Death and Hedonism

Here’s Charles Taylor on the failure of modern humanism to confront/adequately understand death:

“Modern humanism tends to develop a notion of human flourishing which has no place for death.  Death is simply the negation, the ultimate negation, of flourishing; it must be combated, and held off till the very last moment.  Against this, there have developed a whole range of views in the post-Enlightenment world, which while remaining atheist, or at least ambivalent and unclear about transcendence, have seen in death, at least the moment of death, or the standpoint of death, a privileged position, one at which the meaning, the point of life comes clear, or can be more closely attained than in the fullness of life.  Mallarmé, Heidegger, Camus, Célan, Beckett: the important thing is that these figures have not been marginal, forgotten figures, but their work has seized the imagination of their age” (The Secular Age, 320-21).

Where to begin?  Let me start by trying to state the “modern humanist” position—which is where I take my stand.  First, life is a precious good.  It is not necessarily the only good.  There are situations in which life may be sacrificed in the name of an other good.  Within the plurality of goods, there are always going to be trade-offs, compromises.  But within that plurality of goods, life stands as a very high good, one that is sacrificed only in very severe (what might be appropriately called “tragic”) circumstances.

Second, life is a good possessed by every living creature.  (I am going to put aside the issue of non-human living creatures for the moment, but acknowledge that a humanist like Martha Nussbaum accepts that placing such a high value on life entails extending that value to non-human creatures.)  For that reason, decisions and actions that deprive humans of life are to be viewed with great suspicion.  The burden of proof is always on the one who wants to sacrifice life in the name of a different good.  I think individuals have a right to suicide—to deciding that their individual life is not worth extending in relation to any number of different considerations.  But I just as firmly want to hold to the illegitimacy of any third party imposing or inflicting death on another individual.  Here’s where I buy into liberal notions of self-possession.  One’s life belongs to, is possessed by, the person in whom that life inheres.  How to live that life and how to end it are the individual’s prerogative.  It is a formula for tyranny to hand that prerogative over to another.

Third, I completely buy into the Sen/Nussbaum reincarnation of the Aristotelean notion of “flourishing.”  The quality of a life matters—and, to a certain extent, can be measured.  There are material necessities to the sustenance of life, and there are political/social necessities to the ability to act effectively to live the life one desires to live.  Full autonomous freedom is not possible given the facts of human sociality, starting with the extended dependence of children upon the nurture/care of parents and the ongoing dependence of all upon various forms of social cooperation to create the material and emotional goods humans require to flourish.  In other words, the notion of “flourishing” complicates enormously any notion of individual autonomy and “self-possession.”  But such complications do not render meaningless the idea that selves should get to choose their sexual partners, their friends, their occupations, their manner of living.  And certainly those complications do not mean that an individual’s life is at the disposal of others.  The reverse.  All the obligation runs the other way.  It is the responsibility of a well-ordered just society to do everything in its power to assure the flourishing of its members.

Fourth, as Taylor puts it, death is the antithesis of flourishing.  There are many other ills life is subject to, but death is an absolute negation.  As I have already said, there are circumstances in which death is not the worst option.  But I would say that such circumstances are understood in relation to the goal of “flourishing.”  Thus, many old people in our society are kept alive past the point where a flourishing life is possible.  In such cases, death can be preferable to the diminished—and often painful—life that is its alternative.

Fifth.  Even in such cases—where death is chosen over a diminished life—I can’t see how (except in a spiritualist or Romantic view that is utterly foreign to me and seems, in fact, dangerous in ways I am about to explain) one can imagine that death offers some kind of special insight (is a “privileged position” to quote Taylor).  For starters, most deaths are random.  Not just accidental deaths, but also cancers and heart attacks.  Who gets a brain tumor has no relation to the way the sick person led her life.  Moralistically, we may like to link some cancers and heart attacks to bad habits: smoking, bad diet, lack of exercise.  But even there the results are random.  Smoking increases your chances of lung cancer and stroke, but doesn’t guarantee either outcome.  Death is, no doubt, a momentous event.  But to “privilege” it is to (desperately it seems to me) attempt to assign meaning to something that is devoid of meaning.

Maybe here is where my “humanism” is most obvious.  Life has meaning, I would say, precisely to the extent that humans create or assign that meaning.  Life in and of itself is just a biological fact, generated out of the randomness and chance that is Darwinian biology.  Death is no different.  It, too, is a biological fact.  Any meaning it acquires comes from humans, the meaning-creating, meaning-obsessed species.  And given that I value life over death, I find a claim that death is “privileged” in some kind of way troublesome.  It seems wrong to take one moment in a long history (the whole trajectory of a life) as somehow definitive.  I don’t think lives possess that kind of unity; lives are much messier, pluralistic things, composed of many parts, not all of which fit together.  In other words, I don’t see a life as generating a narrative that somehow accounts for all of it.  And, even more, if I did think some special moments offer a particular insight into the nature of the life an individual lived, I would not be inclined to say that the way that person died was especially significant.  Yes, in some cases, the death tells us a huge amount.  Think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or even Primo Levi.  But I would say that in many more cases, other moments are more significant.  For most of the victims of the Holocaust, to say their deaths offered the moment (again to quote Taylor) when “the point of life comes clear” borders on obscenity.  In their case—as in many other cases—how would we think of death in any more meaningful terms than (again to quote Taylor) as “the negation, the ultimate negation, of flourishing?”  I don’t see any more acceptable way of describing what their deaths mean, or how we should think about those deaths.

Sixth.  All of this relates back to my central reason for reading the Taylor.  He is convinced that “life” is not enough.  That humans need something more than life, some connection to a divine, some relation to a world apart from the biological, material one, in order to . . . what?  Lead a full life? (But that would return us to ground of life.)  Be fully moral?  (He usually wants to eschew moralism.)  Realize their full potential?  (He does seem attracted to this notion, as I will consider in subsequent posts.)  Avoid selfish, mindless hedonism.  (Again, a hint of this idea in Taylor.  The issue is, even if I value my life and its flourishing, why should I value others’ lives, and what if my flourishing can only be purchased at others’ expense?  Taking a flourishing life as an extremely high value might lead to behavior roughly characterized as social Darwinism.)  Even if we grant all of these Taylor worries about valuing life, none of them would justify giving death some special privilege.  Altruism, sacrifice, a relation to a transcendent are all understandable alternatives to a cult of life—but it is much less clear what a focus on death has to offer.  That focus seems tied to two ideas that seem to me simply wrong. One, the idea that a life possesses a unifying narrative that locks into place at the moment of death, with that moment serving a particularly salient purpose in shaping that narrative.  Two, that the meaning of human life is only secured by a relation to something that transcends life—and that death offers some kind of privileged access to the transcendent realm.

The bottom line, I guess, is that I believe that the nothingness that preceded coming into conscious life is mirrored by the nothingness that comes after death.  If death has some privileged relation to meaning, it can only have that for the living, for the survivors, not for the dead person himself.  Meaning is tied to consciousness—and dead people are not conscious.  And I don’t believe that in the moment of death, for a fleeting instant, “the point of life comes clear” to the person who is dying.

All of this is not to say that the fact of death is irrelevant to the meaning of life.  But the fact of death is not more relevant or more crucial than the facts of love, of sex, of our need to eat food and drink water, of our dependence on a whole social order to survive.  All of those facts and many others add up to what we might call “the human condition.”  And we can certainly identify the ways that different cultures have understood and responded to death.  But I still don’t see where the “modern humanist” response to death is so obviously less adequate than other possibilities.  And let me go on record as saying, yes, death “must be combated” (to quote Taylor again.)  A society that thought illnesses should just be passively accepted or, more germane to actual cases, or thought that death on a mass scale was to be accepted as the price for social progress, or glory, or victory/revenge over one’s enemies, or economic prosperity for the few would not qualify as a “good” or desirable society for this modern humanist.  Placing life as a very, very high value—and combating all the ways humans have denigrated life and cultivated death—seems to me the right way to go.

What could ground this high valuation placed on life?  Mostly I would like to resist this call for grounding.  I want to say (after Wittgenstein) that the spade turns here, that the mistake is to ask for grounding, as if skepticism about the fact that most people value their lives, try in their every day practices to sustain, nurture, and enhance life is not enough.  That somehow they need some other reason to be devoted to their lives and the lives of the people they care for, they love. (The primary goal of a liberal ethics is to extend that circle of care out to include all with whom I share the world; Rorty is particularly good on this point.)

We can give a fancy name to this devotion to life.  Hedonism—a name that the philosophic tradition has usually used pejoratively. I would define hedonism as “the effort to live the best life possible, given the inevitable constraints under which any life is lived.”  How “the best life possible” is understood varies widely, which is what gives us human variety even as it is also a source of conflict.  But I am taking the position that hedonism ought to be a respectable position.  Here is life—a gift given to us out of nowhere or, at least, out of a void of which I, the holder of this life, have no knowledge and no experience—and one possible response is to live this life to the fullest, knowing that it will end as it began, with the passing away of my consciousness into that void. Life presents a myriad of possibilities—and I undertake to realize at least some of them, trying to activate the ones that make me feel most alive.

The specter haunting hedonism, of course, is selfishness.  Two responses have been to say that happiness and flourishing, feeling most alive, are best served in collective, cooperative enterprises with others (from raising a family to engagement in larger social endeavors) or, alternatively, to a feeling that my flourishing is not fully enjoyable, is somehow spoiled, by seeing others who cannot flourish in the world I and they inhabit together.  Taylor calls such views the “modern social order” and sees them, with their focus on altruism and on the equality of all individuals (their equal right to the means for flourishing) as legacies of Christianity.  I actually don’t care much one way or the other if he is right about that.  I do think that such views are more a matter of sensibility than of rational argument.  (My understanding of morality goes back to John Dewey and Richard Rorty.)  And it is certainly a matter of history and one’s upbringing in a particular social milieu that shapes sensibility–and I hardly want to deny that my personal history and my society’s history includes much Christianity, as one among other shaping influences.  How to weigh the various inputs and their respective contribution to my own–and to a “modern moral order’s”–sensibility is a trickier matter.

In any case, hedonism can incorporate altruism if the path to happiness includes attention to the needs of others as part and parcel of my well-being.

Now, quite obviously, others find well-being in competitive relations to others and seem unable to even experience their own good fortune unless bolstered by the sight of less fortunate others.  The moralism that an atheist links to religion finds plenty of secular analogues here, with the notions of the undeserving poor, and attachment to the idea that the market somehow rewards the virtuous and justly punishes the ne’er do wells.  The hedonist cannot discount the pleasure humans take in punishing other humans, even the pleasure humans have taken in inflicting death on other humans.

But the impossibility of a fail-safe hedonism (or humanism for that matter) adheres to every other –ism and every religion.  The mistake is to think that some system of thought or of beliefs will guarantee for once and for all virtuous human behavior.  No system is up to that demand.  That’s why I am saying that morality is not a matter of ideas or arguments or grounding principles or beliefs.  Nothing in human history suggests that such things will insure that the most fundamental of moral tenets—say, the injunction against murder—will be upheld.  Just the opposite.  The systems will be used to justify murder.  So hedonism—an attachment to life and its flourishing—fares no worse than the alternatives.

Can I argue it fares better?  I want to, if only because placing such a high value on life should give pause before spreading death about.  But I will leave off here—saving for another time the attempt to claim humanistic hedonism will have less blood on its hands than its rivals.

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