Monday, September 07, 2015

Can we measure the value of life?

Two years ago I have read The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer and I have written a few blogs about it, too. Then I put the book in my bookcase and I never read it again, for actually it is not my type of philosophy. Therefore, what I remember from this book is not much and it can actually be summed up in a few words: To live is to suffer. This seems to be Schopenhauer’s idea of life. Leafing through the book today, I saw a passage that I had underlined and that expresses this idea, too: “... so the view forces itself on us that life is a business and that the gains of this business are by far not enough to cover its costs”: In other words, life is an unhappy affair, if we could make a cost-benefit analysis. But would this really be possible? For how should we calculate the value of happy and unhappy episodes in life? How much happiness balances how much suffering? I suspect that it is an impossible task.
I think that there is at least one philosopher who would disagree with Schopenhauer, if he could – if he could: for he lived before Schopenhauer – : Michel de Montaigne. Despite his own sufferings – he lost his best friend Étienne de La Boétie, which determined the course of the rest of his life; he had kidney stones for many years and he died of it – Montaigne had a positive outlook on life. He knew how to live. And although he knew that a life could be happy or unhappy in its totality, he didn’t want to pass a judgement before it had ended.
In his essay “That men are not to judge of our happiness till after death” (Essays, Book I, Ch. XVIII) Montaigne defends the thesis that an event at the end of someone’s life can push the final verdict in the opposite direction. Someone’s life looked happy, but he has been murdered in a cruel way. Therefore, we must judge his life as a whole as unhappy, Montaigne seems to defend in this essay. Or, to take an example by him, “I have seen many by their death give a good or an ill repute to their whole life. Scipio, the father-in-law of Pompey, in dying, well removed the ill opinion that till then every one had conceived of him.” Montaigne says in this essay that the last act a person does in his life, especially if he died during this act, can shape a reputation of this person that comprises his whole life and give it a positive or negative turn: “Wherefore, at this last, all the other actions of our life ought to be tried and sifted: ‘tis the master-day, ‘tis the day that is judge of all the rest, " ‘tis the day," says one of the ancients,—[Seneca ...]— "that must be judge of all my foregoing years." ”
Well, I have my doubts. It’s not that I think that someone’s last act cannot influence the judgment on this person’s life, or that it cannot have even a strong influence, but a life lasts many years. Some people are criminals during their younger years and become saints during their last years. Do then only the last years count? I think that it would be better to say that we have here, for instance, the case of a person who has seen the light, or, if a life develops in the opposite direction, the case of a person who got into low water. Summarizing a life in this way gives a better look on the phases a person lived through than just saying that someone’s life was good or bad as a whole – or happy or unhappy. But what remains is: How to measure happiness or goodness? Or how to balance one phase of life against another phase, like a happy event at the end of your life against a very unhappy youth fifty years ago (or the other way round)? Actually it implies the question what the influence of the time perspective must be on your judgment and also the question whether one can compare time as a moment (the final act of your life) against time as a process (the flow of actions that made up your life). I think that seen this way we compare incomparable variables, if we ignore the ups and downs and want to press a whole life in one word.

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