Thursday, 3 February 2011

Thoughts About Death


Here's a quote by author Sam Harris, taken from this article:

A world in which global health is maximized would be an objective reality, quite distinct from a world in which we all die early and in agony.

Harris is discussing ethics, and he's trying to use an extreme-case scenario to drive us to a moral conclusion - that a world where we live longer is better than one where we die early and in agony. I don't think this is nearly as obvious as Harris would like to think. I'm not even sure it's true at all.


The 'obvious' argument is a tenet of a number of philosophers. Here's Thomas Nagel defending it, cited from that same article:

For example, a world in which everyone was maximally miserable would be worse than a world in which everyone was happy, and it would be wrong to try to move us toward the first world and away from the second. This is not true by definition, but it is obvious, just as it is obvious that elephants are larger than mice. If someone denied the truth of either of those propositions, we would have no reason to take him seriously...

I guess there's no reason to take me seriously, but I find this daft. Or at the very least, a case of false rhetoric. So much maturity and illumination is attained through sacrifice and pain, that imagining a 'happy' human being as a human being with no misery is a meaningless exercise. When you imagine 'maximal' misery, you stretch the concept of misery to such a point that it is no longer in touch with its original meaning (if any at all). Besides, it's equally vacuous to postulate a world where everyone is 'maximally miserable' when joy and misery are relative to other people - if everyone is maximally miserable, it's tantamount to saying that everyone is maximally happy. Formulating hypotheses which are not just unattainable but even inconceivable is not useful to clarify a discourse - and so much philosophy is based on precisely such hypothetical 'examples,' which take given real-world conditions and project them to extremes so as to test their 'universality,' that I usually lose interest quickly.

But then, much common sense is based on the same things. And one example of an 'obvious' truth is the claim that it's better to die old than young, in peace rather than in pain.


In the natural world, death in the animal kingdom is almost always violent. You could say that we are designed to end abruptly, rather than pine away and decay. As most everything else we do, our ways of dying are a violation of the natural order.


I don't know of any major culture which does not celebrate, with variations in colour, death on the battlefield. In most cases, it's even thought of as the best or the only way to die. The Vikings came to the point of vilifying death by natural causes. They told the story that if you didn't die in battle, then eventually an old lady would come in your tent at night and strangle you (this was meant to be the most abhorrent mode of death - unmanly, unnatural and unholy). I mention this only to say that dying 'of natural causes' (which, as we have seen, is not natural) has only recently become established in the popular imagination as the normal way of dying. The Vikings would have been revolted at Harris' *obvious* best-case-scenario for the death of men. And they're hardly alone. How many of our civilisations produced heroes who died young? Start from Achilles and count the bodies.


Though I'm trying to keep a discussion of gender at the margins of these meditations, the parallel comes to my mind of the young lady in love who dies - another particularly popular trope. I wonder if it relates to Achilles somehow. Manon Lescaut, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Lucinde, Nana, all the endless young ladies of Opera, all the femme fatales in Hollywood. There's just no end to them. This time the correlation is between love and dying young, rather than violence and dying young. Two forms of passion, I guess.


The problem with living longer lives is that the (perceived/expected) duration of your life determines the way you behave with it. That's why the equation longer life = better life is simply not tenable, even if we're talking about one same person. Knowing that you're bound to die at a comparatively young age may foster life-styles and philosophies which are less materialistic and more concentrated on enjoying the present moment. And you can eat, drink, smoke, play, fuck as much as you like, if that's your fancy. Our current culture encourages an attitude to death which is projective, and this of course has its downsides. Think about all the books you've read not for the pleasure of reading, but to build up your culture. Ours is the first civilisation which had to draw the distinction between pleasure-reading and, well, every other type of reading. Originally the two things were the same. Think about all the hours you've spent packed into a gym. Modern cultures are kind of religious even when they're at their most secular, in that they promise happiness as a postponed state, and they see the present as the labour-camp. (Ironically, they have reached this conclusion by negating the existence of an afterlife).


A few things I should clarify. Firstly, I'm not saying that the modern stance is 'bad' and that that of the Vikings is the better one. It's not like I'm bemoaning those dear old times when people died by the sword all the time. I'm not committing to either of the two teleologies, in fact. I only refuse to take either of them for granted. The thing about both of these philosophical paradigms is that it's impossible to determine which one makes us happier from our position. And this is because there is no 'natural' way of dying, but more on this later.


Secondly, I'm not commending violence, even indirectly, much less war. I have no interest in violence (at least not in the terms of this particular discussion).


The problem is that it's impossible to have a 'view' on death. You cannot 'speak' of death. You cannot have a philosophy to deal with it. Consider the cliché of stating that one is not afraid of death. It's a rhetorical turn of phrase utilised, amusingly, by both Christians and atheists, though they invoke opposite motivations (theists claim to have no fear because they know there's salvation after death, atheists say that their lack of faith in such a metaphysical immortality points precisely to their lack of fear of death). But it fails the test of experience - there's no reason to imagine that people staking such a claim would be any less terrified than anybody else if you pointed a loaded gun to their face (would you?). You cannot have a philosophy of death because it would always, necessarily, be a philosophy of life.


The only discussions of death which can be taken seriously must come from people who have risked their lives. If you defeated cancer, been involved in a military fire-fight or survived an airplane crash, *then* you can say something meaningful about it (assuming you're not mentally incapacitated by trauma).

To be continued in Part II tomorrow!

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