Do Wisdom and Virtue Depend On Mortality?

Leon Kass’ fine essay “L’Chaim and Its Limits” is something I genuinely enjoy reading over and over. But I think it is problematic, as is transhumanism, inasmuch as it obsesses over death. To wit:

I wish to make the case for the virtues of mortality…. I do hope I can convince readers of the gravity – I would say, the unique gravity – of this question [of conquering death or not]. We are not talking about some minor new innovation with ethical wrinkles about which we may chatter or regulate as usual. Conquering death is not something that we can try for a while and then decide whether the results are better or worse-according to, God only knows, what standard. On the contrary, this is a question in which our very humanity is at stake, not only in the consequences but also in the very meaning of the choice. For to argue that human life would be better without death is, I submit, to argue that human life would be better being something other than human. To be immortal would not be just to continue life as we mortals now know it, only forever. The new immortals, in the decisive sense, would not be like us at all. If this is true, a human choice for bodily immortality would suffer from the deep confusion of choosing to have some great good only on the condition of turning into someone else. Moreover, such an immortal someone else, in my view, will be less well off than we mortals are now, thanks indeed to our mortality.

Kass gets a lot right, and there are times he’ll make a more excessive argument purposely to draw our attention to an issue – I can’t quite account for his subtlety on all occasions. I merely think that there could be a problem with arguing about the question of whether we should die or not too directly: the question itself is far too immature and unserious to dive into. Hence, I don’t even want to bother with transhumanist arguments. I look at the technology that will drive us to transhumanism as a force, nothing more – it is a force which drives everything, including this writer, and need not be argued for.

The starting issues are whether, as Kass claims, Homer and the Bible present us a world where virtue and morality both depend on the possibility of death. If we’re immortal, why can’t we do anything we like? Why can’t we think anything we like? Can wisdom survive in a world beyond death?

But those questions are just the beginning – they are trumped by the fact that we actually try to be immortal in one way or another. With the possibility of man as a whole actually being immortal coming closer, the big issue is the authority of all literature and philosophy that to this moment has discussed man as the creature who is mortal, and centered all concerns on that fact. Do those works really appeal to us as mortal to make their argument?

On the surface, yes. Achilles argues to Odysseus that because he will die, why shouldn’t he live life however he wishes and not be ruled by someone like Agamemnon? In the Bible, Man only accidentally rejects immortality for power, in attempting to be wholly equal or superior to God. It looks like the question of virtue or morals depends on whether we die or not.

But that can’t be quite correct if the books themselves are right about what they presume. If wisdom is about seeing key issues involving morality and virtue, and having a sensitivity to claims of justice and happiness, then inasmuch as the old books themselves are wise they are elevating virtue and morality beyond the question of death. How best to live is something that, if understood, makes life happy for one and all in perpetuity. I’m not sure who said that heaven and hell are probably the same place, that our mindset alone creates the difference between the two, but it makes a heck of a lot of sense.

The problem is that Kass is being unknowlingly reductionist: in trying to take on the transhumanists too fast, he misses that the starting point of Homer and the Bible is the question of death because the audiences of both works are consumed with that question. But let’s say we could be immortal – our question is still how best to live (we’re going to be doing it a long time), and since the answers can come from any age or place and make sense to us, wisdom will still be above us, and we may still be human.

The real threats from transhumanist argumentation are practical – none of that argumentation should be taken seriously at a theoretical level. Firstly, we’re more than willing to slaughter as many babies as it takes to try and find cures for problems real or imagined. That’s not even a slippery slope – we’re already at the level where we have a contempt for life generally as we embrace our selfishness. Secondly, our equation of happiness with modern advances means that we are only materialists. Our appreciation of the arts is incidental in many cases: do we really care about what other people are going through?

But none of those complaints mean that the foundation of virtue, wisdom, is in a position to be wiped away. It can only be submerged, or recede temporarily. After all, the true death of man will never have anything to do with actual death – it will always be related to whether one has acted in such a way one can live with himself, or whether anyone can recognize another as human in his behavior.

One further note: I don’t think any of this contradicts the discussion had regarding Dickinson’s “Success is Counted Sweetest.” The issue is that Death itself is metaphorical in that poem.


  1. Life and Death in Balance
    It is interesting that most human beings, particularly when they are younger, live life as if they were immortal. Most people do not think of the prospect of dying, or have varying degrees of experience with it over their lifespan. This leads to what one may call short-term selfish behavior that has suboptimal results from a social standpoint. The outcomes in single-shot games (any interaction among two or more individuals where individual interests can be modeled in relation to a feasible outcome) do not often result in cooperation, but if the game were repeated many times from an endpoint of sincerity (an example being the extremely common occurrence of reflecting back on one’s life when one is on one’s deathbed) then one could have more cooperative outcomes.
    If you reflect on the above, dear reader, many corollary observations follow, much like what Gautama Siddhartha started to realize as he observed sickness, disease, desire, and death in his rounds of the city as a young prince.

    1. Younger human beings are more likely to be more self-directed in their dealings with others relative to older people who are increasingly confronted with their mortality, as well as that of their peer group.
    1a. Among younger people, those with a higher relative experience of mortality will tend to behave less selfishly.
    1b. Societies with higher and healthier lifespans will tend to be more self-interested, everything else being equal.
    1c. In societies where there are subpopulations with significantly different experiences related to the prospect of death, there be a higher degree of intra-group coherence in those groups that have higher prospects of dying.
    2. Higher education and wealth, which correlate with health and longevity, are likely to result in more self-directed behavior.
    2a. In some cases, where the education effects outweigh wealth effects, behavior may be more altruistic (the informed ability to reflect on the consequences of death).

    In short, reflecting on the prospect of dying (or not being able to do so) is what what defines us as human beings and causes many interesting patterns in social interaction, and our individual decisions in regard to those interactions. We often think that death is a consequence of how we live, but what is substantially more consequential is the prospect of dying for life.

  2. Thanks for the comments, and especially the “Welcome Back.”

    There’s something iffy about what I wrote above, and there are gonna be edits galore soon I think.

  3. Hmmm, I don’t think mortality is entirely necessary to morality. While it is certainly true that people will “repent” or change their ways when faced with death out of fear there are also those who will at least always try to live right- to a degree with no prospect of death or consequences. To see it otherwise is to assume that people are 100% selfish and I guess I just don’t see it quite that way. If there were no death, there would be a different set of “rules” (no need to harp on murder or really theft without the life depending necessity of food or shelter) but some degree of civility and decency nonetheless… humanity I suppose.

  4. Mortality has everything to do with morality. If our souls were not limited by being combined with the body, material and decaying, we would be part of God, not separate from. If we were not separate entities, there would be no need to reach for embodiment of the virtues, through morality, to find the highest order of life.

  5. Cool thread! Just found this. Will forward to friends (who will need a bigger font size the see it).

    Meanwhile, I really like the feel of this conversation.

    Will be back for more.

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