better to be alive?

 I read in today's Analytic Philosophy journal that it's better to be alive than otherwise. I confess that, whilst I'm intuitively thankful for my life, and whilst I believe it right to be so, I find it hard to make out a cogent argument.

Why so? Because it comes intuitively to me to think that I need to exist in order for there to be situations that for me are sensibly considered better or worse. If there is no me, then there's no situation or predicament or state of affairs to be talked of. This is akin to Kant's claim, right-headed in my view, that 'existence is not a predicate'. (We properly predicate being red or shiny of a tomato; existence however is not a property, but the being - the sine qua non of any actual predication - of the tomato. (And yeh I know you can also play the utterly derivative/parasitic language game of predicating properties of imaginary tomatoes.))

The author - Christian Piller - invites us, in his very nicely written paper, to see the matter of the intelligibility of it being better to be alive than not along the lines of it being intelligible that sometimes it's better that we did the thing we did than the thing we didn't. We did wait to cross the road; we didn't step out in front of the bus. Piller, if I'm gamely grokking his gist, says: look, sure, the situation in which you stepped out in front of the bus didn't obtain. Even so, despite it not even obtaining, we can still properly say that it's better that you didn't do that! This is manifestly intelligible! (Agreed.) And so why can't we say the same of human life? I am not, Piller says, saying that non-existence is, but that it would have been, worse for me. Sure, he urges, if you didn't exist then your non-existence couldn't be said to be worse for you. Even so, he says, given that you do exist, from this standpoint, from the 'standpoint of your existence' if you like, your non-existence would indeed be worse - and worse for you! Oh, he also says that whether a life is 'worth having' can be understood in terms of what may or may not obtain within it: a life which involves friendship and health is better and hence, he says, more worth having than one which, ceteris paribus, doesn't. This, he thinks, is enough to get off the ground the idea of a good life being better than no life.

Against all of this I've a few gripes of different sorts: 

The first is logical. I don't see how we're to gain reassurance about the dubious intelligibility of it being better to exist than otherwise from the manifest intelligibility of it being better to (actually) cross the road than to (subjunctively, as it were) be run over. It's rather the contrast between these situations that stands out for me. After all, either of the latter options requires my existence, whereas that's what's at stake in the former. 

Second, I just don't grasp what's being said with the idea that, from the standpoint of an actually existing chap, any more from the non-existent standpoint of a non-existent chap, it's better for me to exist than to not. I mean, sure, if you ask me 'well Richard, would you rather carry on living or instead be painlessly snuffed out?' I'd go for the former. But the interesting question to my mind is what this amounts to. Turning it into one claim about preferences amongst others; assuming it enjoys something like the same logic: this in my opinion is unpersuasive. For what I'd suggest to be rather more natural would not be that we gain our reflective sense of what we mean by our desire to hang onto our lives, or to say 'yes' to life, or 'I value my life, I don't want to die!' from a more general notion of preferring one thing to another ... but that, instead, we glean our reflective sense of what it so much as means to say 'it's better to be alive than otherwise' from a close examination of those former affirmative expressions. 

At this point I should own that there's another section of Piller's paper which I've not yet covered. So Piller in fact largely accepts that, for many ordinary comparative judgements (it's better to be x than y), you've kinda gotta exist to even be in the game. But he says there are other comparisons which we can get 'by entailment from non-comparative judgements'. Thus 'if one thing is F and another is not F, then the first thing is, by entailment, more F than the second.' He gives us the example of his sister who wants something blue for her Christmas present. In the shop there are only two remaining items: a blue jumper and an audio file. The latter is not something which enjoys colour, so one might think there's no contest in the sense of: 'no meaningful way of raising the question' rather than 'no way to justify doing other than buying the jumper'. But no, Piller says that 'lack of a comparison notwithstanding, the choice seems clear: I ought to buy the blue jumper. When something blue was available it will not do as a reason for buying the audio file to claim that there was not anything bluer than it.' I mean, sure, that's not a good reason! But so what? Piller 's idea is that for something to be worth buying here, it's gotta first be so much as in the game of being blue, and if the choice is between something blue and something not even blue we can say that whatever the former is it's better than the latter because it's at least in the running. Against this I'd simply say that I don't see that this notion of 'better' (through 'entailment from non-comparative judgements') meets any general application in our lives. Sure, sometimes we can imagine his sister saying 'Well, at least he listened when I said I wanted a blue thing!' when he buys her a hideous blue jumper. At other times we might imagine her, despite her earlier bonkers request for a blue item, baulking at his gift of a blue-painted turd over a non-coloured £1000 e-gift voucher. And I certainly don't see that it - this notion of 'better' that springs from a consideration of non-comparative judgements - meets an application in the case of 'it's better to be alive than otherwise'. The issue here is one that bedevils/vitiates the work of many analytical metaphysicians: of assuming without argument that concepts are to be grasped in the abstract and then merely applied in particular cases appeal to which will be by way of exemplification, rather than that we do well to gain a reflective sense of what it so much as means to say this or that by looking first at what we're doing with our words, to what ends, in particular contexts.

Third, I want to register that the topic in question is kinda important. Does someone feel their life is worth living - or not? Are they someone on whose lips 'it's better to be alive!' ring true or false? Adjacent to the 'analytical' concerns of Piller's paper are matters of deep existential import which get barely a look-in. To make a truly wisdom-loving examination of that which is of interest to Piller would surely require that we examine what 'But I want to live!' means on the lips of the recently diagnosed oncology patient. What are these words doing in her life? What's their expressive force; what their significance? So too if we think on prayers of gratitude for one's existence - and I mean, not just for all that's good in it, but for the simple fact of it. That I as it were made it through when many miscarried or aborted foetuses didn't: this might mean something to someone; its voicing may be part of a whole attitude to life, a whole ethic of (say) humility. An ethic that venerates life in a particular way. Here we're far away from the (to my mind) dubious intelligibility of 'Thank you God that you've given me a chance to be alive as opposed to never being born' which utterance is putatively intelligible simply in terms of the logic of certain kinds of comparisons we allegedly make in other contexts. (Think by the way on how morally ugly it would be to pray in supposed thanksgiving that you are one of the lucky as opposed to unlucky ones!) 

Finally, I think that we'd do well to look at what the motivational pay-off and ethical cost of indulging the nonsense of 'I rather prefer being alive to not existing'. I suggest - this might be surprising at first but hear me out - that we might here not be a million miles away from why a certain form of the fear of death takes us over. Thus if we've first of all defensively abstracted ourselves from the world, to make ourselves invulnerable, and make our embodiment a contingent matter rather than an existentiale, then the idea of dying will start to seem not so much like the horizon of life but instead like something that happens within it. And that is of course both a comforting thought (it doesn't really happen to me) and a terrifying thought (it does however happen to me). Might something analogous be going on for (e.g.) Piller? He - recall - finds it both intelligible and often true to say that for the existing person, if not for the non-existing person, it's better to be alive than not. And I - recall - find my head boggling at this. (My bebogglement boiled down to: whilst it's clear to me that it's better for Geoff to have a hotel on Mayfair than for Margery to have a single house on Old Kent Road, we might yet be more envious than commiseratory of Tim who instead of joining in the Monopoly game had the perspicacity to go for a walk.) My suspicion, in other words, is not only that he who thinks it better to be alive than non-existent is confused, but that the fact that this confusion is obscured, the fact that it seems to the 'better to be alive' pundit to make sense to carry on as he does, may be because he's tacitly invoking a magically still-extant 'me' for whom it would be not so good to be non-existent.


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