Virtually everyone agrees: there is something that is extremely important, more important than the concerns of individuals—perhaps even universally important. The exact nature of this important something varies, but what does not substantially vary is the fact of believing something to be of all-encompassing importance. The importance of this something is often so self-evident to those who value it as to be axiomatic to them.
Forms of Valuing
There are many ways to value something, or to express its importance. When we value something, we may devote attention to it, as with a piece of music, a painting, a child, a lover, a novel, a sport. We may even suggest or demand that others devote attention to it, as we do when we write essays or make laws. If the valued something is an aware being, such as a dog, we may act to give it pleasure, or to prevent its suffering. If it is a conscious being with its own values, i.e., a person, we may express its own universal value by promoting what it values. This is what we do when we enable another to make a choice that we do not agree with.
Especially if the valued thing is NOT a conscious being, our devotion may rise to the level of reverence, as we might express toward a flag or a god. This may be expressed in protecting it from competition from other symbols, or prohibiting its symbolic desecration.
The _____ Must Go On
There is one way of acknowledging or expressing something's value, however, which is often mistakenly viewed as the only way to properly value something: to preserve it, to promote its longevity, to ensure its continuation into the future, as long as possible.
Maximizing longevity—the lifespan of a person, for instance, or of a political or ethnic group, or of a religion, or of a species—is not the only way to acknowledge that it has value. Why is so much importance placed upon a thing's position and duration in time?
In "A Right of Self-Termination?" (Ethics 109 (April 1999): 606-628), J. David Velleman considers two of the forms of valuing that I list above: respect for the expressed values of a conscious being, and promoting longevity. He argues that the latter trumps the former; that is, we need not respect the stated value of a conscious being if that expressed value is the desire for the being to end. I claim (see Respecting and Erasing) that promoting longevity and continuation is only one of many ways of expressing something's value. Robert Rauschenberg, I note, expressed and highlighted the profound aesthetic value of a Willem de Kooning drawing by erasing it. A familiar story is that of a group disbanding, rather than compromising its ideals in order to continue. All those Aztec codices burned because of their enormous value—value that threatened to compete (symbolically) with new mythologies and political systems. They turned to cinders, yet still condors scream from them in our imaginations.
If something matters in and of itself, not just instrumentally—if it has value not only in the positive feelings it gives to existing beings, but inherently—what does it matter when or for how long it exists in time? Why should we care so much about duration and continuity only, to the exclusion of the intensity, integrity, or other qualities of the valued thing's existence?
This question, I propose, has an answer: we express the value of our "important somethings" in terms of preventing their extinction because we wish to—but cannot—prevent our own individual extinction.
This psychological explanation is not arbitrary; it is empirically grounded in the robust results of the field of Terror Management Theory.
Judges and Prostitutes: An Introduction to Terror Management Theory
In 1989, a small group of psychologists decided to subject some of the claims of Ernest Becker's influential-but-fuzzy Denial of Death to empirical testing. Becker's model proposes that "human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality." Okay. How do we test that?
The scientists, Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg, decided to test whether a reminder about one's own death (a "mortality salience induction," in TMT jargon) would change a person's behavior. They chose as their experimental subjects a group of judges, who are culturally expected to be fair, impartial, and unmoved by emotional matters such a fear of their own deaths.†
Both the experimental group and the control group were given packets of questionnaires to fill out. However, tucked among these many pages of questions, the experimental group was given a mortality salience induction: the judges were asked to describe, in as much detail as possible, what they expected to happen to their physical bodies when they died, and the feelings this aroused in them. The control group was given a control question instead.
Both groups were then asked to make a very simple (simulated) legal judgment: to set bail for a prostitution charge. Would there be a significant difference between the bail set by mortality-salience-induced judges and control judges?
Yup. Big time. Like, an order of magnitude.
The control judges set the bail amount for an average of $50. The judges who were asked to contemplate their own deaths set the bail at an average of $455.
Why Do Death-Reminded Judges Pick On Prostitutes?
Terror Management Theory posits that the judges, reminded of their own extinction, unconsciously engaged in the psychological practice of worldview defense. Reminded of their own eventual extinction, they reached for something eternal to attach themselves to, in order to achieve symbolic immortality. The "important something" they chose was the traditional idea of law and order, violated by this hypothetical prostitute. The death-reminded judges, the theory goes, punished the prostitutes for their violation as a way of protecting the institutions of law and order and traditional society, allowing the judges to attach themselves to something eternal-seeming, and hence symbolically prevent their own extinction.
Prostitutes threaten law, order, and traditional morality. Judges reminded that they themselves are under threat of death were willing to do more to protect these "eternal" values.
From this one colorful, evocative experiment sprang a field of study whose results have been replicated and expanded worldwide. It would be impossible to even touch on the variety of experiments that have been conducted◊. It even works when the death reminder is not explicit, and may not even register consciously - as when one group of experimental subjects was asked to report to an experimental site located near a funeral home, and control subjects to another site. Imagine how many death reminders each one of us receives daily, without even realizing it.
And it's not just ordinary physical death that triggers such responses, although they do so extremely strongly. It can be a reminder of social death as well—the threat of losing one's place in society, which, in the EEA as in modern times, frequently contributes to actual death.
What Must Go On?
What else do we cling to when reminded of our own eventual extinction? Religion is a big one—occasionally promising actual immortality to believers, although this need not be the case. Political and ethnic groups, symbols, and ideas form powerful targets of worldview-defending attachment: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Nature and endangered species work well as Something Higher.
As my title suggests, the cry of an entertainer is that "the show must go on." As vacuous as entertainment culture may be, it does have its Something Higher that trumps the individual needs of the performers. Art is a powerful worldview defense.
And then there's having babies.
Children offer the closest thing to physical immortality. Our genes, if not our bodies, may live on after us; this is a major reason why people are willing to beggar themselves in order to have genetic children. But even raising non-genetic children allows people to pass their stories and information into the future, or imagine that they do so: to imagine that they have an effect on the future, rather than extinguishing completely.
Aside from personal survival through one's own family, there is a nearly-universal feeling that the human race should go on. This is perhaps the ultimate remedy for mortality salience. Without humans (or at least conscious creatures), there can be no stories. We must be able to imagine the world continuing after us, and we can only do so through stories.*
Must The _____ Go On?
I am not arguing that art, nature, family, justice, humanity, or the Green Bay Packers are not important. What I wish to demonstrate is that our most strongly-held values arise through a non-conscious, irrational process to which we have no access. This is, I think, reason enough to look at our most strongly-held values with uncertainty and suspicion. We do not arrive at our deepest values by reflection and reason. To a large degree, our values "just happen"—like our brains. When our values conflict—the value of preventing suffering versus the value of preserving the human species—we are tempted to choose the latter because it feels axiomatic to us. But that is a reason to treat it with extra suspicion, not to treat it as axiomatic.
That we feel something is of all-encompassing value is not evidence that the something has such value, as much as it is evidence that we are driven to see things as valuable. The "must go on"-ness is primordial to the valued thing itself.
† Readers who find this familiar will note that I wrote about this a long time ago.
◊ For that, please read the information-dense, highly entertaining, incredibly well-written In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, written by the scientists themselves. (The book has almost nothing to do with 9/11 or terrorism, except that terrorist acts are highly visible death reminders that may be exploited for their capability to arouse worldview defense.) For an introduction that requires less time investment, watch the documentary Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality, which is awesomely available to watch instantly on Netflix.
* I do so when I imagine someone reading an essay of mine after I am dead; not even a suicide is immune to this phenomenon.