You might be perplexed by my title, but the concern, once more, is with the Epicurean attitude toward death. As we’ve learned over previous posts, the Epicurean project is determined, in part, to change our attitude toward death. Specifically, to change our attitude from one of fear to one of indifference and equanimity. As Steven Luper notes in his book The Philosophy of Death, there are at least three methods Epicureans can use to achieve this end. The first two involve the arguments — the experiential blank argument and the Lucretian symmetry argument — that I have explored in previous entries. In this post we consider a third method: thanatising our desires.
This method requires us to drastically alter our desires so that they are no longer thwarted by our deaths. In other words, to make our desires compatible with our deaths. Doing so, it is argued, will remove the distress and anxiety that our pending demise tends to cause. But how does this really work, and would it actually defeat the traditional view about the badness of death? The remainder of this post addresses these questions.
It starts by outlining what I am going to call the “desire-thwarting” account of the badness of death. This is introduced in contrast to the standard deprivation account of the badness of death. I do this first because it highlights some interesting dialectical features of the thanatisation strategy, and also because it parallels certain other debates in philosophy. Following this, I outline the Epicurean strategy for thanatising our desires, and consider some objections to this strategy.
In writing this post, I draw heavily on the discussion in the aforementioned book by Steven Luper — The Philosophy of Death.
1. Thwarting Desires and the Badness of Death
The deprivation principle provides the most common support for the badness of death. According to this principle, death is bad because it deprives us of the positive experiences we would and could have had if death had not occurred. As such, the deprivation principle uses the comparison of one’s wellbeing across possible worlds to determine the badness of the actual world.
The deprivation thesis is vulnerable to a number of counterexamples, ones that I considered when previously discussing Aaron Smuts’s article “Less Good but not Bad”. No doubt defenders of the thesis could revise their account in order to deal with these counterexamples, and no doubt opponents of the thesis could offer more resilient counterexamples. But I don’t want to get into that particular game of “refine-the-principle” here.
Instead, I want to focus on an alternative account of the badness of death, something I’m calling the “desire-thwarting” account. This relies on the Desire-Thwarting principle. Since I’m going to make some use of it in formalising the terms of the debate for the remainder of the post, it behooves me to offer a definition:
Desire-Thwarting Principle: X is bad for us if X thwarts or defeats our desires.
This principle offers a general account of prudential badness, one that differs from the deprivation principle. According to this principle it is bad for me that I didn’t earn enough money last year to take a five-week holiday in Hawaii because that thwarted my desire to go to Hawaii for five weeks. It is not bad because it deprived me of the experience of having a five week holiday.
The distinction here is subtle, but an analogy might be used to underscore its significance. When it comes to moral responsibility, there are two general accounts of the conditions that make us responsible for what we do. The first relies on the principle of alternative possibilities, and holds that we are responsible for action A, if and only if we could have avoided performing A. Thus, it conditions our responsibility on what could have happened, in another possible universe. The second account, developed by many but perhaps most carefully by John Martin Fischer (ironically, a fan of the deprivation account of death), tries to eliminate this conditioning on other possible worlds. Instead, it argues that we are responsible in virtue of what happened in the actual sequence of events that led up to A (e.g. the fact that we intended to do A).
The distinction between these two accounts of moral responsibility parallels the distinction between the two accounts of the badness of death. The deprivation thesis is like the principle of alternative possibilities: it conditions prudential badness on what could have happened. Contrariwise, the desire-thwarting principle is like the actual sequence account of moral responsibility: it conditions the badness of death on what actually happened in this world, namely that desires were thwarted.
Hopefully this makes things clearer. Grasping the distinction is significant if you want to fully appreciate the strengths (and weaknesses) of the Epicurean strategy we are about to address. To see this, consider how the desire-thwarting principle can be used to argue for the badness of death:
- (1) X is bad for us if X thwarts our desires.
- (2) Death thwarts our desires.
- (3) Therefore, death is bad for us.
This conclusion can, in its turn, be used to defend the notion that we should be anxious about our deaths:
- (4) If X is bad for us, it is rational to fear it.
- (5) Therefore, it is rational to fear our death (from 3 & 4).
This is a significant conclusion since it is the exact opposite of what the Epicureans want. They want us to be able to approach our deaths with tranquility and equanimity (ataraxia). Furthermore, because this argument does not rely on the deprivation thesis, they cannot respond to it by appealing to the experiential blank or Lucretian symmetry arguments since those arguments are mainly concerned with defeating that thesis. So they need some other way to respond.
2. Thanatising our Desires
This is where the strategy mentioned at the outset of this post comes into play. A key vulnerability in the preceding argument is premise (2). To be sure, most people would agree that death usually thwarts our desires, but their assent may be too quick. Is there any reason to think death necessarily thwarts our desires? Could we not render our desires compatible with our deaths? If so, could we avoid the implications of the desire-thwarting argument?
Epicureans think we can. As part of their more general strategy for achieving happiness and tranquility in life, the Epicureans argue that we can reconstruct our desires so that they are no longer dependent on contingencies that are either difficult or impossible to bring about. To take an obvious example, suppose I have desire to own my own private jet. But I am also committed to my career as an academic. Since the latter entails earnings that will never be sufficient to pay for the former, I am probably doomed to disappointment. As such, I should drop my desire for the jet. That way, I avoid the regret, anxiety and disappointment caused by the constant thwarting of my desire to own the jet.
So the basic recipe for tranquility is that I should do a full inventory of my desires and remove all those that are dependent on difficult or impossible contingencies. Desires that are contingent upon my not dying, or that are unlikely to be fulfilled before my death, are obvious candidates for removal. Since my death is (at least for now) nigh on impossible to avoid, my failure to remove those desires will result in inevitable disappointment. This gives us a response to the desire-thwarting argument:
(6) Thanatisation Strategy: It is possible to remove all desires that are contingent upon your not dying.
Two questions arise: (i) Is it actually possible? Could we remove all such desires? and (ii) Would we really be better off if we did? Let’s look briefly at both.
One might doubt the possibility of this strategy because desires are sometimes claimed to be beyond the scope of voluntary control. In other words, we want whatever we happen to want, and no amount of rational persuasion or coercion can change that. I vacillate on this notion, sometimes believing, other times not. Right now, my feeling is that desires are manipulable to some extent. Oftentimes, this is because one desire trumps another and so enables us to develop methods for eliminating or minimising it. For instance, my desire to stay thin might trump my desire to eat more chocolate, thus enabling me to downplay and eventually eliminate the latter. Arguably, something similar could be true in the case of death: my desire to achieve tranquility and equanimity might allow me to eliminate those of my desires that are contingent on my avoiding death (though, obviously, the desire to avoid death could equally trump my desire for equanimity).
But supposing it were possible, would it really make me better off? We’ll look at Luper’s criticism of the strategy in a moment. When we do so, we’ll see that he certainly thinks it wouldn’t. But before doing that, it’s worth knowing the underlying Epicurean reason for thinking it would. The Epicurean ethic was founded in hedonic utilitarianism. They believed that the only thing that was intrinsically good or bad for you was your conscious pleasure or pain. Desires were mere pathways to achieving states of pleasure, not in themselves intrinsically valuable, and just as capable of causing stress and anxiety (when thwarted) as they were of causing pleasure. The claim then was that one could have a life filled with intrinsic goods (pleasure), without having complex, anxiety-inducing desires to go with it. Thus, this really would make you better off than you might otherwise have been.
Note, however, that the success of the strategy in defeating the desire-thwarting argument is not dependent on the underlying truth of the hedonistic view. Indeed, it is actually consistent with the general view that the fulfillment of desires is intrinsically good, and that the thwarting of desires intrinsically bad. The strategy only claims that death need not thwart our desires.
3. Criticisms of the Epicurean Strategy
Luper has some pretty stern criticisms of this strategy in his book. One initial point which he makes is that thanatising all our desires seems obviously and deeply impractical because death can — technically — strike at any time (through accident or illness or so forth). And since there is always somewhat of a time lag between desire-formation and fulfillment, one always runs the risk of death thwarting one’s desires.
This is particularly true of categorical desires, which are the projects and goals around which we typically organise our lives. Take for example the desire to be a world-famous philosopher. This takes time, and at any step along the road one’s desire to achieve that fame could be thwarted by death.
There is, however, an obvious solution to this. And it is one that Luper recognises: add a “death”-exception clause to every categorical desire. Thus, for instance, change the desire “to become a world-famous philosopher” to “become a world-famous philosopher unless I die first.” Or even, “to become a world-famous philosopher unless I die first or unless that project becomes unfeasible for other reasons.
This is too easy. We need to ask what the addition of such an exception clause would really do to our lives. Luper suggests it would lead a strange bifurcation in the mind: one is both committed and yet not committed to one’s projects. One is thus oddly reckless as regards the fulfillment of one’s goals, prone to abandon them when the path to their fulfillment becomes too difficult or when death looms too large. This would lead to an impoverished existence. Indeed, in the end, Luper suggests one would really only be left with the general desire to “live one’s life enjoyably, if one lives at all”. But this would be to approach life as a sequence of (potentially) disconnected pleasurable moments, and to treat categorical desires as optional extras, probably best avoided.
There is an argument lurking here, familiar to those who have read up on the topic of immortality and death before. It was originally made by Bernard Williams in defending the notion that immortality would be tedious. Williams argument was based on the premise that the meaningful life demanded an abundance of categorical desires: projects around which one could organise one’s life. Williams’s observation was that an immortal existence would entail the exhaustion of all such desires, and their replacement by “conditional” or “contingent” desires for food, sex and other ephemeral pleasures. The conclusion was, thus, that immortality would lead to a meaningless existence.
Now, there are problems with Williams’s argument — ones that have been discussed before on the blog — but they need not detain us since they tend to focus more on the claim that immortality would exhaust all categorical desires. Very few deny the underlying premise that categorical desires are needed for a meaningful life (though I will in a moment). But if this premise is accepted, there is trouble for the Epicurean. If Luper’s reasoning is followed, the thanatising strategy seems to lead to something very similar to the meaningless existence abjured by Williams. Which suggests the following argument can be made:
- (7) In order for life to be meaningful (worth living) one must have a set of categorical desires around which one’s life can be organised.
- (8) If the thanatisation strategy is followed to completion, one will seek to eliminate all of one’s categorical desires.
- (9) Therefore, the thanatisation strategy, if followed to completion, would lead to a meaningless life.
I need to be clear about something: I doubt that Luper would make this argument, though he hints at it in the text. Nevertheless, I want to evaluate it because I think it’s interesting. In doing so, I would like to suggest that it can be resisted. In particular, I would suggest that the argument relies on deeply ambiguous and contested concept, namely “meaningfulness” or “worthwhileness”, and that this may actually undermine premise (7). In brief, there are different ways of cashing out this notion of “meaning”, and the one that I typically prefer (meaning = access to value) would not necessarily support premise (7). Quite the contrary in fact. All that would matter for meaning is that one has a life in which one can access intrinsically valuable things. That may require categorical desires, but then again it may not. Indeed, if Epicurean hedonism is to be accepted, it would not. Given this, it’s no surprise to see that Luper, in his analysis, falls back on the deprivation thesis when responding to the thanatisation strategy. That would support the badness of death, but for a distinct set of reasons.
In addition to this, I suspect that premise (8) is dubious. While I certainly agree that the thanatisation strategy would render our categorical desires incredibly fragile, and would mandate a reckless and carefree attitude toward their fulfillment, I don’t think that this leads to their total disintegration. I don’t exactly see why one couldn’t still hold onto life projects but build in the death-exception clause to each and every one. It might be odd, for sure, but it doesn’t seem to necessarily reduce all desires from the categorical to the contingent and ephemeral type.
Anyway, those are just some thoughts. Luper might be on stronger grounds when he argues that certain states of being — such as the state of being truly in love — are incompatible with the thanatisation strategy. As Luper puts it, if I do not care about what happens to my wife after she dies, then I do not really love her. But Epicureanism seems to demand that I be indifferent to my wife’s well-being after I die (I shouldn’t desire for her to do well because that is an impossible to desire for me to fulfil). Thus, Epicureans cannot truly love someone. If one then adds the premise that the good life requires true love, one gets a counter-argument to Epicureanism.
There is some merit to this notion, and much that could be said in response, but I will say just three things here. First, I’m not entirely sure that posthumous desires of the sort required by true love are precluded by Epicureanism. For one thing, there may be cases in which one can know that one’s beloved will do well after one dies. Second, the suggestion that posthumous concern is absolutely essential for true love is at least open to doubt. And third, I wonder whether this isn’t a little too “all-or-nothing” in its presentation. Maybe one can’t have true love on Epicureanism, but maybe one can have a reasonable facsimile of it. And if so, maybe the gain in terms of tranquility and equanimity, outweighs the loss of true love?
To sum up, the Epicurean project is designed (in part) to cure us of our fear of death, and replace it with a sense of equanimity and tranquility. Several different methods are used by Epicureans to achieve this end. In this post, we looked at one of those methods, one that called for us to thanatise our desires. This requires us to eliminate all desires that are contingent upon our not dying. Doing so, it is argued, will remove the anxiety associated with death, and leave us to focus on what truly matters, which is achieving conscious pleasure.*
This strategy is disputed for several reasons. There are those who doubt its practicality since it assumes that our desires are readily manipulable and eliminable when this may not be the case. Similarly, there are those who question (ironically) its desirability, suggesting that if followed to its logical conclusion it leads to an impoverished way of life — a life devoid of categorical desires, commitment, love and all the things that make life worth living.
I do not really know where I stand on all this, but by critically engaging with the arguments I hope to get closer to a definite view.
* I suspect that scholars of Epicureanism may balk at the simple-minded connotations that the phrase “conscious pleasure” evokes, I use it for convenience here, dimply aware of the fact that there is a more sophisticated understanding of that concept present in many Epicurean writings.