Death, prima facie, is a distressing prospect. The anxiety that it provokes upon reflection would seem to reveal unambiguous consequences; namely, that death – the secession of consciousness – is an evil, for it is difficult to reason why one would fear that which is good. That we harbor a strong attachment to life, moreover, seems to indicate that there are reasons for doing so; that is to say, there is something desirable about life itself, which can perhaps be parsed out as various aspirations. If this is the case, then life becomes the medium in which these aspirations are pursued, and death, it would seem to follow, prevents the continuation of a good thing. But this, and conclusions similar to this, are palliative at best – they address the apparent consequences of death but fail to penetrate the surface. In the course of this essay it will be illustrated that death, far from being the evil briefly described above, is not only a good thing, it is a necessary phenomenon for the appreciation of life. Death, that is to say, is a value.
It will be constructive to begin by describing the Epicurean argument as relayed by Lucretius, and since the conclusion of this argument is closely related to my own contention, it will be illustrative of what we will not be arguing. Lucretius claims that those among us who fear death are confusing the absence of consciousness with something akin to experiencing death; and moreover, that death, regardless of when it occurs, is never an evil. Thus, Lucretius respectively argues:
“Therefore when you see a man bemoaning his hard case, that after death he shall either rot with his body laid in the grave or be devoured by flames or the jaws of wild beasts, you may be sure that his ring betrays a flaw… though he himself declare[s] that he does not believe that any sense will remain to him after death. He does not methinks really grant the conclusion which he professes… but all unconsciously imagines something of self to survive. ”
“… you may complete as many generations as you please during your life; none the less however will that everlasting death await you; and for no less long a time will he be no more in being, who beginning with today has ended his life, than the man who has died many months and years ago.”
Bernard Williams addresses both of these arguments by drawing out their implications; namely, that to confuse death with a state in which one does not separate oneself fully from consciousness seems to imply that the possession of life is a good thing, and moreover, that since the possession of life is a good thing, a longer life is preferable to a shorter one. With regard to Lucretius’ first objection, Williams infers that by extending one’s consciousness into death, one is assigning value to the satisfaction of desires, and therefore the irrational fear is ascribed to imagining oneself as conscious yet incapable of satisfying further desires. Lucretius on the other hand merely objects to the extension of consciousness as an absurd misunderstanding about the nature of death, and to this extent we should grant Lucretius’ argument soundness. However, due to the underlying implication, Lucretius’ second argument falls apart. That is, if we extend consciousness into death because we inherently value the praemia vitae, then a longer life is more desirable than a shorter one. This can be illustrated best by evaluating extremes. If, for instance, we contrast an individual who dies very young – before they are afforded the opportunity to even generate desires – with an individual that achieved many desires over the course of a long life, it is difficult not to conclude that the latter individual’s life was better than the former’s. That is, if we quantify the “value” of a life by the duration and sum of praemia, then a longer and more satisfied life is better than a shorter and less satisfied life.
If this is true then we do not primarily object to death because we fear nothingness, rather we object to death because it prohibits us from satisfying our desires. To this extent Williams and another learned philosopher – Thomas Nagel – are of like mind. Curiously, however, the similarity between them ends there. That is, where Nagel concludes that death is “an abrupt cancellation of indefinitely extensive possible goods,” Williams concludes that this argument becomes untenable once an infinite amount of time is introduced into the equation. So, despite them both agreeing that death is an evil, Williams concludes that immortality is objectionable. And it is at this point that Williams’ distinction between conditional and categorical desires becomes useful.
A conditional desire is anything that is contingent, and nothing more, on someone being alive. These are, for the most part, trivial desires – the desire to drink coffee, eat ice cream, watch a television program and so on. They are not the kind of desires which provide one’s life with meaning, or the kind that supply one with a reason to live. Desires of the latter kind – those which supply one with a reason to live – are categorical. To be sure, these desires are subjective, meaning that desires which seem trivial to one person could be profoundly significant to another. Yet it still follows that maintaining just one of these categorical desires will motivate a person to continue living. Thus, when confronted with death, tthese categorical desires prevent the subject from giving up. Hence the reason that death is an evil in Williams’ eye: death is the end to such desires; the end to meaning; the end to purpose. And if meaning and purpose are good things, then death prematurely brings an end to all that is good for the individual.
Thus, it would seem to follow that immortality is a good thing, as Nagel concludes from similar deliberations. But immortality introduces a notion into the subject which fundamentally alters the landscape of the debate. Let us consider for a moment that subject A possesses one categorical desire – desire X. Let, then, phenomenon Y represent death, marked by time T1. In doing so we might imagine that subject A can avoid phenomenon Y, and thus enjoy desire X in perpetuity if T1 is simply changed to T∞. That is, if phenomenon Y merely never occurs, one would think that subject A has avoided the evil intrinsic within the said phenomenon. But there are two issues with this possible scenario.
First, in an infinite amount of time one might reasonably suppose that subject A’s interest in desire X would wane; or, perhaps, subject A would eventually achieve whatever the given desire is. In either case, subject A would need to adopt a new desire to fill the void of the first, otherwise an eternal life would become unimaginably disagreeable; for without a categorical desire, subject A would be stuck in an endless life bereft of meaning and purpose. Now this seems sensibly unproblematic. What is the problem, after all, with adopting new desires?
The problem issues from an inability to determine whether such desires would reflect subject A’s current character. The attractiveness, that is, of immortality lies with the prospect that subject A, as she currently identifies with herself, will live forever. But if her desires today are different from her desires of a distant future – as they surely will be, and not to an insignificant degree – we ought to expect that the accumulated experiences in between caused this shift, and how these experiences affect her future identity could be profoundly problematic for her current self. She could, for instance, develop future desires that are so antithetical to her current self that immortality would lose all of its appeal. Imagine, for instance, a proponent of egalitarianism developing into an anti-Semite. One might rightly assume that the former – the current self – would find this prospect abhorrent. Thus, this example illustrates the potential for immortality to evolve into an indefinite evil rather than an indefinite good. To be sure, at the point in which subject A becomes an anti-Semite, she would effectively be someone else, and these new desires would suit her just fine; but this possibility, which is implicit in the notion of immortality, ought to inspire a healthy dose of skepticism towards the assumption that it is good.
The second and more salient problem issues from a sort of concession to the first. That is, even if we grant that future desires will not affect one’s fundamental identity, or perhaps, even if we grant that changes in one’s identity are immaterial since similar changes occur in finite lives as well, then we still arrive at an issue of exhaustion. The exhaustion, that is, of possible categorical desires given an infinite amount of time. It would seem to follow that given an infinite amount of time, all that can be experienced will have been experienced, and when one arrives at such a point it will be as if nothing is experienced. Or, as Williams puts it, immortality would result in an indefinite state of boredom.
It is for the latter of these two problems that Williams primarily objects to immortality, stating: “There are good reasons, surely, for dying before that happens. But equally, at times earlier than that moment, there is reason for not dying. Necessarily, it tends to be either too early or too late.” Curiously, at this point Williams did not return to the earlier conclusion and reverse his judgment; specifically, reversing his position to judge death as a value. For it would appear that death is ultimately the answer, and consequently immortality is not. But perhaps he still judged death to be a disvalue, while also judging that death could serve as a value, thus rendering the contrasting judgments as a false dilemma. If this is the case, then death would be an evil until some unknowable point in time, right at the transition between having experienced everything and experiencing nothing new. This, however, is an intuitively unsatisfying solution to the problem.
And it is unsatisfying because it is incomplete. Throughout this entire discourse we have principally focused on Williams’ refutation of Lucretius and his objection to immortality. Insofar as these two particulars are concerned, Williams judged correctly, which ought to be evident by the above analysis. Yet, it is his judgment, or perhaps more accurately, his elusive final judgment on the nature of death that is palliative. That is to say, it is a solution to the problem which arises from an incomplete assessment, and therefore does not address the underlying issue. We must turn our attention, then, to the completion of this assessment.
Why, for instance, do our desires give rise to purpose? That we have desires is clear enough, and that certain of these desires give us purpose is granted, but why is this so? I suspect that the answer is related to the finitude intrinsic with death, which structures our appreciation when desires are satisfied. Ultimately, that is, the enjoyment of life manifests itself in the achievement of desires against the backdrop of constraint. Thus, it is by virtue of life’s logical compliment – death – that we are capable of appreciating the realization, and moreover, the pursuit of our desires.
This is closely related, but not entirely identical with Nussbaum’s elaboration of Williams’ argument; namely, that mortality is necessary to appreciate endurance. We value endurance because, in our experience, it is contrasted with constant change. The beauty of a sunset, for instance, is appreciated because it is contrasted with the night sky, cloudy days, and so on. These, too, find their own sort of beauty by the very qualities that set them apart from the aforementioned sunset. Counterintuitively, however, the endurance of some phenomenon is valued because experience has revealed it to be exceptional insofar as it is characteristically lasting. But its exceptional quality is not the only factor behind our value judgment, as our antagonist might claim with an intent on representing immortality as the exemplification of endurance. Indeed, even endurance must incorporate the potential for change in order to be valued; for how can one value something without the genuine potential of its absence? Thus, we value things like enduring friendships because they are exceptional and subject to change.
It follows, then, that the logical compliment of endurance is something akin to impermanence. And the same rationale for our value of endurance can be applied to life. We appreciate life because it is contrasted with its logical complement, which is death. Likewise, we appreciate consciousness, and the desires which we are afforded the opportunity to pursue because we juxtapose this state with one bereft of such opportunities. This is not to say, however, that people who believe in an afterlife are incapable of appreciating this life; rather, these people still conceive of an end to their life – hence afterlife – and thus an appreciation for life’s logical compliment is still relevant to their experience. Yet, it must be noted that if their belief were to be realized, that is, if they found themselves in an eternal afterlife, this appreciation would be nullified and an eternal afterlife would, eventually, become meaningless for two reason.
First, their afterlife would lack the context necessary to appreciate it; namely, the context of change which manifests itself in the form of logical compliments. To put it another way, without the genuine possibility of losing their life, they would be unable to sustain an appreciation of it. And secondly, since categorical desires would lose their meaning by means of exhaustion over the course of an infinite amount of time, death is preferable to immortality; later rather than sooner, to be sure, but at some point all the same. Where this point falls, however, must occur within a reasonable period in order to lend structure to the appreciation of our desires, and thus death cannot be absurdly postponed. Thus, despite one’s initial reflections, death, like life, is a value.
Lucretius, and H. A. J. Munro. 1952. Great Books of the Western World: On the Nature of Things. Chicago: The University of Chicago.
Nagel, Thomas. 1970. “Death.” Nous 73-80.
Nussbaum, Martha. 1994. The Therapy of Desire. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Olberding, Amy. 2007. “Sorrow and the Sage: Grief in the Zhuangzi.” Dao 339-359.
Williams, Bernard. 1973. “The Makropulos Case: reflections on the tedium of immortality.” In Problems of the Self, by Bernard Williams, 82-100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, 41.
 Ibid., 44.
 Williams, The Makropulos Case, 84-85.
 Ibid., 84.
 Nagel, Death, 74.
 Ibid., 80.
 Williams, The Makropulos Case, 100.
 Ibid., 85.
 Ibid., 86.
 Ibid., 91.
 Olberding, Sorrow and the Sage, 349.
 Williams, The Makropulos Case, 95.
 Ibid., 100.
 Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire, 226.