Sometimes I like to amuse myself by toying with silly questions and then imagining that I might actually be able to answer them. So the other day, I started throwing the question of whether it’s ethical to live forever around in my head.
It’s a funny question because of the speculation required to answer it. No one knows for sure whether there’s an afterlife. No one has YouTubed the apocalypse. And books and movies like Heaven is for real are enough to make me want to believe that heaven is a place that should be avoided entirely, especially if it’s got people in it who believe that heaven is for real.
My silly question above, however, doesn’t really refer to heaven. I’m asking whether it’s ethical to live forever, not whether we get to do such a thing. Of course, no philosopher looks at a question point blank and accepts its terms ipso facto. So even when I ask questions like this one, its terms need to be very carefully understood. Clearly, this question implies another more fundamental question: Is it ethical to live at all? The answer to that must be yes. If we didn’t believe that, we’d all go around promoting suicide left, right and centre. This would be horrific and ridiculous, except in the case of politicians, who should even now be encouraged to believe that their chances of being voted into power depend entirely on their ability to off themselves before elections begin. Only this fantasy is preferable to our currently reality, where most politicians in power, I’m sorry to say, are actually among the living.
Although, allow me to quickly contradict this tomfoolery: Existence, as such, is a good thing, and so, once again, the question of whether it is ethical to live at all must be met with a resounding yes. This, to use a frivolous case study, is where abortion and euthanasia supporters tend to get a little confused. Especially the more dogmatic among them start to conflate the issue of quality of life with the value of life itself. They’ll use soft language about living with dignity or dying with dignity, when they’re really just talking about not living at all. They’re the ones saying that if life isn’t going to be totally pleasurable because such people are usually Epicureans, then it’s worth preventing or ending prematurely. This, I think, is to mix up the issue of suffering with the issue of living. No doubt, these things are connected, but they are also not the same thing.
To confuse the issue of life with what life supports is to confuse the host with the disease. To end suffering by ending a life, then, is tantamount to solving the problem by denying people the ability to deal with the problem. It cures the cancer by killing the patient. That’s like trying to solve the problem of a lack of education by preventing people from going to school or university, or like solving hunger by sewing shut the lips of the hungry. What would happen if we dealt with all problems with this kind of non-sequitur logic?
Of course, if we were to have the ability to live forever, other issues would come into play, like whether the actions of the average immortal person are generally ethical, or how to look after those who are terminally ill or not, or how to support the unexpectedly pregnant and their unwanted offspring. But those things will be at issue rather than the issue of life itself. The question of what kind of existence we are going to have while living forever is still important, but it too is a different question. Life itself remains, in itself, a very good thing. And so living forever, if it were possible, would be a good thing as well.
I know it may sound like a radical thing to say, and I’m not sure that I’ve ended this debate in my head so please be patient with my rather final-seeming conclusion, but I think that an eternal existence even in perpetual torment is still preferable to no existence at all. Yes, annihilation would end suffering, but it would also end the possibility of love amidst the pain, of human connection, of solidarity and a million other things that aren’t just banal or indifferent but frighteningly, terrifyingly good. I’m not saying that the bad stuff is all okay, just that, to me, it’s not a great idea to get the corruption and degeneration of things confused with the things themselves.