Death, aging, and politics: insofar as I have views on these things, I'm against them all. There are deep mysteries in this universe of ours, the Fermi Paradox central to them all, and you can't make progress in these things if you are dead, dying, or drowned in the yammering of those who seek to divide a present stasis rather than build a dynamic, better future. The only thing that matters in the long term is technology, and of that technology the most important facets at present are those involved in the development of rejuvenation therapies that will enable either us or our immediate descendants to remain here, in this world, to see the long term up close and in person. That isn't exactly philosophy, but it does the job for me.
I don't think it is any big secret that the history of philosophy is replete with people giving serious consideration to death and the principle modes of getting to that state, such as aging, and from there what to do about it. In ancient times, the development of strategies for coping with the inevitability of suffering and death was a fine art. The best of these, such as the varieties of stoicism, are so good that they have survived for more than two thousand years in much the same form. We still have access to copies of the original advice as it was written in many cases, and that is only the case because forty generations of humanity have found worth in these thoughts. A great change is underway at present, however, a discontinuity in the making that within our lifetimes will separate both us and our descendants from thousands of years of civilized rumination on the human condition. We are building technology that will radically change what it is to be human in many ways - and of course the part of this great transition that I am most interested in is the end of aging and involuntary death. Ultimately there will be an end to suffering too, and any need for stoicism will be buried by the paradise engineering of the more distant future, but we have to start at the top of the list.
Over at The Meaning of Life, you'll find a recently posted collection of interesting references to various positions on death, suffering, and aging. It is worth perusing. After all, we should be able to deploy a good answer to anyone who earnestly asks why we do this, why we care, why we seek to bring an end to aging and age-related disease. The first place to look for good answers is in the works of those who have spend a good deal more time than you and I thinking on the topic. A part of that reading is a matter of understanding the mistaken paths, as sadly many of these people arrived at positions on death and suffering that supporters of radical life extension would reject out of hand. The world is full of those who embrace the march towards death, or even the extinction of all life, and who believe that longer healthy lives would somehow be a loss rather than a gain. This contingent of humanity has its philosophers, just as do those who, instead of accepting what is, reach to make something greater and better of the human condition.
Bostrom's article, "The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant," tells the story of a planet ravaged by a dragon (death) that demands a tribute which is satisfied only by consuming thousands of people each day. Given the ceaselessness of the dragon's consumption, most people did not fight it and accepted the inevitable. Finally, a group of iconoclastic scientists figured out that a projectile could be built to pierce the dragon's scales.
Summary - We should try to overcome the tyranny of death with technology.
Lenman's article, "Immortality: A Letter," (1995) concerns a letter from a fictional philosopher to her fictitious biological friend in which she presents arguments against taking his immortality drug. She worries that if only some people get the drug, those who don't will regret it; while if everyone gets the drug, overpopulation will ensue unless people stop having children. But this will lead to more unhappiness, as people want to have children. Most importantly immortality would undermine our humanity by transforming us into different kinds of beings. In addition an immortal life might become boring. And finally the value of life derives in large part from its fragility, which would be undermined by immortality.
Summary - More value will be lost than gained if we become immortal.
In the end, we cannot show conclusively that we should not let life become extinct because we can never go from saying that something is - even happiness or pleasure - to saying that something should be. And it is also not clear that maximizing happiness is the proper moral goal. Perhaps instead we should try to prevent misery - which may entail allowing life to go extinct. Philosophers do not generally advocate such a position, but their reluctance to do so suggests that they are willing to tolerate the suffering of some for the happiness of others.
Summary - There are strong arguments for letting life go extinct, although Leslie suggests we generally reject them because life has intrinsic goodness.
It is commonly assumed that we do nothing wrong bringing future people into existence if their lives will, on balance, be good. This assumes that being brought into existence is generally beneficial. In contrast Benatar argues that: "Being brought into existence is not a benefit but always a harm." While most maintain that living is beneficial as long as the benefits of life outweigh the evil, Benatar argues that this conclusion does not follow. Benatar concludes by saying: "One implication of my view is that it would be preferable for our species to die out."[ii] He claims that it would be heroic if people quit having children so that no one would suffer in the future. You may think it tragic to allow the human race to die out, but it would be hard to explain this by appealing to the interests of potential people.
Summary - It is better never to come into existence as being born is always a harm.
In his essay "Annihilation," Luper argues that death is a terrible thing and that Epicurus' indifference to death is badly mistaken. Death is a misfortune for us primarily because it thwarts our desires. If we have a desire we want fulfilled, then death may prevent its fulfillment; if we enjoy living, then dying prevents us from continuing to do so; if we have hopes and aspirations; then they will be frustrated by our deaths; if we have reasons to live, then we have reasons not to want to die. For all these reasons death is a grave misfortune.
Summary - Death is a misfortune because it thwarts our desires.
By definition harms are events or states of affairs contrary to your desires or interests. Of course we cannot be killed or experience pain after death - the post mortem person can't be harmed - but we can have desires thwarted after death - the ante mortem person can be harmed. If I desire to be remembered after I die with a statue on campus and you destroy the statue, then you have defeated my desire and harmed the ante-mortem person I was. Pitcher doesn't think he needs to invoke backward causation to make his argument work. All he needs to show is that being harmed does not entail knowing about the harm.
Summary - We are harmed by death because while alive the knowledge of death harmed us.
Hanfling accepts as obvious the claim that meaning is affected by our knowledge of death, and agrees that "death casts a negative shadow over our lives." Moreover, while the naturalness of death may provide some consolation from our anxiety, it does not show that our apprehension about death is misplaced. But are there any overriding reasons to regard death as mostly evil? Hanfling does not think such reasons are convincing. For while I may wish to fulfill some goal and regret that I cannot, I will not be harmed after my death by the fact that I didn't fulfill that goal. Or though one might argue that death is bad because life is good, it is unclear whether life in general is good.
Summary - The thought of death is unpleasant, but we cannot determine the implications of death for meaning.
In his 1986 piece, "How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defense of Epicurus," he rejects the view that death is bad for the person that dies, undertaking a systematic defense of the Epicurean position. As we have seen, while we ordinarily think that death is bad for the person that dies, Epicurus argued that this is mistaken. And, since fear of something that is not bad is groundless, it is irrational to fear death.
Summary - The Epicurean argument that death is not bad and nothing to fear is sound. Being dead is not bad for the dead person.
One of Barry's main concerns is whether death is or is not bad for us. As he notes, the argument that death is not bad derives from Epicurus' aphorism: "When I am, death is not; and when death is, I am not." Epicurus taught that fear in general, and fear of the gods and death in particular, was evil. Consequently, using reason to rid ourselves of these fears was a primary goal of his speculative thinking. A basic assumptions of his thought was a materialistic psychology in which mind was composed of atoms, and death the dispersal of those atoms. Thus death is not then bad for us since something can be bad only if we are affected by it; but we have no sensation after death and thus being dead cannot be bad for us.
Epicurus' argument relies on two separate assumptions - the experience requirement and the existence requirement. Counter arguments attack one of the two requirements. Either they try to show that someone can be harmed without experiencing the harm, or that someone who is dead can still be harmed. While there are many arguments that death makes life meaningless, there are also many philosophical arguments, in addition to religious ones, that death makes life meaningful. These latter arguments all coalesce around the idea that death is necessary for a life to be truly human. In opposition to all those who think death does or does not give meaning to life are those who argue that life has or lacks meaning independent of death. In other words, they argue that life gives or does not give meaning to death, thereby turning all our previous considerations upside down. But how does a life give or not give death a meaning?
Summary - It is uncertain if death is a good or bad thing. The connection between death and meaning is that thinking about death can make a life subjectively meaningful.
Leo Tolstoy's short novel,The Death of Ivan Ilyich, provides a great introduction to connection between death and meaning. It tells the story of a forty-five year old lawyer who is self-interested, opportunistic, and busy with mundane affairs. He has never considered his own death until disease strikes. Now, as he confronts his mortality, he wonders what his life has meant, whether he has made the right choices, and what will become of him. Tolstoy's story forces us to consider how painful it is to reflect on a life lived without meaning, and how the finality of death seals any possibility of future meaning. If, when we approach the end of our lives, we find that they were not meaningful - there will be nothing we can do to rectify the situation.
Summary - Confronting the reality of death forces us to reflect on the meaning of life.