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Woody Allen, P.D. James, and Bernard Williams walk into a philosophy book…

Our ability to lead good lives right now is more dependent upon the survival of future generations than we usually recognize. Our motivations, values, and desires depend upon those who will follow us — human beings we will never meet or know. In Death and the Afterlife, Samuel Scheffler calls upon diverse cultural references — such as Woody Allen, P.D. James, and Bernard Williams in the extracts below — to explore these ideas.

On Woody Allen

Before moving on to my next topic, I want to take a brief detour to discuss the views of Alvy Singer. Alvy Singer, as you may remember, is the character played by Woody Allen in his movie Annie Hall. The movie contains a flashback scene in which the nine-year-old Alvy is taken by his mother to see a doctor. Alvy is refusing to do his homework on the ground that the universe is expanding. He explains that “the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!” Leaving aside Alvy’s nerdy precocity, the scene is funny because the eventual end of the universe is so temporally remote — it won’t happen for “billions of years,” the doctor assures Alvy — that it seems comical to cite it as a reason for not doing one’s homework. But if the universe were going to end soon after the end of his own natural life, then the arguments I have been rehearsing imply that Alvy might have a point. It might well be a serious question whether he still had reason to do his homework. Why should there be this discrepancy? If the end of human life in the near term would make many things matter less to us now, then why aren’t we similarly affected by the knowledge that human life will end in the longer term? The nagging sense that perhaps we should be is also part of what makes Alvy’s refusal to do his homework funny.

annie hall
Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Annie Hall. © Jack Rollins-Charles H. Joffe Production

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On P. D. James

It is clear that the prospective destruction of the particular people we care about would be sufficient for us to react with horror to an impending global disaster, and that the elimination of human life as a whole would not be necessary. But, surprisingly perhaps, it seems that the reverse is also true. The imminent disappearance of human life would be sufficient for us to react with horror even if it would not involve the premature death of any of our loved ones. This, it seems to me, is one lesson of P. D. James’s novel The Children of Men, which was published in 1992, and a considerably altered version of which was made into a film in 2006 by the Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. The premise of James’s novel, which is set in 2021, is that human beings have become infertile, with no recorded birth having occurred in more than twenty-five years. The human race thus faces the prospect of imminent extinction as the last generation born gradually dies out. The plot of the book revolves around the unexpected pregnancy of an English woman and the ensuing attempts of a small group of people to ensure the safety and freedom of the woman and her baby. For our purposes, however, what is relevant is not this central plot line, with its overtones of Christian allegory, but rather James’s imaginative dystopian portrayal of life on earth prior to the discovery of the redemptive pregnancy. And what is notable is that her asteroid-free variant of the doomsday scenario does not require anyone to die prematurely. It is entirely compatible with every living person having a normal life span. So if we imagine ourselves inhabiting James’s infertile world and we try to predict what our reactions would be to the imminent disappearance of human life on earth, it is clear that those reactions would not include any feelings about the premature deaths of our loved ones, for no such deaths would occur (or at any rate, none would occur as an essential feature of James’s scenario itself). To the extent that we would nevertheless find the prospect of human extinction disturbing or worse, our imagined reaction lacks the particularistic character of a concern for the survival of our loved ones. Indeed, there would be no identifiable people at all who could serve as the focus of our concern, except, of course, insofar as the elimination of a human afterlife gave us reason to feel concern for ourselves and for others now alive, despite its having no implications whatsoever about our own mortality or theirs.

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On Bernard Williams

Bernard Williams’s main ambition in his essay on “The Makropulos Case,” in addition to establishing that death is normally an evil, is to argue that there is a sense in which it nevertheless gives the meaning to our lives, because an immortal life would be a meaningless one. But although he does not address the question of whether death is to be feared, he does suggest, intriguingly, that his position does not rule this out. Just as, in his view, death can reasonably be regarded as an evil despite the fact that it gives the meaning to life, so too, he suggests but does not argue, it may be that we have reason to fear death despite the fact that it is a condition of the meaningfulness of our lives. I believe that this combination of attitudes is in fact reasonable, and I will say more later about why. But first I want to examine Williams’s reasons for the two elements of his own position: the claim that death is an evil and the claim that it gives the meaning to our lives.

Williams’s argument that death is an evil turns on his distinction between categorical and conditional desires. Some desires are conditional on continued life: if I continue living, then I want to go to the dentist to have my cavity filled, but I don’t want to go on living in order to have my cavity filled. By contrast, if one wants something unconditionally or categorically, then one’s desire is not conditional on being alive. Or, as Williams puts it, it does not “hang from the assumption of one’s existence” (86). I may, for example, have a categorical desire to finish my novel or to see my children grow up. If so, then I have reasons to resist death, since death would mean that those desires could not be satisfied. And this, Williams thinks, is as much as to say that I have reason to regard death as an evil…

…The ultimate problem is deeper, and it is a problem about human life. We want to live our lives and to be engaged with the world around us. Categorical desires give us reasons to live, and they support such engagement. But when we are engaged, and so succeed in leading the kinds of lives we want, then the way we succeed is by losing ourselves in absorbing activities. When categorical desire dies, as it must do eventually if we have sufficient constancy of character to define selves worth wanting to sustain in the first place, then we will be left with ourselves, and we ourselves are, terminally, boring. The real problem is that one’s reasons to live are, in a sense, reasons not to live as oneself. It is I who wants to live, but I want to live by losing myself — by not being me. That is the paradox or puzzle that, if Williams is correct, lies at the heart of human experience, and rather than being a consequence of immortality, it is always with us mortals.

Samuel Scheffler is University Professor in the Department of Philosophy at New York University. He is the author of Human MoralityBoundaries and Allegiances, and Equality and Tradition. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Death and the Afterlife originated as the Berkeley Tanner lectures in 2012, and includes responses from philosophers Susan Wolf, Harry Frankfurt, Seana Valentine Shiffrin, and Niko Kolodny.

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