by J.S. Blumenthal-Barby, Ph.D.
In his new book, Death and the Afterlife (comprised of his two Tanner Lectures on Human Values), philosopher Samuel Scheffler argues that the assumption of a “collective afterlife” (i.e., the assumption that humanity lives on here on earth after our own individual deaths) plays an essential role in us valuing much of what we do. He argues, provocatively, that if a collective afterlife did not exist we would cease to value much of what we do (his “afterlife conjecture”). This includes our valuing research in science, technology and medicine; social and political activism; building or reforming social or cultural institutions; improving the physical infrastructure of society; protecting the environment; and procreation. But possibly even our valuing artistic, musical, and literary projects; philosophy, history, and theoretical physics; and the pleasures of food, drink, and sex (the thesis gets more provocative…). Scheffler’s afterlife conjecture is arrived at after he images two scenarios in which there is no collective afterlife: (1) a doomsday scenario where the earth is completely destroyed 30 days after your individual death, and (2) an infertility scenario where we face the immanent disappearance of human life on earth.
Scheffler believes that there are several important insights from these thought experiments about the nature of how and what we value, including that we are less self-sufficient than we are inclined to believe (what Scheffler controversially characterizes as “the limits of egoism” in our valuing), that our valuing has a non-experiential dimension given that we are distressed and affected by the disappearance of a collective afterlife that we will not experience, that our valuing has a conservative dimension given that we care so much that the things and people that we value be sustained or preserved through time, and that our valuing has a non-consequentialist dimension given that our evaluations of the badness of the afterlife conjecture are immediate and not a result of us adding up the net positives and negatives of humanity ending.
There’s certainly a lot to be said about Scheffler’s thesis (both about the truth of his afterlife conjecture and the conclusions he draws regarding the non-egoistic, non-experiential, conservative and non-consequentialist nature of our valuing), but Scheffler has opened up a rich and new line of thinking and inquiry. As philosopher Harry Frankfurt writes in a commentary (also in the book): “He seems to have raised, within a rigorously philosophical context, some new questions…it appears that he has effectively opened up a new and promising field of philosophical inquiry. Not bad going, in a discipline to which many of the very best minds have already devoted themselves for close to three thousand years”
Implications for Bioethics
How, if at all, is this thesis and line of inquiry significant for bioethics? A couple of thoughts: if the existence of a collective afterlife (i.e., the continuation of humanity here on earth after our own individual deaths) is such a central component to our valuing, then we ought to take steps to preserve it. This would speak in favor of the moral importance of environmental preservation, of prevention of nuclear arms races, of procreation, etc. Does the moral importance justify mandates or coercion in some cases? It could also have interesting implications for issues such as trans-humanism or human enhancement: how far can we get from “humanity” and still be consoled by a collective afterlife (interestingly Scheffler envisions caregiver robots and doesn’t think that would suffice). Finally, in some ways, “the coming into existence of people we do not know and love matters more to us than our own survival and the survival of the people we know and love” (because we face the deaths of ourselves and our loved ones without significant degradation of our valuing what we value, but in the face of the death of humanity much of what we value would cease to matter to us). Does this thought reorient any of our thinking in medicine, especially around dying (either as patients or as people who care for them)?