Bioethics Blogs

The Importance of the Collective Afterlife for Human Values: The Collective Afterlife and the “Afterlife Conjecture”

by J.S. Blumenthal-Barby, Ph.D.

In his new book, Death and the Afterlife (comprised of his two Tanner Lectures on Human Values), philosopher Samuel Scheffler argues that the assumption of a “collective afterlife” (i.e., the assumption that humanity lives on here on earth after our own individual deaths) plays an essential role in us valuing much of what we do. He argues, provocatively, that if a collective afterlife did not exist we would cease to value much of what we do (his “afterlife conjecture”). This includes our valuing research in science, technology and medicine; social and political activism; building or reforming social or cultural institutions; improving the physical infrastructure of society; protecting the environment; and procreation. But possibly even our valuing artistic, musical, and literary projects; philosophy, history, and theoretical physics; and the pleasures of food, drink, and sex (the thesis gets more provocative…). Scheffler’s afterlife conjecture is arrived at after he images two scenarios in which there is no collective afterlife: (1) a doomsday scenario where the earth is completely destroyed 30 days after your individual death, and (2) an infertility scenario where we face the immanent disappearance of human life on earth.

Scheffler believes that there are several important insights from these thought experiments about the nature of how and what we value, including that we are less self-sufficient than we are inclined to believe (what Scheffler controversially characterizes as “the limits of egoism” in our valuing), that our valuing has a non-experiential dimension given that we are distressed and affected by the disappearance of a collective afterlife that we will not experience, that our valuing has a conservative dimension given that we care so much that the things and people that we value be sustained or preserved through time, and that our valuing has a non-consequentialist dimension given that our evaluations of the badness of the afterlife conjecture are immediate and not a result of us adding up the net positives and negatives of humanity ending.

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