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The _____ Must Go On

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Something Greater

Virtually everyone agrees: there is something that is extremely important, more important than the concerns of individuals—perhaps even universally important. The exact nature of this important something varies, but what does not substantially vary is the fact of believing something to be of all-encompassing importance. The importance of this something is often so self-evident to those who value it as to be axiomatic to them.

Forms of Valuing

There are many ways to value something, or to express its importance. When we value something, we may devote attention to it, as with a piece of music, a painting, a child, a lover, a novel, a sport. We may even suggest or demand that others devote attention to it, as we do when we write essays or make laws. If the valued something is an aware being, such as a dog, we may act to give it pleasure, or to prevent its suffering. If it is a conscious being with its own values, i.e., a person, we may express its own universal value by promoting what it values. This is what we do when we enable another to make a choice that we do not agree with.

Especially if the valued thing is NOT a conscious being, our devotion may rise to the level of reverence, as we might express toward a flag or a god. This may be expressed in protecting it from competition from other symbols, or prohibiting its symbolic desecration.

The _____ Must Go On

There is one way of acknowledging or expressing something’s value, however, which is often mistakenly viewed as the only way to properly value something: to preserve it, to promote its longevity, to ensure its continuation into the future, as long as possible.

Maximizing longevity—the lifespan of a person, for instance, or of a political or ethnic group, or of a religion, or of a species—is not the only way to acknowledge that it has value. Why is so much importance placed upon a thing’s position and duration in time?

In “A Right of Self-Termination?” (Ethics 109 (April 1999): 606-628), J. David Velleman considers two of the forms of valuing that I list above: respect for the expressed values of a conscious being, and promoting longevity. He argues that the latter trumps the former; that is, we need not respect the stated value of a conscious being if that expressed value is the desire for the being to end. I claim (see Respecting and Erasing) that promoting longevity and continuation is only one of many ways of expressing something’s value. Robert Rauschenberg, I note, expressed and highlighted the profound aesthetic value of a Willem de Kooning drawing by erasing it. A familiar story is that of a group disbanding, rather than compromising its ideals in order to continue. All those Aztec codices burned because of their enormous value—value that threatened to compete (symbolically) with new mythologies and political systems. They turned to cinders, yet still condors scream from them in our imaginations.

Why Longevity?

If something matters in and of itself, not just instrumentally—if it has value not only in the positive feelings it gives to existing beings, but inherently—what does it matter when or for how long it exists in time? Why should we care so much about duration and continuity only, to the exclusion of the intensity, integrity, or other qualities of the valued thing’s existence?

This question, I propose, has an answer: we express the value of our “important somethings” in terms of preventing their extinction because we wish to—but cannot—prevent our own individual extinction.

This psychological explanation is not arbitrary; it is empirically grounded in the robust results of the field of Terror Management Theory.

Judges and Prostitutes: An Introduction to Terror Management Theory

In 1989, a small group of psychologists decided to subject some of the claims of Ernest Becker’s influential-but-fuzzy Denial of Death to empirical testing. Becker’s model proposes that “human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality.” Okay. How do we test that?

The scientists, Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg, decided to test whether a reminder about one’s own death (a “mortality salience induction,” in TMT jargon) would change a person’s behavior. They chose as their experimental subjects a group of judges, who are culturally expected to be fair, impartial, and unmoved by emotional matters such a fear of their own deaths.

Both the experimental group and the control group were given packets of questionnaires to fill out. However, tucked among these many pages of questions, the experimental group was given a mortality salience induction: the judges were asked to describe, in as much detail as possible, what they expected to happen to their physical bodies when they died, and the feelings this aroused in them. The control group was given a control question instead.

Both groups were then asked to make a very simple (simulated) legal judgment: to set bail for a prostitution charge. Would there be a significant difference between the bail set by mortality-salience-induced judges and control judges?

Yup. Big time. Like, an order of magnitude.

The control judges set the bail amount for an average of $50. The judges who were asked to contemplate their own deaths set the bail at an average of $455.

Why Do Death-Reminded Judges Pick On Prostitutes?

Terror Management Theory posits that the judges, reminded of their own extinction, unconsciously engaged in the psychological practice of worldview defense. Reminded of their own eventual extinction, they reached for something eternal to attach themselves to, in order to achieve symbolic immortality. The “important something” they chose was the traditional idea of law and order, violated by this hypothetical prostitute. The death-reminded judges, the theory goes, punished the prostitutes for their violation as a way of protecting the institutions of law and order and traditional society, allowing the judges to attach themselves to something eternal-seeming, and hence symbolically prevent their own extinction.

Prostitutes threaten law, order, and traditional morality. Judges reminded that they themselves are under threat of death were willing to do more to protect these “eternal” values.

From this one colorful, evocative experiment sprang a field of study whose results have been replicated and expanded worldwide. It would be impossible to even touch on the variety of experiments that have been conducted. It even works when the death reminder is not explicit, and may not even register consciously – as when one group of experimental subjects was asked to report to an experimental site located near a funeral home, and control subjects to another site. Imagine how many death reminders each one of us receives daily, without even realizing it.

And it’s not just ordinary physical death that triggers such responses, although they do so extremely strongly. It can be a reminder of social death as well—the threat of losing one’s place in society, which, in the EEA as in modern times, frequently contributes to actual death.

What Must Go On?

What else do we cling to when reminded of our own eventual extinction? Religion is a big one—occasionally promising actual immortality to believers, although this need not be the case. Political and ethnic groups, symbols, and ideas form powerful targets of worldview-defending attachment: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Nature and endangered species work well as Something Higher.

As my title suggests, the cry of an entertainer is that “the show must go on.” As vacuous as entertainment culture may be, it does have its Something Higher that trumps the individual needs of the performers. Art is a powerful worldview defense.

And then there’s having babies.

Children offer the closest thing to physical immortality. Our genes, if not our bodies, may live on after us; this is a major reason why people are willing to beggar themselves in order to have genetic children. But even raising non-genetic children allows people to pass their stories and information into the future, or imagine that they do so: to imagine that they have an effect on the future, rather than extinguishing completely.

Aside from personal survival through one’s own family, there is a nearly-universal feeling that the human race should go on. This is perhaps the ultimate remedy for mortality salience. Without humans (or at least conscious creatures), there can be no stories. We must be able to imagine the world continuing after us, and we can only do so through stories.*

Must The _____ Go On?

I am not arguing that art, nature, family, justice, humanity, or the Green Bay Packers are not important. What I wish to demonstrate is that our most strongly-held values arise through a non-conscious, irrational process to which we have no access. This is, I think, reason enough to look at our most strongly-held values with uncertainty and suspicion. We do not arrive at our deepest values by reflection and reason. To a large degree, our values “just happen”—like our brains. When our values conflict—the value of preventing suffering versus the value of preserving the human species—we are tempted to choose the latter because it feels axiomatic to us. But that is a reason to treat it with extra suspicion, not to treat it as axiomatic.

That we feel something is of all-encompassing value is not evidence that the something has such value, as much as it is evidence that we are driven to see things as valuable. The “must go on”-ness is primordial to the valued thing itself.


Readers who find this familiar will note that I wrote about this a long time ago.

For that, please read the information-dense, highly entertaining, incredibly well-written In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, written by the scientists themselves. (The book has almost nothing to do with 9/11 or terrorism, except that terrorist acts are highly visible death reminders that may be exploited for their capability to arouse worldview defense.) For an introduction that requires less time investment, watch the documentary Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality, which is awesomely available to watch instantly on Netflix.

* I do so when I imagine someone reading an essay of mine after I am dead; not even a suicide is immune to this phenomenon.

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Written by Sister Y

January 20, 2011 at 9:00 pm

How Do You Want Your Death to Be? Finding Common Ground with Non-Suicides

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Each one of us will die. What do you want your death to be like?

What do you want to happen when you die? Do you want to live as long as possible? How long would be ideal? Do you want to die in a hospital, or at home? If you were dying of pancreatic cancer, would you want complete pain relief, even if it meant that you might die from a morphine overdose? Or would you want to live as long as possible, even if in pain? Would you want doctors to introduce a feeding tube? What if the feeding tube gave you severe, constant diarrhea? If you had lived with Alzheimer’s for a decade and could no longer recognize anyone and didn’t know where you were, and you came down with pneumonia, would you want to be treated for it and cured of the pneumonia? Or would you want to die naturally of pneumonia, even though it is a treatable condition? Do you want to continue living as long as you are conscious? As long as you are able to have meaningful interactions? As long as you are able to maintain your activities of daily living? As long as you can hold your grandchildren? As long as you are, technically, alive? Do you want the ability to control the manner of your death?

There is no right answer to any of the questions above. People’s wishes for their own deaths are idiosyncratic, and should be: people’s wishes for their lives, and definitions of a good life, are certainly diverse; why should the same not be true of death? The question is: once you have though about your own death and decided what you want, do you want to deny another person his “good death”? Or do you want people to be free to have lives, and deaths, as close to their ideals as possible?

Admitting that death is a natural part of life, and thinking about how we want our own deaths to be, is, I think, an important part of being a mature human being. However, some authors, like Thomas Joiner, think that irrational, visceral fear of death is not only healthy, but that it is pathological to lose this fear of death:

. . . the erosion of fear and the attendant ability to tolerate and engage in lethal self-injury may set into motion still other psychological processes that are important in suicidality; namely, the merging of death with themes of vitality and nurturance. Only when people have lost the usual fear and loathing of death do they become capable of construing it in terms related, ironically, to effectiveness and belongingness. Only those who desire death and have come not to fear it can believe that through death, their need to belong and to be effective will be met. [Why People Die By Suicide, by Thomas Joiner. Harvard University Press, 2005, p. 226.]

But it is far from clear that the “usual fear and loathing” of an inevitable, natural, well-understood process is healthy and in the interests of human flourishing. Such a fear prevents honest and productive reflection on one’s own death.

This is not to say that dislike of death, or a strong preference against death, is a problem. A strong preference against death might be an important value held by a person, based upon which the person may make rational decisions. But, except in terms of crude survival, an irrational “fear and loathing” of death is not warranted, nor should it be encouraged.

There are many obstacles to having a mature conversation, as citizens, about death. The irrational fear of death (as opposed to a love of life) is one of these obstacles. But there are other obstacles. One, I think, is the tendency for some in the anti-suicide community to emotional overreaction to any reference to suicide in the wider culture that is not both deadly serious and in accord with their beliefs.

For instance, this week, someone calling himself an “internet safety campaigner” for the British anti-suicide group PAPYRUS, is calling for the “removal” of a computer game called Billy Suicide, in which players try to prevent a character from committing suicide by maintaining his caffeine and antidepressant levels, among other things. (One can only imagine he hasn’t heard of Karoshi Suicide Salaryman, in which each level’s puzzle calls for the player to help a cute, energetic salaryman commit suicide.) Says the “internet safety campaigner” (in the Telegraph):

This game is completely irresponsible and the people who made the game should realise the damage that it can incur in the terms of somebody taking their (sic) own life

A “spokesperson for the Samaritans” agrees that culture-wide discussions of suicide should never, ever happen with any lightheartedness, based on a credulous acceptance of the poorly understood and controversial phenomenon of suicide contagion:

Suicide is not a light-hearted subject and is (sic) should always be taken seriously.

Certain types of suicide portrayal can act as a catalyst to influence the behaviour of people who are already vulnerable, particularly young people, and result in an overall increase in suicide and/ or an increase in uses of particular methods.

I think that, in the interest of greater cultural maturity on the issues of death and suicide, all conversations about death and suicide should be encouraged – even seemingly immature conversations, and conversations that take place via marginalized art forms like computer games. Good faith should be presumed, rather than malice. It is not pathological, but crucial that we lose our cultural fear of death.

An old family friend used to joke that, when he got so old as to be helpless, he wanted his sons to roll him out into the woods he’d hunted in for years, in his wheelchair, and hang strips of raw bacon over his ears so that the bears would eat him. This was his way, I think, of introducing the somewhat tabooed topic of death control – telling people that he didn’t want to die, helpless and intubated, in a hospital. I don’t think he was wrong to make such a remark.

A person who does not fear death is not a monster or mentally ill. He is free to pursue his values as he sees them – including, often, a love for life and a desire to avoid death. He may be courageous in the face of death or danger, able to realize that some things are more important than preserving his own life at any cost. He need not be a suicide; usually, he is probably not a suicide. He is not the slave of his genes. He is not a slave at all.

Written by Sister Y

November 13, 2008 at 9:14 pm