Why Afterlifism Isn’t a Ponzi Scheme

Samuel Scheffler’s original and provocative Tanner lectures, now published as Death and the Afterlife (OUP 2013), have already stirred discussion about the importance of humanity’s continued survival for the value of our own lives. In a witty and penetrating review of Scheffler’s work, Mark Johnston argues, among other things, that were our flourishing to depend on the flourishing of future generations, life would turn out to be a kind of Ponzi scheme: the value of our lives would depend on an infinite continuation of humanity. Since there’s good reason to think the chain of generations will eventually end, Schefflerian afterlifism implies the deeply pessimistic conclusion that “there are no value-laden lives to be found anywhere in the history of humanity”. Here, I’m going to argue that this objection fails: the point of many of our most cherished activities can depend on a certain kind of existence of future generations without any danger of regress. We need future generations to be there to be benefited by us or to appreciate our work and perhaps to continue our traditions, not necessarily to flourish in the same way as we do.


 Let us begin with a brief recap of Scheffler’s argument. He asks what it would mean psychologically and normatively if we were to discover that all of humanity will be extinguished soon after our own eventual death, whether by a cosmic accident or global infertility (which would allow our loved ones to outlive us). He argues that such knowledge would and should deeply affect our decisions and actions. We would have less reason to do many kinds of research, engage in political or environmental activism, educate others, or sacrifice for art, for example – perhaps so little reason that the activities would become pointless. This is particularly clear in the case of projects whose ultimate success depends on what happens in the future, or whose point it is to benefit people for a long time in the future. But part of our reason for undertaking many other activities derives from participating in and extending a continuing social tradition, and other activities, like reading fiction or appreciating art, are arguably as rewarding as they are only in the context of future-oriented activities. So we would be justifiably demoralized by the prospect of human extinction. Scheffler concludes (in part) that we need future generations to exist in order to flourish ourselves, in order for our lives to have purpose and value.

The way I’ve characterized Scheffler’s argument suggests a view that can be captured as follows: 

Brute Afterlifism

Many activities that give value to our lives are pointless (or at least less worthy of emotional investment), unless there exist future generations of human beings, so we need future generations to exist in order to flourish.

I write “future generations” in the plural, but it is natural to think that there is some point in, say, curing cancer, if there is just one generation of people who get to benefit from it, although it makes more sense to make the effort if there are more generations to come. Let’s assume the plausible principle that up to a point, there is the more sense in doing future-oriented things the more generations there are to follow. Up to what point? That will depend on the activity. Perhaps for some kinds of activity, ten generations is the limit: it doesn’t matter at all to the point of my writing poetry if there’s ten or eleven or twelve or n generations of potential future readers, while it does matter whether there’s two or six generations of them. Call this span of ten (or some other fairly small number) of future generations the meaning horizon of our activities. If the world ends beyond the meaning horizon of everything we do, it’s all the same from the perspective of our self-interest. (It may be worth mentioning that Scheffler believes that the afterlife has broader significance than is captured by what I say here.)

Johnston’s strategy is to first argue against Brute Afterlifism and then replace it with a principle that generates the Ponzi condition. It is not enough, he observes, for humanity to simply survive in any condition whatsoever for us to avoid being justifiably demoralized by the future. As he puts it, 

If the future of humanity just came down to Mafia-like families battling it out on a galactic scale, or to our being fully pacified fodder for the hungry aliens, or to our universal participation in “reality” shows to the exclusion of anything else—in other words, if the human future did not contain some value-laden lives—then it would not provide the larger horizon of sustaining value that makes many of our present small efforts matter. 

The point that there are scenarios of human survival that are reasonably demoralizing from the point of view of future-directed activities is no doubt correct. Johnston’s claim is that the non-demoralizing scenarios are those in which future lives are value-laden in just the same way as ours. So according to him, the most defensible version of afterlifism is the following: 

Recursive Afterlifism

Many activities that give value to our lives are pointless, unless there are flourishing future generations of human beings, so we need flourishing future generations to exist in order to flourish.

Johnston next observes that Recursive Afterlifism leads to a very pessimistic conclusion, unless there is an infinite chain of flourishing human generations, so we should hope it’s false:

For if it were true it would imply that the human future is a kind of Ponzi scheme where the virtual horizon of genuine value would have to recede forever if the human enterprise is to be valuable at all. …  Consider the last human beings, facing their imminent collective demise. Since they are not followed by a future in which any human beings live value-laden lives, they do not live value-laden lives themselves; but then the same is true of their immediate predecessors, and their immediate predecessors, and so on back through the whole history of humanity.

In effect, we face the choice of giving up either afterlifism or the belief that our lives are worthwhile. Johnston opts for giving up afterlifism: even without any future, “there is simple human joy, the joy that comes from eating, drinking, sensing, moving one’s body, engaging one’s intellect, conversing” and so on, and such legitimate joy is enough to make our lives worthwhile, even if we are the last generation of humanity.

Alas, we only need to choose between afterlifism and worthwhileness if Recursive Afterlifism (or some other form featuring a Ponzi condition) is indeed the most defensible version. Johnston acknowledges that Scheffler doesn’t explicitly endorse Recursive Afterlifism. If there is some other principle, stronger than Brute Afterlifism but weaker than Recursive Afterlifism, which is supported by the considerations that motivate Scheffler in the first place, the choice can be avoided. And indeed, there is such a principle: 

Motivated Afterlifism

Many activities that give value to our lives are pointless, unless there is a realistic prospect of their making a difference for future generations, so we need a realistic prospect of the life of future generations (within our meaning horizon) to be influenced by ours in order to flourish.

I call this Motivated Afterlifism, since it is the view that is motivated by Scheffler’s considerations. A few clarifications first. First, I say we need a realistic prospect of making a difference: cancer research has a point even if it turns out to make no difference in the end, as long as it might well have. The future must not be disconnected from the present. Second, making a difference means different things for different activities. Some things are supposed to benefit future generations, some to be there to be potentially appreciated, some to keep the tradition going in some form into the future. Third, I don’t mean the thesis to be individualistic. It’s not necessarily my doing something that needs to have a realistic prospect of making a difference, but ours collectively. It may be enough that I participate in a practice, such as making music, that has a future as well as a present.

Motivated Afterlifism agrees with Johnston that a future of nothing but endless power struggle between gangster clans or alien enslavement is justifiably demoralizing (at least when it is within our meaning horizon). But that’s not because those generations fail to flourish, but because, say, they are guaranteed to fail to be benefited by our sacrifices or continue the traditions we have maintained. That sucks for us. Simple survival of humanity won’t do: the kind of future that humanity has must somehow hang on what we do, or for there to at least be a realistic chance of that. (As Nicholas Smyth pointed out to me, the mere fact that future generations fail to flourish is also depressing and in that sense demoralizing, but not because it undermines the worth of our own activities, but because of sympathy for their suffering.)

Finally, Motivated Afterlifism isn’t a Ponzi scheme. Consider the last human generation, as Johnston does. They had better have a carpe diem attitude: it makes little sense for them to do many of the things that orient our lives. Maybe their lives are bound to be quite meaningless, focused as they are on short-term pleasures and immediate relationships. Their lives are not necessarily entirely devoid of value (Scheffler claims no such thing), but they are not value-laden as ours may be.

What about the second-to-last generation? They do have an afterlife, although a brief one. Can they flourish? According to Motivated Afterlifism, the answer is a qualified yes. Even if their descendants won’t exactly flourish, they can be benefited by their actions, or appreciate the beauty of their art (although the last generation’s enjoyment may be diminished by the impending end, as noted above). The second-to-last generation does have a realistic prospect of making a difference of the right sort in the short long run, so research or activism or extending a tradition, or anything else undertaken in the service or in the context of these ends, still makes sense to some extent. They can lead somewhat value-laden lives, and their predecessors with a longer afterlife even more so. There is no regress that would doom anyone ever. Hence, even if the value of our lives is to a significant degree hostage to the future, the eventual end of humanity doesn’t make it all pointless – unless we happen to be the very last generation.

4 Replies to “Why Afterlifism Isn’t a Ponzi Scheme

  1. Hi Antti, thanks, this is interesting. I take it that you take “flourishing” and “leading a value-laden life” to be equivalent. And I take it that your reply to Johnston on Scheffler’s behalf can be boiled down to two claims. First, that it is not sufficient for one to be flourishing that one’s life merely has some value in it (or has acquired some benefit from others). Second, that what is necessary to our flourishing is not the existence of future generations with flourishing lives, but merely a realistic expectation of the existence of a future generation or generations with lives that have some value in them (or that we can benefit). I haven’t read Scheffler’s lectures so I may be underestimating the arguments he brings to bear, but I’m skeptical about the existence of any afterlife condition on a flourishing life. My worry about your reply is that by reading the afterlife condition in a fairly minimal way (we don’t have to understand ourselves as contributing to a glorious future history of flourishing human lives, but only need to think we have a realistic possibility of benefiting a single generation of fairly badly-off future people), you’re going to make any argument for treating the afterlife as a necessary condition on our flourishing less plausible. Why is it a necessary condition on my flourishing that there is a realistic possibility of providing some benefit to a future generation, even while I will be doing nothing to contribute to future human flourishing? If this sort of thing could indeed ground flourishing, then why can’t my life count as flourishing in virtue merely of benefits I provide to my own generation? Clearly there are specific future directed activities that would lack value if we are the last generation. But I can’t see why my ordinary activities like “reading fiction or appreciating art” would demand the existence of a single, non-flourishing future generation in order to count as contributing to my own flourishing.

  2. Thanks, Simon. Here’s a very quick reply, without presuming to speak for Scheffler. First, much of Scheffler’s focus is on how “we” (people pretty much like him) would likely respond to, say, the global infertility scenario (Children of Men). Our dismay and despair reveals that we as a matter of fact treat the existence of future generations as a condition of value of many activities. It’s a further question whether the reaction is justified or rational. But don’t you feel the pull of the thought that lots of things, like teaching at a university or doing research in philosophy, would be a lot less appealing if the world was going to end after you die? (Maybe you don’t. Susan Wolf says you might initially, but feel differently after a bit of reflection.)
    Second, I didn’t mean to say that the life of the penultimate generation would be fully value-laden, precisely because of the very brief afterlife. So my afterlife condition isn’t as minimal as that. It’s only if the world ends after what I called my meaning horizon that it makes no difference to my flourishing.
    Third, on why benefiting future others can contribute to my flourishing even if it doesn’t make others flourish: I don’t think I said we couldn’t contribute to the flourishing of the last generation. It just won’t be enough, because whether future people lead a value-laden life is crucially up to them, just like our flourishing is crucially up to us, whatever we’ve inherited. Think of it in the Aristotelian way: there’s a limit in any case to how much we can benefit someone else, since their flourishing is ultimately a matter of their engagement in worthwhile activity. So nothing I can do for you suffices to get you to flourish. But that doesn’t mean I can’t benefit you (or indeed help you flourish, or contribute to your flourishing), or that benefiting you isn’t one of the worthwhile things I can do with my time. In that respect, the penultimate generation isn’t in a radically different position from any of us. They, too, can make some contribution for the last generation. But independently of what they do, the last generation’s life will be significantly reduced in purpose. (Everyone seems to agree that the last word hasn’t been said on just how significantly reduced the value of their activities would be.)
    I’ll return later to the issue of fiction.

  3. There are three different kinds of things that can matter: (1) those that require the continued existence of a collective of rational beings (human or non-human); (2) those that do not require the continued existence of such a collective but do require the existence of a personal afterlife; and (3) those that do not require the continued existence of a collective of rational beings and also do not require the existence of a personal afterlife. An example of the first might be the eternal existence of a just society; of the second, the eternal sharing of your life with your loved ones; of the third, the kind of joy you get through sharing life with others you love, pursuing and accomplishing things you value, and the like. And each of those things can matter either personally or impersonally, that is, matter to a particular person or just matter, period.
    One of the things Scheffler claims is that we would despair if we thought that the universe would sometime end so that things that matter in category (1) would be impossible. Whether we would or would not is a psychological question. The philosophical question is whether it would be rational to despair if it were true that the universe will sometime end so that nothing in category (1) could matter. It would not be rational to despair if it is rational to believe that there are things that matter in category (2) or (3) and those things matter enough that despair over losing the possibility of things that matter in category (1) would be irrational. Johnston argues that there are things that matter in category (3). It seems very implausible to claim that despair would be rational for everyone if there could be nothing that matters in category (1), in the same way that it seems very implausible to claim that despair would be rational for everyone if there could be nothing in category (2) because there is no personal afterlife. Many of us think it’s reasonable to believe that there is no personal afterlife. Still, there can be enough good things in this life so that despair is not rationally required. Since despair is not rationally required if there is no personal afterlife, it is also not required if at sometime in the future there will be no collective of rational beings.
    Will some people in fact despair if they believe that sometime in the future rational beings will cease to exist? Of course! And will that despair be rational for them? Of course, again, for it is rationally permitted for them to value things greatly that require the continued existence of a collective of rational beings. But that does not mean that despair is rationally required of anyone who thinks that at sometime in the future no rational beings will exist.

  4. Hi Antti, do you think this Scheffler-argument is or can be related to pro-death antinatalism à la Benatar? (If there are moral reasons for not procreating because it harms people to bring them into existence, aren’t there also moral reasons to continue procreating if not doing so would undermine the possibility to flourish for currently existing people?)

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