Friday, May 18, 2018

Recent Media on the Ethics of Sex Tech

Image via Jonathan Rolande


I've done some recent media on the topics of sex and technology. Unsurprisingly, most of it focuses on the book Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications but there is some other stuff in there too. You might be interested in listening, watching or reading:

  • Episode 66: Robot Sex and AI Love - Future Fossils Podcast: This was an interview I did with Mike Garfield for his podcast. The interview was conducted around about the time the book came out back in October 2017. The recorded version was released in March 2018. This was one of my favourite interviews about the book. It covered a lot of ground that hasn't been covered in other interviews. You can subscribe to Mike's podcast here.

  • Robot Sex, Virtual Futures Salon: This was a conversation I had with the inimitable Kate Devlin (one of the world's leading experts on sex tech). This was a fun conversation, with a good audience Q and A that includes a (very mild) 'confrontation' with members of the Campaign Against Sex Robots. Virtual Futures put on some excellent events and I recommend checking them out if you happen to be in London.


Future of Sex have also recently done some good summaries of my work on virtual sexual assault and consent apps.





Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Why You Should Hate Your Job and The Case Against Work



I recently published two short articles critiquing the work ethic and the modern workplace. You might be interested in reading them. Details, along with the first paragraph or so, below:


  • 'Why you should hate your job', Institute of Arts and Ideas, News - "Do you like your job? Maybe you do, but I think you should reevaluate. At the very least, I think you should be uncomfortable with the fact that you live in a system that compels you to have a job, particularly if that job is neither necessary for your own well-being nor the well-being of others...continue reading

  • 'The Case Against Work', The Philosophers Magazine - "I have spent most of my working life as an academic. One thing I have noticed in the course of my career is the dysfunctional relationship that academics have with their work. Many academics are notorious overworkers. They spend evenings and weekends researching their next papers and preparing for classes. Claims of sixty to eighty hour working weeks are not uncommon, particularly in the early phases of a career, as they try to escape precarious, short-term contracts and establish a name for themselves..." 

You'll have to subscribe to the Philosopher's Magazine to read the second one, but I highly recommend doing so if you have an interest in philosophy. I have a digital subscription myself and enjoy reading the magazine. (Update: this is no longer true. The essay has now been made freely available as a sample. I still recommend subscribing though!).





Friday, May 11, 2018

Is it Too Soon? The Ethics of Recovery from Grief





(Series Index)


It is now just over three weeks since my sister died. The ordinary patterns of life are beginning to resume. Deadlines loom, meetings have been scheduled, and the obligations of work are making themselves felt once more. I’m not sure how I feel about this. At times, I find it easy to reinsert myself into old habits and routines, to become absorbed by what I am doing, to forget about what happened. But this doesn’t last long. The smallest thing can trigger a cascade of memories and then I am back to where I was, feeling guilty for having lost myself in the mundane details of life. It feels like it shouldn’t be so easy to get back to reality, that I should linger on what happened just a little longer.

This raises an obvious and important question in the ethics of grief recovery. Is there a certain mourning period that should be observed following the death of a loved one? If you get back on your feet too quickly, does that say something negative about the relationship you had with the person who died (or about you)? To be more pointed: if I can re-immerse myself in my work a mere three weeks after my sister’s death, does that mean there is something wrong with me or something deficient in the relationship I had with her?

There is a philosophical literature offering answers to these questions, but from what I have read the majority of it does not deal with the ethics of recovering from a sibling’s death. Indeed, I haven’t found anything that deals directly with this issue. Instead, the majority of the literature deals with the ethics of recovery from the death of a spouse or intimate partner. What’s more, when they discuss that topic, they seem to have one scenario in mind: how soon is too soon when it comes to starting an intimate relationship with another person?

Analysing the ethical norms that should apply to that scenario is certainly of value, but it is hardly the only scenario worthy of consideration, and it is obviously somewhat distinct from the scenario that I am facing. I suspect that different norms apply to different relationships and this is likely to affect the ethics of recovery across those different relationship types. So what I propose to do in this post is to consider various arguments pertaining to the ethics of grief recovery in the spousal (or intimate partner) context first and then consider how those arguments might apply to other contexts, with a particular focus on the sibling context and my own experiences.

I’ll be using an article by Ryan and Erica Preston-Roedder as my guide through this topic. Their article offers a nice definition of what it means to recover from grief:

Grief Recovery: the return to one’s emotional and functional baseline following a bereavement.

Baselines are important here. If you were miserable and apathetic before somebody died, you cannot expect to become joyous and full of energy after their death (though that could happen). Recovery is about the return to some semblance of normality. Or, as I prefer to put it, to the ‘new normal’.

The Presten-Roedder’s article defends the claim that quick recovery from grief in the aftermath of a intimate partner’s death is not necessarily regrettable or problematic. They defend this position in the negative: i.e. by criticising arguments for the alternative point of view. There are three such arguments discussed in their paper and I will go through them one-by-one.


1. The ‘You Didn’t Care’ Argument
The first argument is not discussed at any length. It is briefly introduced and dismissed in order to distinguish it from more compelling arguments. Nevertheless, the argument expresses a familiar concern that arises in the case of grief recovery. If someone appears to recover very quickly from the death of a spouse — perhaps by dating someone new with a few months and maybe even marrying them — we might be inclined to question how sincere they were in their relationship with the deceased. We might be inclined to accuse them of not really caring for (or loving) the deceased.

Let’s set this argument out more explicitly, adopting a template that will be followed for all the subsequent arguments. I’ll use the shorthand ’S’ to refer to the surviving spouse/intimate partner and ‘D’ to refer to the deceased partner:


  • (1) If S recovers quickly from D’s death, it suggests (provides evidence for) the view that S did not care for/love D.

  • (2) If S did not care for/love D, then there was something regrettable or deficient about their relationship.

  • (3) Therefore, if S recovers quickly from D’s death, there was something regrettable or deficient about their relationship.


Let me just say something about the structure of this argument. The Presten-Roedders do not set out any of the arguments discussed in their paper in formal or semi-formal terms. I’m doing so in order to more clearly expose the logic that underlies them. This means I could be getting things wrong. I’m pretty confident that premise (1) reflects the logic of the objection. The idea is that we can infer something about S’s attitude toward D from S’s quick recovery. I’m less confident that premise (2) reflects the logic of the objection. Clearly, the idea is that we can pass judgment on the quality of the relationship between S and D from our assessment of S’s attitude toward D, but I think there may also be some attempt to make inferences about S’s character more generally (i.e. beyond the particular relationship they had with D). I’ll leave that out of the discussion here, but I think it hovers in the background of all of these arguments.

Assuming I have the structure of the argument more-or-less right, we can ask the question: is the argument a good one? I don’t think so. For starters, I would raise a worry about the epistemic grounding for the argument. I think we should be careful about inferring too much from limited observations of someone’s outward behaviour. In particular, I think we should be careful about inferring that someone has recovered from grief from, say, the fact that they started a new relationship. Someone who appears to have recovered quickly may not, in fact, have recovered all that well. Indeed, the very attempt to seek solace in a new relationship could be a reflection of some underlying psychological/emotional turmoil. This may bubble to the surface in time.

But suppose this is not the case. Suppose they have genuinely ‘recovered’ (in the sense defined above) from their grief. Is the argument credible then? No, for at least two reasons, both of which have been articulated by Dan Moller. First, there is good evidence to suggest that humans are generally psychologically resilient in the aftermath of a bereavement. Many people recover from their spouse’s deaths within 2-3 months and most within 6 months. This resiliency seems to be hardwired into us, probably for good evolutionary reasons. It would be expecting to much of people to go against these deep-rooted norms of behaviour. Second, and more importantly, the mere fact of recovery says nothing about the quality of the love/care between S and D while D was alive. To make judgments about that, we need to consider how S behaved and felt toward D while D was still alive. S could have been the most loving, caring and supportive person imaginable while D was alive. That doesn’t change simply because S recovers quickly.

All that said, it should be noted that quick recovery is not inconsistent with the hypothesis that S didn’t care about D when they were alive. It may not justify us in making claims about a deficiency in the prior relationship; but it might trigger an inquiry into that relationship. If I saw someone recover very quickly from the death of their spouse, I think I might be a little suspicious about how much they cared and might ask further questions. Still, I accept that any judgment I reached could not be grounded in the fact of quick recovery; it would have to grounded in facts about how S and D interacted during D’s lifetime.

The intuition underlying the ‘you didn’t care’-argument clearly ports over to other bereavement contexts. Recovering quickly from the death of a child, friend, or sibling cannot, by itself, warrant a judgment to the effect that the relationship between the survivor and the deceased was deficient, but it could trigger an inquiry into the quality of the relationship. This is something I have had to confront in relation to my own experiences of grief recovery. My ability to re-immerse myself in the details of everyday life has made me suspicious of the quality of the relationship I had with my sister when she was alive. While I believe that I did care about her, I do worry that I didn’t always show this to be true in my behaviour toward her. Her bubbly and effervescent personality often clashed with my more introverted and insular personality. I often resisted her desire to talk to me, putting off calling or emailing her back until either she forgot or I finally mustered the energy to do so. I was also, sometimes, quite sarcastic and dismissive. I always justified this behaviour on the grounds that I could make it up to her later on — that there would be time enough to set things right — but that was a mistake. Her illness and sudden death meant that I never got the chance. I did send her a long email shortly before she died in which I apologised to her for my past behaviour, and in which I told her how much she meant to me. She told me not to worry about it and that she never held my taciturn nature against me. This was a step in the right direction, and may have partially healed the rift, but since I am a self-confessed behaviourist when it comes to the ethics of interpersonal relationships, I have to believe that there was something deficient about the relationship I had with her.

Still, none of these self-judgments is grounded in the fact that I may have recovered quickly from her death; they are all grounded in what happened when she was still alive. Indeed, if anything this inquiry into the past, and the sense of guilt (or regret) that it dislodges, is probably something that will block quick recovery from grief. So I agree with Moller (and the Presten-Roedders) that the ‘you didn’t care’ argument is not particularly strong. It does, however, point the way to a more interesting argument.


2. The Argument from Importance
The more interesting argument is the argument from importance. This is the one that Dan Moller endorses in his work on grief and recovery. The idea is straightforward: if S recovers quickly from D’s death, it suggests that D was not important to S. Again, this allows us to make judgments about the deficiency of S and D’s relationship. A lot hinges on how we define ‘importance’. Moller identifies two key elements to it:

Significant Difference: If S and D’s relationship was a good one, D would have made a significant difference to S’s life, i.e. D would have been crucial to S achieving a high degree of functioning/flourishing in their life.

Irreplaceability: If S and D’s relationship was a good one, D would not be easily fungible or replaceable, i.e. another person would not be able to play the same role in S’s life with equal effect.

You might be able to see where this is going. Having identified these two sub-components to importance, Moller goes on to argue that the fact of quick recovery provides evidence for the claim that D did not satisfy either of these conditions in S’s life. This would seem to be particularly true if S quickly enters into another intimate relationship in a short space of time:



  • (4) If S recovers quickly from D’s death, this suggests (provides evidence for the fact) that D was not important to S, i.e. that (a) D did not make a significant difference to S’s life and (b) D was not irreplaceable.

  • (5) If D was not important to S, then there was something regrettable or deficient about their relationship.

  • (6) Therefore, if S recovers quickly from D’s death, there was something regrettable or deficient about their relationship.


What are we to make of this? I think Moller’s characterisation of what it means for one person to be important to another is intuitively appealing, particularly when it comes to intimate partner relationships. If you share a life with someone, your daily routines and habits will come to rely upon them. If they die, there will be considerable disruption to those routines. It thus seems obvious that it should take some time to readjust.


I’ve quoted this passage before in this series but I will do so again because I think it captures this idea so well. It is from C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and it describes how disrupted his life was after his wife (‘H’) died:

I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on, through habit, fitting an arrow to the string; then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead through H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontier-post across it. So many roads once; now so many culs-de-sac. 
(C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)

But, of course, Moller isn’t simply arguing that in a good relationship S’s habits and routines should come to depend on D. He is saying that the dependency is something that actively contributes to S’s flourishing and well-being. Again, that does seems like a plausible claim. If the spousal relationship is a good one, then S and D should make a significant difference to one another’s flourishing. Their lives should be better together than they would be apart.

In addition to this, Moller’s claim that a loved one should be (or should at least approximate) irreplaceability seems intuitively appealing too. An intimate partner should not be like a smartphone: something that can be readily traded for an equally good (or better) make and model. There should be something unique and special about them that makes the transition to a new relationship difficult.

All of which means that Moller feels secure in concluding that quick recovery is, indeed, regrettable and that it would be preferable if S went through a long process of recovery. This doesn’t mean that S should ‘fake’ their emotions or feelings. The argument is not about the social performance of grief. It is about what a morally virtuous person, who was in a meaningful and morally valuable relationship, should feel after their partner has died.

I expressed some concerns in a previous post about the impact of standards or norms like this on the life of grieving person. I won’t repeat those concerns here. Instead, I’ll turn to the Preston-Roedder’s critique of this argument. Although they agree that Moller’s characterisation of importance has some intuitive appeal, they argue that there are other ways of understanding importance that are not undermined by a quick recovery and that are consistent with the view that S and D had a good relationship.

First, they argue that Moller is wrong to think about ‘significant difference’ solely in terms of functionality and flourishing. While it could, of course, be true that D made a significant difference to S’s flourishing, the mere fact that they did not would not necessarily cause us to lament the relationship between them. Indeed, excessive dependency on another might itself be a sign of something problematic or deficient in a relationship. You shouldn’t have to rely too heavily on another person for your happiness and well-being, and indeed it can be destructive if you do. What if the other person can’t cope with the demands that you place on them? What if they buckle under the pressure?

An alternative way to think about ‘significant difference’ is in terms of the impact that the other person makes on your practical identity. Did they change your conception of yourslef? Did they change your values, commitments and beliefs? This is an idea I explored in an earlier post in this series when I looked at Michael Cholbi’s argument in favour of the goodness of grief. In that post, I considered his claim that one of the reasons why grief is so painful is because it affects our identity-constituting relationships. A deceased partner may have made a significant difference to someone’s identity, without necessarily making a difference to their functioning/flourishing. A quick recovery from their death does not imply that they didn’t make this difference. The surviving spouse could still carry with them the values and commitments that D helped to shape. This would undercut Moller’s argument.

Second, the Presten-Roedders argue that there are at least two different ways to think about ‘irreplaceability’:

Instrumental irreplaceability: D was an irreplaceable means to certain ends for S, e.g. security, sexual intimacy, financial support, co-parenting/childcare (and so on).

Intrinsic irreplaceability: D was valued by S for their ‘distinctive particularity’, i.e. for the whole, unique bundle of characteristics that they had.

Moller’s argument seems fixated on instrumental irreplaceability. He thinks that there is something problematic in the fact that S quickly found another intimate partner who could perform the same roles/functions in their life as D once did. But the Presten-Roedders argue that instrumental replaceability is neither surprising nor problematic. It is, after all, commonplace for people to form relationships, break-up, and find new partners who can perform similar (if not perfectly identical) roles in their lives. There is nothing to lament in this. Indeed, it seems obviously wrong to suppose that the main value of our intimate partners lies in the fact that they performed certain functions for us. That could be part of the picture, for sure, but not the most important part. Intrinsic irreplaceability is the more important idea. A good relationship is characterised by a situation in which S loves D for who they are as a person, not for the things they can do for S. To put it more philosophically, it is characterised by a situation in which S loves D in D’s distinctive particularity. The fact that S quickly recovers from D’s death, perhaps by finding another partner, does not imply that D was not loved in their distinctive particularity (though, as with the ‘You didn’t care’-argument, quick recovery is not inconsistent with that possibility).

I agree with the Presten-Roedders’s take on the argument from importance. Assuming they are being fair in how they present it, Moller’s argument does seem to be far too wedded to an instrumentalist/functionalist view of what it takes for S and D to be in a good intimate relationship. But how does the argument apply outside of intimate relationships? Can it be applied to sibling relationships or parent-child relationships? I think it can. To state the obvious, siblings, parents and children are ‘important’. They definitely play a role in shaping our practical identities and I would hope that we value them primarily for who they are, not because of any particular function or role they play in our lives. I feel, pretty strongly, that this was true of my relationship with my sister. She played an important role in shaping my practical identity, particularly during my school years when she used to help me with my maths homework and explain difficult scientific concepts to me. I don’t think I would have the interests I now do without her influence. Furthermore, I would never even think about ‘replacing’ her in my life. She was a unique, once-off. She could only be valued in her distinctive particularity.

There is something interesting in this. I mentioned earlier that I found aspects of Moller’s argument intuitively appealing. That’s because, even though he may be too wedded to the instrumentalist view of importance, he is not wrong in thinking that spouses and intimate partners play important instrumental roles in our lives, that some of their value lies in how well they perform those roles. The same would seem to be true of parents, particularly when we are very young and in need of security, love and care. It would be foolish to think that these functional roles are not part of the picture. But it is interesting to me that Moller’s version of the argument is much less appealing in the case of children and siblings. I would find it very odd to conceive of the importance of children and siblings in terms of some instrumental role they play in our lives. Indeed, I think the predominant normative view of those relationships (at least nowadays) goes against any such instrumentalist interpretation. It’s only because intimate partner relationships and parental relationships blend aspects of the instrumental and intrinsic that Moller’s argument gets any purchase at all. The more distinctive and common features of all close relationships are their intrinsic merits.


3. The Argument from Abandonment
The final argument against quick recovery is the argument from abandonment. This is an argument that the Presten-Roedders formulate themselves, claiming that it is implicit in the literature on grief, albeit not properly articulated to date. The gist of the argument is this: if S recovers quickly from the death of D, it suggests that S has abandoned D, and this is bad because good relationships are characterised by solidarity between S and D.

The Presten-Roedders give a more detailed characterisation of what they mean by ‘solidarity’ in relationships:

Solidarity Principle: A good relationship is characterised by solidarity between S and D, where solidarity can take one of four forms:
(i) Taking on and sharing in one another’s projects.
(ii) Harbouring certain hopes for one another and having certain kinds of faith in one another.
(iii) Celebrating one another’s successes and sharing in one another’s suffering/misfortune (i.e. having great empathy for one another)
(iv) Being present with one another, both physically and in thought.

As best I can tell, although these forms of solidarity might be expressed in a particularly strong form in intimate relationships, they are not unique to such relationships. They apply much more generally. The claim the Presten-Roedders make is that a quick recovery from grief suggests a loss of, at least some of, these forms of solidarity. In particular, they suggest that quick recovery might indicate a failure by S to share in D’s suffering/misfortune (death being the ultimate misfortune), and a failure to remain present (in thought) with D. To put it more formally:


  • (7) If S recovers quickly from D’s death, this suggests (provides evidence for the fact) that S no longer stands in solidarity with D, i.e. has stopped sharing in D’s misfortune and is failing to be present (in thought) with D.

  • (8) If S does not stand in solidarity with D, then there was (is?) something regrettable or deficient about their relationship with D.

  • (9) Therefore, if S recovers quickly from D’s death, there was something regrettable or deficient about their relationship with D.


The metaphysics of this argument are puzzling to me. I’ve indicated my puzzlement by adding the bracketed ‘is?’ to premise (8). I’m not sure to which temporal frame this argument is supposed to apply. The solidarity principle makes sense while someone is alive, but it makes no sense when someone is dead. At least, it makes no sense to me, given my secular, non-religious views. When a person is dead, they no longer exist. From that point onwards, there is no one with whom one can fail to stand in solidarity. No one to be abandoned. This is what I believe to be true about my sister. She was here once; she is here no longer. I could share in her misfortunes when she was alive; I could be present with her when she was alive; I can do neither of these things now that she is dead.

And yet…

…even though the metaphysics of the argument are puzzling, I admit that it has a powerful emotional pull. My sense of guilt about returning to life is, I think, partly grounded in the sense that it would be wrong to abandon my sister so quickly, to just forget about what happened to her and move on. As I mentioned in the intro, I have this sense that I should linger with her for a while longer. I know this sounds irrational. I know that I will never really ‘forget’ her. She may not be foremost in my mind at all times, but the memories will always be there, ready to be accessed (or triggered) when the time is right. I also know that I cannot ‘linger’ with her anymore. I can only linger with my memories of her. These are fantasies, simulacra, not the real thing. But I am still drawn to them.

Besides these metaphysical worries, the argument has some other problems. The Presten-Roedders argue that quick recovery is not inconsistent with continued solidarity with the deceased. They break this counter-argument down into two parts, each one focusing on a different aspect of what it means to recover from grief. First, they consider what it means to recover to one’s emotional baseline. Assuming you weren’t perpetually sad and depressed before the bereavement, emotional recovery will consist in returning to some semblance of emotional neutrality, maybe even happiness. Does this return to neutrality and occasional happiness indicate a loss of solidarity? Can solidarity only be manifested in continued sadness? This seems implausible.

As the Presten-Roedder’s point out, those who recover quickly from their grief may simply be expressing or manifesting emotional solidarity in a different way. They may be avoiding painful memories associated with D’s death and focusing instead on happy and joyful memories. They could be just as emotionally invested in the deceased as the person who is sad and depressed, perhaps even more so. Indeed, the person who is continuously sad and depressed may engage in avoidant behaviours, stopping themselves from remembering too much about the deceased for fear that it will foment another cascade of tears.

They then turn to functional recovery. It is common to suppose that the person who spends all day wallowing in bed, thinking relentlessly about the deceased and the life they could (should?) have lived, is showing the utmost solidarity with the deceased. They are definitely ‘present’ with them (at least in thought). Their inability to return to work, or to have any get up and go, are indicative of this. But, again, this is not the only way to manifest solidarity. Indeed, the Presten-Roedders argue that there may actually be better ways to manifest solidarity. Perhaps the deceased had projects that they left unfinished, or causes/charities that they supported. Continuing those projects and supporting those causes would be one way to manifest solidarity. Perhaps the deceased was deeply invested in the career and flourishing of the survivor and would want to see that success continue. Continuing with one’s work and trying one’s best to succeed might manifest solidarity (though that seems suspiciously self-serving). Alternatively, the survivor could launch into a new project that commemorates the deceased, thereby recovering functionality, but in a way that clearly remains present with the deceased.

I find these suggestions reassuring (metaphysically suspect though they may be). I certainly don’t want to abandon my sister and get on with my life; but I don’t want to marinate in feelings of guilt and betrayal either. I would like to think that there are ways to express and manifest solidarity with her without staying in a depressed, sub-normal state. My sister had many projects and causes that she supported in her lifetime, and she was deeply interested in the work that I did, always reading my latest work and listening to my podcast appearances. Continuing with these projects and supporting those causes could be my way to show solidarity. Furthermore, as you may have suspected, I think it might be possible to view this series of blog posts (now nearly 20,000 words long) as some attempt at continued solidarity that involves returning to my usual routines of reading and writing.

But note how each of these suggestions doesn’t quite deal with the dilemma I introduced at the start of this post: the need to return to the obligations of life as they were was before the death. The Presten-Roedders’s suggestions involve restructuring or reorganising your life, perhaps even to the extent of pursuing new projects, in order to maintain solidarity with the deceased. This isn’t particularly helpful when you are being asked to continue with work projects that pre-dated the deceased’s death — that are callbacks to the time before. This is the dilemma I now face. The demands of work continue to pile up, and I continue to procrastinate on all but the most pressing of them (ironically one of the character traits I shared with my sister). I’m not quite ready to go back to the world as it once was. Whenever I do, I find myself drawn back to my memories of her and the sense of betrayal and abandonment this return entails.

Of course, I am being naive. I can never ‘go back’. Things will be different from now on. Maybe that is the key insight here: there is no real ‘recovery’ from grief. You cannot be restored to how you once were. You must rebuild and reconstitute yourself to accommodate the new reality. That can happen quickly, but it has to happen if the relationship with deceased was a morally significant one. If it didn’t, if you just continued as things were, then there probably would be something deficient about the relationship you had with the deceased.




Coping with Grief: Series Index



Gilgamesh and Enkidu

Grief is central to the human experience. To find evidence of this you need look no further than our earliest literary works. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of a friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, which is shattered by the latter’s death about halfway through the narrative. Gilgamesh cannot stop grieving for his lost friend. He enters a phase of denial, seeking out the secret to immortality and eventually coming up empty-handed. Grief is also central to The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem about the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. It is Achilles’s grief (and rage) at the death of his friend Patroclus that results in the poem’s most consequential fight — the fight between Achilles and Hector — and it is the recognition of shared grief between Achilles and Priam (father of Hector) that lies at the heart of the poem’s most poignant scene.

I’ve long been aware of the centrality of grief to human life, but until recently had limited personal experience of it. That all changed on the 16th April 2018. That was the day that my sister (Sarah) died. She was only 43 years old. She had been a living, breathing person just hours before her death, laughing and joking with her family, and singing in the kitchen for her young son. She had been seriously ill, but not expected to die for some time. For her to be so suddenly wiped from our lives was hard to take. In the aftermath of her death, I experienced a range of emotions. Initially, guilt and shame were predominant. I regretted things I had said to her, beat myself up for phone calls and emails I had failed to return, and wished I had spent more time in her company. Subsequently, these feelings of guilt and shame were replaced by feelings of gratitude — gratitude for having known her, and for the kind, generous person that she was. There were some tears, though not as many as I expected. Mainly, her death served to reinforce beliefs that I have long held: that much of what we value in life is fragile; that death is inevitable; that we should prepare ourselves for its inevitability; that the universe is fundamentally morally indifferent; but that there is much good in life too.

As you might imagine, Sarah’s death has prompted a degree of soul-searching and reflection. Since I have a tendency to intellectualise everything, I have turned to the philosophical literature on grief for guidance on how best to navigate the troubled waters of bereavement. I have read a lot. I want to share some of what I have learned over a series of posts. I want to focus on three topics in particular, dedicating one post to each. Some of these will be quite long. I apologise for that in advance. I’ve been working through my own thoughts through the process of writing.







Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Badness of Grief: A Moderate Defence of the Stoic View




(Series Index)

We can think about grief in different ways. The most obvious might be to think of it as a psychological phenomenon. When we do this we should avoid the mistake of thinking that grief is some singular psychological state. It is not. It is, rather, a complex concatenation of them. It is characterised by depression or sadness, but also by anger, guilt, shame, longing and so on. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross popularised the ‘five-stage’ model of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), which captures this ‘complex process’ idea, though her particular model has been widely rejected. Most people do not experience grief in this linear sequence.

We can also think about grief as a social phenomenon. There are many complex rituals and protocols associated with grief. If you have recently experienced a bereavement, you will be struck by the number of expectations that will be foisted upon you. You will be expected to behave and act in a particular way. People will expect you to be sad, heartbroken, unable to face the day. They will be surprised, perhaps even judgmental, if you do not cry. In some societies, the rituals are very carefully prescribed: there are specific mourning periods that must be observed and clothes that must be worn. The social expectations of grief are frustrating — at least in my experience — as they can induce a sense of anxiety or guilt if you fail to live up to them. Why can’t I cry? Why can’t I feel sad? Is there something wrong with me?

This mental anguish again prompts the question: is grief worth it? If it causes so much pain and anxiety, would we better off without it? I considered the case for grief in a previous post. In this post, I want to consider the case against it. This case rejects the social expectations of grief and encourages us to reevaluate our psychological reactions to death. It is often associated with the ancient philosophical tradition of Stoicism. One of Seneca’s letters to his friend Lucilius (letter 63) famously counsels against grief and highlights its destructive potential. But similar views can be found in other ancient traditions. In his article ‘Neither Bereavement or Grief’, Yao-ming Tsal defends the Buddhist tradition of ‘not-grief’ as being a healthier and more adaptive response to the death of a loved one. And in her discussion of grief in the Zhuangzi (the key text of the Daoist tradition) Amy Olberding notes that several of the sages depicted in the text, along with Zhuangzi himself, seemed to warn against grief.

For want of a better name, let’s call this the ‘anti-grief’ view. It can be characterised in the following manner:

Anti-grief: Grief is, on balance, a bad thing; it is maladaptive and, ultimately, destructive; it would be better if we could minimise the extent to which we experience it in our lives.

Since it has an ancient pedigree, and has attracted different people, living in different geographical and cultural regions, you might think that the anti-grief view must have something going for it. But it faces stiff and obvious opposition. To many, it seems inhuman and cold. If you do not grieve the loss of a close friend or relative, then you must not have really loved them in the first place:

Inhumanity Critique: A person who minimised the experience of grief would not live a full human life; they would not truly experience the joys of attachment and intimacy that are integral to a well-lived life.

The Inhumanity Critique has considerable appeal. And if you would like to read a longer defence of it, I would suggest reading my earlier analysis of the arguments from Michael Cholbi and Amy Olberding. But in the remainder of this post, I want to offer a modest defence of the anti-grief stance. I do so partly because think there is much to be said in its favour and partly because I think the Inhumanity Critique can be deflected. Indeed, I believe that the defenders of grief and its opponents can, to a considerable extent, be accused of talking past each other. There is much more common ground between their positions than might be first thought.

To illustrate this thesis, I want to consider four arguments in favour of the anti-grief view.


1. Argument One: Proponents of the Anti-Grief View are not Inhuman
This first argument will seem a little weak, but it warms us up for the more serious arguments that are to come. It is simply that, contrary to what their opponents claim, many of the famous defenders of the anti-grief position were not cold, robotic and inhuman in their behaviour. They were often compassionate, generous and kindly. They did not argue that we should avoid all friendships and attachments. They often cultivated and nurtured such relationships themselves. Seneca had many close friends — it would be hard to make sense of his letters to Lucilius if you thought they were the product of someone who did not care about others. The same goes for Zhuangzi.

Furthermore, they did not argue for the total eradication of grief. They merely argued for its moderation. They suggested that we allow ourselves to experience the ‘natural’ or ‘instinctual’ forms of grief, but warned against getting too carried away by our own emotions and their social performance. Seneca was very clear about this:

I can scarcely venture to demand that you should not grieve at all — and yet I am convinced that it is better that way. But who will ever be granted that strength of character, unless he be a man already lifted far out of fortune’s reach?….When one has lost a friend, one’s eyes should be neither dry nor streaming. Tears, yes, there should be, but not lamentation…Would you like to know what lies behind extravagant weeping and wailing? In our tears we are trying to find means of proving that we feel the loss. We are not being governed by our grief but parading it. 
(Seneca, Letter 63)

I will say more about the excesses of grief below. For now, I just want to emphasise the important and subtle point that I think Seneca is making here. He is saying that we should expect to experience some grief — that it is natural and that we lack the ability to completely eliminate it — but we must be careful not to wallow in it; to ‘parade it’ for the benefit of others and ourselves; to prove how much we care. This advice resonates with me. In the aftermath of my sister’s death I certainly felt the temptation to perform my grief for others. There is something soothing about being the object of other’s pity, and to feel pity for oneself. I think it is important to avoid this.

This is taking us away, slightly, from the original point. That point is simply that proponents of the anti-grief view are not the inhuman monsters they are sometimes accused of being. Seneca says some things which, when taken out of context, can seem inhuman (such as arguing that Lucilius should replace his dead friend Flaccus with another fried as soon as possible). But in the overall context of the letter, he is not completely against grief. He says that he himself experienced sorrow when his friend Annaeus Serenus died. In this he was similar to Zhuangzi who, as Amy Olberding points out, also experienced grief after his wife died.

The critic could argue that these examples prove nothing. They just show that Seneca and Zhuangzi were inconsistent in their behaviour. We don’t care about that. It’s their philosophy that is being criticised, not their behaviour. We know that humans often fail to live up to their stated principles. The critic might even go further and argue that Seneca and Zhuangzi’s behaviour demonstrates the impossibility of their position: it is simply not possible for humans not to experience grief. They are hoists on their own petard.

But I think a more charitable interpretation is in order. The very fact that neither Seneca nor Zhuangzi seemed to be the inhuman monster you might expect them to be suggests that they did not intend for their position to be the cold, unemotional caricature that it is often presented as being. They were arguing for something more subtle and sophisticated. The three remaining arguments might help to reveal what that was.


2. Argument Two: Deeper Attunement to the Metaphysics of Reality
The second argument is the one that interests me the most. It claims that proponents of the anti-grief view are trying to foster within us a deeper attunement to the metaphysics of reality. They think that this deeper attunement will enable us to feel more at home in the world, and less vulnerable to negative emotions like fear and anxiety. I use the unfamiliar word ‘attunement’ deliberately. I think this really gets to the heart of what Stoicism, Daoism and Buddhism were all about. Their advice about attitudes to death and grief were grounded in more fundamental* beliefs about the nature of reality. But they didn’t want us to accept those propositions on a merely intellectual level; they wanted us to incorporate them into our daily habits and routines. This is what I try to capture by using the word ‘attunement’. The argument for attunement takes some unpacking so I will try to develop it slowly.

One thing that is noticeable about many memoirs of grief is how they frequently share the sense that the death of a loved one was a ‘rupture’ in the ordinary structure of reality. One of my favourite explorations of this is Joan Didion’s discussion in the The Year of Magical Thinking, a book written in the year after her husband died from a heart attack. They were having dinner at the time. In an ordinary moment, her life changed dramatically. She observes how people commonly draw attention to how normal everything was in the lead-up to tragedies of this sort, and how troubling the ordinariness of it seems to be when it comes to accepting what happened:

It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I realize now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames… “He was on his way home from work — happy, successful, healthy — then gone”, I read in the account of a psychiatric nurse whose husband was killed in a highway accident. In 1966, I happened to interview many people who had been living in Honolulu on the morning of December 7, 1941; without exception, these people began their accounts of Pearl Harbor by telling me what an “ordinary Sunday morning” it had been. 
(Didion 2005, 4)

Again, this resonates with me. My own reflections on my sister’s death dwell on the ordinariness of it all. It was an ordinary day in March when I learned she was first admitted to hospital. It had been an ordinary Sunday evening when I got the call that she had died. Hours before her death I was told that she was laughing and singing with her family in her kitchen. Going through her ordinary routine. Although she had been diagnosed with a serious illness, there was nothing to suggest that the rupture in the fabric of existence would come so quickly.

And yet, when you think about it, this sense that death comes ‘out of the ordinary’ is very odd. Death is everywhere. We all know that we will die, that illness and death can strike at any time. News broadcasts are filled with families that have been struck by sudden (and not so sudden) tragedy. Their grief is ‘paraded’ for our entertainment. We live in a world of constant change and chaos. The odds are against us all. Why should we assume that we, or our families and friends, will be spared?
We need to capture this oddness more precisely because it points the way to what the Stoics (et al) are trying to do. Michael Cholbi provides some help in his article ‘Finding the Good in Grief”, which I covered in more detail in a previous post. Cholbi notes that we take an awful lot for granted in our everyday lives, particularly our relationships with others, even though we ‘know’ it is all contingent:

For much of our lives, our outlook on the world operates on autopilot. We go about our daily business, pursuing our goals, trying our best to live well, and so on. We develop habits that reflect …our practical identities [i.e. what we care about and value]. These habits easily become entrenched and normalized, and when they do, we can lose sight of how our practical identities assume a stable normal environment in which to act upon them. Of course, we know that much in our everyday environment is contingent. We ‘know’, for example, that our homes can be felled by earthquakes or other disasters, that our professional lives depend on institutions and practice that can totter, that our bodies may betray us via injury or disease.
(Cholbi 2017) 

The use of the inverted commas around the word ‘know’ is suggestive. Cholbi is saying that we know these things at an intellectual level, but not on a practical level. On a practical level, we are attuned to a social world that we assume to be stable and consistent. That assumption may be adaptive in some contexts — I’m sure some evolutionary theorists could argue that animals that assume stability do better than those that do not — but it can be counter-productive in others. In the case of death and bereavement, it rests on a delusion, an assumption of immortality and existential robustness that is not warranted. It is one of the reasons why the death of a loved one can be so shocking and upsetting.

I think this is one of the key insights of the anti-grief proponents. They are cautioning us against being attuned to the facade of stability in our ‘ordinary’ everyday lives. They are urging us to become more attuned to the deeper metaphysical reality. That reality is one in which organisms come into being and pass out of being on a regular basis, in which change is a constant, and in which death is an inevitability. We need to stop being deluded by the mirage of the social world; we need to take a wider perspective. This is exactly what Zhuangzi did to overcome the grief he experienced after his wife died:

When she first died, do you suppose that I was able not to feel the loss? I peered back into her beginnings; there was a time before there was a life. Not only was there no life, there was a time before there was a shape. Not only was there no shape, there was a time before there was energy. Mingled together in the amorphous, something altered, and there was the energy; by the alteration in the energy there was the shape, by the alteration of the shape there was the life. Now once more, she has gone over to death. 
(Taken from Olberding 2007, 341)

There is some pretty fancy metaphysics going on in this passage, which you may or may not accept, but the basic point is simple enough: his wife’s death “evidenced in microcosm the macrocosmic processes by which the world is governed” (Olberding 2007, 342). Her death was not some major disruption of the ordinary world. It did not fall like a plane from a clear blue sky. It was just nature taking its course. When he became attuned to the deeper metaphysical reality, the grief subsided a little bit. I have tried to illustrate what I think is going on here in the following diagram.




I have only used one example to illustrate this attunement argument, but I think it is relatively easy to see evidence of it in other anti-grief traditions. Buddhist metaphysics, for instance, famously rejects the existence of the self and holds that the concepts and categories that we apply to the world are illusions (you can, of course, find similar ideas in Western philosophies). Yao-ming Tsal, in his article on Buddhist approaches to grief, argues that acceptance of these metaphysical truth will enable us to become detached from grief and bereavement — to experience what he calls ‘not-grief’.

Whether we can actually become attuned to the deeper reality, and cast off the illusions of the social world, is, I think, up for debate. It would be a hard slog, if nothing else and recent studies suggest that devout Buddhists experience great anxiety in the face of death despite their acceptance of the not-self doctrine (the study did not look at grief). Nonetheless, I think there is something to what the anti-grief proponents are arguing. We are too complacent about the stability of the everyday world, and we tend to avoid confronting the reality of mortality. I think we would be well-advised to take more cognisance of it in our daily habits. I would rather confront the truth than live with an illusion.


3. Argument Three: Preventing the Excesses of Grief

The third argument is more practical and ethical in its orientation. It returns us to one of the problems alluded to in the first argument: that grief can be dangerous if taken to excess. This might seem obvious enough — the negative emotions associated with grief could be harmful to our psyches if allowed to fester. If, as Seneca noted, we start to parade our grief and wallow in self-pity, our grief will become self-destructive. We will become slaves to it, trapped in a cycle, unable to accept the reality of what has happened.

This is something that is central to Joan Didion’s narrative of her own grief in The Year of Magical Thinking. The ‘magical thinking’ referred to in the title is her inability to come to terms with her husband’s death and her belief that he was going to come back:

Of course, I knew that John was dead. Of course I had already delivered the definitive news to his brother and my brother and to Quintana’s [her daughter’s] husband…Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible. That’s why I needed to be alone…I needed to be alone so that he could come back. This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking. 
(Didion 2005, 33)

Shortly after this she describes how for months after her husband’s death she was incapable of rationality:

…I recognized that through the winter and spring there had been occasions on which I was incapable of thinking rationally. I was thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts and wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome. 
(Didion 2005, 35)

So there is an element of self-care to the anti-grief position advocated by Seneca (et al). They are warning us not to become so beholden to grief that we are trapped in avoidant, delusional thinking.

But there is more to it than that. The anti-grief position is not just about self-care; it is also about the care of others. This is something that Paul Scherz emphasises in his discussion of grief in both Stoic and early Christian traditions. He claims that one of the key arguments underlying the Stoic anti-grief view is that grief, when excessive, blocks us from discharging our duties to others. To appreciate the argument in its entirety we need to make a distinction between two forms of grief:

Anticpatory Grief: The grief that precedes the death of a loved one, usually when you learn that they are sick and dying.

Retrospective Grief: The grief that arises after the death of a loved one.

Both forms of grief take us out of the present moment. Anticipatory grief gets us to focus on the future — to the point in time when the loved one will no longer be with us; retrospective grief gets us to focus on the past — to the time when they were still alive. The anguish and pain associated with both forms of thinking often leads to avoidant coping behaviours, such as the denialism evidenced in Didion’s memoir. The net result is that we are taken out of the present and its ethical demands on our character. We live in a desired past or imaginary future. We ignore what needs to be done in the here and now.

This has some particularly problematic consequences. In the case of anticipatory grief, our fixation on the future, and how painful it may be, can cause us to withdraw from the person who is dying. It is just too painful for us to visit them while they are sick, to help them when they are most in need of our support. So we hide away. This retreat from the ethical demands of care is commonplace. Friends of mine who have been diagnosed with serious illnesses often remark on the fact that being sick drives people away. People who you once thought were friends suddenly adopt a stance of radio silence. You will not hear from them again unless you become well. It is also something, to my shame, that I felt when I first learned of my sister’s illness. I held off on speaking to her for a few days because unable to confront the reality of what was happening. My anticipatory grief prevented me from confronting the demands of the present.

A similar phenomenon can arise in the case of retrospective grief, only in that case it is not your duties to the deceased that you fail to discharge but, rather, your duties to everyone else who relies upon you. Again, this is something I have experienced in the aftermath of my sister’s death. Promises I made to others have not been lived up to. I find it hard to motivate myself to care about those who are still alive when she is gone. The anti-grief view is trying to prevent this absence from the present from becoming pathological.

There is one final element to this. In addition to facilitating self-care and care for others, the anti-grief view is defended by its proponents on the grounds that it is more respectful to the dead. Those who are prone to excessive grief may be unable to truly celebrate and cherish the memories of the deceased. The memories will be too painful for them to enjoy. The anti-grief view is intended to remove that impediment to joy. This is something Seneca emphasises in his letter to Lucilius:

Let us see to it that the recollection of those we have lost becomes a pleasure to us. Nobody really cares to cast his mind back to something which he is never going to think of without pain…Thinking of departed friends is to me something sweet and mellow. For when I had them with me it was with the feeling that I was going to lose them, and now that I have lost them I keep the feeling that I have them with me still. 
(Seneca Letter 63)

The latter part of this quote is describing the Stoic practice of negative visualisation — of always preparing oneself for the worst — which is is done in the belief that it will enable you to be grateful for what you have and once had. You don’t have to accept this practice to accept the bigger point: that we should cherish and enjoy the memories of those who are dead. This is something I find myself doing with my sister’s death. She was a happy and warm person. My memories of her, for the most part, share that character. When I think of her, it is most often with a feeling of joy and gratitude, not sadness or pain. We all die. She died sooner than most. People may perceive that death to be a tragedy; but the life she lived before that was not and should not be remembered as such.


4. Argument Four: Freeing us from the Social Expectations of Grief
The final argument is about the negative social expectations/demands of grief. I shall be brief with this one since it is not the strongest of the four and I described it in the introduction already. As I noted then, there are many social norms around grief. You don’t just feel grief; you perform it for others. Those others have demands and expectations. Some of the social norms are comforting: standard mourning rituals (funerals, wakes) provide structure and certainty in the immediate aftermath of a death — one less decision to worry about.

But there are at least three problems with the social norms of grief. First, as Seneca noted in one of the passages quoted above, we may get too caught up in the social performance of grief. This may kick-start a feedback cycle in which the negative manifestations of grief are reinforced and habitualised. Second, our actual feelings of grief may not align with the social expectations of grief, which as I pointed out in the introduction can add a layer of anxiety or guilt to the proceedings. Third, the social norms may be uncertain, confusing, or in conflict with one another. Martha Nussbaum makes this point when she describes her own experiences of grief following the death of her mother:

Human beings experience emotions in ways that are shaped both by individual history and by social norms. My own grief was shaped not only by my attachment to my mother, but also by norms about the proper way to mourn the loss of a parent. These norms, as I experienced them through my own inclinations, were unclear and to some extent inconsistent…One is supposed to allow oneself to “cry big” at times, but then American mores of self-help also demand that one get on with one’s work, one’s physical exercise, one’s commitments to others, not making a big fuss. 
(Nussbaum 2000, 140)

This seems very true to my experience. It can be frustrating to not know what is expected of you, or to be subject to competing demands. It can make you more reluctant to seek support from others. While it is reassuring to have friends and family check in on you following a bereavement, you sometimes get odd sense that they are judging you as they do so. Is this person dealing with the grief in the right way? Are they recovering properly (whatever that might mean)? This can make their presence less comforting. Admittedly, this is more of a problem with loose acquaintances or casual friends: I don’t worry about the judgments of those with whom I am very close. And perhaps the uncertainty is a product of modernity? Maybe in traditional societies, where we have clearer norms and rituals, the problem goes away? But since even the ancients were offering one another advice on how best to grieve, I doubt that this is true.

The anti-grief view, of course, doesn’t completely eliminate the problems associated with the social norms of grief. Indeed, if taken too far, it may simply replace one set of social expectations with another. But in its original intention it tries to ease the anxiety one might face in relation to those social expectations, and to prevent them from reinforcing a negative spiral of emotions. It says that we should allow ourselves to experience natural or instinctual grief, but not be too worried about the social performance. This seems like sound advice to me.


5. Conclusion
To briefly recap, I have tried to offer a modest defence of the anti-grief view. This view holds that although some grief is acceptable, it can be maladaptive and it is best to moderate its negative effects. This is sometimes viewed as inhuman advice on the grounds that it encourages callous emotional detachment, but I have argued that this is not the case. Proponents of the anti-grief view were not callous and emotionally detached in their actual behaviour, which suggests that their position was more subtle than the caricature allows. They were encouraging us to become more deeply attuned to the metaphysics of reality (which necessarily involve death, destruction and change) and less deluded by the facade of stability in our everyday lives. They were also trying to provide ways to avoid the negative excesses of grief, discharge our duties to those who are still alive, and reduce the burden of social expectation that is associated with it.

I want to sign off by returning to something I said in the introduction. I previously wrote about the goodness of grief, looking at arguments claiming that grief was an integral part of the well-lived life. I do not think there is much distance between that view and the one examined in this post. To a large extent, proponents of the respective positions are simply talking past each other. Those who see good in grief are unlikely to deny its negative excesses; and defenders of the anti-grief view clearly see some value in it. There is a middle ground on which they can both meet.

* I have to be careful here. I don’t mean more fundamental in the sense that these beliefs were more strongly held. I just mean that the beliefs pertain to the fundamental structure of reality.



Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Goodness of Grief: Is it Integral to the Well-Lived Life?




(Series Index)

Grief is often painful. When I think about my deceased sister, I cannot help but be struck by a deep sense of tragedy about her loss. She was relatively young — 43 years-old — and had a young son whom she loved greatly. She was a bright and effervescent person, rarely saying a bad word about anyone, and incredibly generous and charitable with her time. At her funeral, I was amazed at the number of her friends and work colleagues who shared these impressions. When I die, I doubt anyone will say the same about me. ‘Selfish’ and ‘introspective’ maybe. It pains me to think that she is gone and I am still here. When I first learned of her illness, I became quite depressed. I felt sapped of the energy needed to complete the ordinary business of life. I also felt considerable guilt and regret. Her death jolted me out of this, to some extent, but even now I am reluctant to pursue life with the same vigour I once had.

From what I have read, many people experience similar emotions as part of the process of grieving. This prompts an obvious question: is grief a good thing? If it causes so much mental anguish and pain, would we not be better off without it? There are some famous ‘sages’ who thought as much. Seneca, for example, in his sixty-third letter to Lucilius, advises Lucilius not to feel too much grief at the passing of his friend. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that Lucilius should look to replace the deceased with a new object of affection as soon as possible:

You have buried one whom you loved; look about for someone to love. It is better to replace your friend than to weep for him… the most shameful cure for sorrow, in the case of a sensible man, is to grow weary of sorrowing. I should prefer you to abandon grief, rather than have grief abandon you; and you should stop grieving as soon as possible, since, even if you wish to do so, it is impossible to keep it up for a long time.…Nothing becomes offensive so quickly as grief; when fresh, it finds someone to console it and attracts one or another to itself; but after becoming chronic, it is ridiculed, and rightly. For it is either assumed or foolish. 
(Seneca, Letter 63)

To many, this will sound like inhuman advice — we should simply forget about the deceased and move on? — but I will consider the merits of Seneca’s Stoic approach to grief in a subsequent post. Right now, I want to consider the antithetical point of view: that grief is, contrary to initial appearances, a good thing. It is something that is central to the well-lived life. I will consider two arguments in favour of this view. The first comes from the work of Michael Cholbi; the second from the work of Amy Olberding. I’ll spend most of my time looking at Cholbi’s argument partly because his article was the first thing I read on the topic and so I learned a lot from it, and partly because the issues raised by Olberding’s argument have been discussed before on the blog.


1. Cholbi on the Problem of Grief
Cholbi’s defence of grief can be found in his article ‘Finding Good in Grief: What Augustine Knew that Meursault Couldn’t’. One of the nice things about Cholbi’s defence of grief is that he is acutely aware of the challenges it faces. Anyone who wants to claim that grief is good must overcome the following, deceptively simple argument (note: this is my formulation not Cholbi’s):


  • (1) Grief is painful.

  • (2) Pain is bad.

  • (3) Therefore, grief is bad.


We could add to this some subsequent argumentation to the effect that since we ought to avoid anything that is bad so too ought we avoid grief. Indeed, if I were being more pedantic I might insist upon adding that argumentation onto the end since, ultimately, Cholbi is concerned with our prudential attitude to grief not the intrinsic experience of grief per se, but I will stick with the simpler version for now because Cholbi talks primarily in terms of the goodness/badness of grief in his article, not about the wisdom of avoiding it.

Granting this, what can be said about the argument? Premise (1) seems unimpeachable. The experience of grief is undoubtedly painful. Sometimes this manifests in physical symptoms of pain, but even when it is primarily mental it is still painful. Memories of the deceased often trigger deep sadness and regret and this causes turmoil. Premise (2) also looks to be pretty unimpeachable. Most philosophers agree that pain is bad — indeed some might go so far as to say that it is the only thing that is intrinsically bad — but premise (2) is the weak link in the argument. There are some obvious grounds for appeal against it.

One ground for appeal would be to highlight the existence of masochists. These are people for whom pain does not appear to be bad. On the contrary, it appears to be good. It is something they actively seek out and from which they derive pleasure. But appealing to masochists isn’t going to provide much consolation for the defender of the goodness of grief. After all, not everyone is a masochist so even if the response was successful it would have limited appeal. Furthermore, masochism is a somewhat paradoxical phenomenon. For masochists, pain and pleasure are indelibly interlinked: that which is painful for the ordinary person is actually experienced as pleasurable for the masochist. Consequently, it may not even be right to say that for the masochist pain is good. It may be more correct to say that they are just wired to experience the world differently. This holds no comfort for the defender of the goodness of grief because the pain of grief seems to be pure — not some odd intermingling of pain and pleasure.

Another ground for appeal would be to emphasise pain’s contribution to a ‘greater good’. In other words, to say that something that is prima facie painful might be ultimately good because it is an essential precursor to something that is good. A vaccine injection is often said to be ultimately good, even if intrinsically painful, because the pain of the injection contributes to the greater good of inoculation against disease. Cholbi thinks there is some promise in this response, but it too faces challenges. For one thing, anyone who uses it must be able to come up with some plausible account of the greater good to which grief contributes. For another, they must address a concern with all ‘greater good’ theories: that they make the painful precursor an undesired side effect of a particular pathway to a greater good: something that should be avoided if possible; not something that is itself integral to the good. For example, if we could attain the greater good of inoculation without the pain of injection, then that would be all the better. Grief doesn’t seem to work in the same way. If grief is good, its painfulness seems like it must be an integral part of its goodness. Augustine put it well in his exploration of grief:

My heart was black with grief. Whatever I looked upon had the air of death. My native place was a prison house and my home a strange unhappiness…I had no delight but in tears, for tears had taken the place my friend had held in the love of my heart. 
(Augustine, Confessions)

In this passage, Augustine is suggesting that the pain of grief — the tears he cried for his departed friend — is something he actively seeks out. I have experienced something similar in the aftermath of my sister’s death. I find that there are certain memories of her that I want to revisit in the hope that they will make me sad. So much so, in fact, that I’ve become frustrated by the extent to which I have become desensitised to their effect over time.

So Cholbi thinks the defender of grief faces a twofold challenge: (a) can they come up with an account of the greater goodness to which grief contributes? and (b) can this account still respect the seemingly central role that the painfulness of grief plays in this good? He thinks he can.



2. Cholbi’s Solution: Grief and the Good of Self-Understanding
Cholbi first tries to show how something that is intrinsically painful can, nevertheless, be an integral part of a greater good. He uses an analogy to make the case. Anyone who has engaged in long-distance running will be familiar with the trauma it induces on the body. It can cause severe pain and overwhelming fatigue. Sometimes there is a payoff — the famous ‘runner’s high’ that emerges as endorphins flood your system — but sometimes the pain is so overwhelming that you just want to give up and quit.

Cholbi tells us that he used to run a lot when he was younger and frequently experienced these runner’s ‘lows’. Despite the obvious unpleasantness of these feelings, Cholbi began to look forward to them. He found that painless runs were ‘ungratifying’. Why? Because he saw the pain as being an essential part of an activity that was overall good (because it made him fitter and pushed his body to its limits). In other words, the pains were situated within a broader context that caused him to reinterpret their axiological status. Cholbi is adamant that the pains he experienced were definitely pains. They were not, as might be the case for the masochist, some distorted form of pleasure. He did everything he could to minimise the painful sensations once his runs were completed. It was just that he did not judge them to be bad because of their context.

Cholbi argues that this phenomenon — a genuine pain that is not judged to be bad because it is situated in a context that is, overall, good — holds the key to the defence of grief. Grief may itself be painful, but it can be situated in a context that is, overall, good. The critical question is: what is that context? Cholbi’s answer is ‘self-understanding’. The loss of a loved one provides a significant motivation and grounding for self-understanding. The pain of the grief is integral to this process of self-understanding.

This is actually a common enough view. Many of the famous philosophical and literary discussions of grief fixate upon the idea that the death of a loved one is the loss of something that was integral to your identity. Someone who was part of the warp and weft of everyday life is now gone and you need to re-form yourself in order to go on. C.S. Lewis (who is not someone I would ordinarily cite) captures this idea rather beautifully when he describes his feelings after the death of his wife (referred to as ‘H’):

I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on, through habit, fitting an arrow to the string; then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead through H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontier-post across it. So many roads once; now so many culs-de-sac. 
(C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)

Cholbi uses the less poetic concept of an ‘identity-constituting relationship’ to flesh out the idea:

Identity-constituting Relationship: Is a relationship between yourself and another that features prominently in your autobiography and that shapes your ‘practical identity’, i.e your values, concerns and commitments.

The most important identity-constituting relationships in our lives are those between ourselves and our families and friends (though it possible to form them with others). These relationships play a significant role in our self-conception. Sometimes this role is underappreciated. We take so much for granted in our everyday lives. We form habits around our environments, our families, and our friends that go unquestioned. They are part of the furniture of life. The background scenery that is out of the spotlight. We don’t realise how fragile and contingent this background scenery is. It is only when it is gone that we realise how important it was.

That feeling is certainly something I have experienced in the aftermath of my sister’s death. It was so easy to take her for granted when she was alive; to assume that she would always be there; and to forget how she shaped my values, interests and dispositions. It’s this realisation — the importance of the deceased to one’s practical identity — that is captured so well by C.S. Lewis in the above-quoted passage.

Cholbi’s argument is that there is some value in this realisation. Self-knowledge is an important human good. It is important that we know something of our values, commitments and beliefs — that we know what is important to us. The emotional complexity of grief makes it a rich source of self-knowledge. Grief is a process; not a moment. It involves oscillations between despair (at the loss) and longing (at the remembrance), and multiple awakenings and insights. It jolts us out of the auto-pilot of everyday life and forces us to reconsider who we are. As Cholbi puts it:

Grief thus looks like our psyche’s way of instigating an emotional data dump. We would be wise to seize the opportunity to make sense of that data and thereby attain deeper levels of self-knowledge. 
(Cholbi 2017)

What are we to make of this argument? I think Cholbi is certainly onto something with the suggestion that grief jolts us out of the auto-pilot of everyday life, and that one of its distinctive qualities is to reveal how contingent much of what we rely upon on a daily basis is. I also think he is correct to argue that something that is intrinsically painful can, nevertheless, be good if it is situated in the right context.

I’m less convinced by the claim that self-knowledge is the ‘greater good’ that is at stake in the debate about grief. For starters, I’m not sure that self-knowledge, as defined, is a robust enough good to justify the pain of grief. Indeed, I find it disheartening to think that the value of grief lies in some good that it does for me (i.e. the person who is grieving). That seems so self-centred and egotistical. Surely the value of grief should be grounded in the person who is deceased, i.e. in the recognition of how important and special they were? It feels grubby to view my sister’s death as an opportunity for self-knowledge. It’s like something a self-help guru would say. I’m also not entirely convinced that there is such a thing as ‘self-knowledge’, i.e. that there is a ‘self’ about whom we can make epistemic discoveries. I carry a lot of philosophical baggage here, and I’m not going to unpack it all, but I tend to think of the self as something that is largely constructed. So I would probably like to reformulate Cholbi’s argument and say that grief provides an opportunity for significant self-reconstruction. That probably wouldn’t change much about the argument as whole; it would be more a difference of metaphysical emphasis. That said, there is one other problem I have with the argument. Cholbi is clear in the article that he is not claiming that grief is necessarily good. He thinks it can be destructive in some cases and may fail to result in self-knowledge. That sounds right but seems like a significant admission. One of the objections to the typical ‘greater good’ theory is that it makes the lesser pain an unwelcome side effect of the greater good — something that it would be better to avoid if at all possible. Is there not a danger that the same is true in the case of the relationship between grief and self-knowledge? Surely there are other opportunities for self-knowledge, and if grief isn’t always a reliable pathway to self-knowledge, perhaps we would be better off avoiding it?


3. Olberding on Grief and the Value of Life
I want to turn now to another argument in defence of the goodness of grief. This argument comes from Amy Olberding’s article ‘Sorrow and the Sage: Grief in the Zhuangzi’. As you might surmise from the title, Olberding’s article is largely interpretive in nature, focusing on the key text from the philosophy of Daoism. It tries to come up with the best interpretation of the behaviour of the sage ‘Zhuangzi’ who is the central character in the text called the Zhuangzi (and the name that Olberding uses although she is aware that the text is probably not the work of one author), and who, like Seneca, seems to counsel against grief at times and yet experiences grief at the death of his wife.

I’m not going to follow Olberding down her particular hermeneutical rabbit-hole. I’m just going to focus on what I take to be the core argument she presents in the paper. Her thesis is that Zhuangzi’s grief at his wife’s death is more consistent with his philosophy of ‘robust joy’ and human flourishing, than is the behaviour evinced elsewhere in the text suggesting that grief is to be avoided. To set this up, she contrasts Zhuangzi’s experience of grief with the lives of other sages described in the text of the Zhuangzi. These other sages seemed to ‘laugh and play’ in the face of death:

Death appears to them not as a horror or tragedy but as an embarkation point from which additional transformations become possible…They find joy in shared accord with what nature provides. Notably, in this accord, grief has no place. Indeed, it features as an impediment to the free exercise and pleasure of shared understanding. 
(Olberding 2007, 344)

I’ll discuss what is meant by the ‘accord with nature’ in a later post. For now, I want to focus on Olberding’s claim that there is something deficient in this approach to life and death. She makes her case in an interesting way. She first looks at arguments that philosophers have offered against the desirability of immortality. There are several such arguments, but the most famous probably come from Bernard Williams and Martha Nussbaum (although, strictly speaking, Nussbaum doesn’t say that immortality is undesirable; just that it comes at a cost). I’ve covered these arguments in detail before so I’ll limit myself to a brief summary here.

Williams argued that immortality would be tedious. He said that part of what makes life good is that we have certain ‘categorical desires’ (projects, ambitions etc) that we try to satisfy. These desires are integral to who we are. If we lived forever, we would run out of categorical desires or have to constantly find new ones. We would lose all sense of who we are and become fed-up with the repetitive nature of life. Nussbaum makes some similar observations. She claims that much of the value attached to our activities comes from the fact that we have limited options and limited time. There is, consequently, great normative weight attached to our choices: it is important to choose wisely and cherish the friendships and attachments that we have. Finitude is, as she puts it, ‘a constitutive factor in all valuable things’. If we had infinite time, nothing would really matter. We could constantly revisit and correct our past mistakes.

Olberding runs with this idea. If we lived as immortals, we would have a remarkably frozen emotional life. Nothing would perturb us, but neither would it entertain, uplift or overjoy us. There would just be an endless sequence of, more or less neutral, events. Although they are not immortal, Olberding criticises the sages from the Zhuangzi for having a similar attitude to life. They have lost the ability to truly engage with the highs and lows of lived experience. The suggestion then is that it is better if we don’t develop this emotionally frozen attitude, if we have hopes and aspirations for the future, and if we become attached to and engaged with the people around us. If we do this we will appreciate the pleasures that are alien to the sages, but also, naturally, experience grief at the departure of a loved one.

Is this a strong argument? To answer that I think we need to make a distinction. It is clear from their depiction in the text that the four sages that Olberding criticises are not completely apathetic characters. They have some ability to enjoy the world: they laugh and joke in the face of death, after all. They have only lost the ability to experience some of the good things. To explain, I’m going to distinguish between two kinds of pleasures in life:

Ludic pleasures: These are pleasures that arise from in-the-moment game-like enjoyment of the world. They are often ‘repetitive’ in nature (i.e. can be enjoyed over and over again) and disconnected from some larger mission or purpose. They are also ‘light’ and ‘frivolous’, not requiring deep engagement or attachment to what one is doing, and accompanied by a degree of flexibility and adaptiveness. Examples could include joke-telling, singing, eating and, of course, playing games.

Achievement/attachment pleasures: These are pleasures that arise from the achievement of some goal or purpose, or from some deep attachment to objects or persons in the world. They are often ‘once offs’ and require patience, endurance and skill. Examples could include writing a book, building a business, and raising a family.


The way I see it, Olberding is arguing that if we adopt the attitude of the sages, we will be cut off from the achievement/attachment pleasures, but not necessarily from the ludic pleasures. The implication then is that: (a) a life without achievement/attachment pleasures would be somehow impoverished and (b) that such a life also brings with it, of necessity, the capacity to feel grief. We can distill this reasoning into the following:


  • (4) The capacity to experience achievement/attachment pleasures makes for a better life.

  • (5) If we are to have the capacity to experience achievement/attachment pleasures we must also, by necessity, have the capacity to experience grief.

  • (6) Therefore, if we are to live a better life, we must have the capacity to experience grief.


I think this argument can be challenged. For one thing, it is not obvious to me that a life of achievement/attachment pleasures is necessarily better than one of merely ludic pleasures. There would seem to be two problems with that claim. First, on what basis do we assign more weight to achievement/attachment pleasures? Why do we think they are more important? Second, if achievement/attachment pleasures necessarily have a dark side (frustration, failure, loss etc.) it is possible that someone’s life could be filled with more of the dark side than the light. They might, consequently, be much better off if their life was filled with merely ludic pleasures.

Another problem with this argument is that it is not obvious to me why we must have the capacity to experience grief in order to enjoy achievement/attachment pleasures. I understand the reasoning, but I’m not sure that the capacity for grief itself is physically/logically necessary for such enjoyment. Furthermore, I have a suspicion that there are similar emotional states/processes that could substitute for grief in this context. Celebrating and enjoying memories of the deceased, for example, could show just as much recognition of their importance to your life as would endlessly crying over their absence.

Finally, as Olberding herself acknowledges, the argument does not entail a strong endorsement of grief. It does not suggest that we should marinate in grief for months on end. It merely says that some capacity to experience grief, however brief the experience may be, is important. Indeed, Zhuangzi’s own experience of grief was short-lived, suggesting that if we are to follow his lead we won’t be using grief as a major tool in some journey of self-discovery.


4. Conclusion
I have come to the end of this post. I am not sure that I have reached any firm conclusions. I think there is something in what Cholbi and Olberding argue: that the experience of grief has some value, provided it is not pushed to extremes, particularly in the recognition of the importance of the deceased in one’s lifeworld. At the same time, I think there are weak points in their arguments. Perhaps my own prejudices and predilections are affecting my interpretation of what they have to say. I’m not a strong believer in the power of emotions; I’m much more naturally inclined to the Stoic point of view outlined earlier in this post. I will examine that view in the next post.