Death and the Afterlife

by Samuel Scheffler

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Death and the Afterlife
Samuel Scheffler

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Philosopher Samuel Scheffler argues that the future existence of people we do not know matters more to us, in some important ways, than the survival of ourselves and those we love.

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Excerpt: Death And The Afterlife

I will begin by asking you to consider a crude and morbid thought experiment. Suppose you knew that, although you yourself would live a normal lifespan, the earth would be completely destroyed thirty days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid. How would this knowledge affect your attitudes during the remainder of your life? Now, rather than respond straightaway, you may well protest that I haven't given you enough information to go on. How, in my imagined scenario, are we to suppose that you acquired your doomsday knowledge? Are other people in on the secret, or is this devastating piece of information your solitary burden to bear? I haven't told you, and yet surely the answers to these questions might affect your reactions. I freely concede these points. I also concede that, even if I were to fill in the story in the greatest possible detail, I would still be asking you to make conjectures about your attitudes under what I trust are highly counterfactual circumstances. Such conjectures, you may point out, are of questionable reliability and in any case impossible to verify. All of this is true. But indulge me for a few minutes. Perhaps, despite the skimpiness of the description I have provided and the conjectural character of any response you may give, some things will seem relatively clear.

You won't be surprised to learn that, although I have asked you how you would react, I'm not going to let you speak for yourself, at least not just yet. Instead I'm going to make some conjectures of my own, conjectures about the kinds of reactions that you and I and others — that "we" — would be likely to have in the situation I have described. I will begin with a negative suggestion. One reaction that I think few of us would be likely to have, if confronted with my doomsday scenario, is complete indifference. For example, few of us would be likely to say, if told that the earth would be destroyed thirty days after our death: "So what? Since it won't happen until thirty days after my death, and since it won't hasten my death, it isn't of any importance to me. I won't be around to experience it, and so it doesn't matter to me in the slightest." The fact that we would probably not respond this way is already suggestive. It means that, at a minimum, we are not indifferent to everything that happens after our deaths. Something that will not happen until after our deaths can still matter or be important to us. And this in turn implies that things other than our own experiences matter to us. A post-mortem event that matters to us would not be one of our experiences.

As against this, someone might object that, although the post-mortem event would not be one of our experiences, our prospective contemplation of that event would be part of our experience, and if such contemplation distressed us, then that distress too would be part of our experience. This is undeniable, but it is also beside the point. It does not show that only our own experiences matter to us. In the case at hand, what would matter to us, in the first instance, would not be our distress — though that might matter to us too — but rather the predicted post-mortem event whose contemplation gave rise to that distress. If the post-mortem event did not matter to us, there would be nothing for us to be distressed about in the first place. So, as I have said, the fact that we would not react to the doomsday scenario with indifference suggests that things that happen after our deaths sometimes matter to us, and that in turn implies that things other than our own experiences matter to us. In this sense, the fact that we would not react with indifference supports a non-experientialist interpretation of our values. It supports an interpretation according to which it is not only our experiences that we value or that matter to us.

There is another reaction to the doomsday scenario that I think few of us would be likely to have. Few of us, I think, would be likely to deliberate about the good and bad consequences of the destruction of the earth in order to decide whether it would, on balance, be a good or a bad thing. This is not, I think, because the answer is so immediately and overwhelmingly obvious that we don't need to perform the calculations. It is true, of course, that the destruction of the earth would have many horrible consequences. It would, for example, mean the end of all human joy, creativity, love, friendship, virtue, and happiness. So there are, undeniably, some weighty considerations to place in the minus column. On the other hand, it would also mean the end of all human suffering, cruelty, and injustice. No more genocide, no more torture, no more oppression, no more misery, no more pain. Surely these things all go in the plus column. And it's at least not instantly obvious that the minuses outweigh the pluses. Yet few of us, I think, would react to the scenario by trying to do the sums, by trying to figure out whether on balance the prospect of the destruction of the earth was welcome or unwelcome. On the face of it, at least, the fact that we would not react this way suggests that there is a non-consequentialist dimension to our attitudes about what we value or what matters to us. It appears that what we value, or what matters to us, is not simply or solely that the best consequences, whatever they may be, should come to pass.

Excerpt from Death and the Afterlife

Reprinted from Death and the Afterlife by Samuel Scheffler with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright 2013 by Samuel Scheffler,

Samuel Scheffler is University Professor in the Department of Philosophy at New York University. He is the author of Human Morality, Boundaries and Allegiances, and Equality and Tradition. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2012, he delivered the prestigious Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Berkeley, on which this book is based.