nagel says you can’t do it. The date of my death is a contingent fact about me. But the date of my birth is not a contingent fact about me. And by birth we don’t really mean when I came out of the womb. That could be changed, perhaps by having been delivered prematurely, or through Caesarean, or what have you. We really mean the time at which I come into existence. Let’s suppose it’s the time when the egg and the sperm join. That’s not a contingent moment in my story. That’s an essential moment in my life story.

How could that be? We say, couldn’t my parents have had sex earlier, 10 years earlier? Sure they could have. But remember, if they had had sex 10 years earlier, it would have been a different egg and a different sperm coming together, so it wouldn’t be me. It would be some sibling of mine that, as it happens, never got born. But if, had they had sex 10 years earlier, some sibling would have been born. That’s not me being born earlier. Different sperm, different egg makes for a different person. So you can’t — you can say the words, “if only I’d been born earlier,” but it’s not actually metaphysically possible. Well, it’s an intriguing suggestion, but I think it can’t quite be right, or at the very least, it cannot be the complete story about how to answer Lucretius’ puzzle.

Suppose we’ve got a fertility clinic that has some sperm on hold, and has some eggs on hold, in the sperm bank, in the egg bank, what have you. And they keep them here frozen until they’re ready to use them. And they thaw them out in whatever it is, 2020. And then the person’s born. Of course, he could go back. He could look back and say, if only they had put my sperm and egg together 10 years earlier. That would still be me. After all, very same sperm, very same egg, makes for the very same person. So if only they had combined my sperm and egg 10 years earlier, I would have been born 10 years earlier.

Chapter 3. Feldman and Parfit on Nonexistence before Life [00:22:01]

Well, so Nagel’s wrong in saying it’s not possible to imagine being born earlier. In at least some cases, it is. Yet, if we imagine somebody like this, somebody who’s an offspring of this kind of fertility clinic, and we ask, would they be upset that they weren’t born earlier? again, it still seems as though most people would say, “No, of course not.” So the Nagel answer doesn’t seem to me to be an adequate one.

Well, there’s another possible answer. This is Fred Feldman’s answer, also in the one of the papers that you’ve read. Fred Feldman says — Nagel’s a contemporary philosopher, Fred Feldman’s a contemporary philosopher. Feldman says, when I imagine — suppose I get killed by the bus in 2044, and if I imagine if only I hadn’t died then, what is it that we imagine? We imagine instead of living 80 years, living 90 or 95 or more. We imagine a longer life.

But what is it that happens when I say, if only I’d been born earlier? Well, says Feldman, you don’t actually imagine a longer life, you just shift the entire life and start it earlier. After all, suppose we just said — especially if I had asked you this question before setting all of this up — but if only you’d been born in 1800. Nobody thinks, “Oh, if only I’d been born in 1800, I’d still be alive. I’d be 200 years old.” You think, “Oh, if I’d been born in 1800, I would have died in 1860, 1870, 1880,” whatever it is.

When we imagine being born earlier, we don’t imagine a longer life. Nothing better about having a life earlier, according to the deprivation account. But when we imagine not dying when we actually die, we say, “If only I died in 2050 instead of 2040,” it’s not that we imagine having been born later. We don’t shift the life forward. We imagine a longer life. So, Feldman says, no wonder, no surprise that you care about the nonexistence after death. Because when you imagine that being different, you imagine a longer life. But when you start thinking about the nonexistence before birth and you imagine that being different, you don’t imagine more goods in life, you just imagine them taking place at a different time.

Well, that’s an interesting possibility, I suppose. It doesn’t seem to me — again, that it’s got to be — maybe it’s part of the story, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be the complete story. Because we could imagine cases where the person just thinks, look, if only I’d been born earlier, I would have had a longer life.

Let’s suppose that next week astronomers discover the horrible fact that there’s an asteroid that’s about to land on the Earth and wipe out all life. So here it is, it’s going to come on January 1, 2008. And there you are, at whatever your age is, 20 years old, 21 years old, on January-on December 31, 2008 thinking, I’ve only had 20 years of life. If only I’d been born earlier. If only, instead of being born, whenever it was, I’d been born 10 years earlier, I would have had 30 years of life instead of 20 years of life. That seems perfectly intelligible. So it does seem as though, if we put our head into it, we can get ourselves into thought experiments where we say, yeah, don’t just shift the life, make it longer. But instead of making it longer in the post-death direction, make it longer in the pre-birth direction.

Again, you can imagine somebody saying, “Yeah, and when we do that, we should feel the same.” It doesn’t really matter which direction it goes. So symmetry is the right answer after all. When I think about the asteroid example, I find myself thinking, huh, maybe symmetry is the right way to go here. Maybe Feldman’s right, that normally we just shift instead of extending. But if I’m careful to extend, maybe that really is bad that I didn’t get started sooner and have a longer life in that direction.

Well, here’s one other answer that’s been proposed. This is by yet another contemporary philosopher, Derek Parfit. Parfit says, it’s true that when I think about the nonexistence after I die, that’s loss, whereas the nonexistence before I’m born, that’s not loss, that’s mere schmoss. And it’s true that we need an explanation about why loss is worse than schmoss. But we can see that this is not an arbitrary preference on our part, because in fact, it’s part of a quite general pattern we have of caring about the future in a way that we don’t care about the past. This is a very deep fact about human caring. We are oriented towards the future and concerned about what happens in it, in a way that we’re not oriented and concerned about what happened in the past.

Parfit’s got a very nice example to bring the point home. He says, imagine that you’ve got some condition, some medical condition that will kill you unless you have an operation. So fair enough, you’re going to have the operation. This will allow you to live your life. Unfortunately, in order to perform the operation, they can’t have you anesthetized. You have to be awake, perhaps in order to tell the surgeon “Yeah, that’s where it hurts,” whatever it is. Sort of like when the dentist pokes and says, “Does this hurt? Does that hurt?” So you’ve got to be awake during the operation and it’s a very painful operation. We can’t give you pain killer, because then you won’t be able to point out, does this hurt, does that hurt, and so forth and so on. Since we can’t give you pain killer, all we can do is this. So, you’ll be awake during this, basically being tortured. You’ll be awake being tortured. It’s still worth doing it, because this will cure the condition, so then you’ll have a nice long life.

Since we can’t give you pain killers and we can’t put you out, all we’re going to do is, what we will do is this: After the operation is over, we’ll give you this very powerful medication, which will give you short-term, sort of very localized, amnesia. You won’t remember anything about the operation itself. So you won’t have to at least to dwell upon these horrible memories of having been tortured. Those will be completely wiped out. Okay, so painful operation. You’re awake during it. After the operation, you’re given this thing that makes you forget whether you’ve had the operation, anything about the operation at all. And that the preceding 24 hours will be completely wiped out.

So you’re in the hospital and you wake up and you ask yourself, “Huh, have I had the operation yet or not?” Don’t know, right? Because of course, if I haven’t had it, no wonder I don’t remember it, but if I have had it, I would have been given that temporary sort of localized amnesia. So of course I wouldn’t know whether or not I’ve had it. So you ask the nurse, “Have I had the operation yet or not?” She says, “I don’t know, we have a couple on the hall today who are, some of whom have had it and some of whom are scheduled to have it later today. I don’t remember which one you are. Let me go look at your file. I’ll come back and I’ll tell you.” So she wanders off. She’s going to come back in a minute or two. And as you’re waiting for her to come back, you ask yourself, what do you want the answer to be? Are you indifferent, or do you care whether you’re one of the people who’s already had it, or somebody who hasn’t yet had it?

Now, if you’re like Parfit, and for that matter, like me, then you’re going to say, of course I care. I want it to be the case that I’m one of the people who’s already had the operation. I don’t want to be one of the people who hasn’t yet had the operation.

You might say, how can that make any sense? Your life’s going to have the operation sooner or later. At some point in your life history, that operation is going to have occurred. And so there’s the same amount of pain and torture, regardless of whether you’re one of the people that had it yesterday or one of the people that’s going to have it tomorrow. But for all that, says Parfit, the fact of the matter is perfectly plain, that we do care. We want the pain to be in the past. We don’t want the pain to be in the future. We care more about what’s happening in the future than we care about what’s happening in the past.

That being the case, no surprise we care about the nonexistence in the future in a way we don’t care about the nonexistence in the past. Well, that may be right as far as explanation goes, but we might still wonder whether or not it’s any kind of justification. The fact that we’ve got this deep-seated asymmetrical attitude towards time doesn’t in any way, as far as I can see, yet tell us whether or not that’s a justified attitude. Maybe evolution built us to care about the future in a way that we don’t care about the past and this shows up in lots of places, including Parfit’s hospital case, including our attitude towards loss versus schmoss, and so forth and so on. But the fact that we’ve got this attitude doesn’t yet show that it’s a rational attitude.

How could we show that it’s a rational attitude? Well, maybe we’d have to start doing some heavy-duty metaphysics, if what we’ve been doing so far isn’t yet heavy-duty enough. Maybe we need to talk about the difference between — the metaphysical difference between the past and the future. The past is fixed, the future is open, the direction of time. Maybe somehow we could bring all these things in and explain why our attitudes towards time make sense. I’m not going to go there. All I want to say is it’s not altogether obvious what the best answer to Lucretius’ puzzle is.

So when I say, as I have said — and I’m going to say it many times over the course of the remaining weeks — that the central thing that’s bad about death is the fact that you’re deprived of the good things in life, when I make use of the deprivation account, I don’t mean to suggest everything is sweetness and light with regard to the deprivation account. I think there are some residual puzzles about how it could be that death is bad. And in particular, how it could be that the deprivation account puts its finger on what’s bad about death.

But for all that, it seems to me the right way to go. It seems to me that the deprivation account does put its finger on the central bad thing about death. Most centrally, what’s bad about death is that when you’re dead, you’re not experiencing the good things in life. Death is bad for you because you don’t have what life would bring you, if only you hadn’t died. All right.

Chapter 4. Is Immortality the Antidote to Deprivation-Based Death? [00:33:45]

If that’s right, should we conclude, in fact, do we have to conclude — if death is bad because of it’s a deprivation, then if I wasn’t dead, I wouldn’t be deprived — so doesn’t it follow then that the best thing of all is never to die at all, to wit, immortality? If it’s bad — suppose I get hit by a truck next week, that’s bad, because if only I hadn’t gotten hit by a truck, I might have lived another 20, 30 years, whatever. I would have gotten the good things in life that would have been better for me. Ah, but when I die of whatever it is, some heart disease at age 80, that’s bad maybe because if only I didn’t have heart disease, I could have lived another 10, 15, 20 years, gotten more good things in life. If only I hadn’t died at 100, I would have gotten more good things in life. If only I hadn’t died at 500, I would have gotten more good things in life. Whenever it is I die, won’t it always be true, if we accept the deprivation account, that if only I hadn’t died then, I would have gotten more good things in life? And so whenever it is you die, death is bad for you. So the best thing for you would be never to die, immortality.

Two questions really that we need to ask. One is: Does consistency, does logic, require somebody who accepts the deprivation account — does consistency require that if you accept the deprivation account, you believe immortality’s a good thing? Second question: Even if logic doesn’t require that, is it true that immortality’s a good thing? Let me start with the first one, because I think that’s the easier one.

Logic alone, logic plus the consistency requirement — rather and the deprivation account — logic alone doesn’t require us to say immortality’s a good thing. Why? Because strictly speaking, what the deprivation account says is, death is bad insofar as you’re deprived of the good things in life by virtue of not existing. If only you hadn’t gotten hit by that truck, you would have gone on to an exciting life in your career as a professional dancer. You would have had a family, or what have you. Whatever it is. You would have traveled around the world. Life would have given you a lot of great things and you get deprived of those great things, that’s why it’s bad that you got hit by the truck. That is to say, death is bad, when it’s bad, by virtue of the fact that it deprives you of the good things in life.

But suppose — we don’t yet know whether this could actually happen, but here we’re just talking about logical possibilities — suppose that there’s no more good things for life to give you. Then when you’re deprived of life by death, you’re not being deprived of any good things, and so it’s not bad for you to be dead at that point. Death is only bad, according to the deprivation account, when there are good things that would have come your way. When, as we might put it, on balance, the life you would have had would have continued to be good for you. When that happens, then to lose that good bit of life, that’s bad for you. But if it should turn out that what life would have had hereafter, instead of being good, would have been hellish, it’s not bad for you to avoid that. It might actually be good for you to avoid it. So, even if we accept the deprivation account, we’re not committed to the claim that death is always bad. We have to look and see, what would life actually hold out for us? Logic alone, plus the deprivation account, doesn’t force us to say immortality would be a good thing.

After all — this is really a crucial point to understand — things that are good for you in limited quantities can become bad for you if you get more and more and more and more of them. Well, I love chocolate. So suppose somebody comes up to me with a box of Godiva chocolate, offers me a couple of chocolates. I say, “Wonderful! I love Godiva chocolate.” And then they give me some more and some more. Twenty pieces of chocolate. Well, you know, by the time I got 20 pieces of chocolate, I’m not sure right now if I really want the 21st piece. But you keep giving me some more. Thirty pieces of chocolate, 40 pieces of chocolate, 100 pieces of chocolate. At some point — I’ve never actually had his much chocolate; I don’t know what the point is, but at some point — I’m going to say, you know, although the first 10, 20, 30 pieces of chocolate, those were good, but giving me the 21st piece of chocolate or the 50th piece of chocolate, no longer good. Logically, at least, it could happen.

Logically, it could happen that although in quantities, small quantities, 50 years, 60 years, 100 years, life is good, at some point, maybe life would turn bad for us. Just like being force-fed more and more chocolate. And if it did turn bad for us, the deprivation account would allow us to say, oh, at that point, dying’s not bad for you.

Well, that’s all that logic tells us. Logic simply tells us we don’t have to believe immortality’s a good thing. But for all that, it could still be a good thing. So that’s question number two. Let’s ask, what should we think about the prospect of living forever? Would it, in fact, be better and better and better? Somebody dies at age 10 by some horrible disease, better if they’d made it up to 40. Somebody dies at age 40, better if they’d made it up to 80. Somebody dies at age 80, better if they’d made it to 100, 120. Is it true that life would get better and better and better, the longer it is?

Now, in asking this question, we have to be careful to be clear about what exactly we’re imagining. Here’s one way to try to imagine that story. Imagine that life is sort of the way it works now, with the kinds of changes that bodies undergo as they get older. But instead of those changes basically killing you at 80, 90, or 100, they don’t. You get more and more of those changes, but they never actually kill you. This is the sort of thought experiment that Jonathan Swift undertakes in the passage from Gulliver’s Travels that I’ve had you look at. He imagines Gulliver coming to a country where a subset of the people live forever, immortals. And at first, Gulliver says, “Oh, isn’t this wonderful?” But he forgot to think about the fact that if the kinds of changes that we undergo continue to accumulate, then you’re getting older. Not just older, but weaker, in more and more discomfort, senility sets in with a vengeance, until eventually you’ve got these creatures that live forever, but their mind is gone, and they’re sort of in pain and they can’t do anything because their body’s utterly infirm and diseased and sick. That’s not a wonderful thing to have. If immortality was like that, says Swift, that would be horrible. For an immortality like that, death would be a blessing. And Montaigne, in the essay that I’ve had you look at, says indeed, death is a blessing, because it puts an end to the pain and suffering and misery that afflict us in our old age.

Well, all of that seems right, but I suppose we’d be forgiven for thinking, look, when we wanted to be immortal, we didn’t want this kind of life going on and on and on with the same trajectory, the same downward trajectory. We sort of wanted to live forever, hail and hearty and healthy. So even if the real world wouldn’t allow us that, let’s just ask science fictiony whether or not in fact living forever would be good. Isn’t it at least true that in principle, living forever could be good? You’ve got to imagine changing some of the facts about what it would be like to live forever.

So instead of asking the question, the question I started with, would it be good to live forever? — If you’re not careful, this is going to be like one of those horror stories, right? Where you’ve got a couple of wishes and you aren’t careful about how exactly you state the wish. And so you get what you want, but it ends up being a nightmare, right? If you just tell the fairy who gives you three wishes, “I want to live forever,” and you forgot to say “and be sure to keep me healthy,” well, that’s going to be a nightmare. That’s what Swift told us. So let’s be careful. Let’s throw in health and anything else you want. Throw in enough money to make sure you’re not poor for eternity. Wouldn’t that be horrible, to be healthy but impoverished forever? Throw in whatever you want. All we need to ask at that this point is, is there any way at all to imagine immortality, where immortality of that sort would be a good thing? Is there any way to imagine existing forever where that would be good for you, forever?

Now, it’s very tempting at this point to say, look, of course. Nothing could be easier. Just imagine being in heaven forever, right? You’re done, right? You’ve got heavenly bliss. Isn’t this incredible? Wouldn’t we all love to be in heaven forever? The trouble is, we were a little bit vague about what exactly life is like in heaven. It’s a striking fact that even those religions that promise us an eternity in heaven are rather shy on the details. Why? Because, one might worry, if you actually tried to fill in the details, this wonderful, eternal existence ends up not seeming so wonderful after all.

So imagine that what’s going to happen is that we all become angels and we’re going to spend eternity singing psalms. Now, I like psalms and I actually enjoy rather singing psalms at services. On Saturday mornings, I sing psalms in Hebrew and I rather enjoy it. But if you ask me: What about the possibility of an eternity of doing that? That doesn’t really seem so desirable. Bedazzled, not the remake. I haven’t seen the remake, but the original. In the original, there’s a human character who hooks up with the devil. He meets the devil and he asks the devil, “So why did you rebel against God?” The devil says, “Well, I’ll show you. You sit here on the — ” whatever it was, the mailbox, I think it was. “I’ll sit up here on the mailbox,” the devil says. “And you dance around me and say, ‘Oh, praise the lord, aren’t you wonderful? You’re so magnificent. You’re so glorious.’” And the human does this for a while and he says, “This has gotten really boring. Can’t we switch?” And the devil says, “That’s exactly what I said.”

Now, when you try to imagine heaven singing psalms for eternity, that doesn’t seem so attractive. All right, so don’t imagine heaven singing psalms for eternity. Just imagine something else. But what? Imagine what? This is the thought experiment that I invite you to participate in. What kind of life can you imagine, such that having that life forever would be good? Not just for another 10 years, not just for another 100 years, not just for another 1,000 years, or million years, or a billion years. Remember, eternity is a very, very long time. Forever goes on forever. Can you describe an existence that you would want to be stuck with forever?

Now, it’s precisely at this point that Bernard Williams, in another one of the papers I had you take a look at — Bernard Williams says no [Williams 1978]. No kind of life would be one that would be desirable and attractive forever. No kind of life at all. In short, says Williams, every life would eventually become tedious and worse, excruciatingly painful. Every kind of life is a life you would eventually want to be rid of. Immortality, far from being a wonderful thing, would be a horrible thing.

Suppose, for the moment, that we were to agree with Williams. What then should we say? We might say — look, at least when we’re being careful, if we agree that immortality would be bad, we can’t say then that death, per se, is bad. The very fact that I am going to die turns out not to be a bad thing, because after all, the only alternative to dying is immortality. And if immortality would be a bad thing, then death is not a bad thing. Death is a good thing. We might say, if we accept Williams’ thought, the fact of our mortality is good rather than bad, if immortality would eventually be bad.

Now of course, crucial to notice that even if we say this, that doesn’t mean that when you get hit by a car tomorrow, that that’s good. You don’t have to say that. You can still say it’s a bad thing that I got hit by a car tomorrow, because after all, if I hadn’t gotten hit by a car tomorrow, it’s not as though I would have been condemned to immortality, I just would have lived another 10 or 20 or 30 years. And those years would have been good ones for me. And maybe even when I die — let’s suppose I live to the ripe old age of 100 — when I die at 100, I could perhaps still say, it’s a bad thing for me that I die at the age of 100. Because if I hadn’t died now, I might have lived another 10, 20, 30 years and still enjoyed things in life, enjoyed playing with my great grandchildren, whatever it is.

Chapter 5. Conclusion: A “Best” Immortal State? [00:49:26]

To say that immortality is bad is not to say it’s a good thing that we die when we do. You can still believe consistency — consistently — that we die too soon. Even if in principle, eventually, sooner or later, death would no longer be bad, it could be that it comes too soon for all of us.

Still, the question we want to ask is, is there any way even to imagine an immortal life that would be worth having? In principle, could immortality be a good thing? Or, is Williams right, that no, even in principle, go as fantastic and science fictiony as you want, in principle an immortal life could not be desirable? So until next time, I invite you to think that question through. If you’re trapped into the prospect of immortality, what would the best kind of immortal life be like?

[end of transcript]


Nagel, Thomas. 1979. “Death.” In Mortal Questions. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, Bernard. 1978. “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality.” In Language, Metaphysics, and Death. Edited by John Donnelly. New York: Fordham University Press.

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]