What about immortality? Notes for December 7

Main points

Williams argues from premises about our desires to two conclusions: death is bad and immortality would (probably) be bad too.

Williams’s argument

The premise is that there is a distinction between two kinds of desires. The distinction turns on what it would be for desires to be satisfied.

  1. Some desires could be satisfied either by achieving the desired aim or by extinguishing the desire itself.
  2. Categorical desires are not like this. They can only be satisfied by achieving the desired aim. Of course, these desires can be extinguished, but that would not be a way of satisfying them.

Some people have only desires of the first kind. They have little reason to live, according to Williams.

Most of us have both kinds. Or, at least, we think we do. Some intellectuals have tried to show that we are mistaken on the grounds that there is no such distinction. Some say that all we want is to avoid pain or frustration. I think that Williams is right to say that this is not an accurate description of at least my desires. I want to see the Grand Canyon. I do not just want to avoid the frustration of having an unsatisfied desire.

It’s categorical desires that give us reason to live. Those are desires that cannot be satisfied by ceasing to exist. Insofar as we have unsatisfied categorical desires, death is reasonably regarded as an evil.

Those who run out of categorical desires as their life runs down have timed things perfectly. Most of us run out of one or the other too soon.

December 8 update

Driving in this morning, it occurred to me that I did not precisely describe some of the examples I used yesterday. So I’m going to take another whack at it.

The examples I had in mind concerned competitiveness. I said that two year olds are extremely competitive, among other things, and that this leads them to either try very hard to win in their social activities or not to engage in social activities at all, when they don’t think they can win.

The correct description of this case is that their desire to win is best understood as the desire not to feel the frustration of losing. That is why there are two satisfactory results: either winning or not trying.

The qualification is important because there might be someone who badly wanted to win but would not be satisfied by sitting the competition out. That person has a categorical desire to win. The two year olds that I described don’t have a categorical desire to win.

And immortality is bad because …?

Williams thinks that immortality would be bad because we would run out of categorical desires and face boredom, provided our characters remained basically the same.

He considers an array of solutions to this problem but he rejects them all. Some of these solutions fail to describe an immortal life as mine: the beings described as immortal wouldn’t be the same as me. Others fail to describe the immortal life as fulfilling my categorical desires. If so, I would not have any reason to want to go on in the described life.

Sam, Noah, and I thought that he was too pessimistic. He described boredom as a consequence of the immortal person’s inability to change character. It’s hard to grow and change in the light of everything that one experiences. But we didn’t think it had to be as bad as that. Why couldn’t change in our circumstances provide us with what we need in order to stave off boredom? That is, why must we be the ones who change rather than our circumstances?

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2009. It was posted December 7, 2009 and updated December 8, 2009.
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