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Happiness, Death & the Remainder of Life

Laurence Goldstein conducts a little thought experiment.

A notice I once saw pinned to an office wall read ‘Nobody on their deathbed ever said “Gee, I wish I had spent more time in the office!”.’ Unlike most aphorisms which attempt to tell you, in a sentence, how to live your life, this one is quite profound. It makes the obvious point that being a slave to work may not be the best way to maximize one’s happiness. But, more important, it suggests that the right time to learn this lesson is now, not on the day that one dies.

The fact that we shall die is one of the few things of which we can be certain, and acknowledgment of this fact ought to figure in many of our decisions — including, prominently, our decisions about how to spend the remainder of our lives. Yet people are generally reluctant to contemplate their own deaths, and few take the trouble to realistically figure out how best to use the limited time at their disposal. However if somehow you knew for sure that you had, let us say, just two more years to live, that would concentrate the mind wonderfully. In the thought-experiment set out below, I examine some of the consequences of the possibility of accurately determining when, assuming no major accidents, a person will naturally die.

Ten Years from Now

It is ten years from now and medical science has made striking advances, not, it must be said, in the ability to prolong life to any significant extent, but in being able to predict with great accuracy when, if nature takes its course, a person will die. The margin of error is just two days, to a degree of probability of .95. Amazingly, it was established that such factors as smoking, heavy drinking, environmental pollution, swimming and eating green vegetables are all pretty much irrelevant to how long a person can expect to live.

The old actuarial science, which made rough estimates of life expectancy for broad groups of people, is now superseded by a proven technique for determining the Date of Natural Expiry (DNE) for each individual. The technique is not particularly complicated — it consists basically of subjecting to computer analysis tiny samples of a person’s bodily fluids and tissues — and the test can be run quickly and non-intrusively. In fact, there are simple walk-in machines which perform the test, from beginning to end, in about fifty seconds. It would be quite possible to have such machines standing in the high street. For a few dollars, a customer could get a print-out of his or her haemoglobin count, cholesterol level etc., and a concluding sentence which reads “Barring a catastrophe or an act of gross self-abuse, you will die on <date>.” However, for obvious reasons, no government has permitted these machines to be made available for public use in this way. Anyone, knowing themselves to be within a couple of days of the end of their lives, might cause mayhem, or might even try to take the rest of the world down with them.

One profound effect of this scientific advance has been to remove much of the mystique that shrouded death, and to bring people face to face with the fact from which they had had a tendency to hide — that each of us is going to die sometime, and in the not-too-distant future. This acknowledgment had far-reaching effects, not least upon the penal system. Following a European Union initiative, most countries have re-introduced the death penalty, and this is perceived, quite matter-of-factly, as substituting for the offender’s DNE, a Date of Unnatural Expiry. The measure has proved popular, and is seen as serving the interests of justice and satisfying the needs of revenge : People now talk, in the vernacular, about dangerous criminals getting their DUEs. Before the advent of DNE testing, there was much religious superstition surrounding death, and there was a widely held sentiment that what God giveth it is not for man to take away. Now that we know that it is normally nature that taketh away, and we can forecast exactly when this will occur, there does not seem to be anything morally outrageous about our bringing an individual’s date of death somewhat forward when that individual has committed a gross affront to his or her fellow creatures.

Whereas most countries fix the DUE for the day when, following a ‘guilty’ verdict, the appeal procedure has been exhausted, Finland, always a bastion of liberal social theory, experimented with a different system which was founded on the view that capital offences differ in their degree of heinousness, and so should attract differing penal tariffs. If, in Finland, a given capital offence were deemed to merit X months of life-deprivation, then a criminal, once sentenced, would have his or her DNE measured, and the execution date fixed for that date minus X, the intervening time to be spent in prison. Prisoners were fed adequately, allowed to exercise and to have sexual relationships with other inmates. In contrast to capital offenders in other countries, these criminals were granted a lease of life.

Ultimately, the Finnish experiment proved unsuccessful. The problem centred on the disclosure of prisoners’ DUEs. If the date were disclosed, prisoners became sullen and morose (even by Finnish standards) just waiting to die; if the date were not disclosed, then prisoners lived in constant dread, waking up each morning to the possibility that, on that day, they would be dragged away for their lethal injection. With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we can now see why expeditious despatch is preferable to either of these alternatives.

The availability of DNE testing also had the effect of rendering the question of euthanasia far less problematic. With the honourable exception of Holland, states had been resistant to legalising termination of life on demand. Yet, once a person’s remaining lifespan had been computed, and compelling medical evidence indicated that that time was likely to be spent in misery or dreadful agony, refusal to comply with that person’s request for an early end came to be seen as disrespectful and cruel. So liberal laws governing euthanasia and assisted suicide were soon enacted. Conversely, laws on abortion were de-liberalised, and a pregnant woman, together with her impregnator where available, are now required by law to have the foetus DNE tested, and to make a strong case for denying an unborn baby the enjoyment of what would typically be projected to be a long, interesting and generally happy life.

Another effect of the advent of DNE testing was a change in human dietary habits. Up until that time, vegetarianism had been becoming increasingly popular. Powerful advocates were beginning to win the moral debate. But, as became evident, if the premature termination of a human life under certain circumstances is morally acceptable, then the same ought to be true, possibly a fortiori, of the lives of non-human animals. What we learned from the Finnish experience was that prisoners’ lives were made unhappy, first because incarceration largely prevented them from realising their ambitions and pursuing their dreams; second, because the knowledge that a date had been set for their execution made them anguished. Neither of these considerations applies in the case of farmyard animals, for whom ignorance truly is bliss, and no particular abhorrence should be felt about humanely killing these animals some months before their DNEs. It goes without saying that they should be allowed to live long and happily — nowadays, for example, the sale of veal and lamb is internationally prohibited, as are certain methods of intensive breeding — but, as is evident from the behaviour of many farmers, it is quite consistent to care deeply about an animal’s welfare when it is alive, but to kill it a short time before it would die naturally.

One still hears some of the arguments in favour of vegetarianism. It is argued, for example, that the use of land for raising livestock is inefficient and wasteful; that with over half the world’s people starving, it is morally obligatory to use arable land more productively — for the growing of crops rather than for the grazing of animals — so that more of the human race can be properly fed. That argument smacks of speciesism — sacrificing the existence of other animals in favour of the sustenance of humans — but, quite apart from that, it is clear that there are better ways to achieve the desired end. In fact, the European Union has again taken the lead in levying a 1% tax earmarked for helping to relieve world starvation. This is a measure which is direct and effective, and which does not threaten the lives of future generations of farm animals. And a 1% tax reduction is expected next year, when targets for military spending cuts have been achieved now that the Iraq situation has been resolved again and there are no further foreseeable risks of mutually assured destruction.

In line with modern thinking on abortion, a version of Veganism is now widely practised and is soon to become obligatory under law. While few people have qualms about consuming aged animals and animal products (so long as the animals in question do not belong to endangered species) to eat a fertilized egg is to deprive an incipient being of the pleasure of living a life, and that is morally problematic. Of course, if one believes that lives are not in themselves particularly valuable (and some people argue that this is true even of human lives) then the preceding consideration is less than decisive. For the benefit of such people, Finland is now considering relaxing its prohibition on consensual cannibalism.

Would Ye Live Forever?

Most people, if given the choice between continuing to live or to be put painlessly to death would choose the former. The American philosopher Thomas Nagel once wrote:

“Given the simple choice between living for another week and dying in five minutes I would always choose to live for another week … I conclude that I would be glad to live forever.”
(Nagel, The View fromNowhere, p.224).

Nagel’s conclusion is erroneously drawn, and it would be equally erroneous to conclude that he would not have been better off never having been born. But, given that we have been born, and that living forever is not an option, we have to decide how to live. Aristotle famously argued in his Nicomachean Ethics that happiness comes through a life of contemplation, but that view is at first sight implausible, and Aristotle’s defence of it is highly problematic. We all wish to live happily, and it is quite probable that, without due reflection, a person may never find out how to live so as to achieve happiness. However, it is extremely unlikely that there is a universal prescription; each person needs to discover by careful examination, including self-examination, how best to achieve the desired end for himself or herself. If the considerations offered above are correct, then a good starting point for such examination is the resolute recognition of our finitude.

It might be objected that some of the unfashionable, eccentric, views that have emerged from the above discussion are predicated on a ridiculous, unrealistic assumption about the future of medical technology and, in particular, on the outlandish suggestion that we shall soon have the means to predict exactly when, barring accidents, any individual is going to die. The objection is that reliable conclusions cannot be drawn from such crude thought-experiments. Two replies spring to mind. First, as David Hume pointed out, no ‘ought’ can be derived from an ‘is’. In other words, no conclusion about morality (about what ought to be) can be derived from any empirical claim about what is, or is not, the case. So, although the empirical possibility of DNE testing played a heuristic role in the above argument, it was merely a dispensable catalyst strictly irrelevant to the validity of the argument. Second — and this lobs the ball back into the opponents’ court — the empirical possibility is not crazily unreal, given the astonishing recent advances in medical science, so it places us in a possible world not too remote from our actual world. At what point, in any of the considerations I have advanced, do results applicable to that world become inapplicable to our own? In that world, it has become theoretically possible to determine exactly when we are going to die; in this world what we know is that each of us is bound to die within a few years or fewer.

© Prof. Laurence Goldstein 2003

Laurence Goldstein is Chair of the Dept of Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong. He works mainly on logico-semantical paradoxes, but has also written a play about Wittgenstein’s PhD viva, and his most recent book is Clear and Queer Thinking: Wittgenstein’s Development and his Relevance to Modern Thought.

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