Friday, November 4, 2016

Does Death Make us the Lucky Ones? Existential Luck and the Consolations of Atheism

[Note: This is a long post. It is the draft text of an article I wrote some time back about Richard Dawkins's claim that 'death makes us the lucky ones'. I originally planned on publishing this in an academic journal, but after receiving some negative feedback from peer reviewers, I decided that it wasn't worth it. They complained that the article wasn't sufficiently original in its main line of argument and on reflection I decided they were correct. Nevertheless, I don't think that means the article is devoid of all value. I figured it would be worth posting here for anyone who is interested in the topic. It also corresponds, roughly, to the contents of talk I gave at McNally Robinson books in Winnipeg, Manitoba on the 3rd of November 2016]

1. Introduction
Richard Dawkins opens his 1998 book Unweaving the Rainbow with the following, arresting passage:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred.  

(Dawkins 1998, 1)

This passage is part of a long-standing literary and philosophical tradition that tries to provide consolations to those who take seriously the permanence of death. Since such people are typically of an atheistic persuasion, the literary tradition might be termed the consolations of atheism. My goal in this article is to make three main arguments about the ‘we are going to die’-passage as a contribution to that genre.

First, I will argue that the claims within the ‘we are going to die’-passage are worth taking seriously and subjecting to appropriate philosophical scrutiny. Second, I will argue that the passage can be reconstructed into an interesting philosophical argument, one that insists that an atheist can embrace strong forms of both existential and mortal gratitude. Third, and finally, I will critically assess this reconstructed argument and claim that it may succeed when amended and supplemented in various ways.

2. Should we take the passage seriously?
Richard Dawkins is an important figurehead in the contemporary atheist movement, but the philosophical merit of his writings have frequently been called into question.  Consequently, some may wonder whether it is worth subjecting the ‘we are going to die’-passage to serious critical scrutiny. Can we not just write it off as a rhetorical arrow in the bow of a polemicist?

Perhaps, but there are prima facie reasons for taking it seriously as a defence of something important in the atheistic view. In the first place, there is the literary quality of the passage. Steven Pinker uses the ‘we are going to die’-passage as an exemplar of good writing in his book on writing style (Pinker 2014, 13-14). He claims it has a number of features that make it a good exemplar. It starts with a bold and unusual assertion: death makes us lucky. It then builds upon this with vivid poetic imagery: ‘sand grains of Arabia’, ‘teeth of these stupefying odds’, ‘greater poets than Keats’ and so on. Philosophers can sometimes be immune to the charms of poetic language, preferring instead the logical rigour of formal argumentation. I share these philosophical predilections but poetry can be a good place from which to launch a more rigorous philosophical reflection. I personally find something uplifting and exhilarating about the passage. It seems to grab me by the lapels and shake me into a new perspective on life. It has that ‘finger-placing’  quality of all good writing: it articulates a belief or perspective I intuitively grasp but would be incapable of expressing with equivalent perspicacity. One doesn’t have to look hard to find people with similar reactions.  In this regard, the desire by many atheists to have the passage read out at their funerals seems significant. Dawkins himself claims that he has long earmarked the passage for his own funeral.  Likewise, Pinker comments that ‘many humanists I know have asked that it be read at their funerals’ (Pinker 2014, 14). This suggests that many atheistically-inclined people think the passage is a fitting capstone to their lives: a bold assertion of the value system they took seriously when they lived. It is worth asking whether they are right to do so.

But more important than its literary quality and practical appeal, is the fact that the passage does make a genuinely interesting philosophical claim and expresses that claim using the structural elements of an argument. There is a conclusion, boldly announced at the outset and repeated at the end. The conclusion has axiological and normative pretensions. It states that we ought not to whine or complain about our deaths — that death is, contrary to what we might think, something of great value. In this respect it seems positively Epicurean in its ethos: it is warning us off feeling down about our mortality. It also seems to support this conclusion with some premise-like propositions, all focused on the counterfactual luckiness of our existence. It is, consequently, proposing an interesting philosophical link between counterfactual existential luckiness and the value of our lives. Reading the passage provokes the critical question: is this link philosophically sound? This seems like a philosophically important question, one that is worth answering irrespective of the merits of Dawkins’s philosophical analysis. I propose to proceed on the basis of this assumption. I think we ought to seriously ponder the merits of the link between counterfactual existential luck and the value of life. We can use Dawkins’s statement as a starting point, but we need not be shackled to it in the final evaluation.

3. What is the argument?
To start this analysis, we need to strip away the poetry and arresting imagery in what Dawkins says and reveal the philosophical core. As with any informally argued prosaic passage, there is room for interpretive disagreement on this score. The superficial structure of the argument is pretty clear. As I just said, it draws a link between counterfactual existential luck (“the lottery of birth”) and a positive attitude toward life and death. But the precise nature of the luck and the positive attitude can be disputed.  What I suggest here is that we can interpret the passage as an argument for both existential and mortal gratitude. This requires some unpacking.

Existential gratitude can be defined as gratitude for the general fact of being alive, as opposed to gratitude for particular lived experiences. Mortal gratitude can be defined as gratitude for the fact that we are going to die. Both forms of gratitude come in stronger and weaker flavours. The strongest forms of existential gratitude would claim that we should be grateful for our lives, irrespective of the substantive quality of those lives; weaker forms would allow for some moderation of existential gratitude in light of substantive quality, but would focus on the totality of the contents of one’s life, not just individual moments therein. Much the same is true for mortal gratitude. The strongest forms of mortal gratitude would claim that we should be grateful for our deaths irrespective of the quality of our lives (i.e. irrespective of how long we had to live or how happy we were before our deaths); weaker forms would allow for some moderation in light of the quality of life (e.g. they might claim that mortal gratitude only arises when the quality of life drops below or reaches a certain threshold).

I presume that the ‘we are going to die’-passage is pushing a relatively strong form of existential and mortal gratitude. It is not the case that we should be grateful no matter what the quality of our lives, but it is the case that it would take a lot of bad things (in the case of existential gratitude) or good things (in the case of mortal gratitude) to sway us from that view. I support this interpretation by appealing to the admonishing tone (‘how dare we whine…’) toward the end of the passage. Irrespective of whether this is the correct interpretation of the passage, there is the fact that the strong take on existential and moral gratitude is probably the more philosophically interesting one. So it is worth seeing whether anything can be said in its favour again irrespective of what Dawkins himself has said.

There are then questions to be asked about the relevance of ‘gratitude’ to the reconstruction of the argument. Gratitude is a philosophically contentious concept so there are a number of things to be wary of when appealing to it in the reconstruction. First, we can ask whether both forms of gratitude are relevant. Interpretively speaking, an initial reading of the passage suggests that mortal gratitude is to the primary focus, not existential gratitude: after all, it opens and closes with claims about death, not life. Nevertheless, I think the passage can be interpreted as making implicit claims about existential gratitude too (particularly in its counterfactual comparisons between our ordinariness and the possible poets and scientists that could have existed in our stead). What’s more, including both allows one to abide by the principle of interpretive charity. It is possible that the passage succeeds in defending existential gratitude, but not mortal gratitude. Although it is certainly more philosophically significant if it succeeds in defending both, we shouldn’t discount it simply because it fails to do the latter.

In addition to this, we can ask whether gratitude is really the emotion at play in the passage. Perhaps something other than gratitude would be more appropriate? Gladness, or equanimity or contentment maybe? I am not insensitive to these possibilities, but I think it is worth sticking with the gratitude-interpretation at the outset. One reason for this is that gratitude has a heightened emotional weight that equanimity and contentment certainly seem to lack. The admonishing tone adopted in the passage requires that weight. Gladness might do the trick, but gratitude seems stronger than gladness: there is a difference between being grateful for the opportunity to live and die, and being generally happy about it. Furthermore, there is a rich philosophical literature on the concept of gratitude and its appropriateness in different contexts. This literature often crops up in debates about theism and atheism and thus might shed important light on the consolations Dawkins is trying to provide. Finally, sticking with the gratitude-interpretation also allows us to distinguish Dawkins’s contribution to the debate from similar historical contributions, such as the Epicurean ‘death is nothing to us’-arguments. These arguments focus on equanimity or lack of fear, not something stronger like genuine gratefulness for the prospect of death. That said, there are significant problems with the gratitude interpretation to which I return later. These problems might force us to retreat to a gladness-based interpretation. But this would not be a terrible thing — it would be significant if it turned out that atheists could fully embrace existential and mortal gladness.

That’s enough unpacking for now. What about the structure of the argument? I propose the following as a reasonably accurate reconstruction of the argument implied in the passage:

  • (1) There is no afterlife, i.e. physical death is the end of our existence (assumption, granted arguendo).
  • (2) Notwithstanding (1), If we are lucky to be alive, then we should be grateful for both the opportunity to live and the opportunity to die (i.e. we should exhibit both existential and mortal gratitude).
  • (3) We are lucky to be alive.
  • (4) Therefore, we should exhibit both existential and mortal gratitude.

The first premise is not strictly-speaking necessary for the argument, but it is important. I take it to be a background assumption that one must grant in order to scrutinise the philosophical link between luckiness and existential gratitude. Why? Because if you believed in an afterlife it might be relatively easy to console yourself about the prospect of your physical death. The challenge is to console the person who takes death to be final.

The second premise makes a normative claim about gratitude: it says we should be grateful for life and death. Furthermore, it says we should be grateful because of our existential luckiness. Hence, it expressly draws the link between luck and gratitude that is described in the passage. The premise could be easily altered if we wanted to move away from the gratitude-interpretation. We could, for instance, change it to ‘If we are lucky, then we ought to be glad for our deaths’. But we will not do that for now.

The third premise is the key factual claim. It is the claim Dawkins supports in the passage with the poetic and vivid imagery: the set of possible people being more numerous than the sand grains of Arabia, the lottery of birth and so on. What we need to figure out is whether this kind of existential luck is sufficient to confer normative appropriateness on existential and mortal gratitude. That is the key philosophical question to be explored in the remainder of this article.

4. Does the argument succeed?
I’m going to answer this question in three phases. First, I’ll say a little bit more about the normative standard underlying the argument. Second, I’ll consider whether the luck to which Dawkins appeals — or some appropriate modification of it — is sufficient to generate existential gratitude. Third, I’ll consider whether it is sufficient to generate mortal gratitude.

4.1 - Understanding the Normative Premise
The second premise claims that there are contexts in which gratitude is a normatively warranted emotional response. How can this be? To answer this question we need a clearer sense of the normative scrutiny to which emotions can be subjected and a clearer characterisation of the conditions under which existential and mortal gratitude can be warranted.

I here adopt the common view of emotions as appraisals (de Sousa 2013). On this view, an emotional response to an event or circumstance is part of the mind’s attempt to evaluate the significance of that event or circumstance. Feeling sad when a loved one dies is an evaluation of the meaning of their loss to your life (and the lives of others around you).  Feeling happy on a warm sunny day is an evaluation of the advantages that such a day brings. And so on. These evaluations can be more or less warranted. Sometimes we overreact. I can feel incredibly angry when the car in front of me forgets to signal at the roundabout, but a moment’s reflection reminds me that sometimes I forget to do the same thing and that, in any event, my anger at them is unlikely to get them to change their behaviour. It is an unnecessary and unproductive reaction in that context. Sometimes we underreact. I often don’t feel happy when I achieve some success in my professional life, despite working hard for that achievement. Perhaps I should allow myself the emotional elation, even if only for a moment. Sometimes our emotional reactions are spot on, as is probably the case when I feel sad about the suffering of others.

These examples are tricky, and maybe controversial, but they do suggest that it is possible to normatively evaluate emotional reactions. As Lacewing (2015) points out, the normative standards for emotional responses are not the same as the normative standards for actions. It is not that some emotions are forbidden and others obligatory. After all, emotions are not straightforwardly subject to voluntary control. They are partially involuntary responses, which it may be possible to train and hone through practice. Instead, Lacewing suggests that we normatively assess emotional responses using terms like appropriate and inappropriate. Sometimes an emotional response is an appropriate reaction to an event; sometimes it is not. Some emotional responses may even be mandated in certain contexts (e.g. sadness when seeing someone in great pain). So we have a continuum, ranging from inappropriate to appropriate to mandated. The question is where along this continuum does premise (2) place us. I suspect that Dawkins’s intention might be to push us toward the mandated end of the spectrum. ‘We dare not whine’, after all. But, in the interests of interpretive charity, it might be best for it to be interpreted as a strong claim about the appropriate (or ‘highly appropriate’) nature of the emotional response, but not necessarily its mandated nature.

This provokes the next question: how can we know whether the emotional response is appropriate or not? To answer this we need to delve into the concept of gratitude (of both types) in a little bit more detail. Gratitude has often been viewed as an interpersonal emotion. We feel gratitude when someone gives us something good that we do not deserve - a ‘gift’ to use the common language (Hauskeller 2011; Lacewing 2015; Solomon 2008). The intentional objects of the emotion are the other person and the gift they give. Psychologists often use the personal nature of gratitude to descriptively distinguish it from other emotional responses like joy or happiness.  Some people then use this descriptive account as the basis for a normative account of gratitude, arguing that gratitude can only be appropriately felt when there is a gift and a gift-giver. This creates a problem in the present context. The argument assumes that there is no God who creates our lives or who rewards us in the afterlife. If gratitude requires both a gift and a gift-giver, then it seems like it is inappropriate for an atheist to feel gratitude for the opportunity to live and to die. They may feel it but their feeling lacks the appropriate intentional content.

I will not explore the merits of this criticism in much detail. I will simply note that there is no strong reason to suppose that gratitude must be interpersonal. One could try to argue that gratitude is essentially or necessarily interpersonal, but conceptualist arguments of this sort are rarely persuasive. The concept of gratitude is a human invention and there is nothing in that concept that normatively compels us to accept the interpersonal analysis. Furthermore, there are already several authors who argue that the interpersonal condition can be dropped (Solomon 2008; Hauskeller 2011; Burley 2012 Lacewing 2015). For them, gratitude is to be understood as a reaction to the undeserved good, i.e. as a positive recognition of the fact that there is much in our lives (and our deaths) that is beyond our control and that is ultimately good. The emotion still has two intentional objects: (i) the good of the state of affairs or experience in question and (ii) the fact that the state of affairs or experience is beyond our control and undeserved. But these objects are no longer necessarily linked to the actions of another person. Gratitude is thus still distinct from similar emotions like joy or happiness because they do not have undeservedness or lack of control among their intentional objects. What matters then for normative assessment is whether -- to borrow Lacewing’s phrase -- the emotion of gratitude holds up to critical scrutiny in some particular context, which is simply to say: is there really some good that is undeserved that is prompting the emotional reaction?

(Note: I should interject at this point that some people will simply insist that gratitude must be interpersonal in nature. For them, the preceding analysis will be unpersuasive. I am not sure how to deal with such a person. To me it seems simply obvious that the interpersonal condition is a philosophically unnecessary artefact of our psychological and cultural experiences. But maybe there is a compromise to be reached. Even those who hold out for the interpersonal condition will be able to appreciate much of the argument to follow. This is because the focus for the remainder of the article will be on our appropriate emotional reaction to the undeserved and uncontrolled good. You can call that reaction whatever you like — ‘gratitude’, ‘gladness’, or even ‘snorgliness’ — that is what I shall be talking about.)

What does this normative standard mean in the present context? To answer that, we need to separate out existential and mortal gratitude. Here, I follow Lacewing (2015) in viewing existential gratitude as gratitude for the undeserved good of one’s life. I think this can be interpreted in one of two ways. It is either gratitude for the total set of events and states of affairs that make up one’s life (as distinct from gratitude for individual members of that set); or it is gratitude for the simple fact of being alive. The former involves some global assessment of the set of events and states of affairs; the latter does not: it involves gratitude simply for the fact of existing rather than not existing. So we appropriately feel existential gratitude whenever the total set of events and states of affairs in our lives is good (in the aggregate) and when much of what is good is beyond our control; or whenever the fact of being alive is good (and beyond our control), irrespective of the aggregate good of the totality of events. I then follow Burley’s (2012) analysis of mortal gratitude. This analysis holds that gratitude for death arises as part of viewing life as a whole: that death is, in some sense, a good way to end a life. Without the opportunity to die there would be something less good/fitting about our lives. So we appropriately feel mortal gratitude if this view of death (as a fitting capstone to existence) holds up to critical scrutiny.

4.2 - Should we exhibit existential gratitude?
With premise (2) clarified, we can turn our attention to premise (3) and the proposed link between gratitude and luck. We focus in the first instance on existential gratitude. As I mentioned earlier, the ‘We are going to die’ passage very clearly draws a link between luck and gratitude. This is the link that makes the idea within the passage philosophically interesting. The critical question is whether luck of this sort is sufficient to generate existential gratitude.

The answer to this question turns, in part, on the account of gratitude that has just been proffered. In the original formulation of the argument, the concepts of gratitude and luck were left undefined. Consequently, the connection between gratitude and luck was opaque. It is less opaque now that we have a clearer sense of what gratitude entails and when it is an appropriate emotional response. Gratitude is an appropriate response to the good that is beyond one’s control (and not deserved). Interestingly, that seems like a pretty good proxy for the colloquial definition of ‘luck’. When we refer to others as being ‘lucky’, what we usually mean is that good things have happened to them that are beyond their control. This suggests that luck and gratitude may appeal to the same states of affairs: good that is beyond one’s control.

But if that were the case, the argument would be unsatisfactory. It would reduce to a near tautology. Fortunately, there is a separate sense of luck at play in the argument.  When Dawkins makes an appeal to the set of possible people who could have existed in your stead, he is appealing to luck in the sense of improbability or counterfactual unlikelihood. There are many possible worlds out there and in only a very narrow band of them would you (as you understand and know yourself to be) exist. He is then drawing a connection between this type of luck (qua improbability/counterfactual unlikelihood) and the other type (qua undeserved/uncontrolled good). Is he right to do so? Does the counterfactual unlikelihood of our existence contribute a sufficient degree of undeserved/uncontrolled good to make it the case that we should be grateful for the fact of our existence?

To figure this out we should note that Dawkins appeals to different kinds of luck in his writings. In the ‘We are going to die’-passage he directly appeals to genetic luck:

Genetic Luck: The set of possible combinations of DNA is mindbogglingly large. Only one of those combinations would give rise to you as you currently exist. Thus, relative to the set of genetically possible people, your existence is extremely unlikely.

Later in the same book (just a couple of paragraphs later in fact) Dawkins appeals to another kind of luck:

“…the humblest medieval peasant had only to sneeze in order to affect something which changed something else which, after a long chain reaction, led to the consequence that one of your would-be ancestors failed to be your ancestor and became someone else’s instead. I’m not talking about chaos theory or the equally trendy complexity theory, but just about the ordinary statistics of causation. The thread of historical events by which our existence hangs is wincingly tenuous” 
(Dawkins 1998, 2)

This implicates what we might call historical luck:

Historical Luck: The set of events upon which your existence depends is mindbogglingly large. If one of those events had changed, then you would not have been conceived and would not exist as you currently exist. Thus, relative to the set of possible historical events, your existence is extremely unlikely.

It should be said that historical luck depends in part on genetic luck. The point Dawkins seems to make is that the particular sperm that met the particular egg that led to your existence was one among millions.  Very slight changes in the history prior to the moment of conception would have led to a different sperm meeting the same (or a different) egg, which would have led to a different possible person. Similar sorts of luck are widely discussed in the philosophical literature, particularly in the debate about moral responsibility. In that debate, the idea is that your actions are the product of events and forces that are so highly contingent that their actual occurrence is counterfactually unlikely (Nagel 1979; Levy 2011). In that debate, ‘luck’ does not carry any connotation of being an undeserved good. It can often be bad in the sense that you are held (negatively) responsible for your (bad) actions, despite their luckiness.

But is it really correct to say that our existence is unlikely given things like genetic and historic luck? It sounds plausible, but there is an obvious objection. If there is only one physically possible world, then there is nothing unlikely or improbable about our existence. This is the view of some causal determinists. Although there are different definitions of determinism, the simplest is probably Van Inwagen’s which maintains that at any given moment there is exactly one possible future (1983, 2).  If determinism of this sort is correct, then maybe we are wrong to engage in the kind of counterfactual assessment that Dawkins envisages. There is nothing improbable or unlikely about our existence because, given some initial set of conditions, the universe could only have turned out one way. Causal determinism of this sort is popular among those of a scientific and atheistic persuasion so it might be a particularly compelling objection in the present context.

But I’m not convinced. Determinism is ultimately a philosophical position, one that is not compelled by any particular scientific theory. Furthermore, the leading modern and scientifically informed theories of determinism actually allow for multiple possible worlds. To give but one example, contemporary physical theories have to account for apparent quantum indeterminacy and one way they do so is by allowing for many possible worlds. This is the essence of the ‘many worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics. This theory has been gaining support in recent years; is wholly deterministic; and allows for a mindbogglingly large number of physically possible universes (Wallace 2014). So much so, in fact, that we could add ‘quantum luck’ to the taxonomy of luckiness that renders our existence highly unlikely. This deterministic theory is wholly compatible is thus wholly compatible with premise (3) of the argument. Many other theories in modern physics and cosmology do the same by allowing for multiple possible universes (Greene 2011). So determinism by itself is not incompatible with the claim that our particular existence (i.e. our branch within the deterministic space of possible universes) is extraordinarily luck.

On top of this, I’m not convinced that embracing causal determinism (even in a more restricted form) prevents one from relying on genetic and historical luck in the way that Dawkins argument requires. Causal determinism may render our existence physically necessary, but it does not make it any less metaphysically or epistemically unlikely. Given some initial set of physical conditions our lives may have had to turn out the way they did, but there is no obvious reason why that initial set of conditions had to take that form. Nor is there any obvious epistemic block on thinking that, for all we know, things could have turned out differently. Our existence could thus still be epistemically surprising to us.

The deeper question is whether the unlikelihood of our existence is sufficient to warrant anything akin to existential gratitude. There are at least three issues to contend with in this regard. The first is simply whether the unlikelihood is sufficiently awe-inspiring. Cottingham has critiqued atheistic accounts of gratitude on the grounds that they are ‘thinner’ and less satisfying than their theistic equivalents (Cottingham 2006). To him, the atheistic view is too instrumentalist: it holds that we should be grateful for the opportunity to enjoy the events that make up our lives and nothing more. In a sense, this is correct, but as Lacewing (2015, 15-16) points out there is more going on in the atheistic view. There is also an awesomeness to the unlikelihood of our existence that warrants a deep (and interconnected) intellectual and emotional reaction. There is good in our lives. But the vast unlikelihood of our existence renders that goodness even more undeserved and uncontrolled that it would be if it was the product of a wilful decision by an intelligent being. And since undeserved goodness is the foundation for gratitude (or whatever you want to call it) it seems to follow that the more unlikely our lives are, the more grateful we should be for the opportunity to live them (other things being equal).

The problem is trying to communicate just how awe-inspiringly unlikely our existence really is. This is one area where Dawkins and others like him excel and where they may make a genuine contribution to the philosophical debate: through the depth of their scientific knowledge and some creative metaphors, they do a great job painting a picture that inspires the appropriate degree of awe. This is transparent in in the ‘we are going to die’ passage with its evocative imagery and language. Another good example — again focusing on genetic luck — comes from Dennett’s ‘Library of Mendel’ thought experiment (Dennett 1995 & 2013). This thought experiment is based on a short story by Borges entitled ‘The Library of Babel’. Borges’s story depicts a world consisting of a single, vast library which, although not infinite, contains every possible book. Dennett uses this model to tell the story of a library consisting of every possible combination of DNA. Of that total set of combinations there is a Vast but Vanishing  number of combinations that give rise to living organisms. Of that set of possible organisms there is a Vast but Vanishing number that are human. And of that set of humans there is only one possible combination that gives rise to you. Thus the odds of your existence are awe-inspiringly low. It is certainly beyond your control that your existence was the one chosen from the possible set of human existences. This awe-inspiring unlikelihood should make gratitude an appropriate response for the opportunity of living. It highlights just how undeserved and beyond-your-control your life really way.

You may have noticed that I said ‘others things being equal’ in the previous paragraph. This is where the second issue comes in. It may be true that our existence is mind-bogglingly unlikely but surely that wouldn’t warrant gratitude if our existence is, in and of itself, bad, or if the aggregate sum of events within our lives is bad? In short, surely it wouldn’t warrant gratitude if our lives are not worth living? Goodness is a key element in warranting gratitude — without it gratitude would not be warranted — but it always works in tandem with undeservedness. Some philosophers will take a hard line on this. They will be anti-natalists, and insist that our lives are not good and we would be better off if we never existed (Benatar 2006 & 2013). They are not going to be impressed by the fact that our lives are incredibly unlikely. The undeservedness of a terrible life is no basis for gratitude.

This anti-natalist view is unpopular and philosophically problematic but there isn’t time here to launch into a full assessment of its merits (see Harman 2009; DeGrazia 2010; Overall 2011; Smuts 2013). We could perhaps, therefore, concede that, to the anti-natalist the existential luck argument is not going to provide the appropriate consolation. This is unlikely to be a major concession given the relatively unpopularity of the anti-natalist view.  A slightly more pressing challenge comes from those who are not anti-natalists but insist that some lives are, on balance, not worth living because they are so qualitatively bad. This is a much more widespread view. For proponents of it, the unlikelihood of existence is never going to be sufficient to warrant gratitude: you have to assess each life on its own merits, in terms of the events and experiences that it consists in. Only if the total balance of events and experiences is good can we say that gratitude is appropriate. In other words, the counterfactual unlikelihood of our existence may play some role in generating existential gratitude but that role is secondary to the role of the actual quality of lived experience.

This is an intuitively appealing view and the response to it is, I think, to concede the possibility that some lives are so bad that they should not warrant existential gratitude, but at the same time to insist that the possible space of such lives is much smaller than philosophers have traditionally appreciated. Consequently, in the majority of cases, life is, on balance, good enough to warrant gratitude simply for the fact of being alive. Support for this position can be drawn from the disability rights literature. Philosophers have traditionally compared ‘ordinary’ lives with the lives of the disabled, suggesting that the latter are different in bad ways. But this view has been challenged by disability rights theorists. They argue that the lives of the disabled are merely different not badly different. They represent more possible but good ways of living (Barnes 2014 & 2016). This applies across a vast range of possibly disabled lives, much more than philosophers have traditionally been willing to allow. There are few if any lives that are genuinely not worth living. If this is right, then the argument for existential gratitude is likely to hold for most actual lives. And this is really all that is required to provide consolations to those of an atheistic persuasion. If you are conscious and capable of comprehending the degree of existential luck involved in your existence, then yours is one of the lives for which you should be grateful.

This brings us to the third issue. Some may question an assumption underlying the argument thus far, namely: that there is some (stable) self who can feel grateful for being alive. This breaks down into two sub-issues. The first has to do with the stability of one’s identity within the actual life that one is living. The argument talks about ‘you’ or ‘I’ being lucky to be alive, assuming us to be stable individual identities, tied to our genetics and history. This might be wrong. Many contemporary theories of personal identity claim that identity is more fluid and nebulous than this — that it is something that is built up over time and can change or alter over the course of a life. This suggests that the person who is to feel gratitude can change and their identity is not just tied to the unlikelihood of their genetic makeup or the contingency of their conception. This could well be correct — I suspect it is — but if anything it strengthens the argument. It suggests that the existence for which one is grateful is even more contingent and unlikely than we initially supposed.

The second sub-issue has to do with the counterfactual comparison of this (however improbable) actual life with the other possible lives that could have been lived. Why is this a relevant comparison? The non-identity problem in ethics suggests that in order for there to be a harm/benefit from existence there must be some counterfactually stable subject of the harm/benefit. But if the subject never existed in the other possible worlds, there can be no harm/benefit accruing to it on foot of what happens in those possible worlds. The existential luck argument seems to be demanding a similarly problematic counterfactual comparison. It is telling me to be grateful for the life I live even though there was no other life ‘I’ (as the subject of the good in my life) could possibly have lived. But I would submit that the application of the non-identity principle in this context is spurious and misleading. It is precisely because there is only this one life that I can live (within the Vast space of possible lives that are not mine) that existential gratitude is warranted. The argument is not claiming that I am benefited by existing when in other possible worlds I do not; it is claiming that the benefits I do have, by existing when I might not have, are incredibly unlikely. It is then this unlikelihood, in combination with the good of the life I live, that warrants the deep existential gratitude, not some illegitimate comparison between my life as it is and as it might otherwise have been.

In sum, the case for existential gratitude seems pretty robust. Our existences are mindbogglingly unlikely and although some possible existences are bad and not worth living, most are at least on aggregate good and so capable of warranting gratitude for the fact of their existence.

4.3 - Should we exhibit mortal gratitude?
We arrive, at last, at the most difficult question. If we grant that we should be existentially grateful, can we also grant that we should be grateful for our mortality? The religiously-minded have an obvious way to be grateful for death. If they believe in the traditional conception of heaven, then they are likely believe that death is not truly the end. Quite the contrary. After death they believe they get to live on in an even better form. Death is thus a glorious opportunity to be (re)united with God, something for which we should definitely be grateful.

Things are more difficult for the atheist. If they think that life is an undeserved good (something to be grateful for) but do not believe in an afterlife,  then it looks like death is something they should resist. For on this view, death would seem to deprive them of the thing that they are grateful for.  The simplest riposte to this is to argue that death is a necessary part of life. If you want to have the opportunity to live, then you must accept the fact that you will die. This may be the view that Dawkins’s is pushing in the ‘We are going to die’-passage. He may be suggesting that the opportunity to die requires the fact of existence. Existence is itself good and incredibly unlikely and hence something for which we should be grateful, and death is a necessary part of existence. Therefore, gratitude for existence carries over into gratitude for death: ‘We are going to die and that makes us the lucky ones’ because dying implies living.

I think this necessity-view is on the right track, but it needs some modification. The fact that death is a necessary part of an undeserved good does not, in and of itself, make it something for which one should be grateful. A painful jab might be a necessary part of getting vaccinated, and vaccination might be a good thing, but that doesn’t make the painful jab in and of itself a thing to be welcomed. It’s more like a necessary evil. This might warrant an attitude of equanimity or acceptance. But not gratitude. On top of this, it is not obvious that death is necessary. There are many atheists that actively resist death, arguing that medical advances and breakthroughs will allow us to extend our lives indefinitely (de Grey and Rae 2007) or, failing that, that we would be rational to cryogenically preserve ourselves in the hope of future resuscitation (Shaw 2009; Moen 2015). They may or may not be correct in their hopes. That’s not important. What’s important is that there doesn’t seem to be anything contradictory in the values they espouse. Clearly, these are people who are grateful to be alive: they love it so much that they want it to continue forever. It seems odd to claim that they are wrong not to be grateful for death — that their emotional reaction to impending oblivion is inappropriate.

We could split the difference at this point. We could say that is right to think we should be grateful (or glad or content) about death because death is necessary given current technology (etc); and that the death-resisters are right to think that it would be better if this were not true. But I think a stronger defence of mortal gratitude is possible and that this defence can connect in a deep and important way with the luckiness of our lives. I think that irrespective of present or future life extension technology, we should still be grateful for death. This is where Burley’s analysis of the appropriateness of mortal gratitude is helpful (Burley 2012). Burley suggests that death can be a good or fitting end to life: that without death life would not be the same (not something we should be grateful for in the way that the existential luck argument seems to be proposing). This claim allows for some compromise with the death-resisters. It allows that any particular moment of death might be bad, but that mortality in general is good.

This perspective on mortal gratitude can be defended by imagining a truly immortal existence, i.e. one in which death is never a possibility.  Philosophers have been imagining this for some time and a number of them have presented plausible grounds for thinking that such an existence would be bad, partly because of the effect it would have on our sense of identity (i.e. of what it is that differentiates our life from the lives of others). Each of these philosophers maintains that there is something about the prospect of death that actually imbues our lives with the values that makes them worth living. Williams (1973) is the classic expositor of this view, arguing against immortality on the grounds that without death our sense of self would slowly erode and we would experience an extreme and unremitting boredom as all possible categorical desires came to be fulfilled. If I live forever, I must eventually do everything. And if I do everything I effectively trace out the pathways of all the possible lives that could have been lived. There would then be nothing existentially lucky about my existence. I would not be unique and special in the way that the existential luck argument demands.

In a similar vein, Nussbaum (1994) and Smuts (2011) have argued that without mortality our decisions would be robbed of their normative significance. Nussbaum argues that because we are eventually going to die all our decisions are imbued with significant opportunity costs: by making one decision we foreclose another. Even if we choose the other option at a later moment in time, it isn’t quite the same. We can never truly go back and take the road not travelled. Nussbaum’s point is that this temporal scarcity adds normative weight to our decisions: it means that our decisions really mean something because they involve sacrifice. This would be lost if we were immortal. Smuts develops this thought into an argument about the significance of personal achievement. He argues that if we live forever then we will be able to achieve everything that can be possibly achieved: it’s just a matter of time and perseverance. But if that’s all it takes then there is something less unique and special about personal achievement. Everybody can do everything, given enough time. Again, the lack of mortality robs our existence of one of the contingencies or unlikelihoods that makes the life we live existentially lucky.

More recently, Samuel Scheffler (2013, ch 3) has expanded on these thoughts by arguing that much of what determines the value in our lives is tied to mortality. He points to three examples in particular. The first has to do with temporal stages within our lives. He notes how the standard conception of a human life has a finite duration, i.e. a beginning (birth) and an end (death). Between these two endpoints, the living person passes through a number of stages, childhood, adolescence, adulthood etc.. These stages, and their durations, vary somewhat from culture to culture. Nevertheless, all cultures share the notion that life is broken down into distinct stages and that these stages come to an end. He claims that our sense of accomplishment and satisfaction is often intimately linked to our conception of these stages. Thus, what counts as an achievement for a child (first words, learning to read) would not count as an achievement for an adult, and vice versa. As Scheffler puts it:

Our collective understanding of the range of goals, activities, and pursuits that are available to the person, the challenges that he faces, and the satisfactions that he may reasonably hope for are all indexed to these stages. The very fact that the accomplishments and satisfactions of each stage count as accomplishments and satisfactions depends on their association with the stage in question…” 
(Scheffler 2013, p 96)

If we no longer had these finite stages we would lose sight of much of the achievements and struggles that provide value to our lived experience. His second example is linked to the concepts of loss, illness, injury, health, gain, security, safety and so on. He claims that each of these concepts is central to how we understand the value in our lives, and that each of them presupposes temporal scarcity (i.e. that our lives will eventually come to an end). His point is that much of human life is spent avoiding things like loss, illness, injury and harm, and pursuing health, gain, security and safety. These concepts presume physical and temporal vulnerability. If we lacked this vulnerability it would be hard to make sense of why we pursue some things and avoid others. His third example is simply a reiteration of the Nussbaum/Smuts claim that human decision-making, planning, and achievement only makes sense against a backdrop of mortality. In each of these three cases, Scheffler highlights once more the important role that death plays in making the opportunities and cycles of life that we live special, unique and, ultimately, existentially lucky. Without the vulnerability and temporal scarcity we lose the sense of our unique place within the space of possible lives. We lose the awe-inspiring sense that the goodness we have is undeserved and subject to factors beyond our control. If we are invulnerable, and have all the time we could ever need, then the quality of our lives becomes something wholly within our control. Gratitude cannot get a foothold in such an existence.

I cite these examples not because they are flawlessly persuasive. They can be and have been criticised. But they are the leading examples of anti-immortality arguments, and they each imply or rest upon assumptions about existential luck. Hence, if they are persuasive they can lend support to a strong form of mortal gratitude. It’s not just that we should be grateful for death given its current necessity; it’s that we should be grateful for a life that contains the opportunity to die. Without that opportunity, the life would be less gratitude-inducing.


  • Barnes, E. (2014). Valuing Disability, Causing Disability. Ethics 125(1): 88 - 113
  • Barnes, E. (2016). The Minority Body. Oxford: OUP.
  • Benatar, D. (2006). Better never to have been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. Oxford: OUP. 
  • Benatar, D. (2013). Still Better Never to Have Been: A Reply to (more of) my Critics. Journal of Ethics 17(1-2): 121-151.
  • Burley, M. (2012) Atheism and the Gift of Death. Religious Studies 48: 533-546
  • Burley, M. (2009). Immortality and Meaning: Reflections on the Makropulos Debate. Philosophy 84: 529-546
  • Cottingham, J. (2006) What difference does it make? The nature and significance of theistic belief. Ratio 19: 401-420.
  • Dawkins, R. (1998). Unweaving the Rainbow. London: Penguin
  • de Grey, A and Rae, M. (2007). Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime. St Martin’s Press.
  • Degrazia, D. (2010). Is it wrong to impose the harms of existence? A Reply to Benatar. Theoretical and Medical Bioethics 31(4): 317-331
  • Dennett, D. (1995). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. London: Penguin
  • Dennett, D. (2013). Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. London: Penguin
  • de Sousa, R. (2013). Emotions. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Emmons and McCullough (eds) (2004). The Psychology of Gratitude. Oxford: OUP.
  • Greene, B. (2011). The Hidden Reality. London: Penguin.
  • Hauskeller, M. (2011). Human Enhancement and the Giftedness of Life. Philosophical Papers 40(1): 55-79.
  • Harman, E. (2009). Critical Study: David Benatar Better Never to Have Been. Nous 43(4): 776-785.
  • Lacewing, M. (2015) Can Non-Theists Appropriately Feel Existential Gratitude? Religious Studies. DOI 10.1017/S0034412515000037
  • Levy, N. (2011). Hard Luck: How Luck Undermines Free Will and Responsibility. Oxford University Press.
  • Luper, S. (2009) The Philosophy of Death. Cambridge University Press.
  • Moen, O.M. (2015). The Case for Cryonics. Journal of Medical Ethics. DOI:10.1136/medethics-2015-102715
  • Nagel, T. (1979). Mortal Questions. Cambridge University Press.
  • Nussbaum, M. (1994). The Therapy of Desire. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Overall, C. (2011). Why have children? The Ethical Debate. MIT Press.
  • Scheffler, S. (2013). Death and the Afterlife. Oxford: OUP
  • Shaw, D. (2009). Cryoethics: Seeking Life After Death. Bioethics 23(9): 515-521
  • Smuts, A. (2011) Immortality and Significance. Philosophy and Literature 35(1): 134-149
  • Smuts, A. (2013) To Be or Never to Have Been: Anti-natalism and a Life Worth Living. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 17(4): 711-729.
  • Solomon, R. (2008) True to our feelings: What our emotions are really telling us. Oxford: OUP.
  • van Inwagen, P (1983). An Essay on Free Will. Oxford: Clarendon Press
  • Wallace, D. (2014) The Emergent Multiverse: Quantum Theory According to the Everett Interpretation. Oxford: OUP.
  • Williams, B. (1973). The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality. In Problems of the Self. Cambridge University Press.

No comments:

Post a Comment