MORALITY AND THE HUMAN CONDITION, #27–Is Human Immortality Possible? Williams on Its Intolerable Tedium.

By Robert Hanna

“The Human Condition,” by Thomas Whitaker


Table of Contents

II. The Standard Conception of Morality

II.1 The Moral Question and The Meaning Question

II.2 How Ethics Relates to Morality

II.3 How Morality Relates to Rationality

II.4 Six Famously Hard Cases

III. Three Classical Challenges to the Standard Conception of Morality

III.1 Moral Relativism

III.2 Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality

III.3 Moral Skepticism

III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism

IV. Morality and Religion

IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory

IV.2 Does an Essentially Rational God Exist?

IV.3 Religion and Morality

V. Three Classical Moral Theories

V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition

V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics

V.2 Millian Utilitarianism

V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism

V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles

V.3.1 Ten Basic Ideas

V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics

V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section

VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About The Meaning of Life

VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About The Meaning of Life

VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?

VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation

VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism

VII.2 Nagel and The Absurd

VII.3 Camus and Affirmation

VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity

VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity

VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?

VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom

VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers

VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics

VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity

IX. The Nature of Death

IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”

IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death

IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death

X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality

X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality

X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing

X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality

X.4 Human Life Without Immortality


But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.


X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality

6.431 [I]n death … the world does not change, but ceases.

6.4311 Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through. If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present. Our life is endless in the way that the visual field is without limit.[ii]

Is human immortality possible?

By way of wrapping up this short course on morality and the human condition, I’ll address this amazingly hard question by briefly unpacking and then criticizing two of the most influential and important discussions of the nature and value of immortality, Bernard Williams’s “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality”[iii] and John Martin Fischer’s reply to Williams, “Why Immortality is Not So Bad.”[iv]

X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality

(i) other things being equal, death is a bad thing for the person who dies, and

(ii) immortality would be, where conceivable at all, intolerable.

The argument for thesis (i) has three steps.

First, there are certain desires, that Williams calls “categorical desires,” which are desires that are unconditional with respect to rational human life, in that we want them to be satisfied whether or not we are alive to experience them.

E.g., rational suicide, understood as the reasonable desire to be deads, is such that the rationally suicidal subject wants this desire to be satisfied even though he will not be alive to experience that state.

Although Williams does not use this term specifically, let us call any similar inherently deaths-related or rationally suicidal desire — e.g., the desire that event X happens N days after one’s own suicide — a negative categorical desire.

Second, correspondingly, a rational human subject can categorically desire things in a positive way, beyond his own death.

E.g., I could intensely desire to be the Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 2057, exactly 100 years after Camus won his prize in 1957, the year of my own birth, and, assuming that no other philosopher wins it in the meantime, thereby become the first philosopher to win the Prize since Sartre in 1964 — even though the likelihood of my actually living beyond my 80s is fairly small.

More generally, positive categorical desires can include the desire to go on living after one’s own actual death, so that many future desires will come into existence and be satisfied.

Third, therefore, as long as the rational human subject has positive categorical desires, then it’s a bad thing for that human person to die.

Importantly, according to Williams, categorical desires are inherently contingent in that we do not have to have them, or at least we do not always have to have them.

Indeed, on the supposition that as a matter of contingent fact someone has no positive categorical desires, or that any positive categorical desires that person previously had have now been extinguished, then deaths could be a good thing, and one could have a good reason to die, in that it satisfies a negative categorical desire.

E.g., Elina Makropulos, the fictional protagonist of Karel Čapek’s 1922 play, The Makropulos Case — later turned into a 1926 opera by Leoš Janáček —

has been granted immortality, but within the first three centuries of her sempiternally endless or infinite life, starting at age 42, she’s also lost all her positive categorical desires.

So then, at age 342, she negatively categorically desires to be deads, and therefore has a good reason to die.

This provides the conceptual segue to Williams’s argument for his thesis (ii), which has four steps.

First, it’s a necessary condition of my being immortal that the very same person — namely, I myself, as I am now, with a certain set of memories, and a certain character — goes on living, and does not change identities over time.

The idea that I myself am continually being reborn as a new person, as opposed to merely being reincarnated in a new body, is incoherent.

Second, as time passes, all of the experiences it would be possible for me to have, are eventually had.

Then after that time, necessarily, a state of boredom, indifference, and coldness — in Williams’s nice phrase, “joylessness” — sets in.

Presumably, joylessness consists in having no desires that must be satisfied

either (i) as actually experienced by me with joy, hence conditional on my being alive to experience them (i.e., joyful-life-conditional desires),

or (ii) as would be experienced by me with joy, if, contrary to highly probable fact, I continued to live (i.e., positive categorical desires per se).

Third, for this reason, living forever would be infinitely joyless, and, in particular, infinitely boring.

Fourth, therefore human immortality would be intolerable.


[ii] L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C.K. Ogden (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 185.

[iii] B. Williams, ““The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality,” in B. Williams, Problems of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 82–100.

[iv] J.M. Fischer, “Why Immortality is Not So Bad,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 2 (1994): 257–270.


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