The Ethics of… Death

Death. What a drag. No matter what you do in life, no matter how well you live, how well you eat, how nice you are or how much you spend, it’s always there. Waiting.

It’s enough to get a person down. What is the damn point of it all if one day you’re just…gone? Why bother making money, having a family, even getting out of bed when one day you will inevitably cark it and it will suddenly all be completely meaningless, at least as far as what’s left of you is concerned?

Sure there’s always the possibility of an afterlife to look forward to – indeed that’s one thing pretty much every religion will agree on, though details on what said afterlife will actually involve (not to mention conditions of entry) tend to vary rather worryingly. But that’s the thing about the afterlife, isn’t it? By definition there’s no way of knowing what the deal is until you already fully-committed, as it were. And so we hedge our bets and cling a little tighter to the old mortal coil. Heaven, after all, will wait.

And cling we most certainly do! Medical procedures, healthy eating and general sciencey goodness have managed to stretch the life expectancy of even developing countries to historically preposterous lengths. Cosmetics and various other anti-aging procedures help us hide from the signs of our body’s gradual decomposition, and if that doesn’t work, we’ve developed an incredibly diverse variety of entertainment you can use to cover your eyes, plug in your ears and make whatever the existential equivalent of “Lalalala-i-can’t-hear-you” is.

But the fact remains: death doesn’t care. Death doesn’t care how long you live, how much money you have, where you live, how you behave, whether you look young or old. Death doesn’t care how much you kick and scream or run around in terror, because death isn’t in a rush and is more than happy for you to wear yourself to exhaustion before taping you on the shoulder, if that’s what you’re into.

Death is inevitable; the final and ultimate reality. And you should be very thankful.

Have you ever stood in a completely dark room and wondered what it would be like if light didn’t exist? Maybe if you were one of those salamander that live under mountains that have never seen the light, to whom light is so foreign that their species long ago ceased to grow functioning eyes? It’s virtually impossible isn’t it? Without light, darkness isn’t just everywhere. Without light, darkness ceases to exist. It becomes a state so complete, so absolute that the very concept of darkness is irrelevant – merely an abstract thought that no human would ever be able to test or even truly conceptualise without light to provide contrast. And so it is with death.

Without contrast we have no way of perceiving what we experience in life. What is light without darkness? A world without any concept of either. What is wealth when everyone is equally wealthy? What is pleasure without suffering, but a life of numbness? And what are our dreams without the risk they will never be realised? Just dull certainties.

When we imagine a life without death we think of a world without loss, a world where everything is possible and all our aspirations can be realised in the fullness of time. Yet we fail to recognise that every one of those aspirations, those dreams, those things we wish never to lose, are only valuable to us because we know one day we will lose them.

We often say that death has robbed a person of their future, their potential, their family and friends, and this is most certainly true. But without the certainty that death will one day take these things from us, what value do they have to us? Who cares about the future when it’s limitless? What does our potential matter when we have forever to realise it, and if there are no consequences if we do not? And when we already take our friends and families for granted when death does haunt out steps, how much more would we scorn them, secure in the knowledge that they would never, ever depart?

The certainty of death has driven human history from its very core, both through fear and hope. Every advancement in science, medicine, agriculture, entertainment, war, peace, philosophy and art has at its foundation the same mantra: “One day I will die”. Human history has been a desperate scramble to fight this fact, either by extending our time before oblivion, enriching our brief lives, or leaving a legacy that might continue on after we are gone. So what would we be if this one and only absolute truth did not exist? Without death, we would never live – just exist.

Ignorance isn’t really bliss; just a temporary reprieve from the reality which never left. How can you be happy, denying, fighting or running from your mortality, knowing that reality still looms over you? Only by facing reality can we hope to come to terms with it, and in embracing the inevitability of our demise there is a profound and beautiful perspective to be found; My life, valuable as it is to me, is but a small and fleeting thing. What matters, what really matters, is not how long I live, but how well I live. Not how how rich I am, but what I used that wealth for. Not that I lived, but WHY I lived and for what.

Such paper-back motivational slogans sound embarrassingly trite but consider the applications of this perspective! What is the point of dying rich if you never enjoyed that money? What is the point of dying pretty if it consumed so much of your time while you were alive? What is the point of dying powerful if gaining that power cost you friends, family, security?

And when you’re long dead and forgotten, as we all will be in time, how will your life have helped shape the world?

7 thoughts on “The Ethics of… Death

  1. I’d still prefer to live for hundreds or thousands of years. I don’t think death will cease to exist, but since there’s no evidence for a life after death I’d prefer to live as much life in this world as possible.

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