Erin Bowes, Women’s and Gender Studies and Philosophy Major, Class of 2023
Nominating Faculty Member: John Partridge
Human beings have always dreamed of immortality. The concept of life without death appears in our religions, literature, and movies and even motivates scientific and technological advancements. Despite our obsession with living forever, many philosophers have deemed immortal life unappealing, and even unendurable. While taking the course Life, Death, and Meaning with Professor Partridge, I was intrigued by the complexity of this debate over the desirability of immortality. For my final project, I decided to explore whether immortality could be fully desirable. I chose to analyze this question within the context of the final two episodes of The Good Place. The show presents an extremely desirable form of immortality, while still generously revealing its complications. After my analysis, I determined that immortality can only be desirable when accompanied by an antidote for immortal life. Even if this antidote is never utilized, its very existence is vital for the endurability of immortality. In The Good Place, this antidote is embodied by a gate that one can enter to alter the state of their existence once they feel content and at peace.
To establish that the show presents a desirable version of immortality, I had to confront Bernard Williams’ strong argument against immortality. I first explored the two requirements that Williams asserts must be fulfilled for an immortal life to be satisfactory: the identity requirement and the attractiveness condition. The identity requirement dictates that one cannot change too drastically when becoming immortal, since that would render all things that make one’s individual life precious and worth living irrelevant. For instance, one could not satisfy this requirement if they change from a human to a plant. The attractiveness condition necessitates that one’s desires as an immortal must be relatively similar to their current goals and be reasonably foreseeable in one’s future. Williams argues through the story of an immortal woman, Elena Makropulos, that an immortal life cannot be desirable while still meeting his two conditions, since it will inevitably become insufferably boring. He also asserts that to create an appealing immortal life that meets his conditions, there must be one singular activity that makes eternal boredom impossible.
I challenged Williams’ argument by demonstrating how The Good Place easily fulfills both of his requirements through keeping the characters’ identities and desires fairly consistent. I also suggested that the show solves the problem of eternal boredom through providing an antidote to immortality. Upon first entering the Good Place, the characters discover that once immortals fulfill all of the desires they can form while still remaining themselves, they become joyless husks. To eliminate the issue of eternal boredom, they create a gate one can enter to change the condition of one’s immortality. It is not entirely clear how someone is altered upon stepping through the gate, but walking in does not result in death as it is typically characterized as complete annihilation. The show suggests that one merely experiences a different way of being. Therefore, endless boredom is not a drawback of immortality because the gate can change the state of one’s existence before their life becomes unlivable.
To challenge Williams’ requirement of an endlessly satisfying activity, I revealed the ridiculousness of this condition through employing John Martin Fisher’s criticisms. Fischer compares Williams’ standards of immortality to the standard we hold our everyday lives to. We do not expect our finite lives to be constantly engaging, so we should not expect that of an infinite life. Finally, I described how the immortal characters fill their lives with a healthy mix of repeatable and non-repeatable pleasures: two things that Fischer argues makes immortal life continuously enjoyable. This mix of pleasures makes life in the Good Place especially desirable.
In conclusion, being able to satisfy Williams’ identity and attractiveness conditions and engage in Fischer’s mix of pleasures makes this version of immortality extremely desirable. However, since someone can only form a limited number of desires while remaining themselves and having relevant goals, the presence of the gate is necessary to prevent everlasting boredom. It is vital that one has the option to leave the Good Place once they fulfill their desires and feel at peace. Through this paper, I hope to reveal that while immortality is indeed desirable, it is only endurable when there is an antidote to immortal life that eliminates the possibility of eternal ennui. By including the gate, The Good Place successfully shows a desirable form of immortality.