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

Assigning Value When “This Is It”

There is, of course, a worry in reading Frankl this way. Memory is always problematic and we cannot know–and perhaps Frankl could not himself know–to what extent his memory of that period is shaded by his survival and the survival of others. But I think Frankl points out something it’s important to keep in mind when looking at Scheffler’s contention that our view of the relative values of things would be drastically shifted if we saw no future not only for ourselves but humanity as a whole: it is possible to make meaning for even the most mundane things, but also “bigger” things, in the face of no future. (The obvious counterexample here is Frankl’s own discussions of imagining leaving the camps at the end of the war and continuing his research; but this is not the primary thing he recognizes as sustaining him.)

At the very least, we need to put something of a proviso onto Scheffler’s thesis: some things will be less valuable, at least in terms of broader social functioning. Where I think Scheffler’s thesis goes wrong is in its too-great elevation of the broader value to future generations of the things we do in our own lifetimes.

There is a reason for his thesis, as noted above: our response to the extreme tragedy of the entirety of humanity disappearing is, initially, to ask “Why bother?” And there are, as Scheffler notes, endeavors that would carry less utilitarian value because those activities would lack any longer-term payoff.

This insight is satisfying at a gut level; it “feels” right. But I’m not sure that it’s really a sound thesis because it begs the question of what gives value to an activity. Scheffler would argue that the bulk of the value in an activity comes from our expectation that unknown others will somehow benefit from what we do.

This trap–the idea of the importance of some kind of progeny–is something that humanists fall into, as well. This is understandable in some ways: one of the major difficulties we encounter explaining humanism to those unfamiliar with it is addressing the perceived need many people feel for a kind of afterlife. This is entirely human, and also understandable: it’s sometimes hard to accept that “this is it.” I’m inclined, given my own response, to think that the reaction we have to “the world ends thirty days after your death at a ripe old age” or “the humans now alive are the last humans who will ever live” is not actually too different from the response we often have to the notion that “this life is it.”