PHIL 176: Death

Lecture 22

 - Fear of Death


Professor Kagan explores the issue of how thinking about death may influence the way we live. Fear as an emotional response to death is discussed as well as whether it is appropriate and under what conditions. A distinction is made between fear of the process of dying, and fear of death itself and what may come when one is dead. Finally, a number of other negative emotions are considered as possible appropriate responses to death and dying, such as anger, sadness, and sorrow.

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PHIL 176 - Lecture 22 - Fear of Death

Chapter 1. How Should Thinking about Death Influence Behavior? [00:00:00]

Professor Shelly Kagan: Last time, I distinguished between two ways in which thinking about the facts about the nature of death could influence our behavior. On the one hand, it could give us reasons to behave or respond differently, and on the other hand it could merely cause us to behave differently. Insofar as it just happens to be some fact about human psychology that we behave this way or that way, perhaps the appropriate way to deal with the facts of death would be to simply disregard them. I’m inclined to believe, however, that there are ways in which thinking about the facts would not merely cause us to behave one way rather than another but give us reason to behave one way rather than another. And that’s the question that I want to then explore from here on out. In what circumstances, or in what ways, should we behave one way rather than another?

So, I’m not merely going to draw on facts about how, as it happens, we behave. It could be that if you dwelled upon the facts about death, you would scream interminably until the moment you died — taking a tip from Tolstoy. But that doesn’t itself show that that’s an appropriate response; that might just be a mere causal fact about how we’re built. The question I want to ask is, how is it appropriate, in what ways is there reason, to react one way rather than another?

Now as I say, the thought seems very compelling for most of us that there are ways in which it makes sense for the facts about death to influence how we live, what our attitudes are, what are emotions are. Kafka, for example, said the meaning of life is the fact that it ends. Nice little cryptic saying, as is typical of Kafka. But the suggestion, I suppose, is a fairly common one, that it’s something deep about how we should live, that we’re going to die, that our life will come to an end. And the question we want to then explore is how should the fact, how should recognizing the fact, that we’re going to die, influence how we live? How should we respond to that fact?

Chapter 2. Is Fear of Death a Rational Appropriate Response? [00:02:14]

Now actually, the very first kind of behavior, quote/unquote behavior, that I want us to think about perhaps isn’t strictly speaking a form of behavior at all. I rather have in mind our emotional response, because indeed one of the most common reactions to death, I suppose, is fear of death. Indeed, fear may in many cases be too weak a term — an extremely strong form of fear — terror of death is, I suppose, a very common emotional response to death. And what I want to do next is have us ask ourselves, well, is fear of death a rationally appropriate response?

Now, the crucial word here is “appropriate.” I don’t want to deny at all what I take to be the empirical fact that many people are afraid of death. How common a reaction that is, and how strong the fear is, I suppose that would be something for psychologists or sociologists to study. And I’m not interested in that question. I take it that fear of death is very common. I want to know, is fear of death an appropriate, a reasonable emotion?

Now, in raising that question, I’m obviously presupposing the larger philosophical thesis that it makes sense to talk about emotions as being appropriate or inappropriate. We can ask not only what emotions does somebody have, but we can also ask what emotions should they have? Now, this point perhaps isn’t an obvious one, so maybe it’s worth dwelling on for a moment or two, before we turn to fear of death per se.

What’s another example of an emotion that’s got some appropriateness conditions? So, in a moment I’ll turn to asking, what are the conditions under which it’s appropriate to be afraid of something? — but to make the more general point, look, take something like pride; pride’s an emotion. Under what conditions does it make sense to be proud of something? Well, I suppose at least two conditions jump out. First of all, the thing that you’re proud of has to be some kind of accomplishment. If you were to say to me right now, “I’m really proud of the fact that I’m breathing,” I’d look at you in a noncomprehending fashion because it doesn’t seem to me that breathing is difficult in any way, doesn’t count as an accomplishment, and as such I can’t understand how or why you would be proud of the fact that you’re breathing. Now, maybe if you suffered from asthma and you had to have gone through excruciating physical therapy in order to learn how to use your lungs after some accident or something; maybe if we told a story like that we could see how breathing naturally and normally would be an accomplishment, something to be proud of. But for all of us, I presume, it’s not an accomplishment; hence it’s not something that it’s appropriate to be proud of.

Even if we’ve got an accomplishment, that may not be enough. For something to be something that it makes sense for you to be proud of it, it’s got to be in some way an accomplishment that reflects well on you. Now, the most straightforward cases are cases where it’s your accomplishment, and the reason that pride makes sense is because you’re the one who did this difficult thing. So, you got an A on your philosophy paper and you tell me that you’re proud and I understand that; getting an A on a philosophy paper is an accomplishment, and if you wrote the paper then I understand why you’re proud. Of course, if what you did was go on the Internet and go to one of those sites where you pay money and somebody else writes an A paper for you, well, I understand why maybe they should be proud that they’ve written a great philosophy paper, but I don’t see how this reflects especially positively upon you. So again, there’s a kind of appropriateness condition for pride, where the object or the event or the activity that you’re proud of, or the feature, has to somehow reflect on you.

Now, that’s not to say that it’s got to be your accomplishment, at least not in any straightforward, narrow sense. It makes sense, for example, to be proud of your children’s accomplishments because there’s the right kind of connection between you and your children. So, in some sense it’s connected to you. And we can have cases where we wonder about whether or not the connection is tight enough or what exactly the nature of the connection has to be. Perhaps as an American you took pride when the Americans win some event at the Olympics or the Tour de France or what have you, and you say to yourself, “well look, I didn’t ride the bicycle but for all that I’m an American and an American won, I’m proud.” And that makes sense; we can understand how you think the connection there is tight enough. On the other hand if you say, “look, the Germans won the event in the Olympics and I’m really proud,” and I ask, well, are you yourself German, do you have German heritage, did you contribute to the German Olympics support team? If none of that’s true, then again the appropriateness condition doesn’t seem to be satisfied. It doesn’t make sense to be proud.

All right, look, we could spend more time worrying about the conditions under which it makes sense to feel pride. But of course that’s not really my purpose here. My purpose of bringing that in was just to try to make good on the thought that emotions do have requirements; not necessarily requirements for what you have to have in place in order to feel the emotion. It’s a harder question whether all these things need to be in place in order to feel the emotion. But at least these things need to be in place in order for it to make sense for you to have the emotion, in order for it to be rational or reasonable to feel the emotion, in order for that emotional response to be an appropriate response to your circumstances or situation.

Chapter 3. Required Conditions for Feeling Fear of Death [00:08:40]

So, let’s ask ourselves, then, what are the appropriateness conditions for fear? Because armed with that set of conditions, we’ll then be able to go on and ask, is it appropriate to feel fear of death? Now, three conditions come to mind when I think about this question, when I’ve thought about this question over the years. The first is this — and I suppose this first one’s going to be fairly uncontroversial — in order to be afraid of something — even though I slipped in this, to talk about what you need to have in order to feel fear, what I really mean is in order for it to make sense to feel fear — the thing that you’re afraid of has to be bad.

If somebody were to say to me, “I’m afraid that after class somebody’s going to give me an ice cream cone”, again I’d look at them in noncomprehension. I’d say, “Why are you afraid of that? How could it make any sense to be afraid?” And again, it’s not that somebody couldn’t give you an answer. They’d say, “Oh I’m trying to lose weight but I’m so weak and if they give me an ice cream cone then I’ll just eat it and that’ll ruin my diet for the week,” well, then I’d understand. From that point of view an ice cream cone is a bad thing and so that first condition on fear would be satisfied. But if you don’t have a story like that, if you’re like most of us, most of the time, and an ice cream cone’s a pretty good thing, a source of some passing but at least genuine pleasure, then you say, “How can you be afraid of having or getting or eating an ice cream cone?” It doesn’t make sense.

To be afraid of something, it’s got to be bad. It’s one of the reasons why we sometimes look askance at people who have various kinds of phobias — fear of spiders or fear of dust or what have you, fear of bunnies — and you think, how does this make any sense? It’s this cute little bunny; it’s not dangerous. And maybe there are poisonous spiders, but most of the spiders we run across here in Connecticut are not poisonous. Fear of spiders doesn’t seem appropriate. It’s not that people can’t have this kind of emotional reaction, it’s that it doesn’t make sense. Maybe it’s another matter if you live in Australia, where there’s poisonous snakes and spiders and other insects everyplace. All right.

So, condition number one: Fear requires something bad, as the object of your fear. I can fear getting a migraine, if I’m subject to migraines. I can’t fear the pleasure of looking at a beautiful sunset. That’s condition number one — bad object, something harmful. Condition number two is, there’s got to be a nonnegligible chance of the bad state of affairs happening, of the bad object coming to you. It’s not enough that it’s a logical possibility for fear to be a reasonable reaction. There’s nothing logically inconsistent or logically incoherent about the possibility that I will face my death by being ripped to pieces by Siberian tigers. It’s not as though that’s an inconsistent state of affairs. It’s certainly logically possible, but it’s so unlikely, it’s so negligibly small a chance, that if anybody here is afraid that they’ll be ripped to pieces by tigers, then I can only say the fear doesn’t make any sense, it’s not appropriate.

Again, we can tell special stories where that might be different. Suppose you tell me that, oh, when you’re not a student, your work study program, what you do is, you work as an animal trainer, or you’re planning to work in the circus where you’ll be training tigers, then I’ll say, all right, now I suppose there’s a nonnegligible chance you’ll be mauled and killed by tigers. I understand it. But for the rest of us, I suppose, the chance of being killed by tigers is, well, it’s not literally zero, but it’s close to zero, it’s negligible. And so, fear of being eaten by tigers or mauled to death by tigers doesn’t make any sense.

And once you get the point, of course, it would be easy to talk about a variety of other things that the chances are so small — fear of being kidnapped by space creatures from Alpha Centauri, where I’ll be taken back to the lab and they’ll prod me before they dissect me alive without anesthetic. Yes, I suppose there’s some possibility of that. It’s not logically impossible. But again it’s so vanishingly small a chance, and anybody who actually is afraid of that, the appropriate thing for us to say is that their fear is not appropriate. All right, so you need to have a chance of the bad thing, and it’s got to be a large enough chance. And I suppose again there would be room for us to argue about how large a chance is large enough, but when you have vanishingly small chances then the fear doesn’t make any sense. That’s condition number two.

Condition number three, I think, is somewhat more controversial, but for all that it still seems correct to me, and that’s this. We need to have a certain amount of uncertainty in order to have fear be appropriate. You need to have some — it’s not clear how much — but at least some significant amount of uncertainty about whether the bad thing will occur, and/or how bad the bad thing will be. To see the point, to see the relevance of this third condition, imagine that a bad thing was going to happen to you with a nonnegligible chance. Indeed, far from being so small that it’s virtually not worth even considering, imagine that it’s guaranteed that the bad thing is going to happen. So, there’s a bad thing that’s going to happen, and you know precisely how bad it is. So you’ve got certainty with regard to the fact that the bad thing is going to happen, and certainly with regard to the size of the bad thing. I put it to you that in circumstances like that, fear is not an appropriate emotional response.

Suppose that what happens is this. Every day you come to school, to the office, whatever it is, and you bring a bagged lunch, and you put it in the office refrigerator. And you include, along with your lunch, a dessert; let’s say a cookie. And every day at one o’clock, when you go to grab your lunch out of the refrigerator, you look inside and you see somebody has stolen your cookie. Well, it’s a bad thing; it’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s a bad thing to have somebody steal your cookie. And furthermore, this is more than a negligible chance. So, we’ve got condition one, condition two in place — bad thing and a nonnegligible chance of it happening. In fact, not only is it not a negligible chance that it’s happening — guaranteed, it happens day after day after day after day. Bad thing, guaranteed. And you know precisely how bad it is. I put it to you, fear in that case doesn’t make any sense.

Mind you, there are other negative emotions that probably make sense, like anger and resentment. Who does this thief, whoever it is, think that he or she is, to be stealing your cookie? They don’t have the right to do that! You can be angry, you can be resentful. You can be sad that you don’t have a dessert, day after day after day. But you can’t be afraid, because there’s nothing here that it makes sense for you to be afraid of. Again, being a little sloppy, maybe you areafraid, but if so, fear doesn’t make sense, when you know for a certainty that the bad thing is coming and how bad it is.

Suppose that the thief strikes at random, taking different people’s desserts from different bags at different times of the week, and you never know who he or she is going to steal from. Then you might be afraid that you’ll be the person whose cookie got stolen. Or if cookie seems to you too silly an example, imagine that what happens is somebody breaks into dorm rooms. There’s been a thief going around various dorms on campus and stealing the computer from the dorm room. Well there, fear makes sense; you’re afraid that they’ll steal your computer. Bad thing, nonnegligible chance, and lack of certainty.

On the other hand, suppose what happens is, this is one of those thieves like you always have in the movies, where he’s such a master thief, or she’s such a master thief, that they take pride in their work, and so they announce it. They take out an ad in the Yale Daily News and they say, “On Wednesday, April 27th, I shall steal the computer from so-and-so’s room.” And it doesn’t matter what precautions you take, something always happens, and that person’s computer gets stolen. Well, again, you could be angry, you can be pissed, you can be annoyed, you can feel stupid that you didn’t take adequate precautions. But when the ad appears, with your name, and that date, and all year the thief has always carried through on the announced theft, I put it to you, fear doesn’t make any sense, because if you know exactly what the size of the harm is going to be, and you’re guaranteed that the harm is coming, fear is no longer appropriate.

Suppose that I have a little torture machine, a little pain generator, where I put your hand down and I hook it up to the electrodes and I crank the dial and I pull the switch, and you feel an electric shock. It makes sense to feel fear what the next shock is going to feel like, if the shocks vary in their intensity. But if the machine’s only got one setting, on and off, and all the shocks feel exactly the same, and I’ve done it for you, “so look, okay, let me show you what it feels like; it feels like that.” Oh, not comfortable. Let me show you what it feels like, it feels like that; over and over, 5, 6, 7, 8 times; we’re doing some sort of weird psychology experiment here. Well, you know exactly that it’s coming, you know exactly what it’s going to feel like. Fear, I put it to you, doesn’t make any sense.

Suppose the experiment’s over now, and you think — you’ve gotten your ten dollars and I refuse to let you go and I say, “I’m going to do it one more time, no worse than before.” Well, you might not believe me and that might introduce the element of uncertainty and then perhaps fear would be appropriate. But if you believe me that one more pain exactly like the ones you felt before is coming, fear — anger makes sense, resentment makes sense, sadness that you’re going to feel this pain perhaps makes sense — but fear doesn’t make sense.

So, three conditions. You need to have it’s something bad. You need to have on the one hand nonnegligible chance that the bad thing’s going to happen, and you have to have a lack of certainty. If you’ve got certainty as to the nature of the bad and certainty that it’s coming, then fear doesn’t make sense.

One of the points probably worth mentioning in passing — even when fear does make sense, there’s a kind of proportionality condition that we need to keep in mind as well. Even if there’s a nonnegligible chance of the harm coming, and so fear is appropriate, it doesn’t make fear appropriate if it’s obsessive fear, horrendous fear, tremendous fear. Maybe some mild concern is all that’s appropriate if the chances are small. Similarly, the amount of fear needs to be proportioned to the size of the bad. That’s perhaps why the cookie example, you might think a lot of fear there’s not appropriate because even if it comes, how bad is it? Loss of a cookie. All right, so there are some conditions that need to be met before fear is appropriate at all, and on the other hand even when fear is appropriate, it’s still legitimate to ask, how much fear is appropriate?

Chapter 4. What Is Meant by Fear? How Much of This Fear Is Appropriate? [00:22:06]

So, armed with all of this, let’s now turn to the question, is fear of death appropriate, and if so, how much? And immediately we see we need to draw some distinctions. Well, what are we supposedly being afraid of when we are afraid of death? And two or perhaps three things need to be distinguished. The first thing you might worry about is the process of dying. Some people find that the actual process at the end of their life is a painful and unpleasant one. Yes, I’ve given the example of being mauled to death by tigers or eaten alive by tigers. Well, I imagine that would be a pretty unpleasant way to die. And so insofar as there is some nonnegligible chance that you will die a painful death, then I suppose there’s some room for some — an appropriate amount — of fear. Of course, we then have to ask, well, what is the chance that you’ll die painfully? I’ve already indicated for people in this room I rather imagine the chance of being mauled to death by tigers is vanishingly small. So, I think, no fear of that form of painful death is appropriate. And for that matter, I’ve got to suggest that I suspect that fear of dying through a painful operation by the aliens from Alpha Centauri is not appropriate either.

Still, the sad fact of the matter is that there are people in the world who do suffer painful deaths, in particular, of course, because the number of diseases that might kill us off in their final stages are sometimes painful. Now, one of the interesting facts is that we could of course minimize or eliminate the pain by giving people adequate pain medication. And so, it comes as a rather unpleasant bit of news that most hospitals do not provide adequate pain medication, in many, many instances, at the end of life. Why? That’s a whole other complicated question. But I suppose if somebody were to say to me that — look, I read the newspaper, there are studies done periodically about whether or not there’s adequate pain medication at the end of life and the studies suggest, year after year, that no, we still don’t in general provide adequate pain medication. If you were to say to me, “In light of that I’ve got some fear that this may happen to me,” well, I’d understand that. Again, if you said to me, “I can’t sleep for fear that this is going to happen to me,” I’d want to say, well, that sort of fear strikes me as disproportionate.

But at any rate, I suppose that when people say that they’re afraid of death, although some of them, in some moments, might have in mind, what they mean is that they’re afraid of the process of dying, I take it that that’s not actually the central fear that people mean to be expressing. People mean to suggest that they’re afraid of death itself, they’re afraid ofbeing dead. And with regard to that, I want to suggest, I don’t actually think the relevant conditions are satisfied.

Look, let’s think about what they were again. There was a certain amount of uncertainty. Well, of course, with regard to being dead there’s no uncertainty at all. You’re guaranteed that you’re going to die. And indeed, condition number one, that the bad thing — for fear to make sense the object of my fear has to be a bad thing. Well, let’s ask ourselves, is being dead intrinsically a bad thing? It doesn’t seem to me that it is.

Of course, this all presupposes the positions about the nature of death that I argued for in the first half of this semester. There’s nothing mysterious or unknown about death. Look, suppose you thought there was. Suppose you believe in the afterlife, or at least the possibility of an afterlife, and you’re worried that you might go to hell. Well, then fear makes some sense. If there’s a possibility, nonnegligible in your mind, that there’ll be a painful experience after you die — not guaranteed — if you’re a bad enough sinner so that you’re certain you’re going to hell, then again I think condition number three isn’t satisfied. But if like most of us you wouldn’t know if you were a bad enough sinner or not, and so there’s some nonnegligible chance of this bad thing, without certainly, well, somebody like that who says they’re afraid of being dead, for fear that they might find themselves in hell, at least I understand that.

But on the physicalist picture where death is the end, where when your body decays there’s no experience at all, then it seems to me that the first condition on fear isn’t satisfied. The badness of death after all, according to the deprivation account, is the mere absence of a good. And it seems to me the mere absence of a good is not the right kind of thing to be afraid of. Suppose I give you an ice cream cone, and you like it. You wish you could have a second ice cream cone. But I don’t have a second ice cream cone to share with you. So you know that after the first ice cream cone is over, you won’t have a second ice cream cone. That’s a pity, that’s a lack of something good. And now you’re telling me, “I’m afraid; I’m afraid of the fact that there will be this period after the first ice cream cone is done in which I’m not getting a second ice cream cone. I’m afraid because of the badness of deprivation of ice cream.” I say to you, deprivations per se are not the kind of thing to be afraid of; they’re not bad in the right kind of way.

So, if death is bad only or most centrally insofar as it’s a deprivation of the good things in life, there’s nothing bad there to be afraid of. Well, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything here in the neighborhood. After all, we have to worry not just about the fact that we’re going to die, we have to worry about when we’re going to die. We might be certain that death is going to come, but we’re not certain that death is going to come a long time from now, as opposed to soon. So, perhaps the relevant thing to be afraid of is the possibility that you’ll die soon.

Consider an analogy. Suppose that you’re at a party, it’s a great party, you wish you could stay and stay and stay, but this is taking place back in high school, and what’s going to happen is your mother is going to call at a certain point and tell you it’s time to go home. Now, let’s just imagine there’s nothing bad about being at home; it’s neutral. You just wish you could stay but you know you can’t. If you know the call is going to come at midnight, guaranteed, then there’s nothing to be afraid of. You might resent the fact that your mother is going to call you at midnight, be annoyed at the fact that she won’t let you stay out till one o’clock like your other friends, but there’s nothing to be afraid of. There, it’s 11 o’clock and you’re saying, “I’m terrified of the fact that the call’s going to come at midnight; I know it’s going to come.” See, fear there doesn’t make sense, because it doesn’t have the relevant degree of uncertainty. You know exactly what’s coming and you know for a certainty that it’s coming; fear isn’t appropriate.

Well, suppose instead of what happens is a guarantee that your mother’s going to call at midnight, what we’ve got is your mother’s going to call sometime between 11 and 1. Now, some fear makes sense. Most of the time she calls around 12, 12:30; sometimes she calls at 1 for parties; occasionally she calls at 11. You’re worried now, there’s a nonnegligible chance she’ll call at 11 rather than sometime later, 12 or 1 o’clock. There’s a bad thing, some nonnegligible chance, and the absence of certainty. Now some degree of fear makes sense. And perhaps that’s what we’ve got with regard to death. If so, we might say the crucial ingredient here, by virtue of which death is something that it’s appropriate for us to be afraid of is because of the unpredictability.

Even if we had variability we might not have unpredictability. That’s a point that we touched upon previously. It’s the unpredictability that leaves you in a position of not knowing whether death will come soon, or death will come late. Will you die at 20, will you die at 50, will you die at 80, or will you die at 100? It seems to me that if it weren’t for the unpredictability, fear of death wouldn’t make any sense at all. Given that we do have unpredictability, some fear of death might make sense; although again it’s important to be clear about what it is that it makes sense to be afraid of. It’s not being dead per se. I remain of the opinion that being dead per se is not the sort of thing it makes sense to be afraid of, once you’ve concluded that death is the end. The only thing that it might make some sense to be afraid of is that you might die too soon — earlier rather than later.

Of course, having noted that point, we then have to ask, well how much fear is appropriate? How great is the chance that you’ll die too soon? Your fear needs to be proportioned to the likelihood. How likely is it that you will die in the next year, or five years, or for that matter 10 or 20 years? The fact of the matter is for most of you, almost all of you, the chances are very unlikely indeed; not quite negligible, but rather small. For a healthy 20-year-old, for example, the chances of dying in the next five or ten years are extremely small, in which case even if some slight fear might be called for, no significant amount of fear seems called for. So, if somebody were to say to me, “look, the facts about death are so overwhelming that I’m terrified of death,” all I can say in response is not, that I don’t believe you, but for all that it seems to me terror of death is not an appropriate response. It doesn’t make sense given the facts.

Chapter 5. Anger as Another Emotional Reaction to Death [00:34:29]

Now, having said that, that doesn’t mean that there may not be some other emotion, some other negative emotion that is appropriate. Fear of death strikes me as, for the most part, overblown; it’s widespread, I suppose, but for the most part inappropriate. But that doesn’t mean that — As I suggested before in working through some of these examples, sometimes anger makes sense; sometimes resentment makes sense; sorrow, regret, sadness, that may make sense. So, in having argued that for the most part fear of death does not make sense, I haven’t yet given us any reason to think that there might not be other emotions, negative emotions, that do make sense. So let’s ask. What about some of those other possible emotions?

What negative emotion, if any, does it make sense to feel about death itself, the fact that you’re going to die? Well, of course, look, it’s also worth bearing in mind, since I’ve argued that immortality would be bad, the fact that you will die is not actually bad. It’s good because it saves you from the unpleasant aspect of an eternal, dreary, dreadful immortal existence. Still, we might say, most of us, almost all of us, die too soon. So, what about that? We die before life has yielded up all the goods that it could have given us. So what is the appropriate negative emotional response here? Or is there one?

I suppose the natural second suggestion is anger. You might say, look, maybe fear isn’t right, isn’t appropriate, but anger. I’m angry. I want to shake my fist at the universe and curse the universe for giving me only 50 years or 70 years or 80 years even 100 years, when the world is such a rich, incredibly fantastic place that it would take thousands of years or longer to exhaust what it has to offer. So, isn’t anger an appropriate response?

And again, I think the answer is not so clear that it is, because, like all the other emotions, anger itself has appropriateness conditions. In order for anger to make sense, well, here’s condition number one. It seems to me it’s got to be directed at a person, it’s got to be directed at an agent, it’s got to be directed at some thing that had some choice over what it was doing to you. So, when your roommate, whatever it is, spills coffee on your computer, destroying the hard drive or whatever it is, because they were careless, even though you told them previously to be more careful, anger makes sense. It’s directed at your roommate, who’s a person, who had some control over what they were doing. Your roommate’s an agent. If you want to get angry at me for the grades that you receive in this class, well, at least condition number one makes sense; you’re directing your anger at an agent, at an individual person who has some control over how I behave, how they behave.

Condition number two, I suppose — this may not be all the conditions, but at least a second one is — anger makes sense when, and only when, the agent has wronged you, has treated you in a way that it was morally inappropriate for them to teat you. If your roommate has been doing things that you don’t like, but they haven’t done anything wrong, anger doesn’t make sense. When you are angry at them, you are revealing the fact that you think they’ve mistreated you. Mistreatment requires the notion of they’ve behaved toward you in a way that morally they shouldn’t. All right, these strike me as two conditions that need to be in place in order for anger to be an appropriate emotional response.

Of course, again, we no doubt feel anger in other cases, although typically when we’re angry at inanimate objects it’s because we’ve personified them. Your paper is due, you’re rushing off to class, you’re about to print it out, and your computer crashes, and you get angry at the computer. Well, what’s going on there, I suppose, is you’ve personified the computer. You have fallen into the trap, understandable, natural, of viewing the computer as though it was a person who had deliberately chosen to fail right now, letting you down yet again. And I understand this sort of behavior; I do this sort of thing as well. But of course you can step back. At least, once your anger has subsided, you can step back and say, look, getting angry at your computer doesn’t really make sense, because your computer is not a person; your computer is not an agent; your computer didn’t have any choice or control.

Suppose that — take those two conditions and now ask ourselves, does it make sense then to be angry at the fact that we’re going to die? And I suppose the answer is going to be, well, look, who is it, or what is it that you think is the cause of our mortality, or the fact that we only get our 50 or 80 years? Here’s two crude, basic alternatives. You might believe in God, a kind of classic, theistic, conception of God, according to which God is a person who makes decisions about what to do. And God has condemned us to death. That’s what happens in Genesis, God punishes Adam and Eve by making them die. All right, that’s picture number one. Picture number two is you just think there’s this impersonal universe, atoms swirling in the void, coming together in various combinations, but there’s no person behind the scene controlling all of it.

Let’s consider the two possibilities. Possibility number one, God. Well, look, if you’ve got the God view, at least we satisfy the first of our appropriateness conditions. We can say, look; we can say, I’m angry at God for condemning us to a life that’s short, that’s so inadequate, relative to the riches that the world offers us. That’s condition number one. But what about condition number two? Condition number two, after all, requires that God has mistreated us in giving us our 50 or 80 or 100 years. And is that the case? Has God wronged us? Has God treated us in some way that isn’t morally justified? If not, anger at God, resentment of God, wouldn’t make sense.

Suppose your roommate comes into the suite and has a box of candy, and he gives you a piece of candy, and you enjoy it. And he gives you a second piece of candy and you enjoy it. And he gives you a third piece of candy and you enjoy it. And you ask for a fourth piece of candy, and he won’t give it you. Has he wronged you? Has he treated you immorally? Does he owe you more candy? It’s not clear that he or she does. But if not, then being angry — again, I would certainly understand it if you got angry, in the sense that it’s a perfectly common enough response. But is anger an appropriateresponse to your roommate for giving you something, and then not giving you more? It’s not clear that it is an appropriate response. The appropriate response actually seems to me to be, not one of anger, but gratitude. Your roommate didn’t owe you any candy at all, and they gave you four pieces, or whatever it was, the number just was. You might wish you could have more, you might be sad that you can’t have more, but anger doesn’t seem appropriate. God doesn’t, as far as I can see, owe it to us to give us more life than what we get.

Well, suppose we don’t believe in the God theory but the universe theory. Well then, of course ,even condition number one isn’t satisfied. The universe is not a person, is not an agent, has no choice and control. And as such, again, it just seems to me that anger then — I can lift my fist and curse the universe; of course, what I’m doing then is, I’m personifying the universe, treating the universe as though it was a person that deliberately decided to make us die too soon. But however common that response might be, it makes no sense rationally if the universe is not a person. It’s just atoms swirling, forming various kinds of combinations. Anger at the fact that I’m going to die, or die too soon, doesn’t make sense either.

Chapter 6. Sorrow and Preciousness: Other Emotions on Death and Conclusion [00:44:49]

Well, what about sorrow? Maybe I should just be sad at the fact that I’m going to die too soon. And I think some emotion along that line does make sense. The world’s a wonderful place. It would be better to have more of it. I’m sad that I don’t get more, that I’m not going to get more.

But having had that thought, I immediately find myself with another thought. Although it’s a pity I don’t get more, I’m extremely lucky to have gotten as much as I get. The universe is just this swirling mass of atoms, forming clumps of various kinds of things, and dissolving. Most of those atoms don’t get to be alive at all. Most of those atoms don’t get to be a person, falling in love, seeing sunsets, eating ice cream. It’s extraordinarily lucky of us to be in this select, fortunate few.

Let me close then with an expression of this thought. This is from Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Cat’s Cradle. This is a kind of prayer that one of the characters in the novel says — is supposed to say — at the deathbed.

God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up.”
“See all I’ve made,” said God. “The hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.”
And I, with some of the mud, had got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going God!
Nobody but you could have done it God! I certainly couldn’t have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and look around.
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw [Vonnegut 1963].

It seems to me that the right emotional response isn’t fear, it isn’t anger, it’s gratitude that we’re able to be alive at all.

[end of transcript]


Vonnegut, Kurt. 1963. Cat’s Cradle.

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