Surviving Death (2)

I'm waiting to get more excited about this book--and trying to be patient. The problem is that a lot of it is written "ad hominem"--in the technical sense. In other words, Johnston spends a lot time talking to a reader whose assumptions are not his own, and not mine either. For example, the very long first chapter is addressed to a reader who believes in a supernatural god who resurrects the dead--and the question is whether there's any way to conceive of how this might work.  I could be interested in that question for some number of pages, but not for 125.

Towards the end of the second chapter, things start to get somewhat more interesting. There are still lots and lots of  detours through not-important-for-me terrain but there's starting to be a glimmer of hope that we will come to the book's central question.  As he puts it--"Our purpose here is to see whether there is a naturalistic account of how it is that death does not threaten the importance of goodness." (p. 130)

Earlier on, he argued that death does seem to threaten the importance of goodness.  If good people can expect exactly the same fate as bad people after death, it detracts from the sense that it's really, really important to be good.  I don't think he means to say there's no incentive to be good, it's just not quite so super-important. 

And now a confession.  From time to time I find myself having to go through some sort of adversity in order to do the right thing.  As I persevere under pressure, it never dawns on me to think: no matter what I do (the right thing or the wrong thing), I'll be dead anyway in 50 years.  I never (literally, never) experience my mortality as a threat to the importance of morality.

This isn't good, because I do want to finish the book, but I don't find myself with the distress that Johnston is trying to remedy.  Can anybody help me worry more about how mortality threatens morality?


amos said...

Sorry, Jean. I can't help you.

My sense of mortality, which has increased after the death of my son and as I get older, perhaps has made my moral sense keener: being aware of coming death leads me to focus on what matters, that is, on what has value, on what is good.

I used to be more frivolous and more selfishly hedonistic.

Faust said...

I almost wrote to you early on to skip the first chapter, or at least what takes place after around page 35, but then flipping through it, I wasn't sure how much of it was skip-able. Definitely some of it is, maybe even big chunks, I really had almost the same reaction you did: vast swaths of chapter 1 are arguments that I'm not interested in. On the other hand, he sets up some stuff that he keeps returning to so I think a skimming is necessary. Sounds like your past it though, Chapter 1 was the only chapter like that for me. Generally it gets more and more interesting as it goes along.

As for your question let me turn it around and put it to you this way. Lets say encounter someone and they say:

"You know, never once have I thought, when considering morality, that it was a good idea to take care of anyone but myself. Sure sometimes I have to pay lip service to ideas about morality, in much the same way that Machiavelli recommends in the Prince. But success in this world requires brutal pragmatism, and given that this is the only life I've got, why waste my time (or money) helping anyone but myself any more than is necessary. Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die (so to speak)."

Now how would you go about changing my mind? What are you going to say?

Sarahlah said...

I like my own company. Having said that, doing the next right is not easy in all cases. I do err, but if the best I can do is be honest with myself about my faults, then so be it. I can learn from the experience. My mortality does not have anything to do with my morality. I am not moral in order to earn rewards in an afterlife. There is a freedom and heightened sense of creativity that comes from lightness of spirit.

Gurdur said...

I think you've convinced me not to buy this book, Jean Kazez (I was thinking of buying and reading it).

By the way, I remember some study at least a decade old that showed contemplation of oncoming mortality usually sharpened values -- whatever the values were, whether conservative or liberal or whatever. In other words, if people thought on their mortality, they became more active and consistant in applying their ethics, regardless of the ethics (just as long as they actually had some).

But this book you're reviewing; it seems the author has worked himself into a rather odd neurosis about it all, and his adopting an attitude of a bit less narcissism would be a great deal of help for him

amos said...

Faust: I've run into a few of those whom you call "brutal pragmatists", and while no argument or reasons can convert them to concerned, thoughtful ethicists, one should keep a safe distance from them, because they can do a lot of harm.

Jean Kazez said...


I guess I was expecting a sequel to Saving God, and so a real book -- which is really something quite different from a lecture series. I get the impression that too much of the content here is being shaped by who's in the audience--he has to feed "the tigers" as he puts it. Plus, he's oriented a lot to an imaginary reader who's insisting on supernatural eschatology...as they say.

Question for you--do you think he made up the word "offloading" or is out there along with "uploading" and "downloading"? The meaning is none too crisp...

I like what you say about mortality and morality--in fact, I came around to that after writing the post. Here's what I'd say, on further reflection. There are two very different cases of feeling like X is obligatory.

Strong obligations--X is my responsibility, it's what I simply have to do, no matter what. It's a matter of fairness, justice, my own responsibilities, etc. For example, a student plagiarizes and I have to impose a penalty, which is very likely to mean all sorts of aggravation for me. In these cases, it never (ever) occurs to me to think about my own mortality. It just makes no difference.

(Seemingly) weaker obligations--I should send money to Oxfam rather than take a trip to Europe; I shouldn't spew all those greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, etc. Here my mortality can cross my mind. It does occur to me that I have one life to live, and I want to get the most out of it. That makes me go ahead and take the trip.

Here's the thing--I don't experience the intimation of mortality in the second case as a problem. It seems to me that "I have one life to live" should, legitimately, have some impact on the way I live.

So--no experience of mortality as a threat to morality. :-(

Faust said...

I think you lay it out nicely. However, from Johnston's perspective you've not overcome "the problem" in general, you've just "overcome" it in your own case. But Johnston is is concerned with the threat of death to morality. As he acknowledges right off, modern moral philosophy does not have this threat in view. He discusses this on pages 8-12. According to modern moral rationalists:

"Moral goodness is a normative property that attaches to acts because of the kinds of acts they are, and independently of whether those acts are rewarded."

So likewise for bad acts and punishment. He goes on to note that in his view modern morality is "too brittle:"

"It is internal to the moral point of view that great injustice cries out for punishment, and that great sacrifice in the name of the good cries out for reward. But if the world itself is deaf to these cries then it can be rational to care less about the deliverance of the moral point of view."

"The world" here means "the nature of the universe," as he notes: "When I consider the question of the importance of the reasons deriving from morality, the nature of the universe seems highly relevant."

Sam Harris would quite agree! Here we have arrived at problems relating to moral realism. Perhaps you would agree that this is a threat:

(P) Morality is purely a function of cultural consensus and has no reality outside of human communities.

Johnson notes in Saving God

"The respectable life is not itself an ethical life, nor is the ethical life merely an intensification of the respectable life. You can become more respectable without approaching the ethical life any more closely. The ethical life does not consist in the triumph over self-will by way of moral effort directed at the conventionalized good.” (SG 89)

Conventions such as, say, the rules surrounding plagiarism? Or what side of the plate I should place my fork? In any case perhaps you can see Johnston’s aim if you simply replace “eternal life” with “eternal rules for conduct.” For what the modern moralist wishes to do after the death of God is replace the eternal supernatural order, with an “objective” or “realist” account of morality that will resist cultural relativism/nihilism. There is general agreement I think that moral “relativists” of various stripes are indeed dangerous, that there is a genuine threat to morality that lurks in the arguments of those who suggest that “nothing is true, everything is permitted” from the vantage point of the universe. We can say that “God cares about what we do” or that “The moral fabric of the universe ‘cares’ about what we do.” In the first case we think that there is a supernatural agency that wants us to do certain things, in the second case the ‘caring’ is merely a metaphorical way of expressing that there is a “humanist” force behind the impersonal laws that supposedly want to exercise their “reasons” on us.

Jean Kazez said...

I think the idea is that mortality does at least seem to threaten morality. He has to convince us of this seeming, before getting us interested in his account of why it doesn't really. How can I assess the claim about seeming except by looking at cases--like my own? When people are in the middle of experiencing a strong sense of duty, do they actually find it ebbs when they ponder that they're mortal? I don't--maybe nobody does.

Why would they? The sense that I have to do something is a bit like the sense that I must give a certain answer to a mathematical equation. I just must say 4, when faced with 2+2. It wouldn't dawn on me to think that death will have the same impact on me whether I say 4 or 5. There just doesn't seem to be any connection between "ought" (in either the moral or the mathematical sense) and future rewards/punishments.

It would certainly be nice if people who were better at morality and math had less to fear from death, but I just don't find it very important to think so.

Jean Kazez said...

Correction--I misrepresented him above. The idea is not that mortality seems to take away the incentive to be morally good, but that it threatens our sense of the importance of being morally good. Subtle difference. Thoughts of mortality don't necessarily stop us being good, but trouble us with the worry about why it matters so much whether we're good. I think that's the idea. His story about death is supposed to overcome this (alleged!) mortality-induced skepticism about why morality matters.

Faust said...

I guess I"m recommending the following:

1. Mortality doesn't just mean "mortality" but can be hooked up to problems like surrounding moral relativism, contingency, convention and so forth. Mortality just means that this frame of existence is all we get. That justice is relative to the demands of this world, and is therefore relative. Mortality results in relativism. I think Johnston can be seen as explicitly making this claim, and that's what I'm pointing out in my previous comment.

2. When you write:

"(Seemingly) weaker obligations--I should send money to Oxfam rather than take a trip to Europe; I shouldn't spew all those greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, etc. Here my mortality can cross my mind. It does occur to me that I have one life to live, and I want to get the most out of it. That makes me go ahead and take the trip."

You are making a claim that can easily be expanded to include more and more "bad things," ending in radical ethical egoism. What stops the slide? What blocks modern ethical egoism (e.g. Ayn Rand). It's what Johnston calls "seeking premium treatment for ourselves."

3. We can extend 2 by putting it this way: our problems here are problems of motivation. Lets say "real" morality is just like math (I think this is completely wrong headed but lets run with it). So you tell me 2+2 is 4, and I say yeah sure so? What does that have to do with anything? More concretely I'm a CEO who is trying to make a bundle and feed shareholders money. So you come to me and point out that I'm doing a lot of moral 2+2 = 5. And I say:

"yeah and it's making me and my buddies a truckload of money. How about you go back to your little academic department and talk amongst yourselves while we go about living in the real world. In my world morality just doesn't matter except as a means to an end. I just do what I can get away with."

Here the threat to morality is simply this: there is nothing you can do other than tell me I'm doing some bad math. But if bad math gets me everything I've ever wanted, then bad math is what I'm going to do. Who cares if it's bad math. With an eternal framework of divine justice we might hope that the bad people get their just deserts. But without that framework, they get everything they ever wanted, and the good people get whatever they get, quite independently of having done good, except to the degree that they congratulate themselves on having done the right thing.

In your view, that satisfaction results from having done a math problem correctly. This is all well and good for people who want to get an A on their math problems, but for those who want to make sure they are getting premium treatment for themselves, it's quite irrelevant.

Jean Kazez said...

At least so far (I'm in chapter 4) the book really strikes me as being just about mortality, and not about all the other possible threats to morality. I just don't see any other metaethical issues in the book so far. The idea is to replace the old supernatural idea that good people are rewarded in the afterlife with a new and natural idea as to how death is less worrisome for good people. No?

Faust said...

No I don't think that it's quite that simple.

One way to get a sense of Johnston's larger project is to switch back to Saving God. In chapter 6 "Why God" he writes:

"Can't the ethical stand on its own? Why need it be backed by the threats and promises of a Divine Judge? (Or, as J.S. Mill less sympathetically put it, by "moral bribery and the subordination of the understanding?) Doesn't the force of reason itself demand to be respected, however we understand its origins? Can we not, then, see "God" as an idea that gradually lost its usefulness, as a consequence of the hard-won historical development of our richer, though still incomplete understanding of substantive reasonableness and its requirements?...Indeed, even if we recognize the large-scale defects of human life as something to which we need to be reconciled, isn't a this-worldly philosophy enough to preserve faith in the importance of goodness?"

This last line is footnoted "A question taken up in Surviving Death."

The chapter then proceeds to offer a connection of his notion of "arena of presence of action" and its connection to Kant's notion of "radical evil," along with a treatment of "conventional morality."

So taking all these things together I think that his concerns go quite a bit past just mortality. Again, mortality just means that this world is IT for US. Mortality is frequently held to be one of the reasons, if not the main reason, that we humans came up with the supernatural in the first place (a kind of divine escape hatch), and given that the supernatural was, until the advent of modern naturalism, the (perceived) ground of moral facticity, I think the broader metaethical implications are at least implicit.

But it is right that Johnston does not belabor the point in Surviving Death. He is clearly discussing these things with eye to people who already accept (on some level) the Kantian idea that the ethical is "the only thing in this world or in any other which is valuable in itself," "is simply madness when ripped out of the religious frame in which it first appeared." (SG 91)

But lets take a step back an view it another way. Let us say there are at least two kinds of people. One kind of person thinks that substantive reasonableness DOES suffice. They think that a sufficient amount of training in rational reflection will result in an increase in ethical behavior, or at least a decrease in the theft of library books.

Then there is a different group of people who think that no amount of reasoning will close the gap between ethical ideals and ethical behavior. These people agree with Hume that "reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions," because they believe that passions are what drive behavior. But they are also keenly aware that passions are easily driven by cultural norms, by convention, and that these alone are not sufficient to drive maximally ethical behavior. Given that this is the case, what strategies should we deploy to help people become good?

The first group may think that all we need is a more thoroughly secular culture(e.g. Harris), while the second group thinks that we need a better kind of theology, broadly construed(e.g. Johnston).

Jean Kazez said...

OK, but I was trying to get a grip on SD and what MJ is trying to get me to think about here. This book (I would say) really is about death, and just about death. The puzzle here is how we can find some naturalistic "shadow" of the Christian idea that death is easier on the good than the bad.

My question is--why should I really want to do that, if I'm not a Christian to begin with? He has an answer from Kant--reason just (somehow) needs to think that the good will get their recompense some day, even if not in this life. My reaction is--I don't find myself needing to think this way. Nevertheless, I'm curious to see how this is going to go.

amos said...

Here's another way to look at. While virtues are not only habitual dispositions, they do have a habitual element.

As most of us get older, we become creatures of habit, set in our ways.

Similarly, as most of us get older, we become more aware of our mortality.

There is no necessary connection between being a creature of habits and of becoming more aware of one's mortality, but they do generally coincide.

Being an ageing creature of habit, whether I am mortal or not, I do not steal library books, I return library books on time and I offer my seat in the metro to pregnant women.

Faust said...

So you don't find it disturbing that someone who is unethical in a broad number of ways is likely to fare much better than someone who isn't? E.g. the lies one must tell to succeed in both politics of all kinds, both public and corporate; the extensive benefits of tribalism (broadly construed); the way in which people can become successful simply by being wanton propagandists; the fact that selfishness is celebrated in American culture in general, and so on and on and on?

In my view most of what most people do most of the time isn't morality, it's just people getting along in generally mutually rewarding ways according to the dictates of a cultural milieu that they have more or less unconsciously internalized. This works very well by the way!

In any case you've already indicated how you relate to the problem Johnston suggests is there: you have "strong" obligations, and then you have "weak" ones. The latter involve you considering your mortality. But Johnston has a much more aggressive version of "strong" morality. He is after "radical impersonal altruism" as a legitimate ethical standard.

But this is a standard I think you would class with your "weak" obligations. We are simply not obliged to be radically altruistic. You note "It does occur to me that I have one life to live, and I want to get the most out of it. That makes me go ahead and take the trip." So too with all the other things that would be prevented by adopting a standard of radical altruism.

So IF you adopt Johnston's recommended moral standard THEN you already agree that mortality is in view. So your question really is: "why should I adopt radical altruism as an ethical standard?"