Knowing The Time And Manner Of Our Death

The characters in Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach know that barring natural disasters, and other unforeseen circumstances, they will die in a few months time–in September 1963–of radiation sickness, brought on by the thirty-seven day thermonuclear war that has already wiped out life in the northern hemisphere. They know its painful and uncomfortable symptoms–diarrhea and vomiting–will resemble those of cholera; they have the option to commit suicide by using a pill–supplied by the government and made available at local chemists. All humans know they will die; these ones know when and how. (As John Osborne notes, “”You’ve always known that you were going to die sometime. Well, now you know when.”)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, last week, during a classroom discussion centered on Shute’s novel, the following question slowly hoved into view: Would you want to know the time and manner of your death? We live our lives with the knowledge of our certain death; would we want to further refine it in this fashion? Why or why not?  (We could also induce another twist by asking whether, if possessed of this knowledge with regards to someone else, we should tell them about it, without withholding any details. A variant of this situation occurs quite often, I think, in some medical contexts involving terminally ill patients and their doctors. Other twists include the knowledge of the details of, not our deaths, but those of loved ones.)

The answers to this cluster of questions are likely to be quite revealing. Knowledge of the time and manner of death may permit a settling of affairs, a more directed planning of one’s activities, a more systematic prioritization of one’s objectives; it may induce an urgency into our lives that some may find currently lacking. It may have a calming effect on some, But it may also induce paralyzing anxiety for some; the fear of the manner of death–perhaps gruesome dismemberment for some, or brutal murder for others–may have such an effect.

Why is the raising and answering of this question a philosophical exercise? Perhaps because these answers reveal valuations crucial to the chosen path of conduct in our lives–and what could be more fundamental a philosophical question than ‘What is the good life?’ Perhaps because in answering a question about whether some item of knowledge is desirable or not, we may possibly articulate limits on what should be known by us–a puzzle that, in the past, often confronted those who worked on thermonuclear weapons, or as in these days, those who work on cloning technologies. Answering this question could be an introspective and retrospective exercise, forcing not just a look inwards at our beliefs and desires, but also a look backwards at the lives we have lived thus far, an act likely to be imbued with an ethical and moral assessment. Such an examination of our beliefs and our plans for our lives, and the manner in which we would choose to live them, seems a fairly fundamental philosophical activity, perhaps even of the kind that Socrates was always urging on us.


15 thoughts on “Knowing The Time And Manner Of Our Death

  1. There was a series of short stories written about a machine that could tell you how you would die. Not when, just how. The authors all had different outcomes for the stories, but they were all excellent and thought-provoking. Imagine if you knew you would die of….pancreatic cancer. You could be a super-soldier, because nothing but cancer could kill you.

    I don’t think we would accept our deaths gracefully, even if we knew from the time of our birth when and how we would go. Maybe some would just take it, but I imagine most of us would try and change fate, as it were.

  2. Matt,

    Thanks for the comment. I think you are right in your closing remarks; many of my students said similar things. If you remember the reference for the short stories, please do send them on.

    1. The anthologies are called “Machine of Death” and “This Is How You Die” both edited and compiled by Matthew Bennardo. Excellent and insightful reading.

      1. Hi Matt & Samir,

        I landed here through Leiter’s link, and am excited to see the mention of the Machine of Death anthologies. I have a story, “Conflagration” (under the name D.L.E. Roger) in This Is How You Die, that is focused on this cluster of questions, and I’m kinda super thrilled that a fellow philosopher is familiar with a fiction project I contributed to. I can’t resist waving my hands a little…

        The short story grew out of abandoned paper notes on death and well-being, and for some reason it never occurred to me to teach a unit on those questions. That could be great! Samir, do you have any philosophy papers you pair with On the Beach?


      2. Ian,

        Thanks for the comment; I am looking forward to reading all these references. I haven’t used any philosophy papers, no. This is a core class for non-philosophy majors so I’m just doing a straight reading and introducing philosophy as we go along.

  3. I don’t think this is the story that Matt had in mind, but Robert A. Heinlein’s first published story, “Life-line,” was about a machine that could predict how long a person would live, and its social impact.

Leave a Reply to Samir Chopra Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: