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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.


Written by Sister Y

January 20, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Mortality Salience

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Please read The _____ Must Go On for my most recent article (January 2011) on mortality salience and terror management theory as they relate to finding value in life.

One of the most awesomely dismissive responses I have gotten to my project has been to be told, by someone claiming to be a mental health worker, that people naturally fear death and unpleasant events like suicide, and one way they deal with their fear is to construct a philosophical system in which the fear is somehow accounted for rationally. While I commend the creativity of this method of refusing to consider my ideas, and while I certainly prefer it to outright abuse, I think the commenter has it backwards. Non-suicidal people fear death, and the reminder provided by the suicide that (a) death is inevitable and (b) life is not necessarily meaningful, pushes the non-suicidal person into a form of psychological reaction referred to by Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg as worldview defense.

Pyszdzynski, Solomon, and Greenberg wrote the compendium of sociological research into “terror management theory” (nothing to do with terrorism, it’s the psychological terror of death) called (misleadingly) In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. The book reports on research that demonstrates that mortality salience – awareness of one’s eventual death – is highly likely to cause a person to engage in worldview defense – a psychological defense mechanism against the fear of death in which a person bolsters his or her worldview. This might mean intensifying connections with one’s in-group – patriotism and racial bigotry are commonly intensified – or being more willing to punish minor moral transgressions.

One of the first studies, for example, tracked the responses of municipal court judges to mortality salience. Judges were divided into two groups, each completing the same set of initial personality questionnaires, but with one group receiving a “mortality salience” trigger that was not given to the control group. The mortality salience condition judges were asked to respond to the following: “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you.” and “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.” The judges were then presented with a hypothetical legal case involving a prostitution charge, created to appear similar to those the judges dealt with daily. Say the authors:

Our primary interest was in testing the hypothesis that the judges who were reminded of their mortality by the death-related questions would set an especially high bond for the alleged prostitute. We chose judges for the study because they are rigorously trained to make such decisions rationally and uniformly. Also, we had them pass judgment on an alleged prostitute because it is a crime that violates important moral convictions of most citizens in our culture.

Indeed, the judges in the mortality salience condition imposed an average bond of $455, compared to an average bond of $50 in the control group.

This 1989 study was only an early indicator of the “terror management” hypothesis that mortality salience triggers worldview defense. Dozens – over a hundred – later studies have since replicated, isolated, and explored the worldview defense response. The authors of the book are concerned, in particular, with the “mortality salience” condition presented to the United States by 9/11, and the “worldview defense” responses to it, including intensifying patriotism and nationalism, intensifying bigotry, and suppressing dissent – and, on the positive side of the “worldview defense” equation, increasing altruism and the quest for meaning.

Terror management research has major implications for the social treatment of suicide rights. The suicide, and in fact any discussion of suicide, must act as a mortality salience induction. This acts to intensify views already in place and to make the subject defend his worldview in other ways. “Suicide is wrong/selfish” has to be a widely held belief that we might expect to be intensified through mortality salience induction, and heaping scorn on those who advocate suicide rights, along with misguided “altruistic” attempts to artificially reduce suicide rates without reducing anyone’s suffering, would also be expected methods of worldview defense. The terror management theory does not bode well for the increased acceptance and availability of suicide in our current political system.

There is a note of hope from the terror management theory research, though – it’s that worldview defense acts to bolster the political views already held by the subject, whichever view the subject holds. Mortality salience-induced subjects who read essays about anti-flag-burning laws, for instance, were more likely than control subjects to favor writers who took the subject’s position – whichever position the subject initially held – and to react negatively to writers who took the opposite position. They didn’t just all heap scorn on the flag-hating hippies; apparently, mortality-induced flag-hating hippies were just as likely to heap scorn on the fascist flag worshippers.

Worldview defense may be inevitable (though psychological health and self-esteem seem to reduce the incidence and severity of worldview defense), but what matters is the initial position held by the subject. If more people began to confront the suffering experienced by would-be suicides and consider the possibility that suicide might not be selfish and wrong, the next time he or she heard about suicide and was thereby mortality-induced, the worldview that got defended might be one in which people should have the right to commit suicide.

Written by Sister Y

June 4, 2008 at 10:34 pm