Is a life worth starting? Some personal views

For life—the life of any sentient creature—to be worth living, there must, as Robert Ettinger has often said, be a preponderance of satisfaction over dissatisfaction. If this overall slant toward good rather than bad is maintained, it seems reasonable that one stands to gain by continued existence. I am not sure what fraction of the human (or other sentient) population achieves this positive balance and will not speculate except to note that by appearances there are many humans who do achieve it, along with other creatures, pets in particular, so at least for them, life is worth continuing. To say that life once started is worth continuing does not, as David Benatar points out, imply that it was worth starting in the first place, or should have been started. But I think that, barring certain problematic cases,  it is fair to conclude that a human life at least is worth starting, if there are responsible prospective parents who would like to start it. Here I think it is reasonable to expect that the resulting person will feel that life is overall a benefit, and additionally, that others, the parents in particular, will stand to gain from the new life that has entered their lives. I don’t accept Benatar’s arguments that by and large life is pretty terrible and people delude themselves who think otherwise.

Also I reject his “asymmetry” argument, that it is “good” if a life that would be bad does not come into existence, but merely “not good” rather than “bad” if a life that would be good does not come into existence. (It is easy to see how this asymmetry supports the argument that life should not start in the first place and Benatar refers to it often.) Benatar’s main rationale for this argument seems to be that, while we would consider someone morally at fault for deliberately bringing into existence someone who would be miserable and just want to die, we would not similarly hold someone culpable who elected not to bring into existence someone who would be happy and want to remain alive. This I think should not be the only consideration, for it is based only on the idea of when we should regard an action as bad, and not at all on when we should regard it as good and commendable. (Why this particular asymmetry?) Instead, weighing both sides of the issue as I think is justified, I would opt for the fully symmetric position that it is “not bad” if a life that would be bad does not come into existence, and similarly, “not good” if a life that would be good does not come into existence. On the other hand, I question and doubt whether a life that comes into existence would be bad in the long run, given the prospect of immortality, which I think is a possibility through science (see below).

Life does, of course, have its problems, death in particular, that might call in question whether it is worthwhile after all and thus, whether the life of any sentient being is worth starting.  For this one problem there are a number of possible answers that will be satisfying to different people, and thus can serve as ground for a feeling that life is worthwhile and was worth starting despite one’s own mortality. There is the famous Epicurean argument that death is not really a problem because before it happens it causes no harm, and after it happens there is no victim. There is the Buddhist argument that, more fundamentally, the self is an illusion anyway, so that in fact no persons exist and death never really happens, though bliss can still occur through states of enlightenment which thus are worth seeking. There are various religious traditions that promise an afterlife and a happy immortality for those who prove worthy, or, in some versions, all who are born. Then there is scientific immortalism, which holds that at least substantial life extension through science and technology is possible, so that, irrespective of any supernatural or mystical process, persons of today have more to hope for as they get older than the usual biological ruin and oblivion.

The scientific possibilities for overcoming death come in different varieties that each have their own advocates. Some of these hopefuls, particularly younger ones, focus on the prospect that aging and now-terminal illnesses will be remedied in their natural lifetime, so that they will escape clinical death and need not specially prepare for it. Others who are not so confident have made arrangements for cryopreservation after clinical death, in hopes of resuscitation and cure of aging and diseases when the requisite technology becomes available. Still others hold out for advances on a more cosmic scale that will eventually make it possible to raise the dead comprehensively. (Some possible scenarios for this using multiple, parallel time streams rather than revisiting or recovering a hidden past are considered in my book, Forever for All, and the article at The three possibilities are not mutually exclusive, so that, for example, persons who have chosen cryonics may also place varying hopes in the other two. In fact, my personal viewpoint as a scientific immortalist grants some validity to all three possibilities, but I think it is imperative now to be engaged in cryonics, which is almost unique and the clear favorite as a proactive, interventive strategy against death. Passive acceptance of the dying process simply does not feel right, whatever the prospects for near-term medical progress, or on the other hand, resurrections in a more distant, technologically superior future. It goes without saying that I also think future life will be worth living—it should be possible to make it so, if future developments can provide the opportunity.

Immortality and boredom

If immortality means a zero chance of death, it is doubtful whether mankind (or any lifeform) will ever achieve this. Nevertheless, advocates for extending the maximum human life span often face arguments that address the negative features of being immortal. It is important to be aware that arguments against immortality do not necessarily apply to radical life extension. In absence of contemporary technologies to extend the maximum human life span, it is premature to make a case for immortality. But since some arguments that are raised against immortality are raised against living a lot longer as well, it can be beneficial to address them. One such argument is that immortality would lead to boredom.

This is the argument that Bernard Williams makes in his article “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality” (reprinted in the collection “The Metaphysics of Death”). Elina Makropulos is a 342 old character in Karel Čapek’s play “The Makropulos Case,” whose unending life has become boring and cold.  Although Williams discusses a number of interesting issues about death, the article does not contain a logical argument to believe that an unending life will necessarily lead to boredom.

The argument that immortality leads to boredom can take two forms; empirical and logical. In the first case we would observe immortal people and conclude they will become (increasingly) bored. Clearly, this approach is not possible. A milder form of this approach would be to observe very old people and to extrapolate from this to immortality. But this does not seem to be very promising. Many old people are still very curious and involved with the world, even when struggling with aging-induced  medical complications. Perhaps there is a tipping point after which old people will get bored. Perhaps not.

The other argument that immortality leads to boredom is logical in nature and is derived from the properties of being immortal as such. This does not seem to be very promising either. The assumption in such arguments is that an immortal person will exhaust all there is to live for. There are at least two problems with such a line of reasoning. The first problem is whether such a state of affairs (a fixed person with finite possibilities and experiences) logically follows from immortality. Why not assume there will be infinite possibilities and experiences (even if the person stays “the same”) instead? The other problem is that such a line of reasoning reflects an impoverished view of life, emphasizing just quantity and progress. In this view, life is a one-dimensional journey in which all things are tried and left behind. Such an outlook on human  existence does not leave room for the possibility that some experiences get richer the more we experience them. It neither leaves room for the possibility that we attach intrinsic value to things, aside from their relationship with the past or the future.

Williams anticipates such arguments when he writes:

“if one is totally and perpetually absorbed in…an activity, and loses oneself in it…we come back to the problem of satisfying the conditions it should be me who lives forever, and that the eternal life should be in prospect of some interest.”

Such an argument is not persuasive because being perpetually absorbed in something is not equivalent to that person not existing. But it is not even evident why immortality would require a person to be perpetually absorbed in something or face boredom. As Max More points out, “There is no guarantee of being engaged with life, but ennui has to do with laziness rather than the availability of too much time.”

The argument that immortality will lead to boredom is not empirical, and to the extent that a logical argument is made, it is inconclusive. Perhaps arguments of this kind do not so much reflect logic but temperament, just like ontological arguments in favor of pessimism and optimism tell us more about the philosopher in question than about the nature of the universe.

Bernard Williams does believe that as long as the desire to live exists, he does not want to die. He does not know when life will reach a point after which he would be better off not living. That is all that we need right now because no one is offering scientific means to become immortal. And even if such means would become available, one is not obliged to use them or remain immortal. Perhaps one reason why immortality has such a bad reputation in fiction is that it is often portrayed as a state of being with no way out or as a curse.

See also: Max More – Meaningfulness and mortality (Cryonics #125, vol.12, no.2, February 1991)