Would Immortality be desirable?

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Not many General Paper students in Singapore are keen on philosophical essay questions, but whether you are inclined to attempt such questions or not, it is worth your while to read up and ponder some philosophical questions as it would develop your critical thinking and argumentative skills which are so essential in any essay or AQ. Besides, you can’t ignore any facet of GP completely — you never know when the Cambridge exam syndicate will decide to give you a philosophical comprehension passage. You will have absolutely no choice there but to try to understand that passage, explain it — and answer an application question on it.

This article by John Danaher seeks to answer the fascinating questions: What would it be like to live forever? Would immortality be desirable?


The Makropulos Affair is a famous three-act opera written by the Czech composer Leos Janacek, based on a play of the same name by Karel Capek. It tells the story of Elina Makropulos who, at the age of 42, is given an elixir of life by her father. The elixir allows her to live another 300 years at her current biological age. After those 300 years, she can choose to take the elixir again and live for another 300 years, or she can allow herself to die naturally. The opera/play concludes with her having lived out her 300 years and, having become bored with her existence, choosing death over another 300 years. (Sort of: that’s not a perfect summary of what happens but it’s good enough for present purposes)

Elina’s story — which, speaking as a sci-fi fan, has obvious similarities with that of Heinlein’s Lazarus Long — was used by the philosopher Bernard Williams to make an argument about the tedium of immortality (“The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality”). Williams argued that if we were truly immortal, we would end up like Elina, bored with our existence and longing to die. Obviously, this conclusion runs contrary to the beliefs of many of the world’s religions, which are all to keen to promise their followers immortality. Thus, if Williams is correct, and if immortality would indeed be the mother of all tediums, he will have shown something significant.

But is Williams right? Unsurprisingly, Williams’s article has generated a plethora of commentary over the years. I can’t hope to do justice to all of that commentary here. But I will look at one article that tries to defend Williams’s basic thesis. The article is called “Immortality and Significance” and it is by Aaron Smuts, whose work I considered earlier in the year when looking at the badness of death. Smuts argues that Williams reached the right conclusion, but for the wrong reasons. He tries to show what the right reasons are by, in part, drawing lessons from Borges’s short story “The Immortal”.

Read more of Part 1 here, as well as Part 2 and Part 3.
There are plenty more intriguing articles on his blog such as Is anyone competent to regulate artificial intelligence? and The Campaign against Sex Robots: A Critical Analysis.


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For GP model essays, click here.


About gptuitionsg

A dedicated English and GP tutor with First Class Honours from the National University of Singapore, Steven Ooi retired from the profession after a 14-year career during which he was one of the most sought-after private tutors in Singapore. He is the recipient of the Minerva Prize from NUS, which is awarded to the top English Language honours student of each cohort. This website, which has consistently ranked among the top 10 on Google and has received over 530,000 hits, has now been converted into a GP resource site cum listing of recommended tutors. If you are a GP or English tutor who wishes to be listed here, please email Steven Ooi at stevenooi18 @ yahoo.com (remove the spaces). Interested parties will be assessed and interviewed by him, and qualifications will be checked. These procedures are necessary to uphold quality standards. DISCLAIMER: While every reasonable effort has been made to assess the competence and verify the qualifications of recommended tutors here, no guarantees are made and you engage them at your own risk. By using this website, you agree that you will not hold the webmaster Steven Ooi responsible for any consequences — direct or otherwise — that occur in relation with your use of this website.
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