Surviving Death

Surviving Death
By Mark Johnston
Princeton University Press – £24.95

When studying Ethics, there were numerous consequentialist debates concerning the suffering of others, whereby suffering, as a mode of behaviour, always remained suffering – regardless of to whom, where, when and how it was taking place. To that effect, was the suffering of those murdered amid the London Terrorist attacks of 2005, any worse or any more devastating, any different or any more important, to those murdered amid the recent terrorist attacks in Lahore, Pakistan?

With the exception of geography, the anguish, destruction and suffering caused by both acts of terrorism, are surely identical – although in the mindset of many, Westerners especially, they are different.

To be sure, we are always more touched and appalled when people are murdered just down the road from us, than we are when people are murdered thousands of miles away in a foreign land. And why is this? It’s not as if we necessarily know the people closer to home. Or that suffering closer to home is any greater or of more value than that of suffering taking place thousands of miles away.

The recent spate of suffering of far too many innocent people, murdered in Pakistan on a far too regular and continuing basis, is harrowing beyond belief. Yet because the killing is taking place ‘there’ and not ‘here,’ those who recently lost their lives in Lahore, somehow pale into insignificance when compared with those killed on the London Transport System five years ago. Or 9/11.

The mere fact that three numbers (not even an entire date) has now come to embody such a colossal event, suggests that those murdered in the Twin Towers are of far more importance and humanistic value, than those murdered in literally hundreds of terrorist attacks around the world almost every week. Once again, might this be because most terrorist attacks take place elsewhere? Or, because simply and sickeningly, the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers were of a far sexier and glamorous persuasion?

That they still make for relatively infectious viewing even today, exactly nine years later, substantiates said point beyond any realm of rhetorical deliberation.
They also underline several tempestuous and thought provoking points made throughout this compellingly, cunning new book by Mark Johnston.

A fascinating conglomeration of religion, philosophy and the arts, Surviving Death, especially in Chapter Two’s ‘The Impossibility of My Own Death,’ tackles much of the aforementioned (inadvertent yet obsessive) existentialist propinquity head-on. And in the following example, it does so in such terms that everyone can relate to: ‘’ Sitting in a booth in the Triumph Brewery I overhear some thugs in the next booth planning to beat someone up. As a public-spirited citizen, I am appalled. But then I overhear them use my name and realize that they are planning to beat me up. My attitude changes, now that I know it’s me. My special concern for myself has been activated. Not me, I think, as if that would somehow be worse than having someone or other beaten up (Luck, someone once said, is when the other chap gets the bullet).’’

Clearly, this is a case of philosophical proximity at its most acute, but the point Johnston is making is absolutely crystal-clear. Upon learning that the thugs planned violence is to be unleashed on him, the author’s concern for ‘himself,’ is all the more ‘activated.’ Were it intended for another, as he initially thought, he would merely have remained appalled ‘’as a public-spirited citizen.’’

Surely the act of impending violence – regardless of to whom, where, when and how it will to take place – ought to be reacted upon and dealt with immediately? As suffering is still suffering, and will always remain as such.

Johnston continues to clarify that self-centric propinquity, really is the be all and end all: ‘’[…] this kind of everyday egocentrism is perfectly intelligible; we mostly organise our lives around it, and so it is treated as a reasonable default starting point in practical deliberation. In ordinary decent people, such everyday egocentrism does not so much disappear; it remains at the core of a pattern of concern C. D. Broad once called ‘’self-referential altruism,’’ an expanded circle of special concern for oneself, one’s friends, one’s familiars, one’s family, and perhaps one’s tribe or nation. And in decent people, this whole pattern of self-referential concern is itself partly offset by the impersonal concern that things go well for others, whoever they are. Still, egocentrism remains, and it remains a mutually intelligible starting point in reasoning about what to do when the interests of others are not much at risk.’’

A remarkably conceived contribution to social behaviour, natural theology and the varying strands of identity, this provocative yet highly pellucid book is a more than stylish and intriguing read. There are numerous, colourful and considered debates such as that above, which accounts for Surviving Death being as dense and sophisticated as it is.

David Marx


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