Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What we know, have always known, know that we can't escape, yet can't accept.

There's some good and some less good thinking about what is bad about death for the person who dies here. Shelly Kagan writes that:
Death is bad for me in the comparative sense, because when I’m dead I lack life—more particularly, the good things in life. 
As I think Nigel Pleasants has pointed out, there's something funny about claims like this, like the idea that "death is bad for me ... because when I'm dead I lack life." We don't seem to be getting anywhere. The idea that what's bad is the lack of "the good things in life" sounds more promising, but might be even worse in fact. Don Marquis argues that abortion is bad because it deprives the fetus of future good experiences, and this plausible-sounding claim leads to problematic ideas, such as that aborting a fetus with an exciting future is worse than aborting one likely to be born into poverty. Life, I would say, is not good because of the good things in life, unless we count everything as belonging to that set (God's good air, for instance, as Morrissey says). Life just is good. Death is not bad because of the opportunity costs involved, as Kagan suggests. It is the loss of all opportunities, including the opportunity to have opportunities. But to see this as the reason why it is bad is to see life as good because of the opportunities it brings. And that is right only if we count everything, every logical possibility I want to say, as an opportunity. Life isn't good because in 7th grade you get to go on a ski trip to France, for instance. That kind of opportunity, good as it is, isn't what makes life good. Recognition of the value of opportunities might shed light on the value of logic, the value of appreciating possibilities, but it doesn't get beyond tautology to explanation. Life can be defined as the opportunity to have opportunities, or perhaps just as the having of opportunities. It doesn't get its value from being what it is (although perhaps you could put it that way as a way of denying that anything worth loving gets its value from anything else).

Anyway, Bijan Parsia's comment reminded me of Larkin's poem "Wants":
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone
However the sky grows dark with invitation cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites
The costly aversion of the eyes from death---
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs. 
While Jean K.'s comment here reminds me of Larkin in a (possibly) different mood:
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night. 
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. 
In time the curtain-edges will grow light. 
Till then I see what's really always there: 
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now, 
Making all thought impossible but how 
And where and when I shall myself die. 
Arid interrogation: yet the dread 
Of dying, and being dead, 
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify. 
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse 
- The good not done, the love not given, time 
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because 
An only life can take so long to climb 
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never; 
But at the total emptiness for ever, 
The sure extinction that we travel to 
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here, 
Not to be anywhere, 
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true. 
Which in turn (because of the weight on "here" in "Not to be here," because of the images of flashing, blinding light, and because of the general theme of presence and absence, of the space or range of possible actions and lives) reminds me of "Here":