Death and the Self

On Tuesday the 10th of March, Shaun Nichols delivered the 2015 Wellcome & Loebel Lecture in Neuroethics. You can listen to the lecture here.

Nichols presented a range of intriguing empirical data on how our view of the self affects our attitudes. The common view about the self is that it is something that persists through our lives. The self is an essential part of us that remains the same from childhood to adulthood.  However some views in philosophy and religion see the self as something much less permanent.

Nichols notes that unlike many revolutionary views in the philosophy, the idea that there is no persisting self is predicted to have generally beneficial consequences. For example, it should make people more generous and less selfish, as the boundaries between different people become less significant. It should also make individuals less punitive, as if the self regularly changes, agents may not be responsible for former wrongs.  Further, it should decrease peoples fear of death, as the person who eventually dies would not truly be them.

Nichols presented data from his own work showing that when individuals are primed to view the self as something which changes through time, they do indeed become more generous, and choose to give more to charity when given the opportunity. They also are less inclined to punish people for former wrongs.

However when Nichols looked at how the conception of the self affects attitudes toward death, he found it made no difference. Those who think the self changes over time are just as afraid of death as those who believe in the persisting self.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.