Happiness as Fundamental Moral Value

I have studied ethics for many years, but it still seems puzzling to me that some ethical views are as widely accepted as they are. I am aware that the utilitarian foundation that happiness is the only thing that ultimately matters is not something which can be “proven” or “demonstrated”, but I still find it hard to see a rejection of happiness as the purpose of life as a reasonable sentiment. Perhaps it becomes more “reasonable” if we are talking about a truly religious person who sees some other divine plan for life on this planet; but when it comes to holding a secular outlook on ethics, how could anything else have ultimate meaning than happiness? How could one oppose the idea that it’s a good thing if people would be happier – that there is as much happiness as possible in this world, an as little unhappiness as possible?

Among the most common objections to utilitarianism is that it may require some people’s happiness to be sacrificed for the sake of increasing happiness for others. But why is it bad to “sacrifice” other people’s happiness in the first place? Because they lose out on happiness – they are less happy than they could be (although others are made happier at the same time). In other words, it is till for the sake of happiness the objection is made. If the person sacrificed is not made unhappier by the sacrifice, then what cause could he or she have to object?

In other words, although one cannot reasonably reject that the purpose of life is happiness, one could somewhat more reasonably accept that all people have some basic “right” to keep their happiness and not be sacrificed for the sake of the happiness of other people. Such a view would endorse the fundamental utilitarian value of happiness, but not accept the aggregative part of utilitarianism, i.e., that people’s happiness should be added together to achieve the highest possible sum (or average) of happiness. The alternative view would only say that it is good if each person is as happy as possible, but each person’s happiness can only be related to that person. You can’t steal from person A to give the stolen object to person B if it makes A only slightly more unhappy, even if B would be much more happy by receiving the object. A’s and B’s levels of happiness cannot be added together.

Even though this view concedes the fundamental value that happiness is what gives ultimate meaning to morality, it rejects one of the most common notions in ethical thinking, namely impartiality. One component of utilitarianism is its impartiality: one person’s happiness is not more important than that of another. Claiming that I have a right not to sacrifice any of my happiness to increase other people’s happiness seems to violate this ethical ideal of impartiality in favor of egoism. Thought experiments that seek to refute utilitarianism often describe scenarios where one person must be killed to save many others from dying. However, refusing to sacrifice the life of one person to save many others appears to imply that the “value” of the sacrificed person’s life is put above the value of the other people’s lives.

Anyway, egoism built on happiness as fundamental value is, to me, an understandable (although highly objectionable) position. But I do not really understand views that flatly reject happiness as the ultimate purpose of life and morality. What is, for instance, the point of setting up a rule-based morality, with certain principles like “don’t steal” or “don’t lie”, if these rules have no connection or relevance to happiness or unhappiness? If no one is made unhappier by being stolen from or lied to, then what is the point of such rules? The same can be said regarding holding up certain virtues as morally fundamental. What is the value of courage, loyalty, or generosity if these things do not contribute to make people happier (or to make them less unhappy)? And what is the value of liberty, equality, tolerance, or the collective ownership of the means of production, if these things have no relevance for happiness? If “oppression” does not make the oppressed unhappy, then why object to oppression?

Then one must, of course, discuss what is meant by “happiness”. Here, again, there are some views which are more reasonable than others. As a hedonist I take pleasure and pain as synonyms to happiness and happiness, but there might be other accounts of happiness which seem more intuitive to other people, and which I can’t reject out of hand. But some accounts of happiness are really just circular, like happiness just meaning fulfilling the virtues or doing that which is “right” (following the correct abstract rules), and these meanings of happiness just seem ethically meaningless (as discussed above).

All this does not mean that it is impossible (or morally “wrong) to perceive something else than happiness as morally fundamental. Indeed, many people seem to do just that. But it does mean that I am going to have a tough time feeling or understanding what they are trying to convey. I simply can’t help “perceiving” pleasure as something good and pain as something bad, and I can’t really perceive something else as inherently good or bad. I can’t see anything positive about a completely unhappy world (a “hell” if you will), regardless of how much liberty, equality, or virtue there is in it, and I can’t see anything negative about a sublimely happy world (a “paradise”), regardless of how little liberty, equality, or virtue there is in it.

Political Pessimism and Effective Altruism

Effective altruism (EA) is the idea that one should try to give as much as possible to charity, more specifically to the charities that are most effective when it comes to helping many people meeting their basic needs. The charity organizations recommended by, for instance, The Life You Can Save, mostly aim to help people in Africa and some other very poor regions (this is more effective than spending vast amounts of resources to reduce some of the remaining annoyances in the affluent world).

As a hedonistic utilitarian I am totally on board with the values behind effective altruism. I believe there is a moral “duty” to help people who are poorer than oneself and that people in general do much less than what this moral duty demands. I have, however, been somewhat skeptical about EA, because I believe changing political structures much be our paramount interest. In the best of worlds, the poor should not be dependent on voluntary charity to meet their basic needs.

Of course, striving for political change does not preclude supporting EA as well. It is unrealistic to think that political change could ever achieve the kind of world where all the world’s poor people could count on basic assistance as a right. So giving to charity will always be necessary. But there is room for discussion about how much one could really expect from politics, which, in turn, affects the balance of personal spending on political struggle versus charity.

When it comes to myself, my pessimism about achieving economic justice through politics has increased lately. This means that I see more of an ethical imperative to support the EA project/movement. A lot of things are really going the wrong way in politics as right-wing “populism” goes victorious through many parts of the world, combined with “neoliberal” economic policies. Democracy is eroding as wealth is concentrated even more in the hands of a few individuals and corporations while dictatorial China is spreading its influence and once semi-democratic Russia is slipping (back) into authoritarian rule. Meanwhile a viable solution to the greatest problem of our age – climate change – seems farther away than ever.

In the face of such a political situation some might feel that it’s better to just give up, accept things and try to enjoy oneself. Another alternative, which I endorse, is to at least try to help as many as possible of the less fortunate. Even as the world is going to hell there are still people who die or get their lives ruined because of easily preventable diseases and lack of basic utilities (like clean water), and who am I to say that my luxuries are more important than their very lives? When I’m on my deathbed I would rather be able to say that at least my contributions helped a few other persons to regain basic health or escape the most dire poverty (thus achieving some basic “dignity” in life), than to reminiscence about all the fine watches I owned and all the foreign vacations I took.

I regret, however, that I did not plan my life in order to become an effective altruist. Philosopher Peter Singer (perhaps the most well-known supporter of EA) often tell stories about stock brokers who deliberately go to Wall Street and the like in order to make a lot of money to spend on charity. My income, on the other hand, is a fair bit below average (and my career prospects do not look good), which puts some constraints about what I can give . Still, a below average income in Sweden is not nothing in a global comparison. I can still forgo some “luxuries” for myself in order to be an effective altruist (last month, for instance, I managed to give $100). And that’s perhaps the most morally meaningful thing I can do when there are few reasons to think politics can change things for the better.

(Don’t forget, however, that political activity can still make sure that things go to hell a bit slower than otherwise. So don’t stop protesting and organizing!)

Which Way Forward for Left-Wing Politics?

I believe in economic redistribution from rich to poor, and even from the not-so-rich (“middle class”) to the poor. As en economically comfortable person, the moral thing for you to do is to share a significant portion of your wealth with those less fortunate – and I see no problem with forcing people (through taxes) to do what I believe is moral, just like I see no problem in punishing people for doing other things I find immoral (like rape), as long as the force in question has majority support. There is plenty of room for more economic redistribution in affluent countries like my own, Sweden. Yet it’s hard to believe that it will happen sometime soon. This raises the question of strategy for the left wing.

The Welfare state is probably the greatest achievement for the left during the 20th century. It gives all people an economic safety net in times of unemployment or ill health, as well as subsidized child care, free education, and other things that disproportionally benefits the poor. But instead of taking the principles of the welfare state and extending them as our societies become richer, an opposite movement has taken place. Tax cuts has taken precedence over strengthening the welfare state. For the poor, as well as segments of the middle class, access to high quality public services (like decent schools) has been made more difficult, and many economic benefits to individuals have been slashed.

It might seem puzzling that a society that democratically chooses to erect a big Welfare state, later chooses to gradually dismantle it. But looking at it historically, it is not at all puzzling. The commitment to the Welfare state was never that ardent to begin with. Many Welfare state measures were accepted by the middle class, but also by some of the more well-off workers, only insofar as they saw clear benefits for themselves in it. After all, most people do want insurances against unemployment and sickness, as well as a pension, and if they perceive that they can get those things on good terms by the state, then they might accept it. But many groups were eager to make sure that they were not the ones who paid the heaviest price for it. In other words, even in the heyday of Welfare state development, redistribution was not popular. And when people perceive that they are not receiving roughly in parity to what they have contributed, their allegiance to the Welfare state can dwindle quickly.

In light of this, using the Welfare state to combat inequality is very hard, since it is hard to find electoral support for it. Many people are – let’s face it – selfish, and when they stand in the voting booth, they mostly think about their own wallets, regardless of the fact that they are already much more well-off than many others. If this is true, it is very hard for the left to put forward ideas about increasing the scope of redistribution through the Welfare state by appealing to self-interest. The middle class (in which I include people of the “working class” who have stable employment with decent wages) probably perceive that they don’t stand to gain much personally from further expansions of the Welfare state (especially when this is combined with rising hostility to pay for services used by immigrants).

So are there other ways to persuade people to agree to more economic redistribution? There are, of course, values one can appeal to. Appeals to justice, and the like, probably always play some part when it comes to providing some basic welfare services. People – even many among the rich – are usually willing to pay taxes to provide food, shelter, basic schooling, etc., for poor people without getting anything in return (besides escaping the social evils that might come from increased poverty). The main question for left-wing politics is how far such sentiments of justice can be taken. The forces of self-interest are very strong, and “abstract” morality tend to be relegated to playing second fiddle in human affairs. In other words, the left needs a moral strategy – a long term grinding down of “bourgeois” values. There will never (at least not in a democratic context) be a revolution which suddenly overturns the economic base of society and makes people suddenly realize how deluded they once were.

Do we, then, need more left-wing politicians who openly confront right-wing (and centrist) politicians about moral values (as distinct from appealing to self-interest)? At present I would say yes. But I am aware it’s a gamble. It might backfire in that the voters we would like to “convert” dig down their heels more deeply when confronted (certainly one might claim that certain right-wing segments of the population have already become more radicalized because they perceive themselves to have been provoked by the left).

Anyway, I find it hard to see any other viable strategy, apart, perhaps, from some kind of “populism” that copies center-right parties who are more or less dishonest about their agendas. It might, in theory, be possible to do the left-wing equivalent of what the center-right government in Sweden did between 2006 and 2014, namely promising to basically keep the Welfare status quo, but gradually undermining it once in power. But that strategy always works better for the right, since they can always hold out the promise of tax cuts, which stimulates the selfish part of our brains – the part with usually wins out over long-term considerations.

Anti-Traditionalism and the Explicit Society

I have previously defended a view I called anti-traditionalism, which states that something being a tradition is not a reason by itself to continue to act in accordance with it. It must be admitted, however, that traditions play a function for many (perhaps most) people. They convey some sort of “information” about how people are likely to act. In other words, tradition provides implicit, or unspoken, rules or expectations. There are, for instance, many implicit rules surrounding marriage (although to different degrees in different societies). When you enter a marriage there are things people expect you to do, all the way from the engagement party to divorce or widowhood. Usually, the spouses don’t have to verbally articulate these expectations to each other, because they are, again, implicit without one’s tradition.

Other examples of the same sort could be raised when it comes to friendships, work relations, or even behavior in restaurants. Tradition often tells us how to behave, and we expect others to follow these traditional rules. And when old “cultural” or religious traditions are questioned or abandoned (partially or wholly), there are often other “traditions” that take their place. Nowadays we get some rules from popular culture, which to some degree become implicit as well. In my country, Sweden, for instance, some peoples lives are now heavily shaped by notions received from American television shows, and some of these notions have evolved to the point of being implicit in our culture. It should go without saying, however, that such implicit rules are equally improper by themselves as “old” traditional rules for determining the shape of our lives.

But some rules and expectations we need to have if we are to live together in a society, and in personal and professional relationships. But – and this is my main point – if we can’t rely on implicit rules and expectation, we must more and more try to rely on explicit rules and expectations. In other words, one must learn to explicitly formulate one’s own wishes as to the shape of one’s life. I say “one’s own”, because it is important that this should be a completely individual affair – no one should attempt to prescribe how others should live (apart from fulfilling some basic societal and moral duties). When starting up a friendship, for instance, it should be somewhat clear what the people involved expect from a friendship; and since we can’t rely on implicit traditions regarding this, these expectations must be explicitly stated. Otherwise there is a great risk that people may misunderstand each other in emotionally shattering ways.

But living in that sort of “explicit society” is not something we are used to, and it probably would feel awkward for most people to attempt to apply it in their lives. For instance, it would probably feel awkward and “un-romantic” to, during the early stages of a romantic relationship, discuss details about how one conceives one’s future life together, including questions about child rearing, household chores, or even the acceptability of extramarital affairs. having implicit cultural rules about these things allows us to escape the awkwardness of having to discuss them, but on the other hand we might run into problems later on when we find out that these implicit rules were never really accepted by all participants in the relationship (and that’s the sort of thing that might lead to divorce).

Of course, desiring to live in a more explicit society requires a belief that people in general are able to handle such “freedom”. The typically conservative disposition claims that people can’t handle it, and that’s why most of us need traditions with their implicit rules; and when people fail to follow them there should be strong societal sanctions in place. A conservative utilitarian would have to claim that although such sanctions sacrifice some people’s happiness for the sake of others’ happiness, the total level of happiness would still be higher than under anti-traditionalist freedom. The “rationalistic” utilitarian would, presumably, claim the opposite: the happiness of those who require strict implicit rules for their emotional and mental well-being will to some degree be sacrificed for the sake of those who want more “experiments in living”, as John Stuart Mill put it.

Personally, I fall more on the anti-traditionalist than the conservative side. But sometimes I feel that I may be utopian in my thinking. It may be the case that social life will just be too hard to navigate without all the implicit rules we have grown to rely on. And it should, of course, be added that the existence of social rules that are largely beneficial for almost everyone is not precluded by the anti-traditionalist view. The point is that such rules should be accepted only insofar as they are demonstrably beneficial, not simply because they are the received tradition.

 

How to Begin with Political Philosophy

People who are curious about political philosophy might have some difficulties knowing where to begin. Advice about what to read might come from altogether different quarters which might lead to a too patchy introduction were one to follow all those recommendations. Simply put, people who support different ideologies will probably give you recommendations that aim to push you in their direction. I would, however, like to offer some pointers for a more “general”, and not too overwhelming, way to begin with political philosophy.

My advice would be not to focus on any particular ideology or tradition, at least not when it comes to “substantial” politics, i.e., questions regarding whether there should be democracy or not (and what kind of democracy there should be), whether there should be capitalism or socialism, what the limits of free speech are, whether politics must be informed by radical feminism, etc. I think many different answers to such questions should be explored. But the important thing, I believe, to focus on is style. To get a decent overview of political philosophy through the ages I think one should try to find as much unity in style as possible. By style I mean the way thinkers frame their arguments. And personally I would focus on thinkers who put forward their ideas about how politics should be organized in a clear and explicit way. As a beginner, one should not have to do a lot of interpretation. One should be able to comprehend the argument fairly quickly. It is best if the arguments are of the type “we should pursue policy or type of government X for reasons a, b, and c”. (This might be construed as an “analytical” tradition, in a very broad sense.)

So what would this mean in practice when it comes to reading recommendations. First of all I think one should start with one or two introductory books regarding the history of political thought. I think it’s useful to first get an overview of what sorts of theories have been on offer and in what order they follow each other. It would be preferable to read relatively new introductory books, since a lot of things has happened in political philosophy since the 1970s (try a library if you can’t afford to buy one). But if you’re satisfied with learning the history of political thought up to roughly 1900, there are overview works in the public domain that you can download, for instance Dunning’s three-volume work A History of Political Theories.

Then, when it comes to reading primary sources, I would suggest the following (all of which can be found for free on the internet; archive.org would be a good starting place to find them):

Plato, Republic. This is not a particularly hard text, and it lays out quite clearly a political idea that has been very popular through the ages, and still is with some people, namely, the idea that political rule should be the reserve of those who possess knowledge and expertise, and that they should have relatively free hands in shaping society according to their wishes.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (mainly parts 1 and 2). Hobbes is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) in the social contract tradition. In beautiful 17th century prose he lays out the idea that political rule is a matter of using our self-interest to avoid a “state of nature” where no one is secure. The social contract tradition is very much alive and kicking today, and most of its foundational ideas can be traced back to Hobbes, even though modern social contracts theories generally do not reach the authoritarian conclusions that Hobbes did.

John Locke, Second Treatise of Government. This works lays out the main idea of “classical” liberalism/libertarianism, namely that people should have a right to private property and be able to use that property as they see fit and don’t be taxed unless they have consented (through democratic participation) to that taxation. Locke’s idea about private property (but not his theory about democratic taxation) was adopted by, for instance, the 20th century philosopher Robert Nozick.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract. Rousseau is often seen as a major theorist of direct democracy and democratic authority. He personifies the tension many see within democracy that it is often construed as the only form of legitimate government, yet it can also be seen as leading to a “tyranny of the majority”. Rousseau also discusses the preconditions for a viable democracy, which is a matter that has engaged political theorists to this day. One might ask, for instance, must a democracy be small and homogenous to work?

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. This work is one of the classics of conservative thought and its main argument is that revolutionary changes should be avoided in politics and that people’s prejudices and inherited traditions have great value for society. This “anti-rationalist” view of politics has lived on to our own times, and can be seen in 20th century thinkers like Michael Oakeshott and F. A. Hayek.

Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (mainly chapters 1 to 6). This work exemplifies a kind of opposite to the Burkean tradition, namely the utilitarian view on politics, which states that laws should be evaluated solely on their consequences for pain and happiness in society. Utilitarianism in its unadulterated Benthamite form may not be all that common today, but this tradition has influenced politics and political theory very much throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

If you have read these works, I believe you are fairly well equipped to engage with most modern (20th century) political philosophy (in the “analytical”) tradition. There are numerous modern works one could proceed with next, but if one must choose one it should probably be A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. But maybe I will write another post about modern reading recommendations.

Total and Average Utilitarianism

One of the main theoretical questions within utilitarianism is whether one should favor total or average utilitarianism. The former aims to maximize total pleasure (assuming we’re talking about hedonistic utilitarianism) while the latter aims to maximize average pleasure. In other words, the average utilitarian would prefer the existence of relatively few very happy people rather than a lot of people who are just above the limit between happiness and unhappiness. In the latter case, there is a thought experiment, most famously discussed by Derek Parfit, which, according to him leads to a “repugnant conclusion”: if we have a population of billions of people with a good quality of life, we could always imagine a larger population that would be better, in the sense that the sum of happiness would be higher, as long as we just add more and more people whose lives are barely worth living. If we have a population of 10 billion with an average happiness of 3, we could simply compare that to a population of just over 30 billion with an average happiness of 1. The total utilitarian would, presumably, have to choose the latter scenario. But to some people this seems absurd, or even repugnant.

Some utilitarian philosophers (Torbjörn Tännsjö, for instance) simply bite the bullet and accept that they would choose the maximum happiness anyway. I, however, avoid the repugnant conclusion by being an average utilitarian – not simply because I want to avoid the repugnant conclusion, but because it seems more “intuitively” reasonable to me. I don’t see happiness as a kind of free floating mass of happiness particles. Sums of happiness are only thinkable when they are attached to existing individuals. Individuals that do not exist are not relevant to the calculation. Therefore, average utilitarianism seems most plausible. One consequence of such a view is that we should not create more people in the world if we think it would decrease average happiness. Of course, I do not think creating more people generally does decrease average happiness, but it is imaginable that there are points where overpopulation – and other kinds of considerations – might make it so (different points would apply globally, locally and individually).

But the average view can lead to some repugnant conclusions on its own.  If we think that calculating happiness is only relevant when happiness is attached to an existing individual, then it seems to be the case that the death of someone is not really a bad thing if the death of that person does not affect anyone else (in the form of emotional pain, for instance), since the happiness level of that person drops out of the average calculation. On the total view, however, happiness decreases when someone dies (given that they had lives barely worth living or higher). The “repugnant” thing about the average view could, thus, be that killing people by itself might not be bad at all, at least for the person being killed. Death would only be bad for the people who mourn the loss of the dead person, and if there is no mourning (or other bad consequences) of killing one particular individual we could not really say it was bad. Or could we? Yes, we could always claim that even if the state of being dead in itself is not bad for anyone, fear of being killed is very strong among most people. This means that having a strong ban on killing is very beneficial for society, because constantly living in fear would decrease average happiness a lot (but there would be other bad consequences as well, for instance, consequences related to the probability of making miscalculations). All this being said, I must still concede that I do not mourn the deaths of the countless millions who have already died and become completely forgotten by the world, as I do not mourn the non-existence of all people who have not yet been born or who could have been born if we did not use contraceptives (regardless of whether they would have been happy people or not).  Their state of non-being is irrelevant for calculating happiness in our present world.

However, there is another type of “repugnant” conclusion with average utilitarianism (but it can affect total utilitarianism as well). Imagine if we could raise average happiness by killing off unhappy people. Four people with happiness levels of 4, 3, 2 and 1 could raise their average by killing the person with happiness level 1 (they would get average 3 instead of 2.5). But this involves some illegitimate fudging of the numbers. It is true that the average would increase, but none of the individual numbers would increase; no individual would in reality be any happier as a consequence of the killing. This might mean that the sort of average utilitarianism I am contemplating must avoid this absurd conclusion by being reformulated in some way. In other words, we can compare two averages in different scenarios, provided that any individual numbers actually increase or decrease in the two scenarios. It seems we need an increase in both total and average happiness (total happiness among the survivors, that is).

Nevertheless, one might retort the following: what if some individual happiness levels actually increase in the previous scenario – if, in other words, we got levels of 4, 3, 3 after the killing (maybe because the killed person annoyed one of the individuals very much). Would that killing, then, be justifiable? Again, I would say that, in theory, the state of being dead would not be bad for the person who was killed, but it would be hard to imagine an organized society where things like that are condoned. On the other hand, we should remember that this sort om “removal” (if not killing) of people is something that all societies do in a milder form. For instance, if some people go around lowering other peoples happiness by stealing from them, raping them, abusing them, etc. we remove them (usually temporarily) from society so that happiness levels among the “survivors” (average and total) can increase again (and conversely, if happiness levels were never affected by such crimes it would by wrong of us to punish the perpetrators). Just like an organized society cannot tolerate individual decisions of removal, we must tolerate collective democratic forms of removal (but we should not accept non-democratic forms). In an even milder forms we practice this form of removal by stopping to socialize with people that make us unhappy – and it would, presumably, be hard to claim that this is immoral (unless, perhaps, we have not made any serious attempts to improve the relationship first).

Fear of Death and the Afterlife

The fact that we must all die can be hard to handle. I don’t have much experience discussing death with other people, but I presume that fear of death is a common phenomenon. I have certainly felt it from time to time myself. Not only might one be scared of what it’s like not to exist, to fall asleep and never wake up again; but it might also be daunting (although I would guess this is somewhat less common) to contemplate the insignificance or pointlessness of one’s own existence. Billions after billions of humans have died (many of which never got the chance to live as long and full lives as we expect today) and will continue to die until humankind is, at some point, extinct. And the existence of humankind itself will only be a minuscule parenthesis in the life of the universe.

My intellectual belief is that we should not fear death. After all, I did not experience the time before I was born and, thus, I could not have experienced it as painful. In the same way, I will not experience the state of non-being after death, so it could not be painful for me. This is an old view which was held by, among others, the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. But this is hard to swallow emotionally. I can still feel sad about the fact that one day I will cease to exist; that I will no more experience the things I enjoy in life.

So what should I do about this sadness? Unfortunately I cannot turn to religion (at least not in its conventional guises), since I just find it too hard to believe in some kind of deity or paradise (and/or hell) which, presumably, exists at some place beyond space and time. I also find ot hard to believe in reincarnation or Karma (and other sorts of punishments and rewards after death).

There are, however, beliefs about life after death that I find less unreasonable. One hypothesis that I have sometimes felt inclined to believe is that there might be something in our brains (where our consciousness resides) that keeps on living after the apparent physical death of our bodies – some kind of molecule not yet observed by science and which contains something of our thoughts and experiences.  As we slip out of life we might slip into some dreamlike existence which might go on for a very long time (at least it might be perceived as a very long time). It might not give us eternal life but at least a sort of second life.

One might also think that the way we have lived our lives will affect the content of our “afterlife”. If we have hurt many people and caused much suffering (including to ourselves) our second life might be haunted by nightmares and vice versa. This would mean that the person who has lived a harmonios and “good” life would have less reason to fear death than the one who has lived a “bad” life. This, in turn, could give discussions about morality a whole new meaning; but I must concede that the thoughts in this paragraph sprung into my mind literally as I was writing this blog post, so I haven’t thought much about it.

Of course, the existence of unknown molecules which contain something of our consciousness (and perhaps something of our conscience too) could not be confirmed by science. But neither can it be falsified, and if it gives someone comfort to believe I don’t see why they should not believe it. I would certainly not try to talk anyone out of it. I am generally not someone who actively tries to talk people out of their supernatural beliefs, unless they actively seek to argue about it themselves, or if they are trying to impose their supernatural beliefs on other people (the latter means that I am a firm believer in separation between church and state). Even less would I try to talk someone out of a belief that I am sometimes close to holding myself (i.e. the theory of the dream-life referred to above) or might very well come to hold completely some day.