This is going to be a very dense daily effort as I’m sitting alone in a big reception tent at the Eden Project in Cornwall, tired and it’s getting cold.
Already discussed Nagel’s Death essay twice, now is the 3rd time. In the text, after he has introduced the principle of life’s default positivity he is aiming to conceptually restrict discussion on the value of one person’s life. So he makes the following attempt to dismiss ‘mere organic survival’:
The value of life and its contents does not attach to mere organic survival: almost everyone would be indifferent (other things equal) between immediate death and immediate coma followed by death twenty years later without reawakening.
Nagel is asking us here to do a first-person, moral thought experiment in which we are given 2 options to conclude quickly that mere organic survival (coma being an obvious example of it) is not satisfactory (fit enough) when the value component of the principle ‘it is good simply to be alive’ is being discussed. He knows that coma technically speaking is still being alive so it’s important for him to dismiss it from the discussion.
I think mere organic survival cannot be simply dismissed with a one-sentence thought experiment like this. Here’s quickly why.
Option #1, immediate death is something that can be relatively easily guaranteed in the possible and dire counterfactual world of the Nagelian thought experiment. And when death is guaranteed it is for good.
However an uninterrupted coma for 20 years is just simply not something that can be guaranteed in any possible world. One can die in a coma due to undisclosed reasons. But more importantly from the pov of our question: one can come out of a coma suddenly due to undisclosed reasons or by an actual intervention. And when the point of the thought experiment is to ask whether ‘mere organic survival’ might contribute to the understanding of why being alive is better than being dead, the value component of this principle is not the only thing that matters but also some conditions do. And coma is a condition that maintains the chance for a complete conscious life. Hence it is survival, it leads to survival and it might lead to complete restoration of the biological organism in question. So hope stays alive in coma, and helplessness is not final as in death and things apply that I said in the final point of Is life in a box is better than no life at all? Help and hope, so. Life is worth something just by being alive.
Survival is a complicated concept and I will discuss it later at length.