Thomas Nagel’s book Mortal Questions raises some tough philosophical problems

Thomas Nagel’s book Mortal Questions raises some tough philosophical problems

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Thomas Nagel’s book Mortal Questions raises some tough philosophical problems. One difficult question he wants to assess is whether death is bad for us. He considers Epicurus’ and Lucretius’ arguments about death but ultimately concludes that death may really be bad — despite what the Epicurean philosophers may think.

There are several arguments and evidences that Nagel offers for his view. Choose one that you think is his best argument (even if you ultimately disagree) for why death might be bad. Try to explain this argument. Be sure to cite the text.

Please write this paper as a 1- to 2-page response. Use 1″ margins and 11- or 12-point Times or Times New Roman font. Please double-splace. No special heading is required except for your first and last names.

Published by the  Press Syndicate of the  University  of Cambridge
The  Pitt  Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1RP
40 West 20th Street, New York NY  10011-4211,  USA
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© Cambridge University  Press  1979
First published  1979
Reprinted 1979,  1980,  1981,  1982,  1983 (twice),
1985,1987,1988 (twice),  1990
Canto  edition 1991
Reprinted 1992
Printed in Great Britain by
The  Guernsey Press Co.  Ltd,  Guernsey, Channel  Islands
British Library cataloguing in publication data
Nagel, Thomas
Mortal questions.
1.  Ethics
I.  Title
Library of Congress cataloguing ill publication data
Nagel, Thomas
Mortal questions.
Includes  bibliographical  references  and  index.
1.  Life-addresses,  essays, lectures.
2.  Ethics-Addresses, essays, lectures.  I.
Title. BD431.N32  170  78-58797
ISBN  0  521  22360  1  hardback
ISBN  0  521  406765  paperback
to my father
pessimist and
If death  is  the  unequivocal  and  permanent  end  of our  existence,
the  question arises  whether  it  is  a  bad  thing  to die.
There  is  conspicuous  disagreement about  the  matter: some
people think  death  is  dreadful; others  have no objection to death
per  sr,  though  they hope their own will  be neither premature  nor
painful.  Those  in the  former category tend to think  those  in the
latter  are  blind  to  the  obvious, while  the  latter  suppose  the
former to be prey to some  sort  of confusion.  On the  one  hand it
can  be said  that  life  is  all we have and  the  loss  of it  is  the  greatest
loss  we can  sustain.  On the  other  hand it  may be objected  that
death  deprives this  supposed  loss  of its  subject,  and  that  if  we
realize  that  death  is  not  an  unimaginable  condition  of the
persisting  person,  but  a  mere blank,  we will  see  that  it  can  have
no value  whatever,  positive  or negative.
Since  I  want to leave  aside  the  question whether  we are,  or
might  be,  immortal  in some  form,  I  shall simply use  the  word
‘death’  and  its  cognates in  this  discussion  to  mean permalletlt
death,  unsupplemented  by  any  form  of conscious  survival. I
want to ask  whether  death  is  in itself  an evil; and  how great  an
evil, and  of what kind,  it  might  be.  The  question should be of
interest  even to those  who believe in some  form  of immortality,
for  one’s  attitude  toward  immortality  must depend  in part on
one’s  attitude  toward  death.
If death  is  an evil  at all,  it  cannot be because  of its  positive
features,  but  only because  of what it  deprives us of I  shall try  to
deal  with the  difficulties  surrounding  the  natural view that death
is  an  evil  because  it  brings to  an  end  all  the  goods  that  life
2  Mortal  questions
contains.  We  need  not  give an  account  of these  goods  here,
except to observe  that  some  of them,  like  perception, desire,
activity,  and  thought,  are  so  general  as to  be constitutive  of
human life.  They are  widely regarded as formidable benefits  in
themselves,  despite the  fact  that  they are  conditions  of misery as
well as  of happiness,  and  that  a  sufficient  quantity  of more
particular  evils  can  perhaps  outweigh  them.  That is  what is
meant, I  think,  by  the  allegation  that  it  is  good  simply  to  be
alive,  even if  one  is  undergoing terrible  experiences.  The  situa-tion  is  roughly  this:  There  are  elements which, if  added  to one’s
experience, make  better; there  are  other  elements which, if
added  to one’s  experience, make life  worse. But  what remains
when these  are  set  aside  is  not  merely neutral: it  is  emphatically
positive.  Therefore  life  is  worth  living  even  when  the  bad
elements of experience  are  plentiful,  and  the  good  ones  too
meager to outweigh the  bad  ones on their  own.  The  additional
positive  weight is  supplied  by experience  itself,  rather  than by
any  of its  contents.
I  shall not  discuss the  value  that  one  person’s  life  or death  may
have for  others, or its  objective value,  but  only the  value  it  has
for  the  person who is  its  subject.  That seems  to me the  primary
case, and  the  case  whici?  presents  the  greatest  difficulties. Let  me
add  only  two  observations. First,  the  value  of life  and  its
contents  does  not  attach  to  mere  organic  survival:  almost
everyone  would be  indifferent  (other  things  equal)  between
immediate  death  and  immediate  coma  followed by death  twenty
years  later without reawakening. And second,  like  most goods,
this  can  be multiplied  by  time:  more is  better  than  less.  The
added  quantities  need  not  be  temporally  continuous (though
continuity  has  its  social  advantages).  People are  attracted to the
possibility  of long-term  suspended  animation  or freezing,  fol-lowed  by  the  resumption  of conscious  life,  because  they  can
regard it  from  within simply as a  continuation of their present life.
If these  techniques  are  ever  perfected,  what  from  outside
appeared as a  dormant  interval  of three  hundred  years  could  be
experienced  by  the  subject  as  nothing  more  than  a  sharp
discontinuity in the  character of his  experiences.  I  do not  deny,
of course, that  this  has  its own disadvantages.  Family and  friends
may have died in the  meantime;  the  language may have changed;
the  comforts of social,  geographical, and  cultural  familiarity
Death  3
would be lacking.  Nevertheless  these  inconveniences  would not
obliterate  the  basic  advantage  of continued,  though  discontinu-ous,  existence.
If we turn from  what is  good about  life  to what is  bad  about
death,  the  case is  completely different. Essentially, though  there
may be problems about  their  specification,  what we find  desir-able in life  are  certain states,  conditions, or types  of activity.  It  is
being  alive,  doing  certain things,  having certain experiences,  that
we consider  good.  But  if  death  is  an evil, it  is  the  loss  oJlife,  rather
than the  state of being  dead,  or nonexistent,  or unconscious,  that
is  objectionable.!  This asymmetry is  important.  If it  is  good  to
be alive,  that  advantage  can  be attributed  to  a  person at  each
point  of his  life.  It  is  a  good  of which  Bach  had  more than
Schubert, simply because  he lived longer.  Death, however, is  not
an evil  of which  Shakespeare  has  so far  received  a  larger  portion
than Proust. If death  is  a  disadvantage, it  is  not  easy to say  when
a  man suffers it.
There  are  two  other indications that  we do not  object  to death
merely because  it  involves  long periods of nonexistence. First, as
has  been mentioned, most of us would not  regard the  temporary
suspension of life,  even  for  substantial  intervals,  as in  itself  a
misfortune. If it  ever happens  that  people can  be frozen  without
reduction  of the  conscious  lifespan,  it  will  be inappropriate  to
pity those  who are  temporarily  out  of circulation. Second,  none
of us existed before we were born (or  conceived), but  few  regard
that  as a  misfortune. T  shall have more to say  about  this  later.
The  point  that  death  is  not  regarded as an unfortunate state
enables  us  to  refute  a  curious  but  very  common suggestion
about  the  origin  of the  fear  of death.  It  is  often  said  that  those
who object  to death  have made the  mistake of trying  to imagine
what it  is  like  to be dead.  It  is  alleged  that  the  failure to realize
that  this  task is  logically impossible (for  the  banal  reason that
there  is  nothing  to imagine) leads  to the  conviction  that  death  is  a
mysterious and  therefore  terrifying  _ prospective state.  But  this
diagnosis is  evidently false,  for  it  is  just  as impossible to imagine
being  totally unconscious  as to imagine  being  dead (though  it  is
easy enough  to imagine  oneself,  from  the  outside,  in either  of
those  conditions).  Yet  people who are  averse  to death  are  not
1  It  is  sometimes  suggested  that  what we really  mind is  the  process of dying.
But  I  should not  really  object  to dying  if  it  were not  followed  by death.
4  Mortal  questions
usually averse  to unconsciousness  (so  long as it  does not  entail  a
substantial cut  in the  total  duration  of waking life).
If we are  to make sense  of the  view that  to die  is  bad, it  must
be on the  ground that  life  is  a  good and  death  is  the  correspond-ing  deprivation or loss,  bad  not  because  of any  positive  features
but  because  of the  desirability of what it  removes. We must now
turn  to  the  serious  difficulties  which  this  hypothesis raises,
difficulties  about  loss  and  privation in general,  and  about  death
in particular.
Essentially, there  are  three  types  of problem. First, doubt  may
be raised  whether  allythhlg  can  be bad  for  a  man without being
positively  unpleasant  to him: specifically,  it  may be doubted  that
there  are  any  evils  which  consist  merely in  the  deprivation or
absence  of possible  goods, and  which  do not  depend  on some-one’s minding that  deprivation.  Second,  there  are  special difficul-ties,  in the  case of death,  about  how the  supposed  misfortune is
to be assigned  to a  subject at alL  There  is  doubt  both as to who  its
subject  is,  and  as to when he undergoes  it.  So long  as a  person
exists,  he has  not  yet  died,  and  once he has  died,  he no longer
exists;  so  there  seems  to  be  no  time  when  death,  if  it  is  a
misfortune, can  be ascribed  to its  unfortunate subject.  The  third
type  of difficulty  concerns the  asymmetry,  mentioned  above,
between  our  attitudes to posthumous  and  prenatal  nonexistence.
How can  the  former  be bad  if  the  latter  is  not?
It  should  be recognized that  if  these  are  valid  objections  to
counting  death  as  an  evil,  they  will  apply  to  many  other
supposed evils as well. The  first  type of objection is  expressed  in
general  form  by the  common remark  that  what you  don’t know
can’t  hurt you. It  means  that  even  if  a  man is  betrayed by his
friends,  ridiculed behind his  back,  and  despised  by people who
treat  him  politely  to  his  face,  none  of it  can  be counted  as a
misfortune for  him  so long  as he does not  suffer  as a  result.  It
means  that  a  man is  not  injured  if  his  wishes are  ignored  by the
executor of his  will, or if,  after his  death,  the  belief  becomes
current  that  all the  literary  works  on which  his  fame  rests  were
really  written by his  brother,  who died in Mexico at the  age  of
28.  It  seems  to me worth  asking what assumptions  about  good
and  evil  lead  to these  drastic restrictions.
All  the  questions  have  something  to  do  with time.  There
certainly are  goods  and  evils of a  simple kind (including  some
Death  5
pleasures and  pains)  which  a  person po.ssesses  at a.  g.iven  time
simply in virtue  of his  condition  at  that  time.  But  thIS  IS  not  true
of all the  things  we regard as good or bad  for  a  man. Often  we
need  to  know  his  history  to  tell  whether  something  is  a
misfortune or not; this  applies to ills  like  deterioration, depriva-tion,  and  damage.  Sometimes his  experiential  state  is  relatively
unimportant  – as in the  case  of a  man who wastes his  life  in the
cheerful  pursuit of a  method of communicating with asparagus
plants. Someone who holds  that  all  goods  and  evils  must be
temporally assignable  states  of the  person may of course try
bring  difficult  cases  into line  by pointing  to the  pleasure  or pall1
that  more complicated  goods  and  evils  cause.  Loss,  betrayal,
deception,  and  ridicule  are  on  this  view  bad  because  people
suffer  when they learn  of them.  But  it  should be asked  how our
ideas  of human value  would have to  be constituted to accom-modate these  cases  directly  instead.  One advantage  of such an
account  might  be  that  it  would enable us to  explain  why  the
discovery  of these  misfortunes causes  suffering – in a  way that
makes  it  reasonable. For  the  natural view is  that  the  discovery  of
betrayal  makes us unhappy because  it  is  bad  to be betrayed – not
that  betrayal  is  bad  because  its  discovery  makes us unhappy.
It  therefore  seems  to  me worth  exploring  the  position  that
most good and  ill fortune  has  as its  subject a  person identified  by
his  history  and  his  possibilities,  rather  than  merely by  his
categorical state of the  moment – and  that  while  this  subject can
be exactly  located  in a  sequence of places  and  times,  the  same  is
not  necessarily true of the  goods  and  ills  that  befall  him.
These  ideas  can  be illustrated  by an example  of deprivation
whose severity  approaches that  of death.  Suppose  an intelligent
person receives  a  brain  injury  that  reduces  him  to  the  mental
condition  of a  contented  infant, and  that  such desires as remain
to him  can  be satisfied  by a  custodian,  so  that  he is  free  from
care. Such a  development  would be widely regarded as a  severe
misfortune, not  only for  his  friends and  relations,  or for  society,
but  also, and  primarily,  for  the  person himself.  This does not
mean that  a  contented  infant  is  unfortunate.  The  intelligent  adult
who has  been  reduced  to  this  condition  is  the  subject  of the
misfortune. He is  the  one  we pity, though  of course he does not
2  It  is  certainly not  true  in general of the  things  that  can  be said  of him. For
example, Abraham Lincoln  was  taller  than Louis  XIV. But  when?
6  Mortal questions
mind his  condition – there  is  some  doubt, in fact,  whether  he can
be said  to exist any  longer.
The  view that  such a  man has  suffered  a  misfortune is  open to
the  same  objections  which  have been raised  in regard to death.
He does not  mind his  condition.  It  is  in fact  the  same  condition
he was  in at the  age  of three  months,  except that  he is  bigger. If
we did  not  pity him  then,  why pity him  now; in any  case, who
is  there  to pity? The  intelligent  adult  has  disappeared,  and  for  a
creature  like  the  one  before us,  happiness  consists  in  a  full
stomach  and  a  dry  diaper.
— If these  objections  are  invalid,  it  must be because  they rest  on a
mistaken assumption about  the  temporal  relation  between  the
subject  of a  misfortune and  the  circumstances  which  constitute
it. If, instead  of concentrating exclusively on the  oversized baby
before us,  we consider  the  person he was, and  the  person he [auld
be now, then his  reduction  to this  state and  the  cancellation of his
natural  adult  development  constitute  a  perfectly  intelligible
This case  should convince us that  it  is  arbitrary to restrict  the
goods  and  evils that  can  befall  a  man to nonrelational properties
ascribable  to him  at  particular times.  As it  stands, that  restriction
excludes not  only such  cases  of gross  degeneration, but  also  a
good  deal  of what is  important  about  success  and  failure,  and
other  features  of a  life  that  have the  character of processes.  I
believe we can  go further,  however. There  are  goods  and  evils
which  are  irreducibly relational;  they are  features  of the  relations
between  a  person,  with spatial and  temporal  boundaries of the
usual  sort, and  circumstances  which  may not  coincide  with him
either  in space  or in time.  A  man’s  life  includes  much that  does
not  take place  within the  boundaries of his  body and  his  mind,
and  what happens  to him  can  include  much  that  does not  take
place  within the  boundaries of his  life.  These  boundaries are
commonly  crossed  by  the  misfortunes of being  deceived,  or
despised, or betrayed. (If this  is  correct,  there  is  a  simple account
of what is  wrong with breaking a  deathbed promise. It  is  an
injury  to  the  dead  man. For  certain purposes it  is  possible  to
regard time as just  another  type of distance.).  The  case  of mental
degeneration  shows us  an  evil  that  depends  on  a  contrast
between  the  reality and  the  possible  alternatives.  A  man is  the
subject  of good  and  evil  as much  because  he has  hopes  which
Death  7
mayor may not  be fulfilled,  or possibilities which  may  may
not  be realized,  as because  of his  capacity  to suffer  and  enJoy.  If
death  is  an evil, it  must be accounted  for  in these  terms,  and  the
impossibility of locating  it  within life  should not  trouble
When  a  man dies  we are  left  with his  corpse,  and  while  a
corpse can  suffer  the  kind of mishap that  may occur  to an article
of furniture,  it  is  not  a  suitable  object  for  pity.  The  man,
however, is.  He has  lost  his life,  and  ifhe had  not  died, he would
have continued  to live  it, and  to possess  whatever good  there  is
in living. If we apply  to death  the  account  suggested  for  the  case
of dementia,  we shall say  that  although the  spatial and  temporal
locations  of the  individual  who suffered  the  loss  are  clear
enough,  the  misfortune itself  cannot be so easily  located.
must be content  just  to state that  his  life  is  over and  there  Will
never  be any  more of it.  Thatjact, rather  than his  past  or present
condition,  constitutes his  misfortune, if  it  is  one. Nevertheless  if
there  is  a  loss,  someone  must suffer  it,  and  he  must have
existence and  specific  spatial  and  temporal  location  even if  the
loss  itself  does not.  The  fact  that  Beethoven  had  no children  may
have been a  cause  of regret  to him, or a  sad  thing  for  the  world,
but  it  cannot be described as a  misfortune for  the  children  that  he
never  had. All of us,  I  believe,  are  fortunate  to have been born.
But  unless  good and  ill can  be assigned  to an embryo,  or even to
an unconnected  pair  of gametes, it  cannot be said  that  not  to be
born  is  a  misfortune. (That  is  a  factor  to  be  considered  in
deciding  whether  abortion  and  contraception are  akin to  mur-der.)
This approach  also  provides  a  solution  to  the  problem  of
temporal  asymmetry,  pointed  out  by  Lucretius.  He observ.ed
that  no  one  finds  it  disturbing  to  contemplate  the  etermty
preceding  his own birth,  and  he took this  to show  that  it  must be
irrational  to fear  death,  since  death  is  simply the  mirror image  of
the  prior  abyss.  That is  not  true,  however,  and  the  difference
between  the  two  explains  why it  is  reasonable  to regard them
differently. It  is  true that  both the  time before a  man’s  birth and
the  time after his  death  are  times  when he does not  exist.  But  the
time after his  death  is  time of which  his  death  deprives  him. It  is
time  in  which, had  he  not  died  then,  he  would be  alive.
Therefore  any  death  entails  the  loss  of some  life  that  its  victim
would have led  had  he not  died at  that  or any  earlier  point.  We
Mortal  questions
know  perfectly well what it  would be for  him  to have had  it
instead  of losing  it,  and  there  is  no difficulty in identifying  the
But  we cannot say  that  the  time prior to a  man’s  birth is  time
in  which  he would have lived  had  he been born not  then  but
earlier. For  aside  from  the  brief margin permitted  by premature
labor,  he coliid  not  have been born earlier: anyone  born substan-tially  earlier  than  he  was  would have  been  someone  else.
Therefore  the  time  prior  to his  birth  is  not  time  in  which  his
subsequent birth  prevents him  from  living.  His  birth,  when  it
occurs,  does not  entail  the  -loss to him  of any  life  whatever.
The  direction of time  is  crucial in  assigning  possibilities  to
people or other  individuals.  Distinct  possible  lives  of a  single
person can  diverge  from  a  common beginning,  but  they cannot
converge  to  a  common conclusion from  diverse  beginnings.
(The latter  would represent  not  a  set  of different possible  lives  of
one  individual,  but  a  set  of distinct  possible  individuals,  whose
lives  have  identical  conclusions.) Given  an  identifiable  indi-vidual,  countless  possibilities  for  his  continued  existence  are
imaginable,  and  we can  clearly conceive of what it  would be for
him  to go on existing  indefinitely.  However inevitable  it  is  that
this  will  not  come  about, its  possibility  is  still  that  of the
continuation  of a  good  for  him, if  life  is  the  good  we tah’  it  to
3  I  confess to being  troubled  by the  above  argument.  on the  ground that  it  is
too  sophisticated  to explain  the  simple difference  between  our  attitudes  to
prenatal  and  posthumous  nonexistence. For  this  reason I  suspect  that
something  essential  is  omitted  from  the  account  of the  badness  of death
by an analysis  which  treats  it  as a  deprivation of possibilities.  My
suspicion is  supported  by the  following  suggestion of Robert Nozick. We
could  imagine  discovering that  people developed  from  individual  spores
that  had  existed indefinitely far  in  advance  of their  birth.  In this  fantasy,
birth never  occurs naturally more than a  hundred  years  before the
permanent  end  of the  spore’s existence.  Bur  then we discover  a  way to
trigger the  premature  hatching of these  spores, and  people are  born who
have thousands  of years of active  life  before them.  Given  such a  situation,
it  would be possible  to imagine  ollese!f having come  into  existence
thousands  of years  previously. If we put  aside  the  question  whether  this
would really  be the  same  person, even given  the  identity  of the  spore,  then
the  consequence  appears  to be that  a  person’s  birth at  a  given  time collid
deprive  him  of many earlier years of possible  life.  Now while it  would be
cause  for  regret  that  one  had  been deprived of all those  possible  years of
life  by being  born too  late,  the  feeling would differ  from  that  which  many
people have about  death.  I  conclude that  something  about  the  future
Death  9
We are  left,  therefore,  with the  question whether  the  nonreal-ization  of this  possibility  is  in  every  case a  misfortune, or
whether  it  depends  on  what can  naturally be hoped  for.  This
seems  to me the  most serious difficulty with the  view that  death
is  always an evil. Even if  we can  dispose  of the  objections  against
admitting  misfortune that  is  not  experienced,  or cannot  be
assigned  to a  definite  time in the  person’s  life,  we still  have to set
some  limits  on  how  possible  a  possibility  must  be  for  its
nonrealization  to be a  misfortune (or  good  fortune,  should the
possibility  be a  bad  one).  The  death  of Keats  at 24 is  generally
regarded as tragic; that  of Tolstoy  at 82 is  not.  Although they
will  both be dead for  ever,  Keats’  death  deprived him  of many
years  of life  which  were allowed  to Tolstoy;  so in a  clear sense
Keats’  loss  was  greater  (though  not  in  the  sense  standardly
employed  in  mathematical comparison  between  infinite  quan-tities).  However,  this  does not  prove  that  Tolstoy’s loss  was
insignificant.  Perhaps  we record an objection only to evils which
are  gratuitously  added  to the  inevitable;  the  fact  that  it.  is  wO.rse
to die  at 24 than at 82 does not  imply  that  it  is  not  a  ternble  thl11g
to  die  at 82,  or even  at 806.  The  question is  whether  we can
regard  as  a  misfortune any  limitation,  like  mortality,  that  is
normal  to  the  species.  Blindness  or near-blindness  is  not  a
misfortune for  a  mole, nor  would it  be for  a  man, if  that  were the
natural condition  of the  human race.
The  trouble  is  that  life  familiarizes us with the  goods  of which
death  deprives us.  We are  already  able to appreciate  them,  as a
mole is  not  able to appreciate  vision. If we put  aside  doubts
about  their status  as goods  and  grant  that  their  quantity  is  in part
a  function  of their  duration, the  question remains  whether  death,
no  matter when  it  occurs,  can  be said  to deprive  its  victim of
what is  in the  relevant  sense  a  possible  continuation  of life.
The  situation is  an ambiguous one. Observed from  without,
human beings obviously  have a  natural lifespan  and  cannot live
much longer than  a  hundred  years.  A  man’s  sense  of his  own
prospect  of permanent  nothingness is  not  captured by the  analysis  in terms
of denied possibilities.  If so,  then Lucretius’  argument  still  awaits  an
answer.  I  suspect  that  it  requires  a  general  treatment  of the.  difference
between  past  and  future  in  our  attitudes  toward  our  own hves.  Our
attitudes  toward  past  and  future  pain are  very different, for  example.
Derek  Parfit’s unpublished  writings  on this  topic  have revealed  ItS
difficulty to me.
10  Mortal  questions
experience, on the  other  hand,  does not  embody  this  idea of a
natural limit.  His  existence defines for  him  an essentially  open-en?ed  possible  future, containing  the  usual  mixture of goods  and
evIls  that  he has  found  so  tolerable  in  the  past.  Having been
gratuitously  introduced to the  world  by a  collection  of natural,
historical,  and  social  accidents,  he finds  himself  the  subject  of a
life,  with an  indeterminate  and  not  essentially  limited  future.
Viewed  in  this  way, death,  no  matter how inevitable  is  an
abrupt cancellation  of indefinitely  extensive  possible  ‘gOOds.
Normality  seems  to have nothing  to do with it, for  the  fact  that
we will  all  inevitably  die  in a  few  score  years  cannot by itself
imply  that  it  would not  be good to live  longer.  Suppose  that  we
,,:ere  all inevitably  going  to die  in agony  – physical  agony  lasting
SIX months.  Would inevitability  make  that  prospect any  less
unpleasant? And why should it  be different for  a  deprivation?  If
the  normal lifespan  were a  thousand  years,  death  at 80 would be
a  tragedy.  As  things  are,  it  may just  be  a  more widespread
tragedy.  If there  is  no limit  to the  amount  oflife  that  it  would be
good to have,  then it  may be that  a  bad  end  is  in store  for  us all.
The  Absurd
Most people feel  on occasion that  life  is  absurd,  and  some  feel  it
vividly  and  continually.  Yet  the  reasons  usually  offered  in
defense  of this  conviction  are  patently  inadequate:  they could  not
really  explain  why life  is  absurd.  Why then  do they  provide  a
natural expression for  the  sense  that  it  is?
Consider some  examples.  It  is  often  remarked  that  nothing  we
do now will  matter in a  million years.  But  if  that  is  true,  then by
the  same  token, nothing  that  will  be the  case in a  million years
matters now.  In  particular,  it  does not  matter now that  in  a
million years  nothing  we do now will  matter. Moreover,  even if
what we did  now were going  to matter in a  million years,  how
could  that  keep our  present concerns from  being  absurd?  If their
mattering now is  not  enough  to accomplish that,  how would it
help if  they mattered a  million years  from  now?
Whether what we do now wiil  matter in a  million years  could
make the  crucial difference  only if  its  mattering in a  million years
depended  on  its  mattering,  period.  But  then  to  deny  that
whatever happens  now will  matter in a  million years  is  to beg
the  question against  its  mattering,  period;  for  in that  sense  one
cannot know  that  it  will  not  matter in a  million years  whether
(for  example)  someone now is  happy  or miserable,  without
knowing that  it  does not  matter, period.
What we say  to convey  the  absurdity of our  lives  often  has  to
do with space  or time:  we are  tiny specks in the  infinite  vastness
of the  universe; our  lives  are  mere instants  even on a  geological


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