PHIL 176: Death

Lecture 21

 - Other Bad Aspects of Death, Part II


Further bad aspects of death are considered, including ubiquity, or the fact that death may occur at any time and strike anyone. Professor Kagan invites students to contemplate the possibility of death-free time periods, vacation spots, and activities. Then there is consideration of the value of the human condition, which consists of life, followed by death. Finally, the question is raised as to whether it could be appropriate to refuse to face the facts about our mortality. Professor Kagan distinguishes between two ways in which thinking about these could influence human behavior. On the one hand, it may give one the reason to behave differently; on the other hand, it may just cause a change in behavior.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video


PHIL 176 - Lecture 21 - Other Bad Aspects of Death, Part II

Chapter 1. How Much Time Do We Have Left? [00:00:00]

Professor Shelly Kagan: All right. Last time we started asking ourselves about what are some of the other aspects of death that might contribute to its badness, or at least other features of death that are worth thinking about. Conceivably, some of them might reduce the badness of death, in some way. We talked about the inevitability of death; we talked about the variability, that people have different lengths of time before they die. And we turned to a discussion of the unpredictability of death, the fact that because we don’t know — we can’t predict — how much more time we’ve got, we may, as it were, pace ourselves incorrectly. You may take on a long-term project and then die before you’ve been able to complete it; or alternatively, you may peak too soon and then continue to stick around in an anti-climactic way. These are bads of life that could presumably be avoided if only we knew how much exactly we had — how much longer we had.

On the other hand, we have to ask ourselves — and this the question that I left us with last time — whether it would really, all things considered, be better to know how much time you had. After all, if you knew — suppose we had the birthmarks that told you when you were going to die — if you had that kind of a birthmark, you would face your entire life with the burden of knowing, I’ve got 48 years left, 47 years left, 50 years left. I should’ve been counting down — 35, 30, 25 and so forth. Many of us would find that was, as I say, a burden — something hanging constantly over us interfering with our ability to enjoy life.

Suppose that there were some sort of genetic marker and, although we didn’t have a tattoo that you would just have to look at, but you could have genetic counseling — have your DNA examined and you could tell, if you had the DNA testing, how much time you had left. Would you want to get that testing done? Now, that’s of course science fiction, and I presume it’s going to stay science fiction — though we’re on the cusp of having something at least approximating that as we learn more and more about the various genes that carry various diseases, we — more and more of us face the question of whether or not we want to get tested for those diseases.

Suppose there was a test. Indeed, one occasionally reads in the newspaper about this sort of thing where you can get tested for such and such a disease. You might know already that you’ve got a 50 percent chance of having it, but you don’t know whether you yourself have it. If you do have it, the disease will always have onset by age 40, 50 or what have you. Would you want to have that kind of information? Closely related question. If you did know how much time you had left, how would you act differently from what you’re doing now? Would it focus your attention on making sure you did the things that were most important to you? And it’s worth — ;it’s sort of a useful test for asking yourself what are the things you must value in life — to ask, what would you choose to do if you knew you had five years, ten years, what have you?

There’s an old Saturday Night Live routine where one of the actors is in the doctor’s office, and the doctor gives him the very sad news that he’s got two minutes left to live. And he says, “I’m going to pack a lifetime of enjoyment into those two minutes.” And then of course, the point of the skit is he presses the down button on the elevator and a minute and a half goes by while he’s waiting for the elevator to come.

If you knew you had a year left or two years left, what would you do with that time? Would you be in school? Would you travel? Would you spend more time hanging out with your friends? A very, for me, extremely striking example of this question occurred in this very class. There was a student in this class some years ago who was dying. And he knew that he was dying. He’d been diagnosed with, if I recall correctly, cancer as a freshmen — and his doctor had told him that he pretty much had no chance of recovery and indeed had only a couple more years to live. Faced with that question, he had to ask himself, “Well, what should I do with my remaining years?” It was astonishing enough that somebody — but perhaps understandable — that somebody in that situation would decide to take a class on death and then have himself, submit himself, to my getting up here week after week, talking about how there’s no soul, there’s no prospect for an afterlife, it’s a good thing that we’re all going to die.

But faced with the question what should he do, what did he want to do with his remaining couple of years, what he decided he wanted to do was finish his Yale degree — thought he’d set himself the goal of graduating college before he died. And he was taking this class second semester of his senior year. At least, he was taking it until Spring Break. By Spring Break he’d gotten sufficiently sick that his doctor basically said, “You can’t continue in school anymore. You’ve got to go home.” Basically, “You’ve got to go home to die.” And indeed, he got progressively and then rapidly deteriorated at that point. The faculty members who were teaching his classes that semester then all faced the question posed to them by the administration, based on the work he’s done so far this semester, has he — what kind of grade are you prepared to give him? Because, depending on which of his classes he passed and which of his classes he failed, the question was going to be,was he going to graduate or not? In fact, of course, he did manage to graduate. And Yale, to its, I think, real glory and credit sent a member of the administration down to his deathbed to award him his degree before he passed away.

So, as I say, it’s a very striking story. I’m not sure how many of us would decide the last thing we wanted to do with our remaining years is to spend it in college. Well, what is it that you’d want to do? And again, to move back and ask ourselves a larger question, would knowing how much time you have be something that would allow you to actually embrace those choices, or would it instead just be a burden? That’s the kind of question we have to face when we think about the fact that we don’t know how much time we’ve got. Is that something that increases the badness of death, or does it reduce its significance somewhat?

Chapter 2. The Ubiquity of Death [00:07:00]

Here’s another feature. In addition to the inevitability, in addition to the variability, in addition to the unpredictability, there’s the fact that death is, as I like to think of it, ubiquitous. I don’t just mean the fact that people are dying all around us, but I mean rather, you yourself could die at any time. There’s never any getting away from the possibility that you’ll die now. Even if we didn’t have unpredictability, I mean rather, even if we had unpredictability, it wouldn’t necessarily follow that death was pervasive in this way. The point I’ve got in mind here is this — even when you think you’re perfectly safe, you could of course die of a stroke. You could die of a heart attack. Even somebody who’s young could have an aneurysm.

Or one of my favorite examples, you could be sitting in your — you read this sort of thing in the newspaper periodically — you could be sitting in your living room when suddenly an airplane crashes into your house, killing you. These sorts of things happen. You thought you were safe. You were watching reruns on television — the next minute, you’re dead. The fact that you could die and you don’t know when you’re going to die doesn’t yet entail that you could die at any minute, at any moment. But in fact, that’s true of us as well.

Yet another example close to heart. I remember — before I taught here I used to teach at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And once I was driving down the highway and a car pulled in without looking and clipped my car, and caused my car — you know, so pulled in from the entrance — caused my car to go careening across three lanes of traffic spinning out of control. And I remember quite clearly thinking to myself as that happened — the whole thing lasted only a few moments — but I remember thinking quite clearly, “I’m going to die.” Now, as it happens, I didn’t die. I walked away from the accident, and the damage to my car was rather minimal. But it could’ve have happened like that.

Death is — the possibility of death — is ubiquitous. It’s pervasive. We have to ask ourselves then, does this make things worse? It certainly feels, to my mind, as though it’s an extra bad about the nature of death. It would be nice to get a breather. Imagine, if you will, that there were certain locations, certain vacation spots, where as long as you were there you couldn’t die. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to go someplace and just for a period think to yourself, “Well, you know, right now I don’t have to worry about that. It doesn’t even have to cross my mind.”

Maybe if there were these sort of death-free zones, they’d get rather crowded. So perhaps we should change the example. Instead of having death-free zones, imagine that there were death-free times. Just suppose, for whatever reason, nobody could die between twelve and one. You could just put it out of your mind. Wouldn’t that be nice? All right, one o’clock, you take the mantle back on. But wouldn’t it be nice to just have a certain period of time every day when you didn’t have to even have it be so much as a remote possibility? Or suppose there were certain death-free activities. Maybe reading philosophy would be something that as long as you were doing it you couldn’t die or, as perhaps some religious traditions might’ve taught, as long as you were engaged in prayer you couldn’t die. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Or turn the entire thing the other way around. Suppose that most times and most activities were death free, but certain activities introduce the possibility of dying. So you couldn’t die unless you were engaged in certain activities. So you would be immortal but not in the sense of immortal against your will. There’d be certain activities perhaps, for example putting a gun to your head, that would put an end to your life. So even if immortality would be bad, there would be certain things you could do that could end it. Ask yourself, what sorts of activities would you engage in if you knew that those activities carried with them the risk of dying?

So most of the time you couldn’t die. What things would be so important to you that you’d be willing to suddenly risk death for the sake of doing those things? You like art. Is art important enough to you that you’d be prepared to watch, look at a masterpiece, if you knew that while you were enjoying it you could die, but that wouldn’t happen otherwise? Is sex great enough that you’d be prepared to run the risk of dying while you were engaged in sex? Again, it’s a nice lens for asking yourself, what are the things that are most valuable to you? by asking, which of them are so valuable you’d be prepared to do them even if they would introduce what isn’t otherwise there, namely, the risk of death?

Now, in the posing the question that way, I’ve been assuming that these are things you’d do despite the fact that they run the risk of death. I suppose there’s a further question we have to ask, are there things that would be worth doing precisely because of the fact that they introduced the risk of death? Now, I’ve got to admit that when I pose that question, that sounds rather bizarre. At least, putting aside the possibility that we’ve now lived our hundred thousand years and have exhausted all that life’s got to offer for us, certainly to engage in activities now, while life still has so much more to offer — to engage in activities now where, precisely for the chance of dying, that strikes me as bizarre. And yet, it seems to me that there are many activities, and if not many at least several activities, that people do precisely for that reason.

For example, let me tell you something I know that’s going to shock you. Did you know there are people who jump out of airplanes? Now, admittedly they’ve got this little piece of cloth that gives them a decent chance of not killing themselves when they jump out of airplanes. But these things do fail. Every now and then you read in the newspaper about somebody whose parachute failed to open and so they died. And I ask myself, why? What could possibly drive somebody to jump out of an airplane with nothing but a little piece of cloth between them and death? And the answer that strikes me as most plausible is, it’s the very fact that there’s a significant chance of death that helps explain why people do this.

Now, I know if you talk to some of these people, they’ll often say, “Oh, no, no, no. The views are so glorious,” or something like that. But I think this is rather an implausible suggestion because, of course, you could have these glorious views just by going up in the airplane and looking down from the safety of your airplane. Part of the thrill has got to be — or so it seems to me — part of the thrill has got to be the very fact that they now have an increased risk of death. The chance of dying is part of what drives somebody to jump out of an airplane.

Well, if that’s right, then should we say that the pervasiveness of death, ubiquitousness of death — the thing that I was earlier suggesting was oppressive — wouldn’t it really be nice to have a death-free time or a death-free location or death-free activities? Maybe I was wrong in suggesting that. If the chance of death would add a kind of zest, then perhaps the ubiquity of death is actually a good thing rather than a bad thing.

Well, I’m inclined to think, at least in my own case, that that’s not right. And perhaps the explanation has got to be the ubiquity of death is this kind of background, constant hum. And the fact that we’re always facing some risk of death recedes into the background in the way that most of us don’t hear background noise — that what jumping out of an airplane does for you is it spikes the risk of death. So, it’s not really good enough to just have some risk of death — it’s got to be greater risk than usual. If that’s right, if that’s the psychology, then even for those death thrill seekers, the ubiquity of death won’t necessarily be a good thing because of it being constant. It just recedes into the background.

Chapter 3. What Is the Value of Life with Death? Positive and Negative Interaction Effects [00:16:17]

All right. So again, what I’ve been asking us to think about are various aspects of death that might contribute to either increase or perhaps in certain ways reduce somewhat the badness of death. There’s one more aspect that I want to take a couple of minutes and have us think about, and that’s this. Previously to this most recent discussion, I talked about the value of life. Some rival theories about what makes life worth living. And for the last lecture or so I’ve been talking about, in addition to the deprivation account, the additional things that contribute to the badness of death.

So you might think, well, what about the human condition as a whole? What about the fact that it’s not just that we live, or for that matter it’s not just that we die. What’s true about humans is that we live and then we die. That’s the human condition — life followed by death. You might ask, what’s the value of that entire combination?

Now, the most natural thing to suggest would be, well, you get clear on your favorite theory about the value of life, whatever that is. You get clear about the kinds of questions we’ve just been asking about the badness of death, whatever that is. What’s the overall assessment of the human condition? You might think, well, that’s just a matter of adding up the goodness of life and subtracting the badness of death and summing whatever it comes to.

I suppose, again, the optimist says, “Yeah, death is bad, but life is good, sufficiently good to outweigh the badness of the fact that we’re going to die. On balance, it’s a good thing to be born.” And pessimists might be those who say, “No, no. On balance, the negative of death outweighs the positive-ness of life.”

But I want to pause for a moment and note that this assumption that the way to think about the value of the combination as just a matter of adding the goodness of life and the badness of death and just summing them that way — that may not be right. Because sometimes the value of a combination is different than the value you would get by just thinking about each one of the parts in isolation and then adding them up. A kind of addition approach to values of wholes may not always be correct.

Here’s a nice simple example to make that point. My two favorite foods in the world are probably pizza on the one hand and chocolate on the other. I know I’ve shared my love of chocolate with you before. I don’t recall having shared my love of pizza with you before, but there it is — two favorite things I love — love pizza, delicious, love chocolate, delicious. Take these two delicious things and combine them into a chocolate covered pizza. Oh my God! The whole idea just sounds disgusting. And it is, I take it, disgusting. But you wouldn’t notice the disgustingness if you just thought about the value of pizza in isolation and the value of chocolate in isolation. The value of chocolate-covered pizza is not just a matter of summing up the value of the parts taken in isolation. You’ve got to think about what we might dub “the interaction effects.”

So let’s ask ourselves, are there any interaction effects when we talk about the human condition that it’s life followed by death?” We’ve thought about the value of life in isolation; we’ve been, in effect, thinking about the value of death in isolation. Does the fact that death follows life — does that produce any interaction effects between the two, which need to be added into our formula — added into the mix as well?

Well, there’s obviously, I suppose, two possibilities. Well, really three. Possibility number one is, no it doesn’t make any difference — uninteresting possibility. More interestingly — two remaining possibilities. Yeah, there are actually some ways in which the combination ends up becoming worse. The interaction effects make things even worse, and we can’t overlook those negative interaction effects. Also, the possibility that there might be some positive interaction effects.

Let me start briefly by mentioning a possibility for a positive interaction effect. Because of the fact that you’re going to die, obviously enough, it’s not just that you’ll get whatever life you get, but there’s a finite amount of life that you’re going to get. Life is a scarce resource. It’s precious. And we might be attracted to the thought that the value of life is increased by its very preciousness. There’s a kind of aspect of value for many of us where we feel that something’s especially valuable if it won’t endure, if it’s fragile, or if it’s rare. This can enhance the value of something. And so, arguably, the fact that life is precious, that it won’t endure, could actually increase its value for us.

There’s a short story by the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card, where the basic point of the story is that of all the life forms in the universe, we, here on Earth, are the only ones that are mortal. And because of this we are the envy of the rest of the universe. It’s not so much that immortality, what the rest of them have, is unattractive or boring. It’s perfectly fine, but they envy us for our finite lifespans, because what we’ve got and they don’t have is something that’s for each individual rare — something that’s not lasting, something that’s precious in that way. All right, it’s a possibility. So, it’s possible that the very fact that we’re going to die causes an interaction effect with our life so there’s an upside to it. It makes our life fragile, ephemeral, and as a result of that, more precious.

But it’s also possible — actually compatible with accepting that fact — there are two additional possibilities, that there might be some negative interaction effects. It could be that in thinking about the nature of the combination we’re led to see that in certain ways the combination — the interaction effects — are negative, are bad ones. Well, here are two possibilities for that thought. First possibility I think of under the heading “A Taste is Just a Tease.” It’s as though we live life for a while, getting a feel for all the wonderful things life could offer us, and then a moment later, as it were, it’s snatched away from us. It’s sort of adding insult to injury that we’re offered just a whiff. It’s as though somebody brought in this delicious meal to a hungry — before a hungry person — allowed them to see what it looked like, allowed them to smell the delicious aromas, perhaps gave them just one little tiny forkful to see just how beautifully delicious the food was. And then they snatched the whole thing away.

You can imagine somebody who says, “Look, it would be better never to have had the taste at all than to have the taste and then not be allowed to have the entire meal.” That’s something that you might not notice if you just focus on the intrinsic nature of the taste. After all, the intrinsic nature of the taste was positive. Or, if you just focused on the intrinsic character of the not-having the meal. After all, not having the meal is just an absence of a certain experience. To capture what’s excruciatingly undesirable about the two, you need to think about the two in combination. It’s an interaction effect. And we might think, look, this is one of the negative things about the human condition that we get a taste of life — nothing more — before it’s snatched away. That’s one possibility.

The second possible thought that comes to mind for me, in thinking about the negative interaction effects, I call under the title — I think about under the title — “How the Noble Have Fallen.” Right now, there’s something amazing about us. We are people. In the universe we — Who knows what is out there in the universe but at least on Earth we may well be the only people there are. Now, who knows? Maybe dolphins or certain — some of the great apes. But at any rate, it’s a rather select club. We are, as I said, early in the semester when I said I’m a physicalist, I believe that people are just machines, but we’re not just any old machine. We’re amazing machines. We’re able to love. We’re able to write poetry. We’re able to think about the farthest reaches of the universe and ask what our place is in the universe. People are amazing. And we end up rotting. We end up corpses.

There’s something — For many of us, there’s something horrifying about the thought that something as amazing as us, as exalted and valuable as us, could end up something as lowly and unimportant as a piece of rotting flesh. Again, think about it. The image here that comes to mind for me is one of these deposed kings who ends up waiting on tables to make a living in New York. And it’s — you might think, “All right. The life of a waiter is not the worst thing in the world.” But there’s extra, again, insult to injury, when the person’s got to remember that he used to be something extraordinary, a ruler.

Again, if you just thought about life as a ruler, well pretty good thinking about it in isolation. Life as a waiter, not so bad thinking about it in isolation. To see the nature of the problem you’ve got to think about the fact that it’s a combination package. There is something especially insulting about having gone from king to waiter. How the mighty have fallen. And that fate is waiting for all of us. It’s a fact about the human condition that the amazing things we are don’t stay amazing. We turn into pieces of rotting flesh, decaying.

So two possible negative effects — the taste is just a tease, the how the noble have fallen — on the one hand. One possible positive effect, the extra preciousness of life. I’m not quite sure where, on balance, we should say how these things play out.

Chapter 4. “Better Off Never to Have Been Born”: A Rationale [00:27:59]

Again, I suppose we could have different views. On the one hand, the optimists might say, “Even when we throw in the extra interaction effects, even the negative interaction effects, the overall nature of the human condition is positive. So that it’s a good thing to be born, even though your life is going to be followed by death.” And against that, we could have the pessimists who say, “The negative side, especially once we throw in the negative interaction effects, the negative side is so great that it would be better never to have been born at all.” That’s the pessimist view. Given that we’re going to die, this fact seeps back in and poisons the nature of life or perhaps poisons the nature of the whole, life followed by death, so that on balance the whole thing’s negative. Better to have not had any of it, better to have not been born at all, say the pessimists, than to have this combination package of life followed by death.

Now, for myself, I’m sufficiently optimistic that I’m inclined to think life’s wonderful. The negative combination effects that I was talking about are certainly there, but on balance I think the human condition for must of us is a good one. It’s better to have been born than never to — even though that’s followed by death — than never to have been born at all.

But I do want to emphasize the point that even if we were to accept the pessimist’s conclusion that it would be better never to have been born at all, it doesn’t follow, at least doesn’t follow without further argument, that the right response to the realization — if it is the correct realization that it would be better never to have been born at all — doesn’t follow that the right response is to commit suicide.

It’s a tempting thought right? To go philosophically from life’s so bad given the nature of the human condition, life followed by death, that better to never have had any of it than to have just had a taste and a tease and so forth. But it’s a tempting philosophical thought to say, “Once I’ve shown it’s better never to have been born, it follows that suicide is the appropriate response.” But in fact, as a matter of logic, that doesn’t follow at all. Because if you think about it, suicide doesn’t change the fundamental nature of the human condition, life followed by death. It’s not as though if you kill yourself you somehow bring it about that you’ve never been born at all. It’s still the case that if there’s something horrible about having just a taste — well, indeed, if you commit suicide you’ve made it an even shorter taste. If there’s something sort of degrading or unnoble about being a person who is going to become a corpse, committing suicide doesn’t alter that fundamental fact either. It just makes the insult come sooner.

So, even if we were to agree with the pessimists that it would be better never to have been born at all, as the old joke goes, show me one person in a thousand who’s so lucky, right? We have all been born. And from the fact, even if we were to agree with it, that it would’ve been better if we hadn’t been born — instead of feeling sorry for unborn Larry, perhaps we should envy unborn Larry; that’s what the pessimists say — even if that were true, it wouldn’t follow that suicide was an appropriate response.

It doesn’t mean of course that suicide isn’t ever an appropriate response. We’re coming on toward the end of the semester, and the last topic we’ll be talking about is indeed the topic of suicide. When, if ever, is suicide an appropriate, rational or moral response to one’s situation? Let’s hold off on thinking about that question a bit further. Before we get to suicide, you might say, the question that’s going to entertain us for the remaining few weeks is this. How should one live, in light of the facts about death that I’ve been laying out in the semester up to this point? How should we live, in light of the facts about death? And one possible response, the last one we’ll look at, is, what you should, at least sometimes, is kill yourself. We’ll come to that. We’re going to spend the next couple of weeks asking ourselves different aspects of the question, what should our response be to the fact of our death and the specific features of death and the nature of death that we’ve been exploring?

Chapter 5. Should We Even Think about Death to Live Life? [00:32:55]

But the very first question I suppose we really need to ask is this. Should we be thinking about all this at all? Well, I realize that for you guys it’s too late, right? It’s sort of late in the day for students who have been through the better part of a semester thinking about the nature of death to argue, maybe, it wasn’t such a good idea for you to take this class in the first place. But as theorists, we could be interested in the theoretical possibility that the right response is to not think about the facts of death at all.

Look, in principle I suppose there are three different reactions. So, I make various claims of the sort that I’ve been making about, “Well look, you know, we’re just physical objects. When these objects break, we cease to exist. The objects don’t get put back together,” and so forth and so on. One possibility, of course, is simply to disagree with me about the facts. And so you — of course, if you do disagree I think you’re mistaken, so I’ll think of you as denying the facts, but all right, that’s a possibility. Another possibility, the one I’ll turn to a little bit later, is admit the facts and live accordingly. Of course, we haven’t yet asked ourselves, how should you live if you recognize and take into account those facts? That’s the question we’ll turn to. But there’s the middle possibility, which is not so much think about them and deny them, not so much think about them, accept them and act accordingly, but simply don’t think about them. Maybe the best response to the facts of death is just put it out of your mind. Don’t give it any thought at all.

Now, on the one hand you might think, that can’t possibly be the right response, the appropriate response. After all, how can it be appropriate to disregard, to put out of your mind, facts? Well, that all sounds very nice, but I think that claim has got to just be mistaken. There’s nothing unacceptable or inappropriate or misguided about not thinking about all sorts of facts that you might have learned at some point or the other. Here’s my favorite example of stupid facts I was forced to learn when I was younger — state capitals, right? I’ve gotten pretty far in my life, and as far as I can tell I’ve never, ever, ever had to remember the capitals of the 50 states. So, I just don’t think about it. Pretty much I think about it only once a year, when I’m giving this very lecture. I start asking, how many state capitals can I remember? And the answer is, really not all that many of them. Not thinking about those facts that I knew at one point — just not all that objectionable.

So, the mere fact, if it is a fact, suppose the facts about life and death are as I’ve described them. Until we say something more, it’s not clear that we shouldn’t just, all right, note it, store it away, and forget about it, just like the facts about the state capitals.

That seems odd; that seems misguided. But why? What is it about the facts about life and death that seem to make it misguided to think we should just put them aside and pay no attention to them? Presumably because we’re led to the thought, we’re attracted to the thought, that the nature of death, the facts about death — whatever they are — should have an impact on how we live. The appropriate way to live gets shaped, at least in part, by the fact that we’re going to die, that we won’t be around forever. If that’s right, then it seems as though there’d be something irrational and inappropriate about simply disregarding those facts.

Let me tell you two stories that might — well, look, before I tell you the stories here’s the other side. Suppose somebody said, “Yeah, it’s true if I thought about the nature of death, the fact that the 50, 80, 90 years I’ve got on this Earth is all I’m going to have. If I thought about that fact, it would just be overwhelming. It would be crushing. I’d be unable to go on with my life.” People sometimes claim that that’s the case and, because of that, the right thing to do is to not think about it. You’ve read at this point, long since, Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych. The people in the Tolstoy story seem to have put facts of mortality out of their mind. Why? Presumably because they think that facing it is just too crushing and overwhelming. So the way they cope with it — they think the appropriate response is put it aside, disregard the facts about death.

Well, as I say, there seems to be something amiss about that reaction. That was certainly the point that Tolstoy was trying to get us to see. There’s something wrong about lives, something inauthentic about lives that are lived without facing the facts of our mortality and living accordingly, whatever the appropriate responses might be. Here are two stories not having to do with death per se that may help us get a feel for the oddity of trying to disregard these facts.

Suppose that you’re on a hot date, or about to go out on a hot date, with Peggy Sue or, depending on your preferences, Billy Bob. And your roommate holds up an envelope and says, “Written in this envelope are certain facts about Peggy Sue or Billy Bob. I’m not going to tell you what these facts are yet. They’re in the envelope. But I’ll give you the envelope and you can open it up and read them. But I do want to tell you this one thing. It is indeed the case that if you were to read these facts, if you were to think about these facts, if you were to know the things written down in the envelope, you would not want to go out with Peggy Sue.”

And you say to yourself, well, let’s see. Right now I want to go out with Peggy Sue, but if I knew these true — It’s not that you think, oh your roommate has made it up, that these are lies; these are slander. You really believe, and it is in fact the case that the things written down in the envelope are true. And so you know that if only you were to read these things in the envelope, you would change your mind and no longer want to go out with her. And so what you say is, “Don’t show me the envelope.” That seems odd. It doesn’t seem like it makes sense. If there are things that would change your mind and you know that they would change your mind about your behavior, how can it be rational to disregard them?

Here’s another story. You’re about to drink a milkshake, and your roommate comes rushing in and says, “I’ve got the lab report. I had my suspicions about the milkshake, and so I took a sample and I rushed it down to the lab. I’ve got the lab report.” You’re about to drink it, right, because you’re thirsty, it’s a hot day, you love milkshakes. And your roommate says, “Inside the envelope are facts about this milkshake that if — I promise you it is indeed the case — if you knew these facts, you would not drink the milkshake anymore.” And you say, “Oh, thank God. Don’t open the envelope,” and you drink the milkshake, disregarding the facts.

That seems inappropriate. Well, if it really was true then that if only we faced the facts about our mortality that we would live life rather differently, how could it be reasonable for us to disregard those facts? Well, that’s the puzzle. Or maybe we shouldn’t call it a puzzle at all. Maybe the answer is, that just shows the disregard option is not really all that reputable. What we either have to do is deny the claims I’m made about the nature of death, or else go on to ask — supposing they are true — how should we live in light of them? Maybe the disregard option just is one that we can’t actually take on as an intellectually acceptable alternative.

But I suspect that that’s probably a little bit too quick, because really there are two different ways in which facts could influence our behavior. And if we’re not careful we’ll disregard this distinction, even though I think it’s an important one. Here’s the two ways. On the one hand, it could be that certain facts, if you knew them, would cause you to behave differently without actually giving you any reason to behave differently. That’s possibility number one. Possibility number two is the facts change your behavior by giving you a reason to behave differently.

Let me show you an example of the first possibility, because that’s the one I think we may be overlooking when we assume that disregarding can’t ever make any sense. So, there you are kissing, making out with Peggy Sue or Billy Bob — whoever it is — and your roommate bursts in and says, “I have in the envelope certain facts such that if you were to think about them you would no longer want to kiss Peggy Sue, Billy Bob.” Let me just tell you what the facts in the envelope are. They’re certain facts about the nature of Peggy Sue’s digestive system. Now, well, you’re making out after having had dinner, and while you’re sitting there making out, food is making its way down Peggy Sue’s digestive tract, being turned into shit. And eventually it’s going to be excreted. And if you started picturing to yourself the feces inside Peggy Sue’s digestive tract, and the fact that she’s eventually going to be wiping the feces off of her behind, you might find it difficult to continue to engage in making out with Peggy Sue. It’s not so — now these are just facts, right? I didn’t make any of these up, but there you are, as I’m talking about them, you’re just being grossed out as I describe them.

Now, do any of these facts about the digestive system make it inappropriate to kiss another human being? Well, of course not. But for all that, thinking about those facts make it rather difficult, while you’re thinking about the facts, to continue enjoying kissing the person. So there are certain facts about the digestive tract such that if you think about them you can’t do something, kiss the person. But for all that, it’s not because you’ve got any good reason not to kiss the person. It’s not that the facts about the human digestive process give you reason not to kiss her. They cause you to change you behavior without giving you any reason to change your behavior.

So, when the roommate comes running in, holding the envelope, and says, “I have in this envelope certain facts such that if you read these facts, and thought about these facts, you would stop kissing this person,” the question you should put to your roommate is, “Are these facts that would merely cause me to change what I’m doing, or are these facts things that would give me some good reason to change?” If these are facts about how Peggy Sue likes to kiss and tell, or then goes around and talks about who’s a good kisser and who’s a bad kisser, maybe that gives you a reason to not continue what you’re doing. So the facts could be things that would give you reason to change your behavior. But the mere fact that they would change your behavior doesn’t yet tell you whether they’re reason-generating facts. If they’re mere causes and not reasons, then maybe it’s perfectly okay to disregard them. If your roommate comes in and starts trying to tell you facts about the human digestive system, you say, “Not now.” Disregarding is sometimes the appropriate thing to do.

Well, what about the facts about death? Are the facts about death things that it’s appropriate to disregard? A bold claim would say, “Yes.” A bold claim would say, “The facts about death, if I thought about them, would change my behavior, but not because it would give me a reason to change my behavior — simply because it would influence my behavior.” And, given that, we might say, better to not think about them. That would be the bold claim to make at this point.

Suppose, for example, that, the right way to live, in light of the facts about death, is to live life to the fullest. But suppose if you think about death you just get too depressed and you can’t live life to the fullest. It’s not that the facts about death give you reason to stay in your room and sulk. It’s just that the facts about death cause you to stay in your room and sulk. If that was the case, then disregarding, always disregarding, the facts about death might well be the appropriate response. Well, that would be a rather bold claim. I’m not inclined to believe that the bold claim is right.

Chapter 6. Controlling the Impact of Thinking about Death and Conclusion [00:47:26]

Should we conclude therefore that, no, you should always be thinking about the facts about death? No, I’m inclined to think that that other bold claim, on the other side, is probably mistaken as well. So there you are, one more time, one last time, making out with Peggy Sue or Billy Bob and your roommate comes in and starts trying to tell you about the fact that he’s taken Shelly Kagan’s class on death or he’s been studying in some biology class, and he wants to tell you about how human bodies decay when they turn into corpses. As he begins to tell you this story, you start picturing Peggy Sue as a rotting corpse. Suddenly, you don’t really feel like kissing her anymore. It’s sort of like the digestive tract story. It’s not that, as far as I can see, the fact that she’s going to be a corpse gives you any reason not to kiss her. It’s just that thinking about the fact that she’s going to be a corpse causes you to not want to kiss her, not be able to enjoy kissing her.

So, I’m inclined to think that the right position here is a kind of moderate one, a modest one. There are times and places for thinking about the facts of death. When you’re kissing somebody — that is not the time and that is not the place. The position that says, you should always have the fact of your mortality forever before your mind’s eye — I think that’s misguided. Similarly, though, anybody who says, you should never think about the facts of mortality and the nature of death — I think that’s misguided as well. There’s a time and place. But that still leaves us with the question. All right, so suppose this is the time and place. If ever there was a time and place for thinking about the facts of death and how it should influence our life, it’s right now, in a class on death. So, we still have to face the question, how should you live? What is the appropriate response to the facts about life and death? That’s the question we have to turn to next time.

[end of transcript]

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