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Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: In light of the value of personal relationships, is immortality desirable? by Fionn O’Donovan

This essay, by Oxford undergraduate student Fionn O’Donovan, is one of the four shortlisted essays in the undergraduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

In light of the value of personal relationships, is immortality desirable?

In the future it is likely that advances in medicine will grant us the opportunity to prevent the process of ageing. The question of whether eternal life would be a good thing will then be of the utmost practical importance to humanity. In this essay, I claim that it would be, and that Williams’ concerns about immortality[1] can be assuaged with consideration of how life always gives us at least an opportunity to realise something commonly held to be incommensurably valuable, namely good relationships with others. I note here that, for the purposes of this essay, I assume there is no afterlife. I also want to note that the issues of immortality and euthanasia are linked: a similar question about whether death is ever desirable is central to debate on both. Therefore, many of the considerations I present below could also be used to support a more pro-life view on euthanasia.

Before I set out my counterarguments against Williams, I will outline my reasons for believing eternal life to be desirable. I think Williams’ strategy for tackling the matter of whether immortality is desirable is exactly the right one: we need to begin by working out our answer to Lucretius’ view that death is not a bad thing. Put another way, we first need to find out what it is that makes us think life is valuable and worth living, and then we can see if the beliefs we end up committed to in light of our answer to this question also commit us to believing that eternal life would be desirable. I shall hence structure my argument this way too. Williams’ view is that while we have good reason to avoid death for at least a finite time, eventually there will come a time when death is no longer a bad thing. Since, however, my response to Lucretius differs from Williams’ my view on the question of immortality correspondingly ends up different. My opposition to Williams will hence only be understandable with the distinction between our two responses to Lucretius in mind.

As Williams explains, Lucretius’ principal argument that death is not a bad thing is that a person who dies will not be there to experience anything bad.[2] A response to this is that that person’s death will nevertheless be a bad thing because people, including friends and family, who survive them will have suffered a loss. So the Lucretian shifts the scope of the argument to consideration of whether death is a bad thing for the person who dies. However, this separation of the interests and happiness of persons who have close relationships is problematic. A parent of young children, for example, has extremely good reason to think their own death an extremely bad thing from their own point of view, since they care unconditionally about their children’s welfare, which would suffer if the parent themselves died. The parent-child relationship is a paradigmatic example of one where the happiness of one person involved can scarcely be separated from the other’s. Williams’ response encapsulates part of the weakness of the Lucretian view. What is bad about death, he suggests, is that we all seek some goods for which life is necessary, so death is something that frustrates our attempt to attain these goals and enjoy the results. Insofar as we hold these goods of life as desirable, death is paradigmatically undesirable.[3] But while Williams concludes Lucretius is wrong merely because there must be at least something valuable in life, I want to draw attention to a specific good that I believe is, and we generally agree to be, valuable, namely having positive personal relationships with others. In arguing that death is not a bad thing or not a bad thing for the person who dies, Lucretius is forgetting that death is what all too often robs us of the opportunity of creating, continuing, and/or developing further, positive relationships with others. Like I said above, on the basis of such relationships, death can be a bad thing even just for the person who dies, because their goal of protecting the welfare of their loved ones will have suffered a blow if they die. Whether having good relationships with others is truly a valuable thing can be called into question. However, I think it is fair to say that generally speaking people agree that relationships can, at least, be extremely valuable. Indeed I think many people believe that relationships are so valuable that nothing, or at least almost nothing, should be allowed to put them in jeopardy. Although more work doubtlessly needs to be done to protect these claims from scepticism, the following conclusion follows for those who presently endorse them: since death puts our relationships with others in jeopardy, there is prima facie very strong reason to desire eternal life. Williams acknowledges that the pressure towards this view is strong,[4] but since he does not consider the element about relationships, he does not realize just how strong it is.

Those who concur with Williams’ view frequently point out that while more life is generally desirable, there are some states, of suffering or boredom, which are so bad that death is not an evil for persons enduring them.[5] Challenging this view quickly involves getting into very difficult territory, so again I shall argue that prima facie, at least, there is good reason to question it. I think we must bear in mind that a brilliant thing about life is that it always furnishes one with opportunities. If one were immortal, then no matter how bad one’s present situation was, there would always be some opportunity, however small, to experience happiness again. The question then becomes, how much suffering is it worth enduring for the sake of the opportunity for happiness? Somebody of hedonistic and/or utilitarian bent may answer, “not a great deal”. However, if one is inclined to believe that some goods, such as relationships with others, are incommensurably valuable, then one will think that no matter how awful one’s present situation is, it is worth clinging on to life for the sake of potentially enjoying them again. I have in mind here the idea that some relationships, particularly those based on unconditional commitment, are so valuable that, ideally, one ought to be willing to undergo a long period of suffering for the sake of them (consider again the parent-child relationship). For the non-utilitarian it is possible that a life which had, on balance, more pain than pleasure, would still be worth living. To the degree that one inclines to this view, immortality is increasingly desirable.

With this background in mind, we are now well-positioned to evaluate Williams’ argument. The first consideration Williams develops is that during the course of an eternal life, one’s goals and interests would eventually change so much that one’s personal identity would be lost. Recall that, for Williams, what gives one’s life meaning and importance is that one has certain aims to fulfil. Similarly, he thinks that the one’s personal identity is, at least in large part, constituted by one’s particular desires and interests.[6] I admit there is something appealing about Williams’ view: if my body lived for another 200 years, but my beliefs, aims, and way of living were utterly different from what they are now by the end, would it really be me that was still alive? It would be extremely difficult to maintain one’s personal identity, understood this way, over a long time. Williams doubts that such a psychologically disjointed life, with mere bodily and no personal continuity, is desirable. In response, I suggest applying the idea that relationships with others are central to the meaning of life to the problem of personal identity. As MacIntyre has convincingly argued,[7] modern individualist liberal culture[8] has a serious problem giving a satisfactory account of personal identity precisely because its proponents do not realize that our social relationships play a major role in constituting our personal identity. For example, no matter how long I live I will identify strongly as my mother’s son, and I am equally confident that her great influence over my character would never cease to be traceable. Other kinds of social relations are relevant here too: for instance, people may identify strongly as Londoners or members of the University of Oxford. Though the existence of these sources may be finite, their influence need not be. While it would be difficult to keep these influences in mind as time passed, an immortal person could take measures to actively remind themselves of them in writing, visually (with photos etc.) or memory if she showed sufficient discipline. Williams also argues that intellectual activity may be an enjoyable pursuit for an immortal but they would be likely to lose their identity while doing it. This, however, need not happen; one may decide to explore and defend ideas closely bound up with one’s community and personality indefinitely, and doing this would actually help preserve one’s identity. So, in my view Williams runs into the problem of personal identity and is unable to find a way out because, having neglected the aspect of personal relationships in his answer to Lucretius, he loses sight of the best (and perhaps only) solution to it.

Another problem that concerns Williams about the prospect of immortality is that it may become boring and therefore meaningless.[9] He wonders what pursuits could be so interesting they would never get boring. One point here is, for reasons explained above, I do not think his dismissal of intellectual contemplation as a candidate is convincing. Further, we should not ignore that as time passes, radically new pursuits (and relationships) will become available that, at that present time, we may have no way of conceptualizing (just as a caveman would scarcely have been able to conceptualize a video game).[10] Fischer has protested against Williams that some pleasures do not have diminishing marginal returns, citing the example of the enjoyment of fine food.[11] This point can, again, be made more convincing if we consider the element of social relationships. It is no coincidence that a recurrent and problematic question that people frequently raise during discussion of this topic is whether one’s loved ones would be immortal too. Eating nice food might eventually get boring, but would spending time enjoying life with loved ones? Again, I have no space to explore this question in depth here, but if you, like I, are inclined to answer that it wouldn’t, then you may well be committed to disagreeing with Williams.

Although there are extremely complex problems surrounding these issues, the considerations that I have adduced regarding positive personal relationships raise significant problems for Williams’ view. Is Williams’ view consistent with the value that you attach to your past, present and future relationships with others? Moreover, once mention of personal relationships has been made, don’t satisfactory answers to Williams’ concerns about boredom and personal identity become clear? Adapting to immortality may be extremely demanding, but it would be a wonderful opportunity. By focusing on our relationships I think we could navigate the challenges successfully and make the most of life indefinitely. It seems, therefore, the most warranted conclusion is that immortality is desirable.







[1] In Bernard Williams, Problems of the Self, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972, ch. 6.

[2] Williams, ibid., pp. 83-4.

[3] Williams, ibid, pp. 84-5.

[4] Ibid, p. 89.

[5] Viz. David Hume, “Of Suicide”, in Essays, Moral, Political and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller, Rev. ed., Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1987, and Williams, Ibid.

[6] Williams, Ibid, pp. 91-2.

[7] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Bloomsbury: London, 2011 [1981], Ch. 3, esp. p. 37.

[8] A culture which, I respectfully note, Williams has often shown an interest in defending. See Williams in Alex Voorhoeve, Conversations on Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[9] Williams, Ibid, pp. 94-5.

[10] Cf. MacIntyre, Ibid, pp. 109-10, on the idea of radically new concepts.

[11] John Martin Fischer, “Why Immortality is not so bad”, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 2 (2), pp. 257-270, 1994.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. I would really welcome any critical comments and would be happy to discuss the topic further, so please fire away!

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