Williams on immortality Notes for December 1

Main points

Williams is arguing from premises about the nature of desires and human character to these conclusions:

  1. Death is reasonably regarded as an evil; Lucretius is mistaken.
  2. Immortality would be a misfortune; death may be bad but immortality would be worse.

On the 1st of December, we talked about Williams’s argument for the first point after going over Lucretius’s arguments. Incidentally, I thought that, once again, we had a marvelous discussion. Well done!

On Monday, the 4th of December, we will tackle his second point.

The nature of desire

Williams’s case for the conclusion that death is evil rests on 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.

Getting what you want

We closed by noting two ways that it would be a disaster to get everything that you wanted and to have no wants left unsatisfied.

  1. Many of our desires cannot be combined into a coherent ‘desired world’. (By contrast, we strive to have a set of beliefs that can be combined to represent a believed world, namely, the one in which we live).
  2. We would have no reason to continue living.

On Monday, we’ll pick up Williams’s argument that an immortal person would eventually face the second disaster.


I gave you an English translation, and surrounding context, for the passage from Unamuno that Williams quotes at the end.

One other reference may be as obscure to you as it was to me: the case of Teiresias (p. 94). Teiresias was a figure from Greek mythology who, among other things, switched back and forth between being a man and a woman. S/he had quite a career, ably recounted, as far as I can tell, on Wikipedia.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2006.
Name of website