Death, Afterlife, Justice and Value
Interview by Richard Marshall.
‘At no point in their theory do utilitarians rely on an independent notion of justice or fairness. They are concerned solely with the maximization of value. Non-consequentialists are the only people who treat justice as a fundamental moral concept. Since justice is a fundamental moral concept, the question should be: how do we (any of us) accommodate ideas of justice, and especially ideas about the justice of basic social, political, and economic institutions, within an overall outlook that is also sensitive to a variety of other moral values and principles, including values and principles that apply to small-scale personal relationships?‘
‘ Our actual lives, including our values, our social relations, our self-conceptions, and many of our concepts, are pervasively shaped both by the knowledge and by the fact that we will someday die — that we are subject to extreme temporal scarcity. There is no reason to think that, if we were immortal, the same things would continue to matter to us. We have little or no idea what, if anything, would matter to immortal beings, or even how such beings would think of themselves. Indeed, much of the pressure to form values at all derives from our awareness of temporal scarcity, for the fact that we have such a short amount of time to live forces us to consider what is worth doing with our time.‘
Samuel Scheffler works mainly in the areas of moral and political philosophy.He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has been a recipient of Guggenheim and NEH Fellowships. He serves as an Advisory Editor of Philosophy and Public Affairs, and has been a Visiting Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. Here, despite an idiot interviewer, he discusses what it is for someone to value something, the impartiality and credibility of morality, anti-consequentialism, the problem of justice for utilitarianism, the importance of basic structure and why, amongst other things, it doesn’t give a green light to Gordon Gekko’s ‘greed is good’. He then goes on to discuss cultural diversity and tradition, tolerance, liberalism, death and afterlife,what brings value to our lives and the issues of immortality. This is fundamental…
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Samuel Scheffler: My father was a philosopher, and although he rarely discussed philosophy with me when I was growing up, he exerted a formative influence on my cast of mind and habits of thought, and he made philosophy as a field salient to me in a way that it isn’t for most children. Still, I had no thought of pursuing academic work in philosophy when I began my undergraduate studies at Harvard in 1969. The course that first piqued my interest in the subject was not an official philosophy course but rather a political theory course taught by Michael Walzer in the Government Department. Walzer was a wonderful teacher, and I’ve always thought that it was a great loss for students when he moved to the Institute for Advanced Study. After taking his course, I was eager to explore related issues, and that led me to enroll in an Ethics course taught by Roderick Firth in the Philosophy Department. Before long I decided that I was, on the whole, more interested in the questions that were discussed in the Philosophy Department than in the questions that were discussed in the Government Department, and I eventually ended up as a philosophy major. So that’s how I came to study philosophy as an academic subject. But if you are asking me to explain why I’ve chosen to spend my life as a philosopher, I guess all I can say is that philosophical questions and modes of thought just seem natural to me. They mesh with the way my mind works.
3:AM: Let’s begin with your work on value and valuing. Is it your view that value is a brute thing – something that can’t be reduced to something else – and is best understood as a syndrome of dispositions and attitudes? Can you say something about why you argue for this position, what this rules out and why it’s important that it does rule out those things?
SS: No, that’s not my view.
3:AM: Ha, I knew I should have kept quiet. So what’s your view?
SS: I have not tried to say what value is or what it is for something to have value. What I have addressed is the related but somewhat less frequently-discussed question of what it is for someone to value something. It is valuing (rather than value) that, in my view, comprises a syndrome of dispositions and attitudes. These dispositions and attitudes include a belief that the valued item is valuable, a susceptibility to experience a variety of context-dependent emotions with respect to that item, and a disposition to treat certain considerations related to the item as providing pro tanto reasons for action in relevant deliberative contexts. This rules out a variety of proposals according to which valuing is simply a kind of desiring or believing, but it is compatible with a range of views about what is for something actually to be valuable.
I was first led to think about the nature of valuing when I was considering the question of whether (and when) close personal relationships give rise to “special obligations.” In that context, I found myself making claims about what it is for a person to value such a relationship, and I wanted to understand better what exactly I was claiming. I have since come to believe that a proper understanding of valuing has implications for a wide range of normative issues, including, for example, questions about partiality in ethics, about cosmopolitanism and global justice, and about our reasons for concerning ourselves with the fate of future generations.
3:AM: If morality is supposed to be impartial but much of the behavior that we exhibit is personal and therefore partial, how can morality be credible without containing a contradictory tension?
SS: Morality is a normative phenomenon, and so it’s only to be expected that there will be a gap of some kind between its requirements and our behavior. The mere existence of such a gap does not undermine the credibility of morality. It all depends on the nature of the gap and the reasons for it. And whether the impartiality of morality renders it incredible depends on how one interprets the kind of impartiality that morality “is supposed to” exhibit. If the impartiality of morality were taken to mean, for example, that parents should never devote more attention to their own children than they devote to other children, then that would indeed make morality seem incredible. But if morality says instead that all parents have special duties to their own children that they do not have to other children, then it is impartial in the sense that it assigns the same duty to all parents no matter who they are, but it does not seem incredible. So, again, a lot depends on how one interprets the impartiality of morality.
Notice, though, that even the second conception of parental duty is normative and that some people will fail to satisfy it. They will neglect their parental duties. But this kind of gap or tension between moral requirements and actual behavior does not seem to be a problem of the same kind for morality. It does not make morality seem incredible. Yet it does leave us with a question, and that is the question of the relation between morality and self-interest or, alternatively, between morality and the good life. Some people think that in order to lead a morally decent life one may sometimes have to forego the possibility of having a good life oneself. Even if that is true, it does not render morality incredible, but it does raise a question about morality’s authority: about what one has most reason to do when one is faced with a conflict of this kind.
3:AM: This fine tuning of morality so that it can account for partiality in certain circumstances leads you to – or arises out of – your anti-consequentialism doesn’t it? Can you say how these issues make consequentialism untenable?
SS: I believe that participation in a valuable personal relationship is a source of distinctive reasons for action, and that these reasons bear directly on the rightness or wrongness of what one does. Much the same is true of one’s valuable personal projects and one’s valuable relations of group membership. Any credible morality must accommodate these types of reasonable partiality. This is not a question of fine-tuning morality, as if morality were basically fixed independently of these factors and then we (who?) made some minor adjustments to accommodate them.
In my view, morality is addressed from the outset to human beings as valuing creatures who have reasons arising from the valuable attachments that they form. My conviction that these “reasons of partiality” have direct moral significance is one of the beliefs that is constitutive of my anti-consequentialism. Consequentialists do not, of course, deny that participation in personal relationships and engagement with personal projects can be valuable, but they do not see such participation and engagement as giving rise to reasons for action that bear directly on the rightness or wrongness of what one does. For them, the extent to which it is permissible to pursue one’s projects or devote time and attention to the people one loves is entirely dependent on the extent to which doing so will maximize overall value from an impersonal standpoint. That, to me, is sufficient to make consequentialism untenable.
3:AM: A criticism of some moral philosophy – and perhaps of the position that you’ve just been discussing where the scope is about small-scale personal relationships and avoiding harm – is that it doesn’t accommodate big-scale issues like justice. These are deeply felt values, so how do you propose we accommodate them within your non-consequentialist ethical position?
SS: Your question seems to suggest that the issue of how to accommodate justice within one’s overall moral outlook is a problem for non-consequentialists alone. And in a way that’s right, but only because justice is not a concept that plays a fundamental role in consequentialist thought at all. We can, if we like, treat utilitarianism (for example) as a candidate theory of justice, as Rawls did in A Theory of Justice, but this is in one respect misleading. Utilitarianism offers us a theory of right action, but it is not a theory that even mentions, let alone uses, the concept of justice. At no point in their theory do utilitarians rely on an independent notion of justice or fairness. They are concerned solely with the maximization of value. Non-consequentialists are the only people who treat justice as a fundamental moral concept.
Since justice is a fundamental moral concept, the question should be: how do we (any of us) accommodate ideas of justice, and especially ideas about the justice of basic social, political, and economic institutions, within an overall outlook that is also sensitive to a variety of other moral values and principles, including values and principles that apply to small-scale personal relationships? That is a pressing and difficult question. One of the attractions of Rawls’s theory is that it suggests a kind of division-of-labor answer to the question. The idea is that there are sui generis principles of justice that apply to the basic institutional structure of society. If a society’s basic structure satisfies those principles, then individuals in the society may appropriately and without qualms be guided by the many different values and principles that apply to them, including principles governing the conduct of their personal relationships. Of course, individuals have duties to support and sustain just institutions, according to this view, but they have duties of other kinds as well.
3:AM: G.A. Cohen wondered just how basic Rawls’s ‘Basic structure’ (society’s major social, political and economic institutions) really is? How do you answer his challenge, because you do see the basic structure as important don’t you?
SS: Yes, I do see the basic structure as important. Like Rawls, I believe that the basic institutional structure of a society establishes the society’s cooperative framework, and that unless the framework is fair the society cannot be just. Cohen pressed the question of what exactly is included within the basic structure. More specifically, he asked whether the basic structure is limited to coercive institutions or whether it also includes practices that are constituted by patterns of un-coerced individual behavior. He then posed what he took to be a fatal dilemma for Rawls. On the one hand, there is no justification for limiting the basic structure to coercive institutions alone, because the effects of some un-coerced patterns of behavior are just as significant. On the other hand, the inclusion of non-coercive practices within the basic structure would undermine the Rawlsian focus on the basic structure because it would undermine the very distinction between institutional structure and individual behavior. In neither case, Cohen maintained, is there any justification for Rawls’s emphasis on the basic structure as the primary subject of justice.
I agree that Rawls isn’t always clear about what exactly is included in the basic structure. But I don’t agree that the supposed dilemma is damaging. On the one hand, there is at least a prima facie justification for limiting the basic structure to coercive institutions (they’re coercive!) On the other hand, the inclusion of important non-coercive practices within the basic structure would not eradicate the distinction between the basic structure and individual conduct, since even this more inclusive basic structure would not comprise all or only individual conduct. So there would still be room for a distinction between the (inclusive) basic structure and individual conduct that took place within the basic structure but did not belong to it. And there would continue to be reasons for thinking that the basic structure so understood is of special importance from the standpoint of justice.
3:AM: Why don’t you think that the basic structure has freed individuals from the duties of justice – wouldn’t Gordon Gekko say that because of this it’s ok to believe that ‘greed is good’ and the division of moral labour doesn’t end up facilitating a diversity of values?
SS: Rawls views the basic structure as the primary subject of justice because it has a distinctive social role. As I’ve said, the basic structure establishes the cooperative framework of society, and we need to know what it would take for that framework to be fair. The primary role of principles of justice is to tell us this. These principles apply directly to the basic structure alone. They do not constitute a comprehensive theory of right action that applies to all areas of individual conduct. In this respect, Rawls’s theory differs from utilitarianism, which does offer a comprehensive theory of right action that applies to individuals and institutions alike. For Rawls, by contrast, there are separate principles and duties that apply to individuals. These include but are not exhausted by duties to uphold just institutions. The point of emphasizing that the principles of justice apply distinctively to the basic structure is not to suggest that there are no moral principles that apply to individuals, so that they can simply do whatever they please. It is certainly not to say that greed is good or to provide a green light for Gordon Gekko. It is rather to say that the principles that apply to the basic structure do not displace or supersede the many other moral values and principles that should properly guide individual conduct.
Rawls also thinks that, in practice, the basic structure has an essential role to play in achieving economic justice. In developing this point, he contrasts his view not with utilitarianism but rather with libertarianism. The thought is that voluntary transactions among individuals are fair only when certain background conditions are met. And even if fair background conditions exist at a given moment, the cumulative effect of individual transactions over time will inevitably be to undermine those conditions, unless there are institutions that are specifically designed to preserve them. Only the basic structure can secure and sustain “background justice.” Doing this requires massive amounts of information and the ability to discern, and when necessary to counteract, the cumulative effects of the uncoordinated actions of millions of different agents. These are things that individuals cannot do on their own, no matter how well-intentioned or morally conscientious they are. The point, then, is not that individuals don’t need to worry about justice, or that they are free to be greedy because the basic structure will ensure justice all by itself. (Sorry, Gordon.) The point is rather that, even if individuals do worry about justice, they will be unable to achieve it unless the basic structure is doing its job properly. We cannot have a just society without a just basic structure, no matter how upright or conscientious we are as individuals.
So we can use the “division of labor” metaphor in two different ways, to characterize two different contrasts Rawls draws. In contrast to utilitarianism, he does not propose a single fundamental moral principle that applies to individuals and institutions alike. Instead, he endorses a “division of moral labor” between the moral principles that apply to the basic structure and the moral principles that apply to individuals. And in contrast to libertarianism, he does not think that a just society can be achieved solely through the conscientious adherence by individuals to the norms of conduct that apply to them. Instead, there must be a “division of institutional labor” between the basic structure, whose role it is to ensure background justice, and individuals, who must adhere to the norms that apply to them, including the norms established by the legal institutions that belong to the basic structure.
3:AM: Although you argue for normative diversity you don’t think cultural diversity offers normative diversity over and above moral, religious and philosophical diversity. This seems a subtle point – can you spell it out and say why it’s important? And why is tradition different in this respect from culture?
SS: One of the central concerns of liberal political theory is how to accommodate normative diversity among the members of society. By normative diversity I mean diversity with respect to the values and principles that people recognize. Normative diversity poses special challenges both in theory and in practice, and it can be the source of particularly intractable conflicts. The kind of normative diversity that liberal theorists were originally concerned with was religious diversity. But contemporary liberal philosophers broaden this to include normative convictions of a nonreligious character as well. So they speak of diversity with respect to people’s “conceptions of the good” or “comprehensive moral doctrines.” The generalization is appropriate because both morality and religion are explicitly justificatory structures; they are systems of norms and values that provide guidance about how to live. And they are perceived by their adherents as sources of normative authority. In other words, people take themselves to have moral or religious reasons for doing certain things, and in describing those reasons as moral or religious they take themselves to be characterizing the source or authority of the reasons. So if the concern is to accommodate normative diversity and disagreement, it makes sense to broaden the focus to include not only religious diversity but also diversity with respect to “conceptions of the good” or “comprehensive moral doctrines”.
By contrast, ‘culture’ is a descriptive, ethnographic category, not a normative one. To characterize something as a cultural norm or value is generally not to characterize the source of its perceived normative authority but simply to say that it is a norm or value accepted by some group of people. To be sure, certain values and principles may be widely accepted within a culture, but then any reasons they supply will normally derive from their status as values and principles rather from their acceptance within the culture. For example, I am an American, and widespread individual gun ownership is a feature of American culture, but that fact does not give me or anyone else a “cultural reason” to own guns or to endorse individual gun ownership, nor do people who (unlike me) believe in individual gun ownership typically think otherwise. They do not think that the freedom to own guns is important because it’s a feature of American culture; they think instead that it is a virtue of American culture that it recognizes a form of freedom that (in their view) is an important political and personal value. Contrast this with the case of religiously-based opposition to abortion. When people oppose abortion for (what they see as) religious reasons, they are treating religious values or teachings or principles as having a distinctive kind of normative authority. But culture is not a distinctive source of perceived normative authority in the way that morality and religion are.
This point is important because ideas of multiculturalism and cultural diversity have become very influential, and there is a temptation to think that the concern to accommodate cultural diversity is simply a further generalization of the familiar liberal concern with moral and religious diversity. But while it is certainly important to accommodate cultural diversity, we are likely to be led astray in thinking about how to do that if we conceptualize cultural diversity as simply another form of normative diversity.
The case of tradition is interestingly different from the case of culture. Many people do recognize reasons whose force they ascribe to the authority of some tradition. In my paper on “The Normativity of Tradition” I argued that this need not be a mistake. The actual existence of a tradition as a collaborative enterprise extending over multiple generations can provide people who subscribe to the tradition with reasons for action over and above the reasons that derive from the abstract values and principles endorsed by the tradition.
3:AM: Once we’ve established the need for normative diversity the issue then becomes how we manage or accommodate it. Tolerance seems to be the key, but tolerance brings with it its own problems doesn’t it. As you point out, there’s a paradox lurking around the notion of tolerance – it seems to require us to concede normative authority to values we reject. So given that justification looks like a tricky problem, is tolerance in itself important and how does answering this question link mutual deference to relations of fraternity and solidarity?
SS: Yes, many people have found tolerance to be a paradoxical value, and not only for the reason you mention. Yet tolerance is an essential value in the modern world, and we have daily reminders of how awful the alternatives to it are. And despite its paradoxical flavor, there are many good arguments – moral, prudential, and epistemic – in favor of tolerance, and none that I know of against it. Certainly any argument in favor of liberalism, with its commitment to freedom of thought, expression, religion, and association — is automatically an argument in favor of tolerance. What is more difficult is to figure out where the limits of tolerance lie, and how we can distinguish in a principled way between cases in which things of which we disapprove should nevertheless be tolerated and cases in which they shouldn’t.
Yet it is possible to accept that toleration is justified but still to regard it as a purely prophylactic value: a value that is concerned primarily with managing disapproval and disagreement and preventing the violence and conflict to which they can lead. So understood, what toleration seems to require of us is a kind of grudging forbearance. It can therefore come as a surprise that, rather than thinking of it in this way, people who live under a regime of toleration often come to value it for its own sake. In other words, they find that the kind of life and the kinds of social relationship that are characteristic of a tolerant society can be intrinsically rewarding. One question that has interested me – it is the question I addressed in my article on “The Good of Toleration” – is why exactly this is so? Since it is difficult to explain if one thinks of tolerance as a purely prophylactic value, I think we must be missing something if we think of tolerance that way.
The key to a better explanation, I believe, lies in something you said, namely, that tolerance requires a kind of mutual deference. Under a regime of toleration, in other words, each of us must treat reasons that are rooted in the values that other people accept as providing us with reasons for action. Of course, these reasons won’t normally be the same as the reasons that the adherents of those other values recognize. The adherents recognize first-order reasons to realize or live up to their values. Non-adherents, by contrast, have second-order reasons to accommodate (some of) the value-based actions of the adherents. Still, the fact remains that non-adherents are expected to recognize reasons whose content derives, however indirectly, from the values of the adherents. This amounts to a kind of deference to the values and reasons of others. And, of course, since each of us is an adherent with respect to some values and a non-adherent with respect to others, the kind of deference that a regime of toleration requires is mutual deference on the part of all of a society’s members.
As you noted, this can seem paradoxical: how can we have reasons that derive from values we reject? As a psychological matter, it can also seem threatening: it may seem like a threat to my identity or my integrity if I am asked to recognize reasons deriving from values that are deeply opposed to my own. Yet despite this, people sometimes experience participation in a practice of mutual deference as rewarding. Such a practice can facilitate the development of forms of fraternity and solidarity that are distinctive of a tolerant society. How is this possible? It helps to begin by thinking about the forms of fraternity and solidarity that often develop among people who are subject to a common authority: among siblings (as the very word ‘fraternity’ reminds us), or members of a military unit, or co-workers. The experience of being subject to a common authority is a familiar source of deep ties of solidarity. Now those who subscribe to different values and norms are not thereby subject to a common authority. But in requiring mutual deference to one another’s values, a regime of toleration encourages us to recognize that all of us are subject to the idea of normative authority.
That is, we are all seeking to live up to normative standards that we recognize, even if we don’t all recognize the same standards. This is something basic that we have in common despite our differences. And by enforcing a practice of mutual deference, a regime of toleration gives concrete social expression to this insight. It gives concrete expression to the idea of an otherwise diverse society whose members are united by the common, utterly human experience of confronting and struggling with the normative and evaluative dimensions of human life. A regime of toleration demands that we relate to one another in a way that acknowledges this bond. And it turns out that, when we do that, many of us experience it as rewarding in its own right. We experience a distinctive kind of solidarity with others. So although the practice of toleration may initially be justified and implemented on other grounds, it gradually comes to be seen by many participants as valuable in its own right. There is nothing automatic about this, of course, and many things can interfere with it. Still, it is a stroke of good luck that, in seeking to prevent violent sectarian conflict, liberal societies have devised political arrangements that also make possible their own intrinsic rewards: the rewards, if you like, of openness to the other.
3:AM: All this is argued within a liberal framework. Are you still optimistic about the ability of liberalism to deal with what seem like increasing deadly conflicts and intolerance?
SS: I am optimistic about the capacity of liberalism as a system of thought to provide a justification of tolerance and to describe institutional practices and arrangements that would, under favorable conditions, help to realize the value of tolerance. But I am much less optimistic about the chances that actual societies, including the ones we think of as liberal societies, will succeed in overcoming once and for all the strong and varied pressures toward intolerance that exist all around us. There are, broadly speaking, two reasons for pessimism. The first is that even the best liberal societies realize liberal values and principles only very imperfectly. The second is that the structures of toleration are inherently fragile and highly vulnerable to damage and disruption. Although, as I’ve said, many people find living under a regime of toleration to be intrinsically rewarding, the fact remains that such a regime demands of us that we accept and treat as equal partners people whose practices and beliefs we may despise. It takes a long time to develop the institutions that encourage and support such acceptance and to nourish a collective disposition toward tolerance within a society. A commitment to tolerance is a social achievement, which is always provisional and must be renewed from generation to generation. There are many factors that can weaken or undermine it. In our time, the structures and practices of toleration in western societies are under serious threat, owing to a dangerous combination of staggering inequality, widespread economic insecurity, strong migration pressure, ongoing global conflict, and the shameful willingness of some politicians and government officials to encourage tendencies toward intolerance for their own advantage. Preserving and extending our commitment to toleration will require hard work and determined effort on the part of all of us.
3:AM: Your Tanner lectures on the afterlife bring further focus to the question of what brings value to our lives. Harry Frankfurt is impressed that by asking the question about what role in our lives is played by an assumption of a collective afterlife you have ‘effectively opened up a new and promising field of philosophical enquiry. Not bad going, in a discipline to which many of the best minds have already devoted themselves for close to three thousand years.’ So what do you mean by the term ‘collective afterlife’ and why do the doomsday and infertility scenarios strike you as being so disturbing and help illustrate the importance of this notion of the afterlife?
SS: Most of us assume that other people will live on after we ourselves have died. In this sense, we believe in a ‘collective afterlife’. I think that this belief plays an important and insufficiently appreciated role in our lives. The point of the imaginative thought experiments to which you refer is to bring this out. The basic idea is to consider how we would react if we thought that human beings were about to become extinct. My conjecture is that most of us would regard this as a great catastrophe, even if it would not involve our own premature death or the premature deaths of any of our loved ones. In the “infertility scenario,” for example, the imminent extinction of the human race is simply the result of universal infertility rather than, say, a nuclear holocaust or a collision with a heavenly body.
When I say that most of us would regard humanity’s imminent disappearance as a catastrophe, I mean in part that we would find it emotionally devastating. But I also mean that it would erode our capacity to find value in our activities. Many of the activities that we had previously regarded as valuable would seem much less worth engaging in, and some would seem completely pointless. If I am right, this tells us something important about ourselves, namely, that our capacity to find value in our activities depends, to an extent that we may not have recognized, on a tacit assumption that life will go on long after we ourselves have died.
Now some people reply to this by saying that the question of how we would respond to humanity’s imminent disappearance is not what’s philosophically interesting. The philosophically interesting question is the normative question of how we should respond. The mere fact that people’s ability to find value in their activities would be eroded has no normative significance. After all, people who are depressed are often unable to find value in their activities, but that doesn’t mean that the activities in question have actually become less valuable. Similarly, to someone who suffers a trauma like the loss of a loved one, it may seem that nothing is worth doing anymore. But although this is understandable, it tells us nothing about the actual value of the person’s activities and is of no particular philosophical significance.
I think this is a mistake. The fact (if it is a fact) that many people would respond in the ways I describe to the imminent extinction of humanity is philosophically significant. It teaches us things about ourselves and the character of our concerns that are too easily overlooked. For example, it teaches us that we may care more about the fate of future generations than we realize. And this is an important fact about us. One function of philosophy is to help us understand ourselves better. Notice that there is in one respect a disanalogy between our reactions to humanity’s imminent extinction and the reaction of someone who has suffered the traumatic loss of a loved one. We already know that people care deeply about their loved ones, so the difficulty a grief-stricken person may have in finding value in his or her activities is not a surprise and doesn’t teach us anything new about ourselves. But many people don’t recognize how much the future of humanity matters to us, and so we actually learn something about ourselves and our values from our reactions to the doomsday and infertility scenarios. One function of these thought experiments is to hold an evaluative mirror up to ourselves, and in this case we may be surprised by what we see.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the normative question isn’t philosophically significant. If it is true that many of our activities would seem to us less valuable or less worth pursuing if humanity’s disappearance were imminent, it is important to ask whether we would be right about that, or whether, blinded by grief and depression, we would simply be making a kind of understandable mistake. My own view is that, in a wide range of cases, our reactions would be justified, and that we would not be making an evaluative mistake. If this is right, then not only does our capacity to find value in our activities depend on a tacit assumption that life will continue after we have died, but the actual value of many of our activities depends on humanity’s having a future. I said some things in defense of that position in Death and the Afterlife, and I extend the argument in my current work on future generations.
3:AM: Do you think that people who want eternal life, or to never die, are confused and that values wouldn’t survive the radical new context such a scenario would create for them? Is your point that death makes values we have meaningful and we’d need new values if death went away? Or would values go away?
SS: I won’t try to say anything about eternal life, because Terry Eagleton has pointed out to me that ‘eternity’ as a theological concept differs in important ways from ‘immortality’ in the sense that I (and many other philosophers) employ that notion. So I will re-interpret your question as a question about the desire for immortality rather than the desire for eternal life, and what I will say is this. When we wish that we could live forever, as many of us do from time to time, often what we are wishing is that some version of the lives we are now leading could continue forever. But, sadly, I do think there is something confused about that wish. Our actual lives, including our values, our social relations, our self-conceptions, and many of our concepts, are pervasively shaped both by the knowledge and by the fact that we will someday die — that we are subject to extreme temporal scarcity. There is no reason to think that, if we were immortal, the same things would continue to matter to us. We have little or no idea what, if anything, would matter to immortal beings, or even how such beings would think of themselves. Indeed, much of the pressure to form values at all derives from our awareness of temporal scarcity, for the fact that we have such a short amount of time to live forces us to consider what is worth doing with our time. It is far from obvious what kind of value-concepts, if any, immortal beings would have. So the wish that life – our lives – could just go on forever is in certain basic ways confused and in principle unsatisfiable. But it is entirely understandable that we should have that wish, and it reflects what is itself one of our most basic values: namely, our love of life.
3:AM: Isn’t your position one that is threatened by a tension between continuation and ending – why isn’t this a problem?
SS: I take it that what you have in mind is this. I have identified two conditions that are necessary in order for us to lead lives of wholehearted engagement in valued activities and pursuits: first, that we as individuals should at some point die, and, second, that others should live on after we ourselves have died. So in order for us to lead “value-laden lives,” as I call them, something must end (one’s own individual existence) and something must continue (the existence of human beings other than oneself).
If this creates a tension, it is not one that poses a threat to my view. The fact that these two conditions must be met is just a fact about human experience and the nature of human value. What is true is that we don’t always recognize this fact or appreciate its significance. Many of us wish the first condition were not met, and we fail to realize the effect this would have on our ability to lead value-laden lives. At the same time, many of us fail to worry enough about the possibility that the second condition may cease to be met, and, again, we do not recognize the effect this would have on our ability to lead value-laden lives. The second failing is particularly unfortunate, because there are actually things we can do to mitigate the severe threats to human existence posed by, for example, climate change and nuclear proliferation.
3:AM: And finally for readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?
SS: Bernard Williams liked to quote someone who said, in response to the question of which bad music he most enjoyed, “I find I can survive on a diet of masterpieces.” The books I am recommending are all masterpieces, and widely recognized as such. This means, I’m afraid, that, my recommendations are for the most part pretty unsurprising. (The one possible exception is the book by Williams himself, which is less often discussed by philosophers than some of his other justly influential works.)
Incidentally, I am taking the liberty of assuming that, when you ask for five books, you mean approximately five rather than precisely five. Even so, I’ve had to limit myself to contemporary works in order to keep the number down. So here (alphabetically by author’s last name) are the seven books on my list of five.
Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere
Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 15th, 2016.