The Goodness of Death

It is generally assumed that life is good and death is bad.  This is a sensible assumption, from the perspective of living things.  As with most simplistic beliefs, however, to some extent it distorts the realities.

Previous posts have explored this distortion on life’s side – noting, for example, that life depends upon fundamentally ugly behavior and that it resembles a prison.  The present post develops the other side of the story, noting some positive things about death.

Consider, first, the extreme cases.  There are situations in which death is a blessing.  It brings an end to pain, for those suffering from torture and terminal disease.  When administered to others, it can bring liberty from oppressors.  War, revolution, and other violence have often occurred in response to exploitation and abuse.

The mere possibility of death can have positive effects.  Tyrants, for example, must bear in mind their own vulnerability.  While they may be able to hire bodyguards and otherwise secure themselves to a considerable extent, the risk of assassination can nonetheless discourage them from outrageous acts.

The risk of death can also influence others to mind their behavior.  People fear death intensely enough to avoid situations that carry even a hint of serious risk.  The few who take such risks tend to become object lessons for the many who do not.  Fear of becoming like them is constantly reinforced.

Over time, people tend to learn approved ways of behaving.  We can thank the threat of death for the amazing phenomenon of billions of people coexisting on this planet, often in very close quarters, and yet enjoying much peace and happiness.  Death is, among other things, an enforcer of good behavior.

It may seem odd to think of the Grim Reaper as an aide in the minor project of deterring a schoolyard bully.  But that is really no stranger than seeing the massive life force at work in the tiny strivings of bacteria and insects, as they go about their business of killing and growing.  Life and death alike use accumulated petty means to advance their larger agendas.  Life basks in the happy endorsement of a science show on TV, describing the patient work of ants; and then death speaks in the voice of the commercial advertiser, whose financial support for that science show comes from the sale of insecticide.

Death achieves good outcomes because of its interesting partnership with life.  While a previous post characterized life and death as opposing teams on a playing field, one might point out that sports teams strive against one another on one level, while collaborating on another level to put on a performance.  Both sides are essential.  Life uses killing (of e.g., prey and adversaries) to achieve growth and strength; death uses life’s pursuit of growth and strength to achieve killing.

It would be easy to say that death is the bad cop in this duo but, again, it is not that simple.  The pursuit of life has yielded many despicable acts at the expense of others, while the acceptance of death has facilitated many heroic endings on behalf of those who survive.  The better analogy is not that life is a good cop or otherwise a savior; it is that life is the guide who knows the particular path we want to take, so we accept his guidance and try to overlook the many things we really dislike about him.

These observations are consistent with the common finding that nothing is good in excess.  Truthfulness is good, but perhaps one would lie to the Gestapo representatives, when they knock on the door and ask whether you are sheltering Anne Frank.  Sunshine is good, except when it causes skin cancer.  Life is generally good – sometimes it is fantastic – but there are situations when not even life can properly be one’s top priority.

People tend to recognize such realities.  They see that life, on one hand, tends to concentrate its gains in a pyramid of success stories and superachievers, where many struggle but few come out on top; and they see that death, on the other hand, is completely open and accepting.  The pinnacle of life is the thing that everyone wants but most can’t have; the pit of death is the thing that nobody wants but is free to all.

Given such choices, people do the sensible thing:  they temporize.  With such limited options, people typically want neither extreme of the scale:  neither untrammeled life power for the single tyrant nor final death for the tyrant’s many victims.  Under the circumstances, people tend to seek a middling ground where the game can continue for as long as possible – where life and death can fight it out, inch by inch, year after year – where, ideally, individual humans like themselves are able, within their personal lives, to tip the balance one way or the other, now and then, as they see fit, in small but meaningful confrontations between life and death.

In those countless little day-to-day situations, people make different combinations of decisions.  There are differences in how strongly people follow the call of the life force.  Some heed that call in a very high percentage of cases.  Even the interests of their own children take second place to their personal needs and desires.  Other people, at the opposite extreme, tend to subordinate their needs to those of others.  These people resist life’s priorities, deliberately and often putting themselves at risk of damage and, if necessary, death.

There is a saying:  if you go looking for trouble, you will probably find it.  Life is for the living, and that tends to mean that those who don’t mind their own business and just pursue their own best life prospects risk premature death.  As another saying advises, only the good die young.  Or as Primo Levi put it, writing of the Holocaust, the best died first; those who survived tended to be the selfish, the violent, the collaborators, the spies.  In short, life’s ugliness tends to predict the character traits that life favors.

Talk of selflessness can seem wrongheaded, to those who have little exposure to the downside of life.  When everything is going well, it can be easy to believe that everyone can succeed, that what the world needs is better training for success – not an unselfishness that might confuse a tidy system of rewards for merit.  Those who believe such things may feel that the situation is simple indeed:  life is good, death is bad, and one’s duty is to become stronger and more capable.  It may take direct or vicarious experience to pop that bubble, to acquaint the naïve with the seamy ingredients of success, with how quickly success can fade, with what life is like for those who lose success or who never had it.  Failure, loss, and rejection are much easier to understand when you experience them firsthand.

What emerges from such observations is not exactly that death is good.  It is that death is the soil from which much goodness grows.  Death, life’s bête noire, cannot contribute directly to human existence per se; but death certainly can influence the form of the conflict.  An ethic of sacrificing oneself for the sake of others is a thumb in life’s eye; it is an invasive rewriting of life’s code, a retelling of how life itself is best lived.  Death cannot offer the moments of pleasure engendered by success in life.  It can, however, shape the interpretation of such moments, contextualizing them to raise the question of whether personal growth and success should be seen as the best or only indicators of human achievement.  Death is a grab for the body, but an ethic accepting of death is a play for the soul, and not necessarily an ignoble one.

There are, in short, several ways in which death promotes goodness.  First, as noted at the outset, death provides blessed relief from pain.  It is, directly and derivatively, a tool with which to intimidate aggressors and eliminate tyrants.  The risk of injury and damage, carrying the least hint of possible death, is often sufficient to discourage undesirable behaviors.  Death is often where the best people go first.  It is something that the bravest acccept for themselves, in order to make things better for those who remain behind.  Personal encounters with death’s precursors teach empathy and humility.

In such remarks, it becomes evident that death offers benefits that are not consistent with life’s growth project.  Life, left to its own devices, can become insufferable.  It seems that, if death did not exist, we might have to invent it.

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