Kagan: “How to Live Given the Certainty of Death”


Professor Shelly Kagan teaches a Yale philosophy course entitled “Death.” In this class session (available on the Open Yale Courses website), Kagan aims to answer the question: “Given the certainty of death, how should we live?” He lays out what he perceives as our options, drawing predominantly on a combination of logic and Western humanist philosophy.

Some of the lecture’s highlights:

  1. Three potential strategies for “pack[ing] as much as you can into life”: Settling for basic goals that are easy to attain, striving for accomplishments that are more valuable and harder to attain, or determining an appropriate balance of the two. (12:35)
  2. Longevity of life is important to an extent, but quality can trump quantity (Kagan experiments with a rectangular “area” calculation of life quality-points multiplied by life-years and determines it is an oversimplification—Quality is not quantifiable). (18:42)
  3. Two general philosophies for seeking out a semi/quasi/pseudo-immortality: believing the self lives on through works and accomplishments, and believing the self lives on through the natural recycling of bodily organic matter. (31:54)
  4. Mention of a more “Eastern” philosophy that life is not inherently good; when we let go of the notion that life is worth living, then we likewise let go of the difficulty of accepting death. (40:21)

Beneath these arguments, Kagan’s lecture carries home a central message: Mortality prompts choice. In the same way that deadlines motivate students to finish school projects or game timers stimulate sports stars to put their best foot forward, mortality moves us to meaningful action. We do not have a choice to opt in or out of being finite (at least on a physical level). But perhaps that is for the better—After all, as Kagan reminds us in his lecture, “Rich and incredible as the world is, eventually the goods of life would run out, and immortality would be dreadful.”

Life is made to be far more significant by the fact that it ends. It is awareness of this end that inevitably prompts us to make choices about the values, causes, desires, and beliefs that shape the limited time we do have, giving it true meaning. After all, it was contemplation of mortality (“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”) that prompted Mary Oliver to end her poem “The Summer Day” with a single, fearsome question that could perhaps be read as a more eloquent rephrasing of Kagan’s lecture title:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”



About Jessica Hahne

Yale Scientific Magazine Editor-in-Chief, 2013 Assistant at the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics
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One Response to Kagan: “How to Live Given the Certainty of Death”

  1. cthew1 says:

    Thanks, Jessica. Really loving your thoughtful posts. I listened to Kagan’s death course on OYC a couple of years ago and remember being struck by the “immortality would be dreadful” opinion/argument, leading to much contemplation. Would love to hear how you respond sometime.

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