Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Being towards death

I have never understood why Dasein, that being for whom being (I want to write: Being) is an issue, should be essentially orientated towards death. I can see how, for being/Being in general, or the fact of one’s own being, to be an issue, one might need to have a conception of not being. And so it might seem that the way that comes about is via an orientation towards, or awareness of the possibility of, one’s own death. But I don’t see why that should be necessary. Why couldn’t the possibility that one might not have existed be enough, for example? Perhaps an orientation towards one’s contingent birth?

I mention this in the context of a health scare this year which – rationally I think – made me at least take seriously the more than merely abstract possibility of ceasing to be: the sense of not having a future. Hence a quick thought on that.

Bill Fulford has taught me the use of a thought experiment or class exercise to illustrate the diversity of values in values based practice beyond moral values. It turns on this scenario:

You have an illness which will prove fatal in n weeks/months/years.
There is a potential treatment which has a 50% complete success rate and a 50% instant fatality rate but you must take it today.
Question: for what value of n would you prefer to risk the treatment?

Typically this question prompts a wide range of student answers from months to nearly a normal expected full life term. At one extreme, a young trainee medical student at Warwick University preferred the fixed fatality over the 50:50 life or death providing that n was, merely, at least a week or two. That is, for a value of n as small as two weeks, he preferred that small fixed life to the 50% chance of dying that day. When questioned, he replied that he would want to put his affairs in order and that would be possible in a couple of weeks and so even a fortnight was to be preferred to the potential treatment which might rule out any time for sorting things out.

But this student’s sang-froid was way beyond my own resources of character this year. With the normal (perhaps presumptuous, given the standing possibilities of being knocked off one’s bike) confidence in some sort of future undermined, I found that I wanted to take to my bed or pour a stiff drink, not as positive project of enjoying the sleep or the drink but merely as an escape. With the prospect that the future might not exist simply made more than normally concrete, the practices that constitute a life seemed unavailable to me.

So whilst I don’t get the idea of being towards death as a fundamental existential dimension, an orientation towards an open future does seem an essential feature of my kind of non-morally-serious existence.