The question is: is the worth of life determined by how good you feel?

While emptying the dishwasher a week or so ago, I overheard some dialog on the TV show Glee in which suicide was a topic of discussion.  The characters went around and stated something they were looking forward to in, I suppose, an effort to thwart depression.  It reminded my a lot of the “It Gets Better” campaign that went around the Internet not long ago.  The message is: your burdens are worth bearing now because it will get better.

This seems to suggest that life is worth living because of the good feelings felt while living it.  So what if you were a 93 year old with a terminal illness and went through excruciating pain every day, and it was only bound to get worse?  Is it OK to go ahead and kill yourself because it doesn’t get better?

There was recently an article in our local paper about a man who had the phrase “No CPR” tattooed to his chest.  Should he stop breathing, he did not want to be revived.  Is that morally OK?  If so, would it not also be morally OK to just go jump off a bridge?  Since both rely on you making a conscious decision about living your life, what’s the difference?  Does the nature of the physical manifestation of the cause of death outweigh the nature of the preceding intent?  (That is, the intent to die to prevent further physical pain?)

At what point is physical pain so bad that it is OK to not want to live anymore?

If you are reading this, you are probably alive.  Do you want to stay alive?  If so, why?  There may be a few possible answers:

– I am afraid of death because I don’t know what awaits in the afterlife
– I am afraid of the pain before death; I don’t want to experience it
– There is joy waiting for me in the future and it’s worth waiting for
– I am experiencing joy right now that is worth remaining alive to feel

Is it not all about joy or the prevention of pain, either now or in the future?

I’ll certainly admit that I do not currently have a concrete set of answers.  I continue to ponder this issue.  But wanting to die to prevent physical pain seems morally wrong to me, at least while such pain does not interfere with the mental faculties that allow you to wish for death.  That is, tattooing “No CPR” to your chest is morally equivalent to jumping off a bridge, though it’s probably less physically painful.  If you are wishing for death, then you are obviously in a mental state in which you are able to think of something other than just physical pain (such as the absence of it).

I do think it helps to not think of the joy of this life as an end in and of itself.  That is, if we can understand that there exists an objective truth outside of our own existence, then our life must be eternal.  (Showing why this is so may make an interesting future blog post, for it’s a leap many philosophers can’t or won’t make, such as Ayn Rand and Bertrand Russell.)  If life is eternal, then it doesn’t end with the death of our physical bodies in this world.  (Though the nature of our existence without physical senses is unimaginable to us at this time, keep in mind that our consciousnesses are already not physical things.)  If life doesn’t end with the demise of our physical bodies, then a lot of things we are naturally conditioned to care about don’t actually matter so much.  Such things include: perfect justice, fame, power, money, attention, school grades, perfect physical well-being, material items, and goals and dreams that are physical in nature (e.g. “I want to be a movie star!”; such materialistic dreams are very much encouraged by American culture, while watching others achieve them is often considered vulgar (“Grrr!  I hate the 1%!”)).  If life is eternal, material wealth and social status are ultimately irrelevant in and of themselves, because death in this life will rid you of such things.

The thing is: we’re naturally conditioned to get joy from these things, and if life is worth living for the joy of it, how can these things not be life-worthy pursuits?

So I’ll claim that, yes, pleasure and joy are worthy pursuits.  But not in this life, where such pleasure and joy can only be imperfect.  One must find joy in something not competitive or physically-based, something that is as eternal as life itself.  (Such as, perhaps, love.  And not just conditional love for some singular sweetheart, but love for all, even those that would do evil.  Talk about unnatural!)

I suppose this all relates back to the old conflict of living in the present versus living in the future.  For the most part, we naturally live in the future.  The reason we do just about anything physically is to achieve some physical end; ultimately joy or the prevention of pain.  But this also brings about anxieties.  You don’t kill yourself or let yourself die to take away the pain you feel now.  There’s nothing you can do about that.  You do it to prevent yourself from feeling the pain you would feel later on if you weren’t going to be dead at that time.  (Of course, if it’s just a few minutes or seconds into the future, we may refer to it as “now”, but it’s not really.)  But if you only live in the present, you wouldn’t eat, for example, and would soon die.

So I’ll further claim that we can’t stop living at least somewhat in the future.  This is necessary.  But we must balance how much we live in the future.  If we find ourselves getting anxious (which naturally happens to everyone), then we are focusing too much in the future.  We must physically live in the future to maintain our lives and well-being, but we must emotionally (or perhaps a better word might be spiritually) live in the present.  We don’t stop ourselves from killing ourselves because our emotions will get better later, but because we’re not focusing on the world in the right way in the present.  Which isn’t to claim that it’s always easy to do so, just that it’s worth living to try to.

Again, these are issues I’m still pondering.  But the thought that life is only worth the joy you’re capable of feeling (or think you’re capable of feeling), whether in the present or the future, strikes me as incomplete.

Categories: Philosophy

10 Comments

LanthonyS · February 29, 2012 at 4:31 PM

I was just having the euthanasia discussion with my girlfriend. At one point she used the “soul is eternal” point to justify euthanasia in a hypothetical major old age infirmity, i.e. it’s okay to die at that point because you’re still alive in the sense that matters. In that case, I asked, what makes dying not a good idea any earlier in life? Her only justification was: Because at that point I can still enjoy life. In other words, her philosophy was similar to what you’re arguing against (and I agree with you about)—that it’s only worth sticking around while it either is or promises to be pleasant. Surely, I thought, there’s more to it than that… Our purpose in being on Earth is not just maximal enjoyment. In my opinion, anyway…

S P Hannifin · February 29, 2012 at 8:39 PM

“Our purpose in being on Earth is not just maximal enjoyment.” I agree.

I of course also agree that the soul is eternal, but I don’t think that implies that death at any moment is OK. That seems to me to be the atheist argument for why the soul can’t be eternal: it makes this life completely futile. If death at any moment is OK, would shrugging off possible future enjoyment to end temporary pain in the present be OK? Or how about ending other people’s lives? If a murdered person lives on in peace in eternity, why not just drop bombs on the world to end all worldly suffering and send everyone to the afterlife? (Or, for an atheist, to send everybody to the inevitable nothingness that is at least better than suffering?)

No; this world and this life must be important in and of themselves, even while so many worldly things (money, fame, power, etc.) are not. I do believe life is eternal, but I don’t believe the “life after death” is just an eternal extension of our current form of life. There is such a difference between the two states of life that makes living this one important, even if it is forced to bear pain.

Which of course leads to the question: what is the purpose? What is so important in this life so as to be above its enjoyment?

I’m still pondering the answer, but I think “enjoyment” can still be the answer, it’s just that there are different sorts of joy. There’s the worldly emotional joy from finishing a race or winning a contest, and there’s the physically pleasing joy from a warm blanket or a tasty meal. Even animals feel these sorts of joy. And I don’t think the chronic absence of these joys justifies suicide. I think there’s another joy, like a meta-joy, that comes from understanding your ability to feel joy in the first place, and from consciously choosing to want to feel it. And to want to die is to deny that joy, whether by denying that it exists or to deny that it’s worth choosing. I would think a man who knows such joy, or at least enough of it, would never want to die even while suffering through pain and knowing that death is inevitably swimming closer. (Though he might find death while pursuing the chance to allow someone else to find such joy, such as jumping in front of a bullet to save someone’s life. In such a case, saving someone’s life is done for the life of that other person itself, not to prevent the personal pain of having to deal with the tragedy of that other person’s death.)

S P Hannifin · February 29, 2012 at 8:54 PM

Furthermore, if I am granted permission to ramble a little more (which I hereby grant myself), this “meta-joy” does not in any way imply that the other sorts of joy are naturally empty or wrong or fake. It’s not evil to enjoy a good meal or laugh at a funny movie or have a good rest. It’s just that they’re, in and of themselves, incomplete forms of joy; humans are naturally capable of more.

MCCoSH · March 1, 2012 at 9:03 AM

I have a couple points & questions for you:
-I do not think that having “No CPR” tattoed on your chest, or one of the “Do not resuscitate (DNR)” bracelets, or having that wish on file in the hospital is the same thing as committing suicide at all. You are only looking at the benefits of DNR for the individual who has signed for it. What about the benefits for the family, or the medical response team? What if, for example, the patient has had a terrible accident or illness and will be, if they survive, a vegetative state for the rest of their life, which is only supported by life support. They might not want to place the pressure of deciding when to cut off life support on their spouse (or parent, child, sibling, etc.) because they do not want them to have to deal with the guilt of ending a loved one’s life. And what if a emergency medical responder attempts to save the patients life, does everything he can, and still cannot do enough and the patient dies anyway? Then they might feel guilty. So really, deciding to not receive CPR is not a completely selfish wish, as you suggest. It might merely be the patient deciding to accept a natural death, which is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if they’re life would not be complete (ie- they were a vegetable) for the remainder of it.
-If we are not living for joy, what are we living for? I believe we are living for the purposes God created us for, but hopefully whatever it is that God wants us to do will bring us joy, even if it is hard, because doing what we can to please God should bring us joy by itself. And even if you argue and say, “No, I’m living for love” or “I’m living for my job” or anything else, aren’t you living because these things bring you joy? Even if you are not completely happy with your life, you are living with hope, and the hope of what? The hope that something will happen. And the hope you hold is that something that will happen will bring you joy. You don’t hope for things to happen that will make you sad, or angry. No one ever hopes for the bank to come and take their house, but plenty of people hope to own their own house one day. Because they feel this will bring them joy. If people were not living in pursuits of happiness, as the Declaration of Independence says, then this country, this world, would get nothing done. Every successful politician or diplomat or artist or author or business man or inventor has achieved their success because they have been looking for joy, or doing something that brings them joy. Even the “meta-joy” you speak of is still just that. Joy.

S P Hannifin · March 1, 2012 at 4:48 PM

Thanks for the comment!

“What if, for example, the patient has had a terrible accident or illness and will be, if they survive, a vegetative state for the rest of their life, which is only supported by life support.”

I don’t think being in a vegetative state is enough to justify wanting to die; how are we to know what being in such a state is like?

“They might not want to place the pressure of deciding when to cut off life support on their spouse (or parent, child, sibling, etc.) because they do not want them to have to deal with the guilt of ending a loved one’s life. And what if a emergency medical responder attempts to save the patients life, does everything he can, and still cannot do enough and the patient dies anyway? Then they might feel guilty.”

Someone else’s warped sense of guilt seems a silly thing to be worried about. Why not just sit down and have a discussion with them: “Hey, if I die or get on life support and then die, don’t feel guilty. It won’t be your fault. OK?” Would you say: “Hey, if I’m drowning, don’t even try to save me, because if you fail you’ll just feel guilty”?

“So really, deciding to not receive CPR is not a completely selfish wish, as you suggest.”

I didn’t mean to suggest it was selfish. I only meant to suggest that it comes from a worldview on the worth of life that I disagree with. Life is not just about the physical good feelings we feel (or the good feelings we think others will be prevented from feeling, in the case of the “guilt” argument). It has nothing to do with being selfish or not. It’s about being the right kind of selfish.

“I believe we are living for the purposes God created us for, but hopefully whatever it is that God wants us to do will bring us joy, even if it is hard, because doing what we can to please God should bring us joy by itself.”

And so what if God wants you to remain in a vegetative state? What if He wants you to stay alive even if it is physically painful? Wouldn’t finding joy in pleasing God be the “meta-joy” I mentioned in my previous comments? A joy that goes beyond physical pleasure? And if there is this joy that goes beyond physical pleasure, why would suffering physical pain or remaining in a vegetative state for a while be such a bad thing?

“Every successful politician or diplomat or artist or author or business man or inventor has achieved their success because they have been looking for joy, or doing something that brings them joy. Even the “meta-joy” you speak of is still just that. Joy.”

But do you see no difference in the various sorts of joy? Is anything that brings joy OK to seek? There are people who would find much joy in doing harm to others, whether it be physically killing them or simply mocking them on a school bus. Is that sort of joy OK? It is still joy afterall. Mustn’t we delve deeper in our understanding of the nature of joy?

LanthonyS · May 24, 2012 at 6:45 PM

I agree with you on this one, Sean—this simplistic view in which everything, even selflessness, is reduced simply to the pursuit of happiness seems to me neither ingenuous, nor realistic, nor justified by either the Declaration of Independence nor by forced assimilation into a Christian theology.

I feel like I have sometimes experienced that meta-joy (would you say you have too?), and a number of things certainly differentiate it from what I normally call “joy”. It feels like both extremes of emotion at once, as though it were transcending that continuum; it has no motivation in good things happening to me, nor in things I did of my own volition; it seems like the most important thing in life, and even more important than life, while experiencing it; and I can neither be guaranteed it nor cut off from it during this human life.

All that seems clear to me (even if some people might argue in an attempt to reduce it to psychological events), and I think that if human life is worth anything, I think it is by what good we can do, what we can encounter that changes us permanently, and by what form of /that/ kind of joy we can experience. At least two of those are still available in most of those states that are normally cited as okay for euthanasia…

S P Hannifin · May 24, 2012 at 9:36 PM

I was actually working on a “sequel” to this post a couple weeks ago but have yet to finish it. My points above ultimately make much more sense when considered through a Christian faith, but an understanding of Christianity (even for Christians) is not an easy thing. But it does provide the clearest set of answers to these sorts of “worth of life” questions. (For example, a belief that our physical life is not our only life is required; if our physical life is the only life we will ever live, I fail to see how it would not be completely meaningless.)

Looking back on my writing from months ago, “meta-joy” is really God, or at least the tiny tiny itsy little sliver of God we’re capable of experiencing as humans. He is not the joy of something, He’s not the joy in response to some sort of physical stimuli. Rather, He is joy itself. The best I can do as a human to explain that joy is with circular reasoning, however weak that may seem to the logician: He is joy for the sake of joy. Love for the sake of love itself. It’s not just “meta-joy” but “infinitely-meta-joy” — one cannot experience this joy by logically thinking his way to it like some answer to a puzzle; rather he just has to understand that it already exists (believe) and then let it wash over him.

I love how you describe the experience of it: “It feels like both extremes of emotion at once, as though it were transcending that continuum; it has no motivation in good things happening to me, nor in things I did of my own volition; it seems like the most important thing in life, and even more important than life, while experiencing it; and I can neither be guaranteed it nor cut off from it during this human life.” Yes!

At the risk of sounding crazy:

I have also experienced it, and to a greater degree than I ever had just a couple weeks ago, which inspired me to try writing another post. (I also had a clear understanding that I was experiencing it through/with Christ, if that makes sense, hence my understanding that Christianity makes it all make much more sense.) Another thing I felt was awe and fear, but not like a threatening fear, as if I was going to be harmed, but an understanding that I wasn’t experiencing the whole thing, and that I couldn’t experience the whole thing yet because I would just pop like a balloon filled with too much air. It was kind of like that “Powers of Ten” video, when the mind boggles at how big the universe is compared to the size of a human, but stronger than that. Also, as a person who has been often inspired by advances in technology and things like the moon-landing, I understood that, while it all may be interesting, we’re still really just playing in the sandbox, and such advances are spiritually meaningless, and I understood that there was a great difference between knowledge (knowing things) and wisdom (actually understanding things), and that they actually come from God; not like a person handing secrets to another person (the physical way of understanding a gift), but that to understand a truth is to align oneself towards God and God encompasses all truth. Finally, I understood that this joy, this experience, is neither selfish nor selfless; it is a connection, and it connects all human life.

Since that experience, the physical world and its offerings of joy and suffering quickly crept back into my life, so I cannot claim that I have since become a living saint or anything. And I doubt many humans can fully remain in that experience for too long, or one would be unable to live in this world (all physical suffering becomes easy to completely ignore), and life in this world is an important part of the whole life we will continue living after physical death (that is, God doesn’t want us to experience too much of Him in this world; not yet).

While it can be easy for me to know that that joy exists, and it can be easy for me to remember that I felt it before, it’s still hard to experience. I cannot just close my eyes and experience at will; I have to work for it, in the spiritual sense. And there’s a constant struggle between working for that sort of a joy, and working for easier-to-obtain but fleeting and unfulfilling joys that the physical world offers, none of which I can ever keep (eating, getting new stuff, getting money, getting good attention from others, etc).

But the experience does provide me with confirmation that euthanasia, and the values of life that go along with its acceptance (such as physical pleasures always being good and worthy of pursuit, especially the way modern TV and Hollywood portray lust and its fulfillment as being a fine and healthy thing) are wrong, stemming from at best an ignorant misunderstanding of the nature of this life and the non-physical nature of truth and morality, or at worst a terrible evil, a conscious rejection of that joy out of envy for its existence, or a blaming of it for a feeling of the lack of it (such as not believing God because people suffer).

LanthonyS · May 25, 2012 at 11:07 AM

That was awesome. Enlightening and affirming. The only thing I’m not sure about is the working at it thing (I would say more /accepting/ it, “lest any man should boast”…).

It reminds me, especially the last paragraph, of this quote by C.S. Lewis in his terrific essay The Weight of Glory—which, by the by, if you haven’t read, it sounds like you’re in a great mindset to read right now:

“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desire not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, we are like ignorant children who want to continue making mud pies in a slum because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a vacation at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

S P Hannifin · May 25, 2012 at 6:23 PM

Yes, “accepting” works better; it’s not “working at it” in the sense that you do labor and get payment as a reward, but in the sense that you have to open your hands of your own Free Will (resisting the temptations that keep them closed) to accept what God has to give (which is Himself). A man who has spiritually hit rock bottom can decide to accept, and his acceptance will be just as meaningful as anyone else’s. Atheists might claim: “If God existed and truly wanted me to receive Him, He’d open my hands for me.” No. What would such open hands be worth to Him?

I’ve never read The Weight of Glory but would now definitely like to. Great quote! It reminds me of some thoughts I was having a couple weeks ago. I was coming close to finishing my animated series proposal and was filled with daydreams of worldly success. But, remembering my elementary school days, I remember daydreaming of getting good grades, being popular, having my work stand out, winning at kickball, etc. And the desire for such things was completely encouraged by parents and teachers. But what is any of it worth now? All my “successes” of those times are now meaningless. I shouldn’t have worried about so many trivial things. OK, I can wrap my head around that, but I keep telling myself: it’s the same with all my current worldly daydreams of money and success! I am spiritually an ignorant child wanting the same exact things, only in a different context. Won’t I look back on such worldly desires someday as I now look back on my elementary school days, understanding that I cared too much about meaningless things? Yes, I will. What 26-year-old would expect to get anything but odd looks by telling somebody: “Yeah, heh, in third grade I got honor roll! Yep. Ahh, success.” He would sound like a fool. It is the same with all worldly success; no one in Heaven will say: “Yeah, heh, I directed 12 high-grossing films and won three Academy Awards! Yep. Ahh, success.” It will be just as foolish, if not infinitely more so.

It’s easy to imagine being in an afterlife in which we might say: “Oh, you got to be that successful billionaire! Man, I wish I could’ve lived your life, it was so much better than mine! I, like, failed with mine!” But such a heaven is a ridiculous notion (it is not just an infinite sunny-day-at-the-golf-course extension of human life); in the light of God, such worldly things do not matter at all. They don’t even play in the back of the mind as some small seed of regret. Desire for that sort of thing is gone. There is no social status in Heaven.

LanthonyS · May 28, 2012 at 12:21 AM

Very true, and I think that (and the difficulty of really wrapping our heads around it) is at the heart of Jesus’ many teachings about earthy vs. heavenly reward.

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