Thursday, March 24, 2005

Why should we respect the wishes of the dead?

Having become overloaded by commentary on Terri Schiavo in the past week, I'm reluctant to add to the whole mess. Still, I had one thought of a more philosophical nature spurred by PZ Myers and Abiola Lapite. Both of them expressed the view that, since Terri has no higher brain function and has no idea whether her pre-vegetative wishes for medical treatment are being adhered to or not, we need not consider her wishes. That is, she has no dignity left to preserve, since she is unaware of her surroundings, so there's no real reason to go either way.

This brings up a thought experiment I have heard a few times. Suppose I offered you $10, in exchange for which a room full of people far away from you would insult you behind your back, call you ugly, stupid, mean, and so on. That doesn't sound very appealing - generally we desire people not to insult us, even if these insults have no effect on us (e.g., it's not the case that these backstabbing insults cause anyone to treat you worse than they otherwise would have). But suppose I offered you $10, in exchange for which people would insult you but I would then erase your memory of our agreement, and you would believe I had just been very generous in giving you $10. That doesn't sound very appealing either. Most people's intuition is that they want their desires to be fulfilled even if they don't know about it.

This is similar to people's wishes about what happens after they die. People care about what kind of funeral they have, whether they get cremated or buried in a coffin, and so on. People usually don't want their corpses to be desecrated. People care about whether they are remembered well or poorly. And people care about abstract ideals like whether democracy will survive in the world, whether global warming will ruin the planet. This is the sentiment of "I can die happy now that I have accomplished long-lasting achievement X," or in the negative, "X must be turning in his grave now that his ideals have been betrayed."

Still, we're left with the question of why we should care about these wishes. There is no person who gets concretely harmed if someone's wishes are contravened after their death, or unbeknownst to them. "What you don't know can't hurt you," etc. Yet it still feels wrong. It feels like betrayal. Why?

One practical argument is that living people want to have confidence that their wishes will be obeyed. Every betrayal of a dead or unconscious person's wishes is a blow to that confidence, and thus harms (in a small way) almost all living people.

Yet that doesn't seem quite right either. Wish-betrayal also seems wrong even if you do it secretly such that no one else ever finds out. Moreover, my intuition is that wish-betrayal is bad relative to a specific person (i.e., the person whose wishes you're betraying), not just humanity in general. But how can this be, if that person never finds out that you have betrayed his or her wishes?

Let's try another tack: There is a badness to dying that is completely independent of whether you suffer - it is the ultimate harm, even though "you" are not really being harmed at all, if you don't suffer. Death seems to be bad because it causes us to lose all the life experience we might otherwise have lived. You lose your opportunity to fulfill your goals and desires, whatever they may be. So if those who survive you continue to fulfill your goals and desires, that makes it slightly less bad. This is so even though you are unaware of what actually happens - our intuition suggests that the goodness of fulfilling your desires and the badness of having them frustrated doesn't depend on you knowing about it.

Still, I'm stuck on the problem of the fact that after death, you no longer exist - there is no subject to relate to the fulfillment or frustrations of your pre-death desires. Could it be that intuition in this case is hopelessly confused? It wouldn't be the first time, after all. It may be that this intuition just arises from the desperate hope (even among atheists) that life continues in some form after death, and that preserving a dead person's wishes is just a way of assuring ourselves that the dead person still lives on in our hearts.

Thoughts, anyone?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. I think a person can be harmed even after they are no longer (presently) existing. We just need to understand the harms as restroactive: your present actions are making the earlier person worse off. We are better off when our desires are fulfilled, but it doesn't matter when  they are fulfilled.

Suppose you dedicate your life to preserving ancient works of art. Then, after your death, someone burns down the gallery where all your preserved work was stored. They have made it so that your life went worse, since you failed in your primary goal. The exact timing of the failure doesn't matter.

I think that those who dismiss the wishes of the dead tend to have a crudely hedonistic conception of wellbeing. But as you rightly note, we often feel that we can be harmed without our knowing (e.g. by people on the other side of the world). Why should a separation in time be any more significant than one in space? 

Posted by Richard

3/25/2005 12:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Finally.  I get to read something inspired by the Schiavo situation that doesn't either make me want to yawn or snort or growl.

Why do atheists (since theists of general description obviously aren't troubled by such materialist matters) worry about what happens to 'them' and their fine works after they're gone? That question makes me think of Dawkins and his memes: that in some ways we're each just nodes of a massive human hive mind. Just how much of the 'software' of our own consciousness is collective? To what degree are we what others see? We each contribute, in some fashion, to a culture which both predates and will likely long outlast us. The minor ripples we excite may well finally fade only with the extinction of the species itself. We intuitively suspect this, I think, because we know that other people die and yet strangely 'persist' (albeit in fragmentary form). Not only in the memories of those who may have experienced them directly, but through the artifacts they've left behind, and the countless causal effects, both subtle and strong, they've surely unleashed upon the world. From that vague knowledge, we naturally anticipate the continuance, if not of our full 'selves,' at least of some meaningful contribution of ourselves--even if that contribution's meaning is so inscrutable as to be indefinable.

The problem of no 'subject' being around to be bothered about it, in other words, only presents itself assuming we limit 'subject' to include all the many constituents of 'us,' but none of those same constituents considered individually. We're so proprietary about the disposition of our remains, and our legacy, I think, because we anticipate that some of what we were (are?) will endure so long as people do. We're very expansive about 'ourselves' that way. We all, even the hard-headed materialists among, think we're going to haunt the joint. 

Posted by dan

3/26/2005 12:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a weak atheist (that is, I follow the "weak" formulation: until it's disproven, I'm working with the null hypothesis that nothing supernatural, including any god or gods, exists). So I don't believe that I, my consciousness, that which identifies as me, will persist in any form after my death.

But I would also like to leave some legacy, some way in which the world is better off for having had me in it: I suppose I want to be "remembered well". I like Dan's way of putting it, that our effects on the world are a continuance of our selves . We treat other people's continuances well because we want ours treated well. I also agree with your notion that, in this case, intuition is confounded by the desire to both persist ourselves and to have those we have lost persist in some way. Between those two ideas, I think you have all the answer there is to the question in your post title. In other words, there's no strong reason but it makes us feel better.

Consider a different thought experiment: Joe's mother, on her deathbed, extracts from him a promise that after she dies, he will visit her grave monthly (he lives quite near the cemetary). In an adjacent room of the hospice, Jeremy's mother extracts a promise that he will repudiate his sexuality (he's gay), leave his husband (they live in Canada!) and marry a woman. Both make the promise requested, knowing that they will not keep it. In each case, is this wrong? If both do wrong, which does worse?

It seems to me that intuition is flexible here, perhaps recognising its own confusion: Joe would be wrong to break his promise, since it costs him little, but Jeremy would be wrong to keep his since it would cost so much. Further, Jeremy does only a minor wrong, if that, in making the promise to ease his mother's mind while intending to break it. So we respect the wishes of the dead, but not too much. 

Posted by sennoma

6/09/2005 07:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When you love somebody who has just died, you want to honor their wishes for how their own passing was to be handled, as well as their broader wishes for their offspring/the world in general.
The latter, larger issues may be more difficult to control but the immediate ones surrounding the burial, funerals, wills and grieving period are within the control of the people involved, the people left behind.
If this group chooses not to honor the wishes of the deceased, it is a directly denying its own capacity to express honor and love of the person who is deceased- or the deceased's memory. It is refuting the influence that the deceased had upon the group, and is more or less about taking control. This is very damaging to people who want to honor the deceased's wishes, because this is the only remaining material way for those people to express their love in a way they KNOW would have been meaningful to the person who died- and therefore it is meaningful to THEM. If we deny the dead, we deny ourselves. We cannot soothe our grief and we cannot fully express our love.

8/10/2005 07:40:00 PM  
Blogger Michele said...

I'm working on this issue since MONTHS and it has almost become my obsession, so I'm grateful there is someone around to share insights.
At first, I got a theory that sounded quite meaningful. Take future esteem. We take pleasure in contemplating a state of affairs in which we are esteemed, whether it is now or after our death. (I take it that we take pleasure even in contemplating the abstract idea... do you agree?). But of course, like other pleasures of this sort, knowing the truth of fact (the obtaining of the state of affairs) reinforces the pleausure, while the falsity diminishes it or even kills it. (Or you can say: we have a higher-order desire that we know about the fulfilment and non fulfilment of our desires. So the fact that we really are esteemed adds to our utility twice.) Now, when I think now about a state of affairs in the future in which I am esteemed, I am pleased by it. Just as my pleasure increases with truth, and decreases or becomes zero with falsity when it is about present states, my pleasure about the future state does the same. (Or you can say: the state of my being esteemed in the future fulfils two desires at the same time: that of being esteemed, and that of knowing the truth about the fulfilment of my desire of being esteemed.)

Either ways, our present pleasure/desires give us a reason to care about future esteem, even if the future state of affairs does not impinge on our well-being in any way, other than by being the object of our imagination in the present (provided that pleausure is valuable/objectivist or that we value it/subjectivist). BAsically, we have a reason to make it the case that the proposition (I, being esteemed) will be true at t, where t= some time after my death, namely, that our believing that it is likely for this proposition to be true contributes to our present pleasure (or that its truth fulfils the higher order desire in question).

This theory has two problems:
first of all: the explanation revolves around the role played by truths; but one can easily conceive examples in which one is asked to choose between two lies, so that, we cannot appeal to the fact that we desire truth.
second: for esteem it is plausible that it is not a real value and its only contribution to welfare is not direct, but trhough pleausure (or at least this is what I am going to claim in my Ph.D. dissertation). But for other goods this does not seem to be the case.

I struggled a lot in reach of a better answer. My desideratum was a theory such that:
1. it would deny that future facts can make a person better off retroactively. That is: what happens after my death cannot make me no harm, no good.
2. it would avoid the Experience Machine objection, that is, it would maintain that only certain kind of facts , and not "experiences as of" such facts , have value for the subject.

I take 1 to be common sense, and only philosophers can deny it (Aristotle was a philosopher too)
I take 2 too also to be common sense. People want what they desire to be true, they don't want to believe that their desire comes true, or to have experiences as of their desire was true.

For some times, it appeared to me that a good solution would be something along this line:
there are states that are good (such as the subject's accomplishing something, his feeling pleasure, etc... in other words: an objective list). In order to be good for the subject, that is, in order to contribute welfare, a state had to be experienced. (Experience requirement). Yet, it is the state, not the experience of it that has value. An experience as of that very same state would not contribute to welfare (hence avoiding the Experience Machine objection.) In other words, experience is a necessary condition for a value to contribute to somebody's welfare.

This conception is analogous to a claim G.E. Moore considers in the ethics: the claim that
1. only states of affairs that include pleasure are good
(in my claim: only states of affairs that are experienced are good for the subject)
2. this does not imply that other feautues of the state of affairs do not contribute to its value (hence the principle of organic unities)
(in my claim: the pleasure has no value but is plays the role of an enabling condition)
In other words: the state of affairs (P, x's experience that P) is good for X, while (P) is not. But the value of (P, X's experience that P) for x derives entirely from P and [x's experience that P] is only a necessary condition.

Now I came to the conclusion that this view is non-sense. We do care about things that are outside our experience. And yet, I believe that it makes absolutely no sense to say that something happening after our death does harm to us. Where does it lead us? It may lead us, as suggested to me by Stephen White, to deny that the concept of well-being can play any meaningful role with respect to the sort of deliberations in question. This is a big problem for welfarism, but so much the worse for them. (I'm not a utilitiarian, anyway.)

6/07/2006 05:02:00 PM  
Blogger Michele said...

sorry I've been to long and to confusing. As for the first argument, that our caring for future esteem can be explained without invoking posthumous harm (or benefit) I wrote it in a clear way in a post in my own blog. I refer to that:

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Anonymous Ada said...

I think requests of the dead should only be carried out if they don't cause undue stress to the living. A friend of mine died making her husband promise not to remarry. They were a young couple. THAT is the kind of request that should be ignored. Ironically he remarried and it was a disaster.

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