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Should I choose to never die? Williams, boredom, and the significance of mortality

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Abstract

Bernard Williams’ discussion of immortality in “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality” has spawned an entire philosophical literature. This literature tends to focus on one of Williams’ central claims: if we were to relinquish our mortality, we would necessarily become alienated from our existence and environment—“bored,” in his terms. Many theorists have defended this claim; many others have challenged it. Even if this claim is false, though, it still isn’t obvious that we should choose to relinquish our mortality, given the option. And this is puzzling. Death is generally regarded as an evil, meriting anxiety, dread, and avoidance. What is it about our mortality that makes us hesitant to relinquish it? In this paper, I aim to explain this hesitancy and to argue in its favor: we should be hesitant to relinquish our mortality. Further, I take my discussion to suggest that most of us probably shouldn’t take this option if we were given it. To make these points, I draw on Williams’ discussion of immortality, developing and extending his thought in order to better understand how mortality shapes the way we relate to our lives, particularly the commitments and values that make them meaningful. Our mortality, it seems, plays a crucial role in our lives standing for something. Relinquishing it thus means risking the loss of this value.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    I borrow “Necessary Boredom Thesis” from Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin (2014).

  2. 2.

    For criticisms of the thesis see Fischer (2009), Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin (2014), Nussbaum (2013), and Wisnewski (2005). For defenses, see Cave (2012), Kagan (2012), May (2009), Nussbaum (1994), and Scheffler (2013).

  3. 3.

    This question has two senses, one moral and another prudential. Here I’m concerned with the prudential: “Would foregoing my mortality be good for me?” Moreover, I’m interested in this question from the standpoint of the person making it. I’m interested in the so-called “subjective” rationality of the choice—whether one ought to relinquish one’s mortality given one’s particular epistemic position as a mortal who has already lived a mortal life.

  4. 4.

    By the choice to relinquish one’s mortality I mean the permanent decision to become incapable of dying. I’m thus concerned with “true immortality,” as opposed to “medical immortality,” which involves mere immunity from aging and disease (see Cave 2012).

  5. 5.

    It might appear odd that Williams makes a point about immortality by considering the case of someone whose life was only extended 300 years. As we’ll see in the next section, however, boredom is the result of living too long, for Williams, not immortality itself. There is a corresponding discussion to be had, then, about life extension. Would life extension be necessarily boring? Should we extend our lives? Should we be hesitant about it? Naturally, answers to these questions depend on how long one’s life will be extended. Immortality is a limit case. My discussion of immortality could therefore have implications for life extension more broadly. Nevertheless, I’ll restrict my discussion to (true) immortality. Thanks to a reviewer for suggesting I highlight this here.

  6. 6.

    Couldn’t, though, one put oneself into a state of permanent unconsciousness, like a coma, if things got bad? This objection gives up the larger question at hand. That is, in responding this way one has acknowledged the riskiness of giving up one’s mortality. It is still an interesting question to consider, however, whether and why giving up one’s mortality would be risky; why, that is, one would need the comfort of the possibility of permanent unconsciousness in order to relinquish one’s mortality. Permanent unconsciousness, of course, seems very similar to death.

  7. 7.

    This helps with a problem Fischer (2009) raises for the Unthinkability Condition. Fischer argues it is unclear why boredom should be unthinkable for an immortal life but not for our mortal lives. The stakes of choosing immortal life, I suggest, explains this asymmetry.

  8. 8.

    This notion of unthinkability has been a theme in much of Harry Frankfurt’s writing (see Frankfurt 2006 for recent discussion). Interestingly, Williams also discusses it (see, e.g., his contribution to Smart and Williams 1973).

  9. 9.

    What about a scenario where we’re given the option to relinquish our mortality and we’re also somehow given the relative value of the possible outcomes, along with their respective probabilities? I worry this sort of case is incoherent. It isn’t clear to me how a mortal could appreciate the value of immortal existence without being able to comprehend what it would be like. The case thus seems to problematically involve one transcending one’s own practical perspective. If such a case is coherent, however, I doubt the Unthinkability Condition applies to it.

  10. 10.

    I return to this theme in Sect. 4.

  11. 11.

    In this paper, drawing on Williams, I thus suggest one sort of reason to think we’d become bored during an immortal existence. I leave open the possibility that there are others.

  12. 12.

    Cheshire Calhoun suggests this in “Living with Boredom” (2011, 275). There, Calhoun offers an account of boredom that is sensitive to the distinction I’m attributing to Williams.

  13. 13.

    For rich discussions of the distinction, including its difficulties, see Bradley and McDaniel (2013) and Rosati (2013). It is perhaps also worth remarking here on another feature of Williams’ discussion of categorical and conditional desires. For Williams, categorical desires ground death’s badness. This, of course, is contentious (see Timmerman 2016 for criticism). Nothing I say, however, should hang on whether Williams is right about it.

  14. 14.

    As a reviewer rightfully pointed out, Williams accepts a stronger claim, tying such commitments to personal identity. This is necessary for Williams’ larger argument. But given its controversy and my purposes here (cf. footnote 16), I’ll bracket this claim.

  15. 15.

    This isn’t to say such commitments represent the only way we can commit ourselves to something. However, they are one especially important way we do. For some discussion of such substantive commitments, particularly how they relate to our attitudes towards death, see Beglin (2016).

  16. 16.

    Williams isn’t amenable to the prospect of staving off boredom by adopting a completely new set of categorical desires. This is because he argues that this solution undermines the point of wanting immortality in the first place: it wouldn’t be me who survives, or the “me” who survives wouldn’t be recognizable (Williams 1993, 83). Nevertheless, because I’m here concerned with what boredom is, rather than the conditions under which it makes sense to choose immortality, I set this issue aside.

  17. 17.

    Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin aren’t the only theorists who read Williams like this. In the next section, I discuss a criticism Martha Nussbaum (2013) has given of Williams’ position that seems to presume this sort of reading. Wisnewski (2005) and Fischer (2009) also appear to read Williams this way, offering criticisms similar to Nussbaum’s. Moreover, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin suggest that even some of Williams’ proponents, including Shelly Kagan (2012), think of the source of boredom along these lines (Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin 2014, 358–359).

  18. 18.

    This wording suggests Rosati reads Williams as subscribing to the foregoing library metaphor.

  19. 19.

    Might this thought reflect monogamous prejudices? I don’t believe so. First, one might reject the thought that ideal romantic relationships must be monogamous but still hold that having 641 romantic relationships is extreme enough to change the way those relationships can fit into one’s life. But second, a similar effect might be observed in non-romantic contexts. One might feel one misjudged the nature of one’s relationship with a “best” friend, for example, if one found out that friend had 641 other equally intimate friendships.

  20. 20.

    There is a further complication. In the film, Samantha doesn’t quite understand Theodore’s reaction to finding out she has 641 other relationships. One can easily see why there would be a perspectival gap here: given Samantha’s capacity to engage with seemingly endless individuals at once, her expectations might be different from Theodore’s. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that Theodore’s perspective should be privileged over Samantha’s, especially within the context of their relationship. But by analogy, couldn’t our expectations similarly change if we chose to become immortal? Couldn’t dilution simply work differently for immortals than for mortals? I don’t mean to deny this possibility. Indeed, in the next section I argue that we might be able to exist forever without the significance of certain types of projects or values becoming diluted. Nevertheless, there are severe epistemic limitations here, and I’m not sure this possibility should comfort us (i.e., mortal creatures deliberating about whether to become immortal). I discuss these issues in more detail below. Thanks to my reviewers for prompting me to flag this here.

  21. 21.

    I mean the type of significance here to be distinct from narrative significance, which is often the focus of theoretical discussions concerning the value of things for one’s life (cf. Velleman 1991). Some have argued against the desirability of immortality by suggesting that death is necessary for our lives to have a narrative structure—without death, our lives would be shapeless (see May 2009). This worry is different from the one I’m discussing.

  22. 22.

    I offer this as an interpretation of Williams. But even if one disagrees with this interpretation, I believe it represents an interesting and challenging account of why immortality might lead to boredom. The larger point of this paper, then, isn’t meant to hang on whether I’ve accurately interpreted Williams.

  23. 23.

    Granted, atelic activities are always limited: to promote justice one needs injustice to confront, and intellectual inquiry requires objects of inquiry. Still, and perhaps pessimistically, I suspect some atelic activities, including promoting justice and intellectual inquiry, are endlessly sustainable.

  24. 24.

    I suspect the common appeal to intellectual inquiry or promoting justice says more about the authors who suggest them than about what kinds of lives would satisfy most people.

  25. 25.

    Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin make a similar suggestion, citing “other-focused projects” (2014, 358). Wisnewski (2005) similarly suggests musical mastery would provide endless valuable occupation (33–36).

  26. 26.

    This leaves open, of course, the question of whether the changes in our perspective and expectations are for the best (cf. Harman 2009).

  27. 27.

    The choice to relinquish one’s mortality is a choice to undergo what L.A. Paul (2014) calls a “transformative experience.” Such experiences have two components. First, undergoing a transformative experience provides access to new information about the experience, information that is accessible only having undergone it. Second, transformative experiences change how one experiences who one is (17). Paul is concerned about our impoverished epistemic position in making such “transformative choices”; it appears impossible for us to gauge the subjective value of our deliberation’s possible outcomes (30–51). Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to address myself to Paul here. However, I take my project in this paper to point to a fruitful direction discussions of immortality might go: framing immortality in terms of transformative choice. Of course, Paul is skeptical that the rationality of these choices can be based on anything but the value of discovering what the transformative experience would be like. I’m less skeptical. I agree with Elizabeth Barnes, who convincingly argues, pace Paul: “…there are plenty of cases in which we don’t know what an experience is like, but we nevertheless can rationally choose to avoid that experience based on projected outcomes. And that’s because we can rationally choose based on the belief that whatever that experience is like, we’re fairly sure it’s something we don’t want” (Barnes 2015, 775). Barnes argues that this can be the case when deliberating about being eaten by sharks, having children, or undergoing a personality change. We might add: relinquishing one’s mortality.

References

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Acknowledgments

Previous versions of this paper were presented to the Immortality Project's Younger Scholar Workshop and to UC, Riverside's long-standing Agency Workshop. Many thanks to the participants of those discussions. I was also the beneficiary of two particularly encouraging and generous reviewers for Philosophical Studies, to whom I am very thankful for their invaluable feedback. Finally, I owe a special debt of gratitude to John Martin Fischer, Monique Wonderly, Meredith McFadden, and Taylor Cyr, all of whom have provided many encouraging and thoughtful comments in both conversation and on multiple drafts of the paper throughout the entire process of writing it.

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Correspondence to David Beglin.

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Beglin, D. Should I choose to never die? Williams, boredom, and the significance of mortality. Philos Stud 174, 2009–2028 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-016-0785-1

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Keywords

  • Bernard Williams
  • Immortality
  • Death
  • Boredom
  • Commitment
  • Valuing