The only serious philosophical question is suicide: should we live or should we die? This is what Albert Camus argued in his famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus, and he's in pretty good company. The most famous dramatic speech in the Western literary 'canon' -- Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' soliloquy -- grapples with the very same issue. While I have never, thankfully, felt suicidal, I do find myself drawn to the philosophical debate about the value of life and death. Is death bad? Should I want to live forever? How should I react when someone else dies?
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have returned to these questions time and time again. Indeed, I've probably written somewhere in the region of 50-60 posts about them. It can be a little overwhelming to make sense of this morass of material. So I thought I would help by trying to distill nine key lessons that I have learned from my forays into the philosophy of life and death. I've divided these lessons into three groups of three, each of which is associated with a different philosophical stance or outlook. I don't provide much analytical detail in this post. I just state the lessons baldly and unapologetically. I then provide links to posts that flesh out and examine these lessons in more detail. So you can think of this as a descriptive table of contents for a mini-ebook.
A. The Epicurean: "Death is nothing to us"
Lesson 1: Death is not bad for the one who dies because it is an 'existential blank' (i.e. it is like nothing to the one who dies). Death may be 'less good' than some of the alternatives, but then again life is rarely ideal.
Lesson 2: It does make sense to view pre-natal non-existence in a similar light to post-mortem non-existence. If you are not troubled by the former, you need not be troubled by the latter.
Lesson 3: The greatest tragedy of all is a premature death, but what counts as a 'premature' death depends on a number of personal and cultural factors. If they adopt the right frame of mind, even a very young person can treat their death with equanimity.
B. The Immortalist: "I wanna live forever"
Lesson 4: Immortality may not be tedious, but it would be pretty weird. It's hard to say whether a genuinely immortal life would be 'recognisably human'. It may rob our lives of many of the goods (e.g. achievement) that we now take for granted.
Lesson 5: Even if immortality would be weird, this doesn't mean that death is what makes life meaningful, or that it is irrational to want to live a longer life.
Lesson 6: You should be grateful for life and, under certain circumstances, grateful for death, even if you don't believe in God or any form of afterlife.
C. The Stoic: "Get over it"
Lesson 7: When someone dies, you shouldn't wallow in grief or feel any need to be excessively mournful. Indeed, excessive grieving might be counterproductive and prevent you from properly fulfilling your duties to the living.
Lesson 8: When someone close to you dies, it is okay to move on with your life and return to some semblance of normality. This need not say anything negative about your relationship with the deceased, nor about your moral character.
Lesson 9: We don't think clearly about the ethics of suicide. In particular, we may be too quick to assume that it is irrational or a sign of mental illness.