Notes for December 5

Main points

We talked about three things.

  1. Williams’s reason for thinking that death is an evil.
  2. His reasons for thinking that immortality would be intolerable.
  3. Scheffler’s observations about what we care about after we die.

Lucretius and the evil of death

Lucretius thought that philosophy could improve our lives. By showing that death is nothing to us, he hoped to free us from the fear of death that would otherwise poison our living moments.

As Williams sees it, there could be some people for whom death is not an evil. These would be people who only have what we called conditional desires, that is, desires for things on the condition that one is alive. For instance, I want to avoid pain and suffering. But I could accomplish that in one of two ways: by living a pain-free life or by being dead. If all of our desires were conditional in this way, we would be very close to indifference between living and dying: we would avoid suffering either way.

Most of us are not in that position, however. Most of us have what Williams called categorical desires.“Categorical” means unconditional or unqualified. These are things that we want to live for, such as spending time with friends and family, accomplishing things, enjoying the pleasures of life, and so on. These desires give us reasons for living. They also explain why it makes sense for us to regard death as an evil: it prevents us from having the things we want.

We had a very interesting discussion about this. Franklin argued that the person who has no categorical desires also has nothing to lose. That has the advantage of eliminating the fear of death. So perhaps we would be better off if we tried to shed our categorical desires and limit ourselves to conditional desires. Many religious and philosophical traditions have maintained exactly that. They minimize the pain of death by reducing the value of life.

Sam and others replied that the cure is worse than the disease. Losing our reasons to live would be too high a price to pay for ridding ourselves of the fear of death. As Danny and Ian put it, it’s depressing to imagine life with only conditional desires.

Still, it’s a nice question why this is depressing. Is it just the fact that we happen to have categorical desires that leads us to reject the ascetic alternatives? Or is there more to it?

What’s wrong with immortality?

Lucretius thought his philosophy could improve our lives. Do we have to give up that hope if we disagree with him? Maybe not. If we disagree with Lucretius, we have to regard death as an evil. You might think this leaves us with a depressing conclusion. We can easily imagine what it would be like to avoid this evil by living forever and we must live with the frustration of knowing that this imaginary life is not available to us. Williams offers a bit of consolation. Death may be an evil, but immortality would be worse. So it is not as though we are missing out on something that would be much better.

His argument turns on categorical desires: if we lived forever we would find our categorical desires extinguished. That would leave us in the depressing condition of people who have merely conditional desires with no strong reason to prefer continued life over death.

He tried to make his point by presenting two possible ways that an immortal life would go. Either the immortals find their character changes in the light of their experiences or it does not. If their character never changes, they would become bored after having experienced everything that someone with a particular character can. If their character changes, however, they would eventually become quite different. The categorical desires that they have at one point in their lives would give them very little reason to care about living into the distant future as their future selves would have very different categorical desires.

The second point is a little tricky. I may be numerically identical with the person who is alive a thousand years in the future but have little reason to care about whether he continues to live or not. Of course, I would want his life to be free from pain and suffering; that will be me feeling those things, after all, and I don’t want that. But he won’t care about the things that I do. So while the categorical desires I have now give me a reason to live now, they won’t give me a reason to want to live then, when my future self will care about completely different things.

Both of these points were challenged. Jane observed that boredom could be avoided if the world changes. Even if you remain the same, the world around you will change enough to make life exciting and new. And Ian pointed out that we’re familiar with changing categorical desires in the course of our own lives. I have very different categorical desires now than I did when I was six and anticipate having still different ones in the future. Since we experience this sort of thing in the course of a normal life, would it obviously be so bad to experience it over hundreds or even thousands of years?


Key concepts

  1. How Williams uses the distinction between conditional and categorical desires to answer Lucretius.
  2. Why he thinks immortality would nonetheless be intolerable.


I made a handout for the reference to Unamuno that Williams gives on page 99.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2013. It was posted December 5, 2013.
Problems of Philosophy