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Professor of Philosophy and Head of the Philosophy Department at the University of Liverpool, talks with Annika Loebig about death and democratising meaning.
In what feels like a cosmic foreshadowing of the problems we would face only half a year later, Michael Hauskeller published his book The Meaning of Life and Death in the plague-free autumn of 2019. I spoke to him about the ever-present question of how to find meaning in life even when we’re facing the end of it.
Portrait photo by Cristina Pascu-Tulbure
“I don’t think we have thought very much about dying ourselves during the pandemic, because our own death usually seems as abstract as the deaths of other people,” Hauskeller tells me during our Zoom meeting. “Death has to strike close to home to be perceived as real. There are millions of people dying every year. You might think, of course, that every individual death is a tragedy, but you cannot care about sixty million people dying while also living in a fairly happy and content manner. There’s a huge tension there. On the one hand it’s impossible to care about every life, on the other, you know and want others to think that every single life is important.”
One way of coming to terms with the inevitable end, Hauskeller suggests, is to extend our concept of self to other people and sentient beings, perhaps even the whole world at large: “If you don’t see yourself as ontologically distinct, torn out of this world as a separate thing which when it dies is gone completely, but rather as a part of this whole world which continues to be, then in a way you also continue to be.” According to the ‘deprivation account’, the badness of death is rooted in the fact that it deprives you of all the good things in life. Seeing our own life and death as part of existence itself, however, can remind us that the world will continue having all the good things we experienced, and did not experience, even after we cease to exist. “There will be laughter, there will be love – just not for you,” Hauskeller explains. “But you are ultimately not that important.”
“I find solace in the fact that I know it’s only my life that will end, and that somehow I share the life of others. So if I look at my children, or other people who are happy, or walk my dog and see my dog playing, then I see myself reflected in them. I’m sharing my life with them, so that when I – this particular individual – die one day, the loss is really minimal, because all that life is still there – that life of which I’m a part.” On this basis Hauskeller suggests a change in perspective away from the perception that we are the only subject that really exists in our world, so that “everything else is kind of dreamland, as it’s in my perception, in my imagination, and what is really real is me and nothing else. It seems to me that only if you think that, then death is the greatest evil.”
In the modern world, transhumanists are at the forefront of defending this belief that death is the greatest evil. According to their logic, death makes it impossible for us to live a really good life since death undercuts our ability to live meaningfully. So the transhumanist view is that society should advance technologically to overcome mortality. Their goal is to leave the human condition behind; to transform beyond it.
“Transhumanism used to be part of a very niche philosophical cultural moment in the early 1990s,” says Hauskeller. “But today, it’s very much mainstream, and in the outlook we take as a society, we very much live in the transhumanist world today in terms of what we want to achieve. The highest priority for transhumanists is to find a way to abolish death, or rather, death through aging. We cannot hope to make people completely immortal in the sense that they can never die. No material object is completely indestructible, so there will always be a possibility of being destroyed; but we can at least try to physically restructure ourselves in such a way that we no longer have to die through the biological process of aging. It seems to me that this is completely misguided,” he objects, “because if you don’t find ways to live a meaningful life now, with the limited lifespan that you have, why would you be able to live a meaningful life just because your life gets indefinitely extended?” No matter how many digits we add to our age, we will always be confined to who we are. If death did undercut the meaning of life, this would imply that no one has ever lived a meaningful life. A perhaps more pragmatic question to ask would be: How can we try to live meaningful lives in spite of death?
“Personally, I don’t think you need to be or do something really great in your life, like being a great artist, or being someone like Mother Teresa who does a lot of good for other people, or being a scientist who finds a cure for cancer, or anything really momentous. No, I don’t think that’s necessary. I think most people can live a meaningful life if they find something they’re interested in, that engages them, if they connect with other people; if they have love in their life and things to laugh about. So to be the right kind of understanding of meaning, I think the concept of meaning in life needs to be democratized – to be accessible to everyone.”
Our aversion to accepting meaning in a finite life and the subsequent desire to extend it at all costs also influences the way we approach dying and disease. The successes of medicine have removed us so far from our biological fate, that death is often seen as a failure of treatment rather than an inevitable reality. As Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor (1978): “Disease, which could be considered as much a part of nature as is health, became the synonym of whatever was ‘unnatural’.” In his 2014 book Being Mortal, surgeon Atawul Gawande explores how medical advances have changed our relationship with dying and suffering. He tells stories of patients approaching their end of life and the kinds of questions they’re faced with, as well as wondering about the true purpose of medicine and palliative care: Is medicine supposed to prolong or maintain our quality of life? How much suffering are people willing to endure before life stops being worth living? And how much meaning can we find while suffering?
“Meaning is not necessarily connected to the good things in the sense that suffering is bad and therefore prevents you from having meaningful lives. It depends on how we integrate that suffering into the whole of our lives,” Hauskeller argues: “Suffering is not bad as such, but only suffering that has no purpose. So as long as you can integrate suffering into your life story, as long as it is not for nothing, suffering can actually make your life more meaningful, even if only by helping you reflect on your life and what you really want to do.”
In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag tells us about the sixty-year-old civil servant in Kurosawa’s film Ikuru (1952), who is suffering from terminal stomach cancer. With only one year left to live he quits his job and decides to redeem his mediocre life by taking up the cause of a slum neighbourhood. She writes: “At the least, the calamity of disease can clear the way for insight into lifelong self-deceptions and failures of character.”
Hauskeller concurs: “If you get diagnosed with a fatal disease, and you know you’re going to die within a year, this can help you reflect on what’s really important in your life and make you do things that you hadn’t considered doing before. Therefore that suffering, the prospect of death, not only acquires meaning itself, but also opens the door to discovering meaning in your life.”
Hauskeller believes that our respect for life should extend to seeking a meaningful existence all the way to the end. If we realise that we have to die, then we should find out what it means for us to die well: “It’s important how we die, and where we die, because where is also part of the how. We have been discovering – if we didn’t know before – how important community is, how much we really are social beings. That is also important for our understanding of dying. When people die alone in hospital with their loved ones at home not being able to visit them, that makes us realise what a horrible thing that really is. It’s good for us to realise that because, of course, the tendency of modern dying is to hide it from us as much as possible.”
Nearly half of reported deaths occur in hospitals instead of at home or surrounded by loved ones. If we want to ensure our lives remain meaningful until the end, thinking about living well has to blend into thinking about what it means to die well. The preservation of meaning is a lifelong quest, even if it ends with death. “We need to accept death as a natural part of life,” says Hauskeller. “Dying is a natural part of living, and dying well is part of living well.”
• Annika Loebig is a writer and journalism student at the London College of Communication.