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Improve Your Ethical Thinking By Contemplating Your Mortality

by Matthew Beard
14 January 2016
SOCIETY, RELATIONSHIPS AND CULTURE
Our attitudes toward death and dying can create a cognitive bias that can affect the decisions we make. This could be an issue – many ethical decisions involve contemplating life and death. To live well it seems like we need to make peace with death.

“What do we say to the god of death?” swordsman Syrio Forel asks Arya Stark in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (and in HBO’s TV series). “Not today.”



This short refrain marks the beginning of a sustained exploration of humanity’s relationship with death told through Arya’s experiences. She becomes a murderer and a later, in ‘The House of the Undying’ where death is seen as a god to be worshipped, an assassin and servant to that god of death.

Watching Arya’s story unfold, it seemed to me she’d never forgotten her former (you guessed it, now dead) teacher’s lesson – the only response to death is denial.

According to many thinkers, this isn’t surprising at all. Arya isn’t alone in running from death. Denying the reality of human mortality is a near-universal behaviour. In The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking, Oliver Burkeman considers the writing of Ernest Becker, whose arguments Burkeman surmises. “Your life is one relentless attempt to avoid [thinking about death] – a struggle so elemental that ... for much of the time you succeed.”

Becker believed to avoid confronting our mortality people invest in “immortality projects”. Art, family, business, nations, war, charity, and so on… Immortality projects aim to overcome physical death by ensuring our continued existence through symbols or ideas.

 
The late David Bowie promised “We can be heroes”, and that’s precisely Becker’s point. Immortality projects are attempts to become heroes, thereby avoiding the emptiness of death.

The late David Bowie promised “We can be heroes”, and that’s precisely Becker’s point. Immortality projects are attempts to become heroes, thereby avoiding the emptiness of death.

But research suggests the common instinct to avoid thinking about our mortality might be worth pushing against. In a paper entitled ‘Deliver us from Evil’, researchers found that mortality avoidance can cloud our judgements about life and death issues, leading to unreflective decisions in high-stakes situations.

The study asked two groups of people to undertake a long and generally dull questionnaire and then to read a short essay and tell researchers how strongly they agreed with it. The essay was a strong statement of support for the controversial policies of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. It included lines like “It annoys me when I hear other people complain that President Bush is using his war against terrorism as a cover for instituting policies that, in the long run, will be detrimental to this country ... Mr. Bush has been a source of strength and inspiration to us all. God bless him and God bless America”.

The only difference between the two groups was that one questionnaire forced subjects to consider their own mortality. The “mortality salience” group were asked to “briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you” and to “jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die, and once you are physically dead”.

For some, even the idea of answering these questions might feel uncomfortable, as it did for the subjects in the experiment. Researchers found the “mortality salient” subjects invested more strongly in the nearest immortality project to hand – the war in Iraq. Subjects from the mortality salience group agreed strongly with the essay. By contrast, the control group generally disagreed with the essay’s sentiments.

 
When we’re forced to confront our own mortality, our default reaction may not be the product of rational thinking but an impulsive rejection of death.

This tells us something important – especially in a time when we are continually confronted with the threat and reality of terrorism and domestic violence nearly every day. When we’re forced to confront our own mortality our default reaction may not be the product of rational thinking but an impulsive rejection of death. The researchers argued similarly:

The fact that reminders of death and the events of 9/11 enhanced support for President Bush in the present studies may not bode well for the philosophical democratic ideal that political preferences are the result of rational choice based on an informed understanding of the relevant issues.

This poses a challenge for ethical behaviour – some of the most serious ethical decisions people face are made when they are confronted with death. Most obviously these include healthcare and political decisions with serious implications for the general populous. Is it possible to overcome mortality avoidance and make decisions based on moral values and principles instead?

Researchers weren’t optimistic on this point, but Burkeman indirectly suggests a way forward. His interest lay in whether thinking about death might enable us to live a happier life. He presents evidence that regular contemplation of death can enable us to avoid horror and shock when it ultimately arrives. “The more you become aware of life’s finitude, the more you will cherish it and the less likely you will be to fritter it away on distraction”.

 

The same might be true for our mortality avoidance in decision making. If regular acquaintance with death can remove some of its shocking strangeness, perhaps we will be less likely to invest in immortality projects as a way to distract ourselves from its reality. By making our peace with the fact we are all going to die, we will be less likely to make decisions based in our fear of death. If ‘Deliver us from Evil’ is any indication, this might also save lives in the long run by ensuring serious decisions are made reasonably and not from fear.

Plus, doing so might also make you happier.


 
Dr Matthew Beard is a moral philosopher at The Ethics Centre. Follow us on Twitter @ethics_centre. Image: The Independent.

 

1 Comments

Comments
Max Rawnsley
This is a startlingly insightful article.
1/02/2016 8:47:28 AM

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