What if? A long-form, humanistic think-piece for Elul

We’ve come into the month of Elul, the lead-up to the High Holidays in the traditional Jewish cycle of the year. Elul is traditionally viewed as a time for repentance, which Jewish tradition understands as not only seeking absolution but for making changes to avoid ever again committing the sins of the past.

A podcast I listened to recently tied in nicely to one of the ideas that comes with Elul: thinking about the value of what we do.

What is Valuable?

Professor Samuel Scheffler’s recent (2013) book, Death and the Afterlife, is the subject of a more recent (last week?) New Books in Philosophy podcast. Scheffler’s book is not about individual afterlife, heaven, etc. Rather, it’s about our notions of value and how we respond when certain basic assumptions about the world are brought into doubt.

Specifically, Scheffler poses two hypothetical scenarios to probe what happens to our assumptions about what activities have value in our lives when we know there will be no future beyond our own.

The two hypothetical situations are that you know either: 1) You will live to a ripe old age, but then the entire human race will be wiped out by a cataclysm when an asteroid hits the Earth 30 days after your death; or 2) Humans are no longer fertile, so that when the last of the humans who remain alive die, humans will become extinct. (Yes, these are inspired at least in part by recent movies and literary works.) His thesis is that when we know there is no future, we respond in a way that treats these two extinction events as catastrophes. Our sense of value shifts in a manner that suggests that how we value many activities depends not only on knowing that individuals whom we know and love will live on, but that complete strangers in society will live on. We take our sense of “what matters” from this assumption about humanity’s future progeny, Scheffler argues, even if we have no progeny of our own.

As I listened to the podcast (yes–I should read the book, but with the queue of things to read I’ve got now, it’s unlikely to happen), I found myself wondering why these scenarios seemed to so dramatically set values adrift.

In the New Books Network interview, Scheffler notes that these hypotheticals are very challenging, and that is true. They are extremely disorienting at a gut level. To be sure, I agree that our assessment of value would certainly be set adrift with this knowledge. But I’m not sure that we should reach the conclusion that they would be so dramatically uprooted as Scheffler claims–or, at least, I don’t agree that they should be as uprooted as Scheffler claims.

Why? I think that once we move past the initial shock associated with discovering that humanity is approaching its end, we can ask some important questions. One of these is how we prioritize the time we have left. Scheffler contends in his New Books Network interview that there are many long-term projects we value that would seem pointless. Cancer research, seismic research, and even philosophical papers would seem pointless, and thus our valuing of those activities and–more crucially–their underlying goals would change.

I don’t disagree. But I think we need to take a second look at the question. Scheffler’s contentions depend upon an assumption we do not all share: that the primary reason for much of what we do is to somehow benefit others.

What if that is not the case? Consider the writings of those who knew most distinctly what it was like not to expect a future.

I’m referring here to Holocaust victims. And I’m thinking, in particular, of the work of Viktor Frankl.