First published as part of the Huffington Post’s Apocalypse series.
How bad is the end of the world? It’s well, the end of the world, isn’t it? It’s in the name. How could anything be worse than the end to everything?
But is the end of the world that bad? Let’s ask the question another way. The end of the world: who exactly is it bad for?
Suppose something nasty happened today. An asteroid strike. A global pandemic. A nuclear war. AI goes rogue. We all die. Fine, dying is bad for us. But tomorrow, we’re all dead. Being dead can’t be bad for us. At that point, there’s no ‘us’ for anything to be bad for.
This line of thinking stretches back more than twenty-three centuries to Greek philosopher Epicurus. As he wrote in his letter to Menoeceus:
“Death is nothing to us. When we are here, death is not. When death is here, we are not.”
Leaving aside how weird it is to write to your friends about death, Epicurus has, I think, a point.
Here are two plausible ethical principles that lead to Epicurus’ conclusion. First, for something to be good or bad, it has to be good or bad for someone. If we can’t identify whose life an act makes better or worse, who should deny that act has moral significance. This is the ‘person-affecting restriction’. If a tree falls in forest and no one hears it, who cares?
Second, that existence is neither better or worse than non-existence. This is the ‘existence incomparability thesis’. Why believe this? If existence is better than non-existence, that means non-existence must be worse than existence. But it’s peculiar to say non-existence is better or worse than anything. At the point of non-existence, there is no one for whom anything can be better or worse.
Put these two together, you get the view death is not a harm.
Many people find this unsatisfying. They object death frustrates the desires we had while alive. By dying, we never get to do what we wanted to do: swim with dolphins; get married; pretend we’d finished War and Peace.
A better way to understand the change is that death suddenly removes all our desires. Once dead, it’s not that we have desires which are being frustrated; we have no desires, and these are neither fulfilled nor frustrated. Now you’re swimming with the fishes, you don’t care about swimming with the dolphins.
Thinking this way might seem odd, but it’s no different to how we think about changing our desires whilst alive. We ask children ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ We find it funny, because we know what they say they want later – for a boy, classically, fireman, policeman or millionaire space-cowboy – are not the things they will still want when later comes. And if the boy doesn’t become a fireman, is anyone harmed? No. Not the boy; he is a now a man. Not the man; he no longer desires to be that fireman.
By analogy, our attitude to death is often like the boy’s attitude to adulthood; we don’t grasp how different it will be when it gets here.
Following Epicurus, we can still accept that we don’t want to die. Staying alive is a deep psychological urge. We can still accept that the process of dying can be painful. But we can also accept that when death comes, it won’t be bad; it won’t be bad, because it won’t be bad for us. What’s supposed to be awful about the apocalypse is that we’ll all be dead. But if death isn’t good, or bad, neither is the apocalypse.
And what of all those future people? Those future lives who never get to live a happy life? Would we deprive our descendants the chance to glide through galaxies and stare at stars?
Epicurus’ logic applies the same way to the start of lives as it does the end. It’s not better for future people to be born than not born. They’ll never know what they’re missing.
Does this mean we should give up on morality? Not a bit. It means we should focus on finding happiness for the people who are going to exist anyway. We should be trying to make people happy, not ensure there will be happy people. We should stop suffering, not strive to survive. When or if the apocalypse arrives, we should accept it with equanimity.