Life and Death: A Meditation

A good number of important intellectuals, famous artists, and people I know personally have died or come pretty close in the last couple years. This phenomena is nothing new to me; even in the heart of Empire, humans are subject to the human condition no less than those in Empire’s killing fields. I’ve been faced with this reality a little more than I have grown accustomed to of late and felt I could share my musings here a little more long-form from the offhand remarks I’ve been getting in trouble over.

Before discussing death outright, it would likely be prudent to address that which immediately precedes it: life. As will be addressed in my 95 Theses, there exist two possible ontological realities concerning life. It can either be teleologically directed or it can be a mere gratuitous happenstance. In the absence of what amounts to some purpose and afterlife beyond this one, life is nothing more than a complex chemical reaction that eventually exhausts itself; one’s phenomenological experiences are nothing more than a freak occurrence of matter briefly knowing itself before once again becoming deaf and dumb.

Alternatively, if the Catholics, Buddhists, animists, or adherents of some other religion turn out to be correct, the purpose of this life is directed towards what occurs afterwards. I don’t know how deeply I ought to follow this line of thought for the sake of this post; I think the absurd caricatures most people have concerning heaven and hell or reincarnation are sufficient.

In the case of life being gratuitous, death is equally so. Not even the individual who may be dying has much cause for emotion. In a few moments, there will be nothing left, and there will be nothing left to observe that absence; the universe is (phenomenologically) extinguished in death. Other than waxing poetic or discussing the epistemic impossibility of comprehending such a reality, there isn’t anything more that needs to be said. I guess I could mention that, in a universe in which life and death are gratuitous, moral principles are meaningless, even a prohibition on murder, as the “victim” has nothing to lose by such an incident. In the words of Albert Camus: “There is a passion of the absurd. The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusion and without resignation either. The absurd man asserts himself by revolting. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the ‘divine irresponsibility’ of the condemned man. Since God does not exist and man dies, everything is permissible.”

In the case of life having a telos, specifically one that motivates human action, then death may yet achieve some meaning alongside life. Death then, depending on the nature of the afterlife, could be a blessing or a curse, contingent on the relation the dying has with said afterlife. Given that the existence or absence of any sort of afterlife is yet unknown by any reliable measure, it would likely be the most prudent course of action to err on the side of rational caution, whatever that may be.

Either way, one type of comment that has gotten me in trouble is speaking of suicide in what some consider to be unaffected or positive ways. I’m no stranger to suicide, having seriously encountered that spectre in my life by way of both experiencing the temptation myself and having friends and family succumb to it. Observing suicide from the clinically detached position of praxeology can provide some insight as to the nature of such a choice. In the language of praxeology, suicide is a result of one of two possible functions: extreme time preference or cost/benefit analysis.

Speaking from personal experience, it can be quite easy to make ill-informed decisions when one has a very high time preference. Ultimately, that which differentiates human action from animal movement is the deliberative and deferred function of rationality. Where a dog will eat whatever activates their appetite, a man can choose to abstain or to eat something different from that which activates his appetites. Each individual has a different capacity for such deliberation. For example, one could usually pass up one bitcoin today if it ensured receiving two bitcoins tomorrow… but if one were to win the powerball, the would likely take half of the prize up-front, rather than taking the full prize divided into several annuities.

How does such a time preference influence the choice to kill oneself? The easy example is that of adolescents killing themselves over the inhospitable nature of school as an environment or bullying from their peers and adults. School may be a 25,000 hour system of dehumanization, but one is typically expected to live for forty to eighty years after emerging from that abuse engine. Bullies and environments come and go, but death is permanent. The decision, then, to kill oneself when still so young is demonstrative of a time preference by which one would rather permanently obliterate oneself (or face eternal damnation, same idea) than suffer the ennui of being a slave for what amounts to a relatively brief time.

A different, but functionally equivalent, example is one I have faced more than once. I have always had a very contracted time preference, and certain bouts of what could appropriately be called ennui could have been fatal for me in the past. In the saving words of Camus (again): “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.” Technically, that question is an open one for me. The only reason I still live is that of a Sisyphean dare: “There is the possibility, however, slim, that tomorrow could be better than today… wouldn’t it be a sick stoic joke if I gave up just before it’s too late? I dare tomorrow to be worse though…” By and large, the number of better tomorrows has outweighed the worse ones.

After spending so many words on time preference, cost/benefit analysis doesn’t warrant much expenditure. Where suicide as a function of extreme time preference is typically the result of a flawed cost/benefit analysis, one which weighs immediate discomfort far more heavily than expected future gains, suicide as a function of cost/benefit analysis is simply one that is better informed. If someone is over a century old and is diagnosed with an inoperable and advanced form of cancer, odds are there will quickly arrive a day beyond which each day will be worse. In an act of stoic virtue, one may make an analysis of one affairs and choose to die on one’s own timeline, rather than that of one’s cancer. There are a great number of historical and literary examples which parallel this one.

This sort of deliberation has, historically, been rejected and discouraged by Christian thinkers and preachers even though, despite argumentation to the contrary, Thomism will defend my position, utilizing the myth of “double effect”. The most prominent basis for such a rejection has been that suicide is an act of despair and despair is the opposite of faith; to reach a conclusion that each day will be worse than the any preceding day and today is the lowest threshold of desirability is to despair in God’s ability/willingness to perform miracles. This is, of course, derived from a naive interpretation of Thomist theology. God has an equal capacity to miraculously improve one’s life tomorrow as He does to do so the moment before one pulls the trigger.

The other argument presented most often from the Christian camp is some variation of “Your body is not your own, it’s God’s; to kill your body would be to steal from God.” While such rhetoric could be eminently useful as a shorthand ethical device (“Would God rather I pursue physical and intellectual virtue with this body, or let it become a shiftless mass of wasted resources?”), the metaphysics of such a claim is either non-actionable or absurd, depending on the formulation. That is not to say that I am opposed to the idea that suicide may be a sin, but it certainly is not a crime.

Of course, when discussing faith and suicide, I would be remiss in not at least mentioning martyrdom. Allowing or intentionally causing oneself to be killed for the sake of furthering an agenda, especially in the case of “Christ’s Kingdom”, is typically what one means when one refers to a martyr in the literal sense. In other words, martyrdom is typically an instance of “suicide by cop/barbarian/jihadi/etc.” whereby one has allowed themselves to fall victim of an ideologue of an opposing faction. I intend to dedicate a full post to martyrdom some other time, but it suffices to say in this context that, if suicide is impermissible for any consistent reason, martyrdom must also be avoided at any cost (possibly other than apostasy or suicide) and a great many “martyrs’ may just be suicides by any reasonable definition. Having faith in God, the afterlife, or the righteousness of one’s cause is insufficient to differentiate between suicide and martyrdom, as suicide is an attempt to escape this life for whatever comes after (and is therefore more appropriately characterized as an act of faith in the afterlife, be it nothingness, reincarnation, whatever) and the only difference is whether one kills themselves by way of their own hand, or the inevitable reactions of others.

From a anthropological perspective, death is the driving motive behind human progress. Every human action is directed towards maximizing either quantity or quality to one’s life, even if that action may be misinformed. It follows, then, that the avoidance of death is what lies, fundamentally, behind the creation of internet, smart phones, cotton underpants, indoor plumbing, drugs/medicine, and whatever other white-bread modern inventions you enjoy. In addition to being a motivating factor, it is also an inter-generational biological process. Human strains that have existed for tens of thousands of years in a particular environment have been naturally selected to exhibit different characteristics due to that environment. Said factors have played a smaller, but more significant, factor in this selective process. Yes, I’m speaking of human evolution.

Human ingenuity has largely mitigated these natural selective processes in the last couple thousand years. One of the few factors which still contributes to beneficial selective processes is the individual detrimental effects of extreme time preference, which can largely only be mitigated by the actions of the individual in question who has such a time preference. As a result, suicide is, in effect, one of the few natural processes which contribute to beneficial breeding selection. This isn’t to say that suicide is a good thing, but it is one of the few factors in human environments that contributes to genetic hygiene.

One other circumstance in human environments which contributes to beneficial selective processes is the adverse consequences of crime and vice. Criminals place themselves in situations where lethal force may be used against them. If not immediate lethal force, social forces tend to reduce one’s ability to reproduce after the fact. Despite the best efforts of progressivism and the state to mitigate the consequences of crimes (such as theft) and vices (using poorly-designed drugs like krokodil or adderal), they have not totally succeeded. The violent death rate in progressive cities such as Chicago is one such data point to illustrate this.

In the absence of the state, these beneficial consequences will become more pronounced: rather than relying on welfare to purchase food so as to subsidize one’s drug addiction, a drug-user will be forced to choose between starvation or sobriety. Those with the capacity for virtue will eschew dependence on externalities and become a valuable member of a community and those without said capacity will not be passing on their genes. A similar paradigm emerges in the case of crime. In the absence of a politically-motivated and violent monopoly on security, jurisprudence, and welfare (such as prisons), criminals will be faced with more immediate and dire consequences. Without getting into specifics, as volumes have already been written about the plethora of options in LibPar, criminals will be faced with the prospect of a more vigilant and aware set of potential victims coupled with the likelihood of death or exile if caught. It is more likely, by orders of magnitude, that those capable of basic risk-assessment and cost/benefit analysis will refrain from making ill-advised decisions while those that are incapable are not likely to reproduce.

This post, thus far, has been largely descriptive: simply observing the ontological state of affairs without making a value judgment as to whether such things are “good” or “bad”. If you, the reader, have found yourself disagreeing with the facts as I’ve laid them out or if your aesthetic tastes have been put off by my sterile approach and you are still reading this, I first want to thank you and second would like your feedback. For the reminder of this already over-sized post, I want to delve into my personal aesthetics and, perhaps, some prescriptive writing.

Life, for me, exclusively finds its meaning in death. If there were no prospect that my existence as such would ever terminate, there would be no impetus for action outside of immediate carnal itches. Even the two deepest passions in my life (my family and philosophy) would likely lack the immediacy which makes me passionate. Rather than investing so much time and effort into relationships or reading, arguing, and writing, there would certainly be an attitude of , “I’ve got time… I’ll do that right after I eat this ten-pound steak and sleep it off.” Rather than frantically devouring philosophical texts or taking on the lifetime (and, in this hypothetical, therefore eternal) commitment of marriage and siring of children, a more causal and haphazard perusal of earthly delights would be in order. I believe I can at least understand why J.R.R. Tolkien, in the Silmarillion, would have the supreme creator of the world grant Man the the “gift” of being able to die, since Man was incapable of experiencing and appreciating the supreme beauty of the gods, as could the elves.

Given my awareness of mortality (having touched death a few times, unintentionally, and having lost friends, loved ones, and acquaintances), I have spent no small amount of time dwelling on the realities expressed above as well as much more that remains unaddressed in this post. Ultimately, as far as I can tell, death is no more or less significant that one’s birth, puberty, bowel movements, or meals. Circumstances of such an event, coupled with the aesthetic preferences of those involved can imbue the event with a subjective emotional quality (happy, sad, etc.) but an objective observer could identify certain facts about the event which may be lost to others blinded by personal preferences.

Regardless of whether life and death are gratuitous or teleologically significant, the reality remains that one’s emotional and aesthetic response to a death is what it is, and bears no moral value whether it be indifference, joy, or anguish. Ethically speaking, how one chooses to express or act upon one’s reaction is purely a matter of goal acquisition. If one wants to maintain relationships with one’s extended family, it may be ill-advised to shout for joy at grandpa’s funeral, for example.

If life and death are gratuitous, the deaths of your friends are to be mourned while those of your enemies are to be celebrated (if you care at all). If life and death are teleological in nature, it all depends on the telos; to a Muslim, animist, Buddhist, shamanist, or Jew, the circumstance of the death of either friend or foe is the determining factor as to whether it is cause for happiness or dismay. Christianity, being a uniquely optimistic worldview, presents a compelling case (and resultant mystery/paradox) that every life and inevitable death is cause for celebration. The resultant mystery is such that human beings are created with the innate and ineradicable desire to add quality and quantity to their lives, while also celebrating the extreme absence thereof. This apparent paradox is resolved by a more diligent exploration of ontological matters, which I will engage in the 95 Theses.

TL;DR: As this post is as concise as I could make it and it is still 50% larger than expected, I don’t know if an abbreviated version is responsible. The general moral that can be inferred from this post, I would hope, is that one should first focus on the categorical and ontological realities of life and death in an honest and descriptive manner before entertaining emotions, preferences, and prescriptions concerning specific cases. I spent so much time addressing this moral, though, that I never got to address the three or so statements I have made recently, revolving around this topic, which raised the ire of people less philosophically involved which motivated this post.

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