Monday, 29 April 2013


Human life is precious in three senses.  My life is precious to me because, and to the extent that, it gives me the opportunity to flourish. My life is precious to society because of the part I play, or may come to play, in its life. That part may require that my survival and therefore my life be risked so that the life of society may flourish, which is the third preciousness: I can be spent.

My life is of ultimate value to me in the sense that without life nothing can be of value to me. Yet merely being alive, surviving, is not enough to give my life value. It is a sine qua non, not an end in itself. There is no point in surviving if I cannot enjoy any value in life. I can lose my life without losing my survival.

Those who mourn the dead may be mourning the loss of possibilities they themselves may have been expecting to use, to enjoy, to be enriched by; if no such possibilities have been lost they may not mourn.

A death may be celebrated – privately to the extent that the foreclosed possibilities were ours and were not desired, or more publicly to the extent that they were undesirable and awaited the deceased.

We are ‘immortal’ in two senses. The impact that now-dead people have had on our lives, for good or ill, continues to affect our lives, and will shape the impact we in turn have on others; it will last, continually diluting, at least as reliably as genetic inheritance. And it will always be true – even when we are all long forgotten – that we were what we were, that we did what we did, that our ‘now’ is the kind of ‘now’ it is.

Our modern society is to a great extent under the dominion of death. The prevailing social assumption is that we are afraid to die; death is often seen as a medical failure; we cannot bring ourselves to allow euthanasia in any form in any circumstances; suicide is seen as a social failure to do what was necessary to keep life going; every effort is made to combat the illnesses that carry away the elderly; we have no answer to the question, ‘What are we supposed to die of, if not of pneumonia, cancer, or one of the other diseases we struggle so hard to overcome?’ Partly this is because suffer from the overweening delusion that we must surely have a solution to every unpleasant or difficult situation.

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