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Journal of Moral Philosophy Discussion at PEA Soup: Preston Greene’s “Value in Very Long Lives,” with a critical précis by Michael Cholbi

Welcome to the second Journal of Moral Philosophy discussion here at PEA Soup. This is sure to be another insightful and productive discussion, this time on Preston Greene‘s absolutely fantastic paper “Value in Very Long Lives.” This paper is currently available in the “Advance Articles” section online at the Journal of Moral Philosophy. They have kindly provided free access to the paper, which can be viewed or downloaded here. Michael Cholbi has written a critical précis and commentary, which is included below. Please join the fun!

Michael Cholbi’s critical précis:

Longevity researcher Steven Austad has estimated that the average lifespan of “medically immortal” human beings —individuals invulnerable to aging, infectious disease, or endogenous diseases such as cancer but still vulnerable to death due to accidents, violence, etc. — would be just shy of 6,000 years. Should we welcome the prospect of medical immortality? Many actual human lives are no doubt made worse by death. For death often deprives us of goods that, had we lived longer, would have resulted in our lives being better overall. But some philosophers argue that it does not follow from the fact that many would benefit from living a bit longer that greatly extended lifespans would be better for us.

In “Value in Very Long Lives,” Preston Greene answers two of the most prominent arguments offered by skeptics about the desirability of very long lives, and in so doing, brings a welcome dose of empiricism to these debates. Preston’s responses rest not on thought experiments or on appeals to what we imagine very long lives would be like. Rather, his defense of the value of very long lives draws on plausible empirical claims about (among other matters) memory and temporal bias in decision-making. Very long lives in which individuals’ memories of the past fade, their knowledge of the future is limited in scope, and they reason about what to do in ways that discount events or experiences in the remote future would, Preston concludes, meet the conditions for valuable lives advanced by his skeptical adversaries. Death thus “plays merely a contingent role in our valuing attitudes” (“Value in Very Long Lives,” 2) and a valuable life need not “presuppose death” (VVLL 18).

There are many elements of Preston’s discussion that I will not have the opportunity to address here. Let me first outline how I understand Preston to be responding to the two skeptical arguments before raising my chief worry about what Preston’s discussion accomplishes.

The first skeptical argument is typified by Bernard Williams’ “Makropulos case”. Williams poses his argument as a dilemma: An infinite life would, he argues, eventually become tedious, because even the most pleasant or rewarding activities would become familiar and unappealing. Such tedium could be remedied by large scale changes in our personality or character, changes that introduce new desires into our psychology and thereby increase our attraction to activities to which we were previously indifferent or averse. But such large scale changes in personality or character would render those future selves so different from us that we would have little reason to identify with them or their good. An infinitely long life must therefore be bad from a first-personal perspective, according to Williams, or good but only from a perspective from which we cannot first-personally identify with such a life. Perhaps Williams’ dilemma is less acute with respect to lives that are merely very long rather than infinitely long. Nevertheless, many have been convinced by arguments like Williams’ that greatly extended human lifespans would not only not be better for us, they might well be worse.

In response, Preston notes that Williams assumes that “it is essential to one’s character that one become bored in response to repeated experiences” (VVLL 7) and that a very long life would involve an increase in one’s memory capacities (VVLL 8). Together these assumptions support Williams’ contention that long lives would become tedious: Individuals will recall past experiences, and as result, eventually find themselves unmotivated or disinterested in repeating such experiences. But humans are a forgetful species. Our memories of past events fade. If so, then even repeated experiences can be experienced as good so long as they are not experienced as repetitious. “As long as the variability of experienced events outruns memory capacity,” (a plausible assumption), then a “life of even infinite length may appear to the agent, at each moment in time, to involve no repetition of experience whatsoever” and present no threat to a person’s “constancy of character.” (VVLL 9)

The second skeptical argument Preston addresses asserts that temporal scarcity is a necessary condition for human attitudes, human choice, or their meaningfulness. Samuel Scheffler proposes (Death and the Afterlife, Oxford 2013) that many things we value, such as health, achievement, security, etc., assume that human lives are of limited duration. Richard Wollheim suggests (The Thread of Life, Cambridge 1984) that temporal scarcity is needed in order for there be reasons to choose among the options available to us. If such arguments are sound, then very long lives (even if not infinitely long) might contribute to rendering our attitudes and reasoning incoherent.

To this argument, Preston responds by noting that a limited horizon of future time does not appear necessary for the relevant form of temporal scarcity. All that is necessary is that such horizons be perceived as limited. Humans with very long lifespans would, in all likelihood, share with us our near bias, assigning greater weight to events or experiences in the near future to those in the distant future. Near biased individuals with very long lives would thus likely develop attitudes, make choices, etc., within a temporal framework that would mirror that of beings with shorter lifespans, that is, beings like those humans who exist now. (VVLL 15)

The empirical cast of Preston’s responses to these two skeptical arguments is greatly appreciated. Much of the philosophical literature exaggerates how much we attend to the (remote) past and the (remote) future. We are, as Preston observes, more present-focused in our awareness and decision making than this literature lets on. In general, I am qualifiedly sympathetic to his suggestion that very long lives could be valuable and that their value is enhanced under the conditions of fading memory, near bias, etc. Whether Preston’s thesis advances the historical dialectic is less clear: The skeptical arguments he addresses arose in part as a reaction to the widespread belief that because death is (or can be) bad, then living very long (even infinitely long) lives must therefore be good. In my estimation, Preston gives us persuasive reasons to think that such arguments are unsound. But it may be the case that proponents of such arguments are arguing for a stronger thesis than is necessary for their dialectical purposes: that very long lives are valueless. And I wonder if Preston’s responses to these arguments nevertheless leave a weaker skeptical thesis untouched, namely, there is no positive reason to prefer very long lives to the comparatively brief lives we presently enjoy.

My chief worry in this regard is that Preston evidently has in mind by ‘very long lives’ lives that are biologically very long. Let us suppose that what matters to us in survival is that we be psychologically connected to some sufficiently high degree to our later ‘selves,’ i.e., that we share a large enough body of attitudes, preferences, etc., with them. One may hold this claim as an independent normative thesis about the value of survival or one might hold it as a consequence of holding that what matters in survival is that the person we are survives and we as persons are essentially psychological. Any stage within the very long lives Preston describes does not, in light of the very features that he claims are needed in order to very long lives to have value, have much psychological connection with any other stage. Each stage has limited and fading memory of past stages and is, due to near bias, not richly psychologically connected to future stages. These stages are relatively short but consecutive (or overlapping) lifestages that happen to be realized by a single biological organism, a series of autobiographies loosely linked by memory and other psychological features and attitudes. Preston does well in showing how each of these person stages might be valuable taken in their own right, and it would seem to follow that if each of these stages is valuable, then their sum, realized across the organism’s lifespan, is also valuable. Yet none of these short-lived stages seems to have much reason to prefer that any of the other stages realized by this organism existed or come to exist. That each of these short-lived stages has a valuable life (or finds her life valuable) in large measure due to cognitive shortcomings such as limited memory or apparent irrationalities such as near bias only seems to compound this worry. Their positive disposition toward their lives seems to rest on a lack of full information about what their lives could be like without such shortcomings or irrationalities.

Put more succinctly, Preston shows us that so long as very long lives are not experienced as very long, they can be valuable. This is a noteworthy claim and highlights how different questions are in the air in debates about the value of very long lives. To the questions ‘can very long lives be valuable from a third-personal perspective?’ and ‘can very long lives be experienced as valuable as they unfold?’, Preston persuasively answers in the affirmative. In my opinion though, the more relevant question is ‘do we have first-personal reasons to desire that our biological lives be very long?’ Here Preston’s response to the skeptical arguments actually lend support to a negative response. For living a very long life is valuable only when conditions are met that ensure that this question cannot be entertained ‘from the inside,’ so to speak.

That the very long lives Preston describes sound like lives many people rationally prefer to avoid further corroborates my worry. Here is Preston’s picture:

You know you have lived for a very long time, though you are not certain how long. Your memory is limited as it is in the actual world: you remember your life back to a point, though the details fade as you go further back in time. You know that you have 50 years remaining on your current contract as a philosophy professor, and you expect to do something after that, though you are ignorant of exactly what. It seems possible that one day you will die, though of this you are not certain. (VVLL 2)

This resembles Alzheimer’s-based dementia, a condition that many people understandably do not want to find themselves in. Preston has done a great service in indicating that such lives need not be valueless. I remain less persuaded that he has given us reason to resent the brevity of our lives or to resent the ways in which death and our awareness of our mortality play “an essential role in our valuing attitudes.” (VVLL 1, 18, emphasis added)

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19 Responses to Journal of Moral Philosophy Discussion at PEA Soup: Preston Greene’s “Value in Very Long Lives,” with a critical précis by Michael Cholbi

  1. Hi Preston,

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful paper and for participating in the discussion. As you know, I am exceedingly sympathetic with your view. But I do wonder how you would respond to an alternative, and I think plausible, interpretation of Williams’s argument.

    Why think that Williams’s claims about identity should be understood literally to be about persistence conditions rather than understood figuratively to be about what our current ‘thick selves’ would want for our future self? One charitable reading of Williams interprets him figuratively. If this is what Williams had in mind, then he could have granted the points you make when drawing an analogy between eternal boredom and treating anxiety and mood disorders. That is, he could grant that one would not lose their personal identity as a result of treatment nor as a result of an immortal life. But, nevertheless, claim that an immortal life is not something that we should prefer given (a) our current thick self’s desires, goals, etc. and (b) the supposed fact that the future goods we would have to acquire to stave off boredom would be alienating to our current thick self.

    Similar justifications could be given for not taking the treatment in Jeff McMahan’s The Cure case in the Ethics of Killing. Do you think we should take the Cure?

    Setting these considerations aside, here is a simpler response Williams could have given. There is a possible relevant difference between treating eternal boredom and anxiety or mood disorders. The severity of the change that one must undergo to stave off eternal boredom might be so much greater than the change one must undergo to treat anxiety or mood disorders that concerns about identity only arise for staving off eternal boredom, not for treating anxiety or mood disorders. I’m not convinced by this myself, but I would be interested to hear what you think.

  2. Ward Jones says:


    Thanks very much for your paper. I hope that you don’t mind, but I’m not going to engage with the details of your paper. I’m rather going to try and sketch out some of the thoughts that your careful discussion led me to have. I have not kept up with the literature on this issue, so my points may be familiar; I am sorry if they are.

    I am one of those who think that there is much to be learned from repeatedly engaging with Bernard Williams’ dense and inspiring paper on this topic, and indeed from some of his other work, but that a great deal of what we can learn will not emerge from focusing on the notion of ‘boredom’ in the individual who is granted an extended life. A better, more accurate, term would be ‘alienation’, estrangement from what it is that brings value to our lives.

    The question at hand, as I understand it, is the following: Given what I value in my current life, will that value be lost, retained, or greatened in the face of my life’s being extended? This, as you seem to agree, means that our positions in this debate will depend upon our imagination, largely in filling out the details of my imagined extended life, and upon my ‘temperament’, which I take not to be merely a feature of my personality, but rather of what, precisely, I value in the life that I now have. Because of this, I believe that some of the serious literature which has explored extended lives is useful, if not essential, to our discussion. I myself have found work by JL Borges, Martin Amis, and Jim Jarmusch to be influential in how I am thinking of the value of an extended life.

    Two thoughts lie behind my comments: (i) In this discussion, we need to clearly separate out whether we are imagining an extended life, a conditionally immortal life, or an unconditionally immortal life. (ii) A person is a person through other persons (umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu), a thought which is starting to play a central role in my thinking about ethics, and which I understand as the claim that my identity – my deepest values, what I stand for – is constructed through my relationship with those in my personal and moral communities.

    ‘Immortal’ is used in two ways to describe a kind of extended life. The most extreme version we might call ‘unconditional immortality’, which basically means that, once one is created, one will necessarily remain a part of the universe as long as the universe exists. This is the kind of immortality possessed by a character in one of Amis’ short stories (and perhaps Borges’ too). At one point in the story, a desperate immortal, foreseeing an impending nuclear war, places himself at what he knows will be ground zero for an incoming bomb. He, of course, survives it, with a millennium-long headache, a devastated and empty earth, and no more human companions.

    It is difficult to fill out, in our imagination, what an unconditionally immortal creature would be like. In the first place, it seems clear that it wouldn’t be physical at all; nothing we know as physical, I take it, could survive intact being hit by a nuclear bomb, or the heat death of the sun, or the constriction and re-expansion of the universe through its cycles. This is part of what Williams has in mind when he describes the immortal as less a person than a ‘phenomenon’. I find the prospect of discovering that I am unconditionally immortal to be an absolutely horrifying one. It is an important part of being a person, as I know it, that I am able to take myself out of existence. Being able to commit suicide, if things get bad enough, is a blessing, because we know that it surely possible for things to get that bad, and necessary existence under those conditions would surely be a curse, the curse, we might say, of being a god.

    More usual in our thoughts about immortality is the creature with conditional immortality. Vampires, it is said, are immortal, but there are lots of conditions on this: they can’t get their heads cut off, they can’t be exposed to sunlight, and they need human blood. The last point shows just how mortal they are, because the human race is surely not immortal. And I take it that even if vampires could survive without humans around, they wouldn’t survive the death of our sun. In this sense, there is very little difference between an extended life (‘a very long life’, as you call it) and conditional immortality. In both cases, such creatures would live far beyond our allotted 100 years, but they would eventually go or take themselves out of existence. So, the small point that I want to now make applies to both those with extended lives and those with conditional immortality.

    My suggestion is the following: one condition on making an extended life or conditional immortality appealing, a condition which would need to be in place before I would welcome an extended life or conditional mortality, is that I would not be the only one. This is probably not sufficient, but it is, I think, necessary.

    Imagine I found out today that I would live for another thousand years, but that I am the only one who has this feature. One of my first thoughts would be that I will now outlive those that I love. I will have to watch my daughter grow old and die, and my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren, and so on. This is not an appealing thought. One of the worst things that can happen to a human being is having to endure her children’s deaths. I don’t have a ‘life partner’, but if I did, she would no longer be that: I would have to watch her die and live the rest of my life without her. Should I then decide to get another long-term partner, serially followed by another? Should I have more children, knowing that I will have to endure their deaths too? This is starting to look somewhat harrowing. Unlike God, we don’t have an infinite capacity to love and lose. In this situation, my relationship with these people shares something with our relationship with our pets. My grandfather loved his dogs, and he (serially) had many of them, but when he was in his 70s a particularly beloved dog was run over by a car. His response was, basically, ‘I can’t do this anymore. It is too hard.’ This, it seems to me, is part of what is behind Elina Makropulos’ decision to not live anymore. The issue here is less one of boredom than it is one of the capacity to continue to love and value the fleeting creatures who make up one’s community and give one’s life value. In living past the deaths of all of the people around one, one becomes utterly alienated from that community, one stands apart and alone in the extended time that one must endure without them. Social isolation is a repeating theme throughout serious fictional literature on extended lives. So, I guess that the conclusion I come to is that if you want to defend the value of an extended life or conditional immortality, you will want to do so as a collective: an extended life will only be good if ‘we’ – however that is constructed – get an extended life.

    It is easy to imagine, as a species, that we come to live a thousand years. You are pretty dismissive of the importance of narratives in our conception of our lives, but they are actually vital. In coming to grips with our longer lives, we would probably extend childhood, dependence, and education to last, say, a hundred years, and the same might be said for retirement. The narratives of our lives would take a more leisurely pace, comparatively, and our peaks would come at a different time and there might be more of them. But, crucially, we would still live our lives alongside and with each other, and we would not face the alienation and isolation that we would with an extended life on our own.

    Your response to Williams’ line of thought is, in part, to tinker with the psychology of the person with an extended life: if we lose the bulk of our memories, then we will more comfortably face the extended life before us. But, and this is another lesson I learned from Williams (*Truth and Truthfulness*) and others, our psychology is pretty much wholly constructed out of our relationships with those in our personal and moral community. If you extend my life, and extend those of my community as well, then our collective ability to psychologically cope with our extended lives just might take care of itself.

    Thanks again,


  3. Chris Belshaw says:

    What we mostly want, in wanting immortality or a very long life, is more of the same – more of the life we’re enjoying now – and either completely to avoid death, or at least to put it at a very considerable distance. But, according to well-known objections, we’re not able to get this.
    I’ll begin by making a couple of points about boredom. Here I’m very much in agreement with Preston. And then I’ll say something about how first the boredom objection, and second what I’ll call the triviality objection can be met. Again, overall we’re in agreement, but there are some details here which might usefully be clarified.
    Williams claims that if we preserve the character we have now, and we continue to live on, there will come a time when we will be bored to death. Some of us tend to agree, others insist their boredom thresholds are much higher, and that they could repeat the same sorts of activities endlessly without losing interest. Preston is right, I think, to hold that much of this discussion is speculative and inconclusive. But Williams’ argument is stronger than sometimes it seems. Perhaps his choosing to frame the discussion around the Makropoulos Case, leads to points about our being bored, even terminally bored, to get highlighted. But Williams surely makes it clear that he is concerned with life’s having meaning, and meaning may well be lost before suicide appeals. Even if some among us could forever enjoy sex, or ice-cream, or fresh water or, as in Preston’s example here, pottering around the garden and watching the sunset, an important question is whether any of these could offer a meaningful life. Now Preston talks quite a bit about value, and the alleged threats to value in a very long life, but doesn’t, I think, discuss meaning as such. Yet how value and meaning are connected is a matter deserving further consideration.
    If character is more or less fixed then our interests and concerns will be in some ways limited. Live long enough and you’ll read Proust, listen to Wagner, discuss human rights more times than you’ll care to remember. Boredom will set in. Not so, according to Preston, if we systematically forget our earlier activities. I may have read Proust a hundred times but it won’t seem to me that this is so. I won’t remember it. Indeed, already, I’ve probably forgotten the beginning before I get to the end. Now this is very much the suggestion I made in ‘Immortality Memory and Imagination’ (Journal of Ethics 2015) and initially floated in 10 Good Questions about Life and Death (Blackwell 2005). What I think is surprising is not so much that Preston makes a similar argument here, but that such a response to the boredom problem is not, within the literature, much more widespread. It is neither sophisticated, nor technical, nor ad hoc. We want more of the life we already enjoy. But notoriously that life is already one in which memory loss affects, and adversely, almost all of us, and unravels our grip on the past. Preston and I may want to tweak this a little – better if we’re more inclined to forget things from a decade or decades ago than where we just put our keys, and better if this memory loss affects all of us equally – but this solution to the boredom problem (though there’s an important detail added below) surely, and obviously, has legs.

    If the boredom problem is rightly and forever connected to Williams then the triviality problem is, for now at least, associated with Scheffler. Though again we’re occupying the same sort of ground, I am, as I’ve said, a little less clear on precisely where Preston stands on this. Briefly, the problem, as I see it, is this. The very long or endless life gives us very many opportunities to pursue activities which, in this life, are often now or never. I can be a philosopher, then a politician, a doctor, an astronaut and so on. I can marry the right woman, then the wrong woman, then the right man, then live with dogs….. Assuming the long life is guaranteed, I can climb Everest, fall off, climb it again. Maybe I can climb it blindfolded, or drunk, or with my legs tied together. There is less risk, less urgency, less importance to decision making. Hence triviality. Preston talks here about temporal scarcity. And it might be argued that only when time is in short supply can our lives have meaning. In the immortal or very long life this scarcity is absent.
    In addressing this problem I tried to find some analogue for the failing memory. And I suggested that a limited imagination might help. We have all the time in the world, but it doesn’t seem to us that this is so. It seems important that we get on with things now. Again, the solution asks only for some modest refinements to our actual psychological makeup. People know they’ll get old, ill, be unable to work, but they neglect to take care of their pensions.
    Preston has interesting, important and different things to say about the problem here. How different? I’m not sure. So let me make, perhaps in a somewhat mechanical fashion, a number of distinctions which help indicate something of the terrain that might be occupied.
    One response to the boredom problem is to hold that there are, out there in the world, more opportunities than the curmudgeons allow. For example, Wisnewski suggests there may be, ahead of us, more variety in musical instruments than we recognise. Another, as with sex and ice-cream, is just to deny that the repeated activities will bore us, even when we’re fully aware of the repetitions. Preston and I want to dull this awareness by calling on limitations to memory. But now there’s a distinction that needs to be made here. Suppose you can’t remember anything that happened more than 100 years ago. In one scenario you might believe, falsely, that you’re just 100 years old; believe, falsely, that you’re reading Proust for only the second time; and so on. In another, though memories are equally absent, you know that you are thousands of years old, and have read those volumes hundreds of times. This second scenario is to be preferred. There’s obviously much more to be said, but we might hold that meaning in life is compromised by ignorance as to where its boundaries lie.
    The same sorts of distinction might be made concerning triviality. Suppose I live for a very long time. Preston notes that if others are mortal then there really are important areas of temporal scarcity with which we have to deal. My injured friend needs my help now. And tigers are seriously close to extinction. The second response is simply to welcome, rather than fear, the endless opportunities ahead. As with boredom, there is some guesswork to how we would respond, and some questions about whether the enjoyable and the meaningful can stick together. Consider now exploiting some already extant features of our psychology. Preston discusses a bias to the near. If we have such a bias then even though there are, in truth, vast opportunities ahead these won’t impact on us, or be seen as trivialising our current projects. But does this temporal bias involve us in some false beliefs about value differentials for different times? Preston suggests that bias here may be irrational. And certainly many biases – in favour of myself, my sex, or race, or species can seem irrational. I intended my point about limited imagination not to involve us in false or irrational belief. For again, meaning in life may be more secure if false belief is avoided. So is Preston’s position here different from mine? Imagine someone who will live a very long life but who just doesn’t know this. The triviality problem will have no impact at all on this person. This third position (false belief about facts) clearly differs from those involving bias to the near (false belief about values?), and limited imagination. But how different, really, these are is something about which I’m not yet clear. Preston’s paper prompts me to think more about it.

  4. Hi everyone,

    Just to let you know, given the time difference between the U.S. and Singapore, Preston will be on to start answering questions around 3 pm pacific time. So submit your questions now and Preston will answer asap.


  5. Teresa Bruno says:

    Hi Preston,
    Thanks for your paper and participating in PEA soup! I am also sympathetic with your view. I have a couple of questions.
    1. I’m wondering about what you think about the notion of character implicit in Williams’ argument. It seems to me that Williams’ idea of character is rather limited. We say that people are adventurous, curious, industrious, etc. Suppose that I see myself as an adventurous, curious person, someone who loves meeting new people, learning about new cultures, etc. What I am disposed to do seems rather wide even in my current condition, but it expands dramatically if I become immortal. In my current condition, the things that I pursue or that I am disposed to seek out are limited by the scarcity of time. But if I knew that I am immortal I would see the gates of knowledge and adventure open to me and I would be disposed to do an immense number of things that I am not disposed to do now. I want to read all the philosophy books, the physics books, and also learn to play all sorts of instruments and see every corner of the world. I want to engage in all sorts of different careers and professions. I see all those seemingly disparaging forms of life as mine. My character remains the same through all sorts of changes. In this world, it seems to us that I would be a radically different person if I became a scientist rather than a philosopher, but in a world where I am immortal, I see myself as the same person, someone curious who wants to learn about science and philosophy both. So even if I remember all my different adventures and quests, I still see myself as a unified individual.
    2. I have a question about the dialectic. In your paper, the conclusion of Williams’ psychological-state problem argument seems to be that a very long life is not better than our shorter lives because boredom is inevitable in an immortal or at least in a very long life. But even if the premises of the argument are true, it seems to me that a more modest conclusion follows. I can think of two possibilities:
    a) Immortal lives aren’t better than short lives, but very long lives are better than short lives up to the point where the individual becomes bored. So if given the choice, I wouldn’t go for an immortal life or a long life that includes boredom, but I would choose to live a very long life up to the point where I become bored. The latter kind of life is indeed better than my short life.
    b) Boredom is the price to pay for the very long life that I get before I get bored. I rather have thousands or millions of years of a great life and a few millions more of boredom than about eighty years of a great life without boredom. All things considered immortality or a very long life that includes boredom is still preferable to the shorter life.
    It would be great to get your thoughts on this issues. Thanks again!

  6. Aaron Wolf says:

    Hi Preston, thanks for a really interesting paper. I have two questions.

    1 – I wonder if the irrationality of our bias towards the near would create a different sort of problem—not that the only good reason for being motivated by scarcity is short lives, but rather that we have good reasons not to want the sort of long life you suggest, because we have good reasons to avoid irrationality, especially if that kind of life involves cognitive interventions. This wouldn’t be a point in favor of preferring shorter lives, but maybe it suggests we need a different model of what a good long life would be.

    2 – I’m interested to hear what you think about the following move. I’m inclined not to grant the psychological-state objector the claim that long lives with correspondingly long memories would result in boredom, etc.—not because it’s speculation or because I think I have a higher tolerance for repetition, but because I think maybe things wouldn’t be so repetitive after all. I loved your Eliot epigram, and my reading of it is that we’ll know the beginning for the first time because we’ll have many other experiences to compare it to. Maybe a long life with long memories could be like this.


  7. Aaron Wolf says:

    I realize I didn’t put the point behind #2 as well I could. The idea is that in principle there could be infinite (if subtle) variation in how we experience similar things, precisely because we can put our present experiences in context with an ever-growing background of memories, and thus understand familiar things anew. I think something like this is how we deal with the fair amount of repetition we experience in our actual lives.

  8. Ben M-Y says:

    Hi Preston and Michael,

    Thank you, Preston, for an interesting paper and also, Michael, for an engaging precis. I have a comment that I think is for both of you about the type of psychological connectedness required for persistence. I wonder what you make of it.

    Michael remarks that Preston’s argument rests on “plausible empirical claims about (among other matters) memory and temporal bias in decision-making.” This is welcome, indeed. But I have been taken by recent empirical work by Nina Strohminger and Shaun Nichols that suggests the psychological accounts of personal identity under discussion here miss the mark. Strohminger and Nichols (2014) present several studies that support the “essential moral self hypothesis”: what makes us the same people over time is continuity of moral values. Their studies show that people are most likely to say that someone is the same person today as they were 20 years ago if their moral values have remained the same (as opposed to their memories, desires, etc.); they are most likely to say that someone is a different person now than 20 years ago if their values have radically changed (as opposed to their memories, desires, etc.).

    I am intrigued by this line of work and think it holds insights for discussion on various topics (see also Strohminger and Nichols 2015). So I want to invite you to comment on how you might think it bears on these issues.

    To be a bit more concrete: One might think that evidence for the essential moral self hypothesis suggests we should approach issues about constancy of character somewhat differently. Rather than focus on bodily continuity or continuity (or overlapping) of memories, we should focus on continuity of values. It would be interesting to think about whether Williams’ discussion of character in the boredom paper (and elsewhere) could be translated into talk that fits the essential moral self view. And it would be interesting to think about what difference (if any) conceiving of a persistent self in terms of continuous values makes in the context of worries about identity over a very long life. Finally, it would be interesting to consider how the view that values are essential to identity interacts with the issues about value and scarcity raised by Scheffler.

    I wonder what you think. And thanks again for prompting an interesting discussion!

  9. Many thanks to PEA soup for hosting this discussion, and Michael for writing an excellent précis. I’m currently reviewing the interesting comments and questions that have been posted so far and will respond shortly.

  10. Adam Buben says:

    Hi all,

    Many thanks for the great paper and the discussion up to this point. I’m really excited to “see” so many familiar folks here. A long day of teaching and the time difference (Netherlands) will force me to keep my comments fairly brief, but I look forward to seeing where things have gone when I wake up.

    Anyway, I really appreciate the near bias argument as another helpful resource in the fight against the “immortality curmudgeons” of the world. However, I was wondering what Preston might say about Scheffler’s (2013: 207) later claim that “If we never died, then we would not live lives structured by the kinds of values that now structure our own lives or by the kinds of values that have structured the lives of other human beings now and in the past.” He makes comments like this in response to the examples Kolodny provides about temporal scarcity being built right into certain activities and projects (e.g. proposing marriage to the object of one’s affections before his or her other suitors can do so). Given that impending death is not the only limitation we encounter or source of temporal scarcity in life, Scheffler seems to adjust his strategy a bit. It’s not that genuine immortality would necessarily destroy all value and meaning, but that it would destroy the kind of value and meaning that we are and have been familiar with throughout human history. I’m not sure this is true, but the idea seems to be that there is something about the temporal scarcity provided by impending death that serves as the deep foundation for the various values (including those seemingly based on lesser temporal scarcities) we currently have. An immortal may well find existence worthwhile, but not for reasons we finite beings could relate to. And without this ability to relate, we end up with something like Williams’ concern that it just doesn’t make sense to think of an existence so disconnected from the one we currently enjoy as a true continuation of it.

    One other quick point: at the end of Michael’s comments, he says that Preston’s account “resembles Alzheimer’s-based dementia,” but when I read what was quoted there, it sounds a lot like my life now (especially if Preston is willing to grant that it is possible for an immortal to continue counting the earth’s trips around the sun–i.e. birthdays). I take it that this resemblance to the lives we are currently living was Preston’s point, and I think the comparison to Alzheimer’s might therefore miss the mark.

  11. David Beglin says:

    Many thanks for your paper, Preston. Thanks also to Michael for the helpful precis.

    I’m sympathetic with Michael’s worries. By my lights, the key question in this realm is whether we should choose to become immortal (or to live a very long life) if we have the option. I’m not sure the promise of having a faulty memory moves me much to answer this question affirmatively. I was, though, intrigued by the suggestion that treatment might become available, which would cure me of any boredom I come to have. I’d like to hear more about this.

    Particularly, I was wondering if, depending on how we conceptualize boredom, the promise of boredom-curing treatment wouldn’t be very reassuring. Like Ward Jones, above, I also think of boredom in Williams’ paper as a kind of alienation. This makes it seem, to me, far more existential in nature: living an immortal life, or a very, very long life, threatens certain meaningful ways of engaging with my life and the values in it. Once we conceptualize boredom in this way, though, it seems to me that the promise of treatment stops being reassuring. Treating my alienation would seem somehow paternalistic; I would be failing to engage with myself as an agent in the right sort of way. This is because, I suspect, my alienation would reflect the very ways in which I value my life and the things in it. Or, at least, so it seems to me. I’d be curious to hear what you think about it.

    Thanks again, Preston!

  12. Personal Identity (Responses to Ben, Michael, and Travis)

    Thank you all for bringing up some interesting questions. It is an honor to be part of this discussion with you. I’ll break up my responses by topic, and try to cover most of the comments.

    Concerning personal identity and personal persistence. In the first part of my paper, I am attempting to show that we have no reason to believe that very long lives necessarily face psychological-state problems (such as boredom). I first assume physicalism and the ability to adjust properties in the supervenience base. Since physicalists at least accept mind-brain correlations, as physicalists we should assume that control over physical properties implies control over mental properties. Therefore, the critic of very long life (who focuses on psychological-state problems) must provide an argument to the conclusion: “The existence of these negative base properties (the ones responsible for boredom, say) is a necessary condition for personal persistence over a period of time.”

    In my paper, I note that when the debate is framed in this way (the correct way, I believe), it should be clear that the critic’s task is very difficult, and that no critic has yet offered such an argument. I then offer, in order to strengthen this attack, some specific ways in which the problems that Williams raises can be avoided: most importantly, an agent might have a fading memory similar to the kind of memory we currently possess.

    Now, is fading memory incompatible with personal persistence over a long period? In the précis, Michael worries that fading memory, combined with near bias (which I introduce to handle a different problem) does indeed block personal persistence. Michael’s view focuses on psychological connectedness with an emphasis on a direct memory connection and a direct caring relation between one’s past and future self (which near bias blocks). I view psychological continuity views to be more plausible than this sort of psychological connectedness view. On a continuity view, there need be only indirect memory connections or indirect caring relations for personal persistence. (And even if we embrace the extreme direct memory criterion, there are plausible views in four-dimensionalist theory, such as Sider’s, that are compatible with fading memory. See Section 3.2 of the paper for more).

    Ben’s post is fascinating in this regard. We might view continuity of moral values as an important consideration in establishing identity, as Strohminger and Nichols (2014) report that people are likely to do. This would be a welcome result for my conclusion, since continuity of moral values is compatible with the strategies I raise for avoiding psychological-state problems. It does raise a question that I have never considered before (and I suspect the answer is “no”): would holding the same moral views over a long period of time necessarily become boring?

    Finally, Travis raises the question of whether persistence conditions are really what matters to Williams, as opposed to “what our ‘thick selves’ at present would want for our future self.” This engages with Williams’ second condition on desirable long life: “The second important condition is that the state in which I survive should be one which, to me looking forward, will be adequately related, in the life it presents, to those aims which I now have in wanting to survive at all.” As I understand it, Travis’ worry is about the severity of treatment that would be necessary to stave off boredom, which, Travis worries, may be compatible with personal persistence but not something one’s thick self would want to aim for.

    In response, I note that once we assume fading memory, I don’t think we should be so pessimistic about what anti-boredom treatment might look like. Recall that in my essay I granted Williams the heavy premise that as a “natural” consequence of human psychology boredom would eventually occur over a very long time span, even if variability of experience outruns memory capacity. But if variability of experience outruns memory capacity, then resisting boredom would involve nothing more than “tune-ups” to our psychological systems, rather than complete overhauls. But perhaps I am failing to consider larger changes that you think would be necessary. If so, please let me know!

  13. Near Bias (Response to Aaron, Chris, and Michael)

    Let me clarify that I do believe that near bias, as it is commonly instantiated by human beings, is rational. And given that I have said something like this in my paper with Megan Sullivan “Against Time Bias,” it was awkward to suggest near bias as a welcome feature for an infinite life. However, I’m not convinced that all forms of near bias are irrational because complete near neutrality in the context of infinite life leads to paradoxes. This fact may justify an *extremely slight* near bias, but it does not justify the sort of near bias displayed by actual people (which is probably due to an outdated evolutionary heuristic). And if infinite beings possessed even this slight near bias, then they avoid the temporal-scarcity problem raised by Wollheim and Scheffler.

    Additionally, there are other potential sources of temporal scarcity: as Chris noted, I also appeal to the possibility of infinite beings living alongside finite beings and thus engaging in valuable projects because i) by assumption (of the immortality curmudgeons), finite lives are valuable, and ii) finite lives feature temporal scarcity. And my case “The Basic Alternative” features another example of how temporal scarcity might be created even within an infinite life. There are probably other examples that I haven’t thought of.

  14. Imaginative Abilities (Partial responses to Aaron, Adam, Chris, Michael, Teresa, and Ward)

    Ward’s distinction between an extended life, a conditionally immortal life, and an unconditionally immortal life is helpful. I agree that we need to make clear what we are imagining when making judgments. And it doesn’t seem at all implausible to me that a conditionally immortal life with an “opt-out” is better than an unconditionally immortal life (as Teresa claims), that it is better to live as a collective (as Ward claims), and that it is better if memory loss affects all of us equally (as Chris claims).

    I am surprised, like Adam, that the description of an infinite life with which I started struck Michael as that of a dementia patient. Michael was even kind enough to end the quote before getting to the worst part! “You are certain that, given the limitations of your memory, one day you will no longer be able to remember the details of the way you now live, or the people you now care about, just as you currently cannot remember the details of how you lived so many years ago.” But this element, like the others, does feel to me to be close to my everyday epistemic perspective, as Adam puts it. I suspect that small differences in detail in how we are imagining the case make for large differences in judgment.

    Perhaps “temperament” also plays a role. I am inspired by Teresa’s positive view on immortal life, which is like that of Nagel (The View from Nowhere, 224). I am myself a fan of the idea behind the Eliot epigraph and I do think that Aaron nails the intended meaning. (Thank you for bringing it up, Aaron, even though that interpretation didn’t explicitly feature in my paper.)

  15. Adam,

    Thank you for your careful interpretation of Scheffler’s view and the way that he modifies it in response to some points about temporal scarcity. There is indeed a theme running through Death and the Afterlife in which Scheffler sometimes seems to want to talk about human values tout court, and sometimes wants to talk about human values as they exist now. But even if we are only talking about human values as they exist now, I think there is still an important sense in which our values would not change if we lived infinitely. Granted, we would certainly start to value different things, and value the old things in different ways. For example, we may invest differently, produce different products, schedule time with loved ones differently, have a different view of monogamous marriage, and so on. But Scheffler claims that our valuing concepts themselves would change drastically, for example, that we would not value “creativity, humor, or solidarity” (100), or even basic things like “health, gain, safety, security, and benefit,” and we’d have no concept of “loss, illness, injury, harm, risk, or danger” (97). I don’t think any of this is true, and that’s what I mean to be saying by “death is not a precondition of our valuing attitudes.”

    If he gives up these claims (as I think he should), then the truth is not so surprising: living forever would change what and how we value, but if sources of temporal scarcity remained, then our basic valuing attitudes would remain intact. And if our basic valuing attitudes remain intact, then we would not face the problem of disconnection.

    David (and Ward),

    One way to interpret what you’re saying is that the boredom that a long liver feels might be rooted in something deeper than excessive repetition or psychological imbalances: perhaps the boredom is caused by “alienation,” “a lack of meaning,” or something similar. And if that’s true, then treating the boredom won’t solve the problem, because it won’t fix the alienation or bring back the meaning.

    My argument in Section 2 concerning physicalism and treatment was meant to respond to those who think that very long lives would be problematic *because of* boredom, and not because of a deep existential crisis *that just happens to cause* boredom. I think it’s important that we keep separate arguments against long life that focus on mere psychological state problems and arguments that focus on value or meaning problems. And, at the very least, much of what Williams says, and much of how Williams has been interpreted, concerns mere psychological-state problems. Consider Williams’ (90) description of a world in which everyone lives forever: “It would be a world of Bourbons, learning nothing and forgetting nothing, and it is unclear how much could ever happen.” An existential crisis would not cause people to forget nothing; rather, it’s the other way around.

  16. A. G. Gorman says:

    Hi Preston,

    Thanks for your very interesting paper and discussion. Following David and Ward above, I too think the connection between Williams’ sense of boredom and what he refers to elsewhere as alienation is very important. While I find your separation of psychological state problems and value/meaning problems useful, I worry that the two are perhaps not as separable as they may seem. It is often argued that emotions consist in part in a kind of perceiving of certain features of the world. If ordinarily my being bored with life consists in a faulty perception that there are no categorical desires that I can come to truly take an interest that are available to me to engage with, then we can see Williams as being concerned with boredom in infinite lives involving that same perception, but where it tracks reality. What would be bad about that kind of boredom is not just its felt quality but also its being a fitting response to my circumstances. Williams may think that alleviating that boredom without changing other conditions of the world (including the genuine dispositions to take an interest in various projects of the agent since that itself would be alienating) could only be accomplished through deception.

    If so, that would certainly be an interesting result because if the agent were aware of the deception, we might wonder how this would influence her motivation. In a similar vein, I wonder about the agent who doesn’t experience her projects-as-repetitive in your sense, since she forgets that she has carried them out before, but realizes that it is very probable that the only reason she is able to take an interest in them is that she has forgotten carrying them out in the past. I wonder if this might lead to the agent experiencing the projects as futile in such a way that could spark its own psychological-state based worry about very long lives. Curious to hear what you think!

  17. A. G. (and Chris),

    Thanks for contributing. I agree that the situation is more serious if we assume not just that the agent is bored but also that their boredom is a fitting response to the circumstances. The question, of course, is what features of very long life make boredom a fitting response to the agent’s circumstances? If your suggestion is that the fact that an experience has probably also occurred in the past makes boredom an appropriate response to the experience, then I don’t agree. From a general perspective, this strikes me as an implausible account of what makes boredom fitting. There are so many things that I am not bored with only because I do not remember perfectly their prior occurrence.

    Perhaps the argument can be made stronger by focusing on meaningfulness, rather than fitting responses. I note that even here, though, one might think that unperceived repetition does not, in itself, destroy meaningfuless. I know that at least one of our contributors today thinks this. Chris Belshaw writes (“Immortality, Memory, and Imagination”, 341): “The immortal can forever struggle with Beethoven, or find new things in Hamlet. Is this meaningful? Imagine yourself in this situation. You are seriously engaged with worthwhile and valuable works. But you know, though there is no detailed recall, that you have done this many times before. And only because you lack this recall can you enjoy your activities now. It may be that we just lack firm intuitions about what to say in such a case. But this life is not in any obvious way one that lacks meaning.”

  18. Hi Preston,

    Thank you for your reply. I am still not sure whether Williams ought to be understood to have been concerned with identity in a literal sense or in a figurative sense that is inextricably intertwined with his second condition on the desirability of immortality. But I think the important thing is that however we interpret this condition, there is good reason to think that certain immortal lives would be desirable for creatures like us. Your paper helped further convince me that this is so.

    With respect to the last sentence of your reply to my comment, I am not sure if you are failing to consider larger changes that would be necessary to maintain identity. I don’t think so, but I would have to think about this more. I was trying to put myself in the shoes of a defender of Williams’s argument. Since I myself don’t have the judgment that identity would be lost with such changes, it’s hard for me to guess what changes they might be concerned about. I would be interested to hear what the ‘immortality curmudgeons’ think about this issue.

    I want to thank you again Preston for an excellent paper and for taking the time to talk to all of us about it. It’s been a real pleasure. I also want to thank Michael Cholbi for taking the time to write such an excellent precis and commentary. It is much appreciated.

  19. scottinmn says:

    Hi Preston. Good article, I basically agree with it all. I was surprised not to see a reference to Bruckner’s article ( which also raises the fading memory point, though not (I think) your second point on nearness bias, which I also consider important. I have always thought that this is an excellent argument against anyone (such as Ayn Rand’s bizarre “indestructible robot” argument) who suggests that immortality would make life meaningless or even without interests/values, since, e.g., what I want when I want an ice cream cone is not to have lived a life with one more ice cream cone in it somewhere, but to eat an ice cream cone pretty soon–now, if possible.

    Bruckner also suggests that personal identity with whatever person/personality inhabits your body, or continues you (perhaps through gradual alterations in body, etc.) is not essential to finding value in immortality. I find this view compelling; I think you lean to the view that such gradual alternations are compatible with continuing identity, but I’m not sure that in practice whether we say this or not. I’m not at all sure that it would be impossible for me to currently identify with the person who continues me in this way 6000 years from now, though perhaps some argument could compel me to judge that I could not, or almost certainly would not. But I could still value my continuers never abruptly ceasing to me. For if I knew that, say, I (A) would be continued by B, B continued by C, C continued by D, who would then abruptly die at some point, I know that D would disvalue this, as would C, and B’s concern for C’s feelings about this is something I have reason to care about as well. Or to put it another way, I could identify myself with D simply as a continuer of me, even if his personality is very different; for if I judge that my future personality changes are likely to be reasonably based on my interactions with the environment, then I will judge that A will have reason to become B, B to become C, C to become D, and D to not want to die. D’s death will frustrate the reasons I have to accept these changes from A to D and the resulting desires, even if I currently, as A, have no reason to value many of the things that D values.

    But I think Woody Allen put this more succinctly when he said that he didn’t want to achieve immortality through his works, but through not dying. Ceasing to exist by dying is much worse, IMO, than ceasing to exist by gradually changing, for reasons that seem good at the time, to B and C and D in stages, even if D has little more to do with A than the unrelated person Z in a different body.

    None of this disagrees with your paper, I think, but merely suggests an alternate approach which denies the strict relevance of personal identity to the value of a long-lived sequence of continuant persons.

    Scott Forschler

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