Friday, December 9, 2011

Living for the Sake of Living is a Myth

It’s a common myth that we seek to live simply for the sake of living. However sensible this may seem on the surface, there is a lot of evidence against this; most noteworthy are suicides in the conventional sense (both attempted and successful) and “heroic sacrifices”. Further evidence comes from the “death with dignity” movement, which pushes to legalize physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill people. This is especially true if they are likely to experience intense pain or debilitation in their final days.

In the opposite direction, it's safe to assume that most people with extreme disabilities do not want to die; for most do find pleasures in life not dependent on the physical or mental ability they lack (e.g. hobbies and interests, having favored company in their presence, etc). Also, many people say they do not fear death. By this, it’s safe to assume they mean the precise event itself (as opposed to the probably painful process leading to their deaths). Therefore, it’s likely more sensible to say people live for the sake of experiencing new pleasures rather than life per se.

Regarding the pain we will likely experience just before our deaths, it’s said pain exists to warn us of threats to our lives. While this is true, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Imagine we have a machine, drugs, or other means to fool our nerves into thinking that we’re being stabbed, beaten, burned, cut, whatever. Further suppose that researchers are conducting some kind of experiment in which experiencing intense pain is a relevant part of the experiment. They fully inform the prospective volunteers about what they will experience during the experiment and in all other ways conduct the experiment that exceeds all the highest ethical and legal standards. Then, when the person is hooked up to the machine, administered the drugs, etc. they will experience pain more excruciating than they ever experienced in their life – to the point that they actually want to die at that moment. Never mind that they know fully well there is no actual agent threatening their lives. They just want the pain to end right now (!!!!!). This is the clichéd “fate worse than death”.

The same goes for not having enough pleasure in life, even if we don’t experience physical pain, social rejection, poverty, or other commonly-considered “social ills”; for that creates boredom. This is also a pain, a psychic one to be sure, but a real one nevertheless. Therefore, it’s likely more plausible to say that people avoid pain not so much to avoid danger as it is to avoid pain for its own sake.

For these reasons, I think we don’t so much seek life as we do seek pleasure and avoid pain. In other words, life is only a means to an end – the end is experiencing pleasures to the extent those pleasures can mitigate pain. Excuse the anthropomorphism, but both are tricks our DNA uses to perpetuate itself as long as it can possibly do so.


Karl said...

Excellent summation of our dire situation, Filrabat. Further proof for me of what you say comes from the fact that if I were told I could choose between living for a million years while experiencing no pleasure whatsover and then painlessly expiring or painlessly expiring now, I'd choose the latter. Whether we care to admit it or not, the reason we stay in the game is the mindless hunt for the happy chemical rush. How farcical when you know that ultimately it's all for nought!

Shadow said...

good to see you back on posting!

Anonymous said...

Very concise and enjoyable read. Thanks for this!

Srikant said...


This reminds me of an analogy in Two Arms and a Head. He asks why most people will be understanding of someone jumping off a burning building, from a height which will surely kill them. If they instead waited for the fire to catch and burn them, they will get a few more minutes of life. If people lived for the sake of living, those few minutes will indeed be precious!