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January 04, 2014


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Hi Antti, thanks, this is interesting. I take it that you take "flourishing" and "leading a value-laden life" to be equivalent. And I take it that your reply to Johnston on Scheffler's behalf can be boiled down to two claims. First, that it is not sufficient for one to be flourishing that one's life merely has some value in it (or has acquired some benefit from others). Second, that what is necessary to our flourishing is not the existence of future generations with flourishing lives, but merely a realistic expectation of the existence of a future generation or generations with lives that have some value in them (or that we can benefit). I haven't read Scheffler's lectures so I may be underestimating the arguments he brings to bear, but I'm skeptical about the existence of any afterlife condition on a flourishing life. My worry about your reply is that by reading the afterlife condition in a fairly minimal way (we don't have to understand ourselves as contributing to a glorious future history of flourishing human lives, but only need to think we have a realistic possibility of benefiting a single generation of fairly badly-off future people), you're going to make any argument for treating the afterlife as a necessary condition on our flourishing less plausible. Why is it a necessary condition on my flourishing that there is a realistic possibility of providing some benefit to a future generation, even while I will be doing nothing to contribute to future human flourishing? If this sort of thing could indeed ground flourishing, then why can't my life count as flourishing in virtue merely of benefits I provide to my own generation? Clearly there are specific future directed activities that would lack value if we are the last generation. But I can't see why my ordinary activities like "reading fiction or appreciating art" would demand the existence of a single, non-flourishing future generation in order to count as contributing to my own flourishing.

Thanks, Simon. Here's a very quick reply, without presuming to speak for Scheffler. First, much of Scheffler's focus is on how "we" (people pretty much like him) would likely respond to, say, the global infertility scenario (Children of Men). Our dismay and despair reveals that we as a matter of fact treat the existence of future generations as a condition of value of many activities. It's a further question whether the reaction is justified or rational. But don't you feel the pull of the thought that lots of things, like teaching at a university or doing research in philosophy, would be a lot less appealing if the world was going to end after you die? (Maybe you don't. Susan Wolf says you might initially, but feel differently after a bit of reflection.)

Second, I didn't mean to say that the life of the penultimate generation would be fully value-laden, precisely because of the very brief afterlife. So my afterlife condition isn't as minimal as that. It's only if the world ends after what I called my meaning horizon that it makes no difference to my flourishing.

Third, on why benefiting future others can contribute to my flourishing even if it doesn't make others flourish: I don't think I said we couldn't contribute to the flourishing of the last generation. It just won't be enough, because whether future people lead a value-laden life is crucially up to them, just like our flourishing is crucially up to us, whatever we've inherited. Think of it in the Aristotelian way: there's a limit in any case to how much we can benefit someone else, since their flourishing is ultimately a matter of their engagement in worthwhile activity. So nothing I can do for you suffices to get you to flourish. But that doesn't mean I can't benefit you (or indeed help you flourish, or contribute to your flourishing), or that benefiting you isn't one of the worthwhile things I can do with my time. In that respect, the penultimate generation isn't in a radically different position from any of us. They, too, can make some contribution for the last generation. But independently of what they do, the last generation's life will be significantly reduced in purpose. (Everyone seems to agree that the last word hasn't been said on just how significantly reduced the value of their activities would be.)

I'll return later to the issue of fiction.

There are three different kinds of things that can matter: (1) those that require the continued existence of a collective of rational beings (human or non-human); (2) those that do not require the continued existence of such a collective but do require the existence of a personal afterlife; and (3) those that do not require the continued existence of a collective of rational beings and also do not require the existence of a personal afterlife. An example of the first might be the eternal existence of a just society; of the second, the eternal sharing of your life with your loved ones; of the third, the kind of joy you get through sharing life with others you love, pursuing and accomplishing things you value, and the like. And each of those things can matter either personally or impersonally, that is, matter to a particular person or just matter, period.

One of the things Scheffler claims is that we would despair if we thought that the universe would sometime end so that things that matter in category (1) would be impossible. Whether we would or would not is a psychological question. The philosophical question is whether it would be rational to despair if it were true that the universe will sometime end so that nothing in category (1) could matter. It would not be rational to despair if it is rational to believe that there are things that matter in category (2) or (3) and those things matter enough that despair over losing the possibility of things that matter in category (1) would be irrational. Johnston argues that there are things that matter in category (3). It seems very implausible to claim that despair would be rational for everyone if there could be nothing that matters in category (1), in the same way that it seems very implausible to claim that despair would be rational for everyone if there could be nothing in category (2) because there is no personal afterlife. Many of us think it’s reasonable to believe that there is no personal afterlife. Still, there can be enough good things in this life so that despair is not rationally required. Since despair is not rationally required if there is no personal afterlife, it is also not required if at sometime in the future there will be no collective of rational beings.

Will some people in fact despair if they believe that sometime in the future rational beings will cease to exist? Of course! And will that despair be rational for them? Of course, again, for it is rationally permitted for them to value things greatly that require the continued existence of a collective of rational beings. But that does not mean that despair is rationally required of anyone who thinks that at sometime in the future no rational beings will exist.

Hi Antti, do you think this Scheffler-argument is or can be related to pro-death antinatalism à la Benatar? (If there are moral reasons for not procreating because it harms people to bring them into existence, aren't there also moral reasons to continue procreating if not doing so would undermine the possibility to flourish for currently existing people?)

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