Shelly Kagan's Lectures on Death: Lecture 19 Transcript

April 3, 2007

For the original transcript, as well as audio and video versions of this lecture, see the Open Yale Courses website.


Well, you might say surely there could be creatures that would want to live forever, that would enjoy an eternal existence. And I think that's probably right. So scientists have learned how to do the following. There are certain--you can take a rat and put an electrode in his brain. If you put the electrode in just the right place, then when the electrode gets turned on, it stimulates the pleasure center in the rat's brain and it gets a little burst of pleasure, a pretty intense burst of pleasure. And in fact, you can take the wire, the electrode, and hook it up to a lever and teach the rat how to push the lever and give itself a little burst of pleasure. Now, what happens to rats when you do this? Well, maybe unsurprisingly, what they do is, they keep pressing the lever. Indeed, they press the lever and they'll stop eating, they're no longer interested in sex. They basically just give themselves this little orgasmic burst of pleasure--well, until they die.

Now well, of course, it's too bad the rat dies, but if we imagine the rat not being mortal--perhaps you've got it on IV so it's getting its nutrients that way--then perhaps it's easy to imagine the rat simply pressing the lever forever, getting this intense burst of pleasure and being content to do that for all eternity. So if it's so easy to imagine that for the rat, why not for us? Why not just put our own orgasmitron hat on with a little--not rat lever, but now human lever--with the electrodes stimulating our own brains so that we get this intense burst of pleasure? And just imagine this intense burst of pleasure going on forever. What could be more desirable than that?

Except, when I think about that, and I invite you to think about that, I don't actually find that an especially attractive prospect. ...


According to the deprivaton account, death is bad, when it's bad, because of the fact that it deprives us of the good things in life, insofar as we would have continued to get good things in life. But if life would no longer have anything good to offer you, if what you then would have had would have been something negative instead of something positive, then at that point, dying wouldn't actually be a bad thing. It would be a good thing. Death is bad insofar as it deprives you of a chunk of life that would have been good. Insofar as it deprives you of a future that would have been bad, then death's not actually bad, it's actually good.

Now, in stating this view this way, I'm obviously presupposing that we can make these kinds of, at least, overall judgments in terms of the quality of your life, how well off you are. Is life giving you good things, or is life giving you bad things? Is it worth continuing to live, or is it not worth continuing to live? So, I want to turn to that topic and spend oh, probably the better part of a lecture or so. The rest of today and some of next time talking about the question of, well, what is it for a life to go well? How do we assess what makes a life--a good life versus a bad life? And I don't mean morally good life. I mean, good for the person whose life it is. A life that you think, "I'm benefiting from having this life." What are the ingredients or constituents or elements of a good life versus a bad life? And of course, since it's not just black and white, good life or bad life, but various shades of gray, better lives and worse lives, what's the yardstick by virtue of which we measure better and worse lives? What goes into a good life?

Now, in thinking about this question, this is--you might think of the topic as the nature of wellbeing. And like all the other topics we've talked about in this class, it's a complicated subject, about which one could spend a great deal of time. All we're going to do here is really just, once again, scratch the surface. But the very first point that needs to be made, I think, is this. If you start listing all the things worth having in life, it might seem as though you couldn't possibly come to any general organizing principles. Think about it. What's worth having? Well yeah, jobs are worth having. Money's worth having. Sex is worth having. Chocolate's worth having. Ice cream's worth having. Air conditioners are worth having. What are some of the things worth avoiding? Well, being blind is worth avoiding. Being mugged is worth avoiding. Diarrhea is worth avoiding. Pain's worth avoiding. Getting unemployed is worth avoiding. War is worth avoiding.

What kind of systematicity could we possibly bring to all of this? Well, the crucial, I think, first distinction is this. We need to separate between those things that are good because of what they lead to. That is, more strictly, only because of what they lead to. And those things that are valuable for their own sake or in their own right. Take something like a job. A job's worth having. Why is a job worth having? Well, a job's worth having because, well, among other things, it gives you money. All right. Money's worth having. All right. Why is money worth having? Well, money's worth having because, among other things, you can buy ice cream with it. All right. Why is ice cream worth having? Well, ice cream's worth having because when I eat ice cream it gives me this pleasurable sensation.

All right. Why is the pleasurable sensation worth having? At this point, we get a different kind of answer. At this point, we say something like, pleasure is worth having for its own sake. The other things were valuable as a means, ultimately to pleasure. But pleasure is worth having for its own sake. The things that are valuable as a means we can say are instrumentally valuable. The things that are worth having for their own sake, philosophers call intrinsically valuable. If we look back at that long, open-ended list of things that were good or bad, we'll find that most of the things on that list are instrumentally good. They're good because of what they lead to. Or, for that matter, instrumentally bad. Why is disease bad? Well, among other things, it means perhaps that you can't enjoy yourself. So it deprives you of pleasure. Or perhaps it means because you're sick, you can't hold your job down. If you can't hold your job down, you can't get the money and so forth and so on. Ultimately, most of the negative things on that list were instrumentally bad. Most of the good things on that list were instrumentally good.

If we want to get anyplace on the question about the nature of the good life, what we need to focus on is not the instrumental goods and bads, but rather the intrinsic goods and bads. You've got to ask yourself, "What's worth having for its own sake? What's worth having in and of itself?" Well, one natural suggestion is that pleasure is worth having for its own sake and pain is probably worth avoiding for its own sake. So pain's probably intrinsically bad; pleasure is intrinsically good. Notice by the by that logically speaking, there is nothing that stops the very same thing from being both. And actually you can get other weird combinations. You go to the dentist and he pokes you. He says, "Does this hurt? Does that hurt?" in order to try to figure out where there's gum disease. And the pain that he causes is intrinsically bad. In and of itself it's bad. Yet, for all that, it's being useful there. It's providing a means of deciding where the gum has decayed. And that allows the dentist to improve your gums, which avoids more pain down the road. So the pain you're suffering now is actually instrumentally valuable, useful as a means, even though it's intrinsically bad.

Similarly, when I work, I enjoy myself. And so the pleasure I'm getting then is intrinsically good. But it's also instrumentally good. The fact that I'm enjoying myself makes it easier for me to work harder. Perhaps I'm more productive, I do better at my job. So the pleasure is both intrinsically valuable and instrumentally valuable. So there's no claiming that things have to be one or the other, but not both. Still, in trying to get clear about the nature of wellbeing, the crucial thing to do is to focus not on the question about instrumental value, but rather to focus on the question of intrinsic value. What things are worth having for their own sake, whether or not those things also have instrumental value, or what have you?

What things are worth having for their own sake and what things are worth avoiding for their own sake? Well, in giving these examples, I've already indicated at least two things that belong on the list. It seems pretty plausible to think pleasure is intrinsically good. One thing, maybe not the only thing, but at least one thing, that goes into a life worth having is enjoying it, is pleasure. And one thing that seems intrinsically bad, one thing that seems to reduce the value of a life, is pain. Most of us agree then, pleasure is intrinsically valuable; pain is intrinsically negative, unvaluable, has anti-value.

Well, suppose we make for, the moment, the bold conjecture, the philosophical claim, that not only is pleasure and the absence of pain, not only is pleasure one good thing and pain one bad thing. Suppose that's the entire list. Suppose we conjecture that the only thing intrinsically valuable is pleasure and the only thing intrinsically bad is pain. That view is called hedonism. So hedonism is a view that many people are attracted to, perhaps some of you believe. It's got a very simple theory of the nature of wellbeing. Being well off is a matter of experiencing pleasure and avoiding or minimizing the experience of pain. That's hedonism.

A little later we'll turn to the question of, well, if hedonism is not the right story, what else belongs on the list, or is it the right story? We'll turn to that question a little bit later. But notice that if we've got hedonism or, for that matter as we'll see, some other theories of wellbeing, if we've got hedonism, we're able to make the kinds of evaluations that I was helping myself to when I started talking a few minutes ago about well, you know, if what life would hold for you is bad overall, then you're better off dying and so forth.

What's going on when we make those judgments? Well, the hedonist offers us a very simple straightforward answer. In deciding whether what life holds for you is worth having, better than nothing, you, roughly speaking, add up all the good times and subtract all the bad times and see whether the net balance is positive or negative. Add up all the pleasures, subtract all the pains. If the balance is positive, your life is worth living. And the more positive the balance, the bigger the number, the more your life is worth living. If the balance is negative though, think about what that would mean. If the balance was negative, you're saying your future holds more pain overall than pleasure. And that's a negative. You'd be better off, well, you'd be better off dead, right? Because if you were dead, you'd have neither pleasure nor pain. That's going to presumably be given--mathematically if we gave it a number, we'd slap a zero on that. No positive number, no negative number. That's a zero. Obviously, if the balance of pleasure over pain is positive, that's better than zero. But if the balance of pain over pleasure--If there's more pain than pleasure so that the balance is negative, that's worse than zero. That's a life not worth having. That's what the hedonist says.

Now, there's different ways of working out the details of the hedonist view. It's not, after all, as though all pleasures count equally or all pains count equally. The pain of stubbing your toe obviously doesn't count for nearly as much as the pain of a migraine, which doesn't count nearly as the pain of being tortured. And so we might need to work out various, more complicated, formulas here, where we multiply the pain times its duration and take into account its intensity, get the sheer quantity of pain that way. And similarly, pleasures can be longer lasting, or more intense. You can imagine how some of those details might go, and then some of the questions get rather tricky. But for our purposes, we don't really need to worry about the details. The thought is, roughly, weigh up the pleasures and pains in some appropriate way. Add up the pleasures. Add up the pains. See whether the grand total of pleasures is greater than the grand totals of pain. The more positive the number, the better your life.

Now, armed with an approach like this, we can do more than just evaluate entire lives. Well, one thing we can do is just that. We can evaluate entire lives. There you are at the pearly gates and you look back on your life and you could, in principle, add up all the pleasures, add up all the pains, subtract the pains from the pleasures and ask yourself, "How good a life did I have? How well off was I, having lived that life?" And perhaps then you could imagine alternative lives. If only I had chosen to become a doctor, instead of having chosen to become a lawyer. How much better off or worse off would I have been? Or if I decided to become an artist or a scholar or a beach bum or a farmer, how much better off or worse off would I have been? How much greater or smaller would the number go?

Despite my talking about numbers, of course, there's no particular assumption that we can really give precise numbers to this. And we certainly don't think that in fact most of us are in the position to actually crank out any kind of accurate number. Most of us don't know enough to know with a high degree of accuracy how things would have gone had I decided to become a farmer instead of a philosopher. Still, the hedonist isn't saying from a practical point of view we can necessarily do this. But in theory, in principle, this is what we're wondering about when we face choices. We can ask ourselves, "What would our life look like? Would it be better or worse?" And the yardstick that we're at least doing our best to apply is one of measuring up the pleasure and subtracting the pain.

And of course, the hedonist will also hasten to point out that just because we can't do this perfectly or infallibly, that doesn't mean we can't make educated guesses, right? You're trying to decide should you go to Yale for college or should you go to Ohio State or Harvard or wherever else you got into, and you ask yourself, well, you try to project your future and you ask, "Where do I think I'd be better off? Which of these branches that are available to me, the branches of my life story, which is the one in which the future from here on out holds more pleasure and holds less pain?" That's how the hedonist says we should think about it.

And notice by the by, that when we make choices about our future, from the hedonist point of view, at least, there's no particular need to dwell a whole lot on the past, because what's done is done. You're not going to alter how much pleasur you enjoyed previously, how much suffering you've undergone previously. What's open is the future. And so we're able to evaluate not just lives as a whole, looking back at the pearly gate. We're able to evaluate lives from here on out. Which of the various futures that are open to me are likely to give me the better life, leave me better off, measured in terms of pleasure or pain? And we do our best, however good or bad that may be. We do our best to make such comparative evaluations.

And of course, we can do more than just evaluate the entire rest of my life. We can evaluate the next year or the next six months or, for that matter, just this evening. I can talk about, well, what should I do tonight? Should I stay home and work on my paper? Should I go to the party? Where will I be better off tonight? Well, I'll probably enjoy myself more at the party than I will working on the paper. And the paper's not due for a while and so forth. We make evaluations not just of entire lives, but of chunks of lives.

All right. That's what we can do if we accept hedonism. But haven't yet asked, should we accept hedonism? Now, it will not come as news to me if I were to learn that several of you, maybe even many of you, in this class accept hedonism. It's a very popular view. Not just among philosophers where it's a view that's been around as long as there's been philosophy, but among people in the street. It's a very tempting view to think, what makes life worth having and the only thing worth having for its own sake, is having pleasure and avoiding pain. But for all that, despite the popularity of that view, I'm inclined to think it must be wrong. It's not that I think pleasure isn't good and pain isn't bad. Where hedonism goes wrong is when they say it's the only thing that matters. I'm inclined to think there's more to the best kind of life than just having pleasure and avoiding pain.

Now, I already revealed that, when I was talking about the rat lever machine. I said, hook me up to that machine and I'll enjoy myself. But I don't want that for myself. Why? Because there's more to life than just pleasure and the absence of pain, or so it seems to me.

Still, we might say, but the rat lever is not the only kind of pleasures there are. There's all these pleasures of experiencing art and seeing a beautiful sunset. And I don't know about you, but at least when I imagine the rat lever thing, it's a sort of simple, undifferentiated pleasure. So, that really won't do the trick in giving us the best quality pleasures of the kinds that humans most crave--the pleasures of friendship and discussion and sexual intimacy. These pleasures the rat lever machine wasn't giving us.

So couldn't hedonism still be true? Couldn't it still be the case that as long as we take into account the importance of getting the right kinds of pleasures, then really pleasure is what it's all about and all that it's about? No, I think that's still not right. But indeed, we'll need to move to something fancier than the rat lever machine. Here, the relevant thought experiment was suggested by Robert Nozick, a philosopher who died a few years ago, taught for many years at Harvard.

Nozick invited us to imagine an experience machine. So, suppose that the scientists have discovered a way not just to stimulate the particular little pleasure center of the brain, but basically to--give you basically, completely realistic virtual reality. So that when you are hooked up to the machine, it seems to you exactly the same on the inside as it would seem to you if you really were--and now fill in the blank. You could have the identical experience of climbing Mount Everest, let's say, so that you'll feel the wind bracing you. Of course, you won't really feel any wind. Strictly speaking, that's not true, because you're not up on Mount Everest. There is no wind. What's really going on is you're floating in the psychologist's tank in their lab with the electrodes hooked up your brain. But you don't know that you are floating in the tank. Hooked up to the machine, you believe you are climbing Mount Everest. You feel the thrill of having made it to the top and the wind bracingly striking your chin and you feel the satisfaction and you've got the memories of having almost died when the rope broke before.

It's not like being at the IMAX. The crucial point, when you're at the IMAX is, although it's very realistic, part of you is aware that you're just in the theatre. But on the experience machine, you don't know you're just in the lab. When you're on the experience machine, you've got--your brain is being stimulated in such a way that you've got the identical experience on the inside to what it would feel like if you really were doing these things.

So, imagine a life on the experience machine. Imagine plugging in the tape. Says something about how old this example is that we talk about plugging in the tapes. Imagine plugging in the DVD, or whatever it is, with all of the best possible experiences. Whatever you think those are. Here, you might imagine different people disagreeing about--oh, but throw in something--but if what you want to do is write the great American novel, then you've got the experience of staying up late at night not knowing how to make the plot work out, crushing pieces of paper and throwing them away. Crushing your computer, or whatever it is that you do as you write the great American novel.

Or you want to be finding the cure for cancer. So you've got exactly the experience you would have if you were working in your lab having the brilliant breakthrough when you finally realize what the combination is that would make the right antibody, whatever it is. Or if you want to be observing all the most beautiful sunsets and the most exotic locales, you've got exactly the experience you would have if you were doing all these things.

That's life on the experience machine. You're not doing any of it. You're floating in the lab. But the experiences are identical. Now, ask yourself then, would you want to spend your life hooked up to the experience machine? Ask yourself, how would you feel if you discovered now that you have been living your life hooked up to an experience machine?

Now, I've got to make a footnote here. This perfectly glorious philosophical example has been ruined in recent years by the movie The Matrix. Because whenever I tell this story now, people start saying, "Oh, well the evil machines are busy using your body as a battery" or whatever it was in the movie, right? And "What if people are nefariously feasting on my liver while I'm having these little experiences?" Don't imagine any of that. It's not that the evil scientist is just deliberately deceiving you so as to conduct his nefarious experiments. Nothing like that.

And similarly, while we're at it--this is not a Matrix-like worry--if you're worried about, yeah, but what's happening to world poverty while I'm doing all of this? Just imagine that everybody's hooked up to experience machines, but everybody's got the best possible tapes. Now you ask yourself, what I'm asking you to ask yourself, is would you want to spend your life hooked up to the experience machine? I'm not talking about, wouldn't it be interesting to try it out for a week or a month or even a year? And indeed, the question, strictly speaking, isn't even would life on the experience machine be better than it is now? Although it would make me very, very sad to discover this, I suppose it's possible some of you have such bad lives that moving on to the experience machine would be a step up. That's not the question.

The question is, does life on the experience machine give you everything worth having in life? Everything worth having in life. Is it the best possible form of human existence? According to the hedonists, the answer's got to be, it has to be "yes." Life on the experience machine is perfect, as long as you've got the right tape plugged in. So, you've got the best possible balance of wonderful pleasures and wonderful, fantastic experiences, since that's all there is to human wellbeing. By hypothesis, the machine is giving us that. There couldn't possibly be anything more. There couldn't possibly be anything missing.

But when I think about the question, would I want to spend my life hooked up to an experience machine? the answer is "no." And I imagine that for most of you, when you ask yourself, would you want your entire life to be spent hooked up to the experience machine? your answer is "no." But if the answer is "no," then that means hedonism's got to be wrong. If life on the experience machine is not everything, then there's more to the best possible life than getting the insides right. The experience machine gets the pleasures right, gets the experiences right, gets the mental states right, it gets the insides right, but if life on the experience machine isn't all that's worth wanting out of life, then there's more to the best possible life than getting the insides right. What we've got to turn to next time, then, is the question, what else might it be? Okay.

Lecture 20 Transcript

April 5, 2007

For the original transcript, as well as audio and video versions of this lecture, see the Open Yale Courses website.

Professor Shelly Kagan: Last time, I invited you to think about life on the experience machine, where the scientists are busy stimulating your brain in such a way as to give you an exact replica, from the insides of what it would be like having identical experiences to the ones you would have if you were really doing--well, whatever it is that's worth doing. Climbing the alps, writing the great American novel, raising a great family that loves you, being creative. Whatever it is you think is worth having, the experience machine gives you all the experiential side of those things. But you're not really doing those things. You're actually just floating in the scientist's lab.

And we ask ourselves, would you want to live a life on the experience machine? Would you be happy or would you be unhappy, to discover that you actually have been living a life on the experience machine? Most of us, when we think about this, find ourselves wanting to say, no, we wouldn't want to have a life on the experience machine. I've been discussing this sort of example for many, many years. And there's always a group of people who think, yes, life on the experience machine is perfect as long as you've got the right tape playing. But the vast majority always says, no, there's something missing from that life. It's not the ideal of human existences; it's not the best possible life we can imagine ourselves having.

But that means, if we think something's missing, we then have to ask yourselves, what's missing? What's wrong with the experience machine? The one thing we can conclude immediately is, if you think life on the experience machine is missing something, that the hedonist--and views like hedonism--must be wrong, insofar as they say that all that matters for the best possible life is--for well-being--is getting the right kinds of experiences, getting the right kinds of mental states. Because by hypothesis, the experience machine gets the mental states right, get the insides right. So, if something's missing from that life, there's more to the best kind of life than just having the right mental states, than just getting the insides right.

Well, we ask ourselves then, well, what's missing? I think different people will answer that in different ways. And if we had more time we could spell out rival theories of well-being, which could be interestingly distinguished one from another in terms of how they answer the question, "What's missing from the experience machine?" on the one hand, and "Why are the things that are missing from the experience machine worth having?" Different theories of well-being might answer that in different ways. Instead of trying to pursue those alternative theories in a systematic fashion, let me just gesture toward some of the things that seem to be missing from that kind of life.

Well, first of all, and most, perhaps, obviously--if you're just spending your life floating in the scientist's lab, you're not actually accomplishing anything. You're not actually getting the things out of life you thought you were getting. You wanted to be climbing the mountain, but you're not actually climbing a mountain. You're just floating there. You wanted to be writing the great American novel, but you're not writing the great American novel. You're just floating there. You wanted to be finding the cure for cancer, but you're not actually finding the cure for cancer. You wanted to be loved, but you're not actually loved. You're just floating there. Nobody other than the scientist even knows that you exist. So, there's a variety of things you wanted. You wanted to know your place in the universe, but you don't even have that kind of knowledge either, because you think you're writing novels, finding the cure for cancer, climbing Mount Everest. You're completely deceived about all those things. So you don't have the kind of self-knowledge that many of us value.

Well, as I say, different theories would try to systematize these examples in different ways; that we don't have any kind of accomplishments, we don't have knowledge, we're not in the right kinds of loving relationships. Different theories might have different explanations as to--are these things valuable because we want them, or do we want them because we recognize they're valuable?

Rather than trying to pursue those questions--, And indeed, trying to work out the details of these views would be complicated as well. Take the example of accomplishment. Well, we all think accomplishment's important, but it's not as though any old accomplishment is important. If somebody sets themselves--or so it seems to me at least--if somebody sets theirself the goal of making the biggest rubber band ball in the Eastern United States, I suppose there's a sense of the word that that's an accomplishment if they've got it, but it doesn't strike me as the kind of accomplishment which makes for a particularly valuable life. So, we might have to distinguish between any old accomplishment and genuinely valuable accomplishments. But again, just put those details aside.

We can say that there are certain things that are good above and beyond experiences--the right kinds of accomplishments, the right kind of knowledge. After all, not every bit of knowledge is equally valuable. It's one thing to know your place in the universe, or to know the fundamental laws of physics. It's another thing to know what was the average rainfall in Bangkok in 1984. I'm not clear that that kind of knowledge gives a whole lot of value to your life. So, we need the right kinds of accomplishments and the right kind of knowledge and the right kinds of relationships.

But imagine you've worked that out. The crucial point is that it takes more to have the best kind of life than just getting the insides right. It also requires getting the outsides right--whatever that comes to--having in your life not just experiences but the right kinds of goods or accomplishments or whatever term we use for it.

Now, let's say, instead of pursuing the questions of how exactly that theory should go, notice that if we had that theory we could still evaluate in principle--whatever the practical difficulties might be--in principle we could still evaluate rival lives. We could talk about adding up all the positive experiences along with all the--ask yourself how many goods, how many accomplishments of the right sort were in that life? And that's on the positive side of the ledger. And against that we would then have to subtract the sum total of the negative experiences, all the failures and deceptions or what have you. Those would count against the overall value of your life. We could still say it's--how good your life is, is a matter of adding up the goods and subtracting the bads. But we would now have a somewhat broader, or more encompassing or inclusive, list of goods, and a more broad and encompassing list of bads--not just experience, but also these various other accomplishments, whatever exactly that list comes to.

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