What Would You Do If You Only Had Six Months To Live?

Re­cently, I’ve been pon­der­ing situ­a­tions in which a per­son re­al­izes, with (let’s say) around 99% con­fi­dence, that they are go­ing to die within a set pe­riod of time.

The rea­son for this could be a kind of can­cer with­out any effec­tive treat­ment, an in­jury of some kind, or a com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­ease or virus (such as Ebola). More gen­er­ally, the sim­ple fact that un­til Harry Pot­ter-Evans-Ver­res makes the Philoso­pher’s Stone available to us mug­gles, we’re all go­ing to die even­tu­ally makes this kind of con­sid­er­a­tion valuable.

Let’s say that you felt ill, and de­cided to visit the doc­tor. After the ap­pro­pri­ate tests by the ap­pro­pri­ate med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als, an old man with a kind face tells you that you have brain can­cer. It is in­op­er­a­ble (or the op­er­a­tion has less than a 1% suc­cess rate) and you are given six months to live. This kindly old doc­tor adds that he is very sorry, and gives you a pre­scrip­tion for some­thing to deal with the symp­toms (at least for a while).

Fur­ther­more, you un­der­stand some­thing of prob­a­bil­ity, and so while you might hope for a mir­a­cle, you know bet­ter than to count on one. Which means that even if there ex­ists a .0001% chance you’ll live for an­other 50 years, you have to act as though you’re only go­ing to live an­other six months.

What should you do?

The first an­swer I thought of was, “go sky­div­ing,” which is a cheeky short­hand for try­ing to en­joy your own life as much as you can un­til you die. Upon re­flec­tion, how­ever, that seems like an awfully he­do­nis­tic an­swer, doesn’t it? Given this philos­o­phy, you should gorge your­self on donuts, spend your life’s sav­ings on ex­pen­sive cars and pros­ti­tutes, and die with a smile on your face.

Some­thing doesn’t seem quite right about this ap­proach. For one, it com­pletely ig­nores things like try­ing to take care of the peo­ple close to you that you’re leav­ing be­hind, but even if you’re a friend­less or­phan it doesn’t make sense to live like that. Dopamine is not hap­piness, and feel­ing al­ive isn’t nec­es­sar­ily what life is about. I took a uni­ver­sity course cen­tered around Aris­to­tle’s Ni­chomachean Ethics, and one of the ex­am­ples we used to dis­t­in­guish a “happy” life from a “well-spent” life was that of the math pro­fes­sor who spends her days count­ing blades of grass. While count­ing those blades of grass might make her hap­piest, she is still wast­ing her life and po­ten­tial. Like­wise, the per­son who spends their short re­main­ing months in self-in­dul­gent in­dolence is wast­ing a chance to do some­thing—what, I’m not quite sure, but still some­thing worth­while.

The sec­ond an­swer I thought of seems to be the rea­son­able one—spend your six months prepar­ing your­self and your loved ones for your in­evitable demise. There are things to get in or­der, funeral ar­range­ments to make, a will to up­date, and then there’s mak­ing sure your de­pen­dents are taken care of fi­nan­cially. You never thought dy­ing in­volved so much pa­per­work! Also, you might con­sider mak­ing peace with what­ever be­liefs you have about the world (re­li­gious or not), and try­ing to ac­cept the end so you can en­joy what time you have left.

This seems to be the tech­ni­cally cor­rect an­swer to me—the kind of an­swer that is con­sis­tent with a re­spon­si­ble, con­sid­er­ate in­di­vi­d­ual faced with such a situ­a­tion. How­ever, much like the ten com­mand­ments, the kind of moral­ity that this ap­proach shows seems to be a bare-min­i­mum moral­ity. The kind of moral­ity ex­pressed by “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” rather than the kind of over-and-above moral­ity ex­pressed by “Thou Shalt En­sure No One Shall Ever Die Again, Ever” which seems to be pop­u­lar on LessWrong and in the Effec­tive Altru­ism com­mu­nity. Or at the very least, seems to be ex­pressed by Mr. Yud­kowsky.

So I started won­der­ing—what ex­actly would some­one who judges moral­ity by ex­pected util­ity and who sub­scribes to an over-and-above ap­proach do with the knowl­edge that they were go­ing to die?

There’s an old Ge­orge Car­lin joke about death:

But you can en­ter­tain and the only rea­son I sug­gest you can some­thing to do with the way you die is a lit­tle known...and less un­der­stood por­tion of death called...”The Two Minute Warn­ing.” Ob­vi­ously, many of you do not know about it, but just as in foot­ball, two min­utes be­fore you die, there is an au­dible warn­ing: “Two min­utes, get your **** to­gether” and the only rea­son we don’t know about it is ’cause the only peo­ple who hear it...die! And they don’t have a chance to ex­plain, you know. I don’t think we’d listen any­way.

But there is a two minute warn­ing and I say use those two min­utes. En­ter­tain. Uplift. Do some­thing. Give a two minute speech. Every­one has a two minute speech in them. Some­thing you know, some­thing you love. Your va­ca­tion, man...two min­utes. Really do it well. Lots of feel­ing, lots of spirit and build- wax elo­quent for the first time. Reach a peak. With about five sec­onds left, tell them, “If this is not the truth, may God strike me dead!′ THOOM! From then on, you com­mand much more at­ten­tion.

As usual with Mr. Car­lin’s hu­mor, there is a very in­ter­est­ing idea hid­den in the hu­mor. Here, the idea is this: There is power in know­ing when you will die. Note that this isn’t just hav­ing noth­ing left to lose—be­cause peo­ple who have noth­ing left to lose of­ten still have their lives.

My third idea, at­tempt­ing to syn­the­size all of this, has to do with self-im­mo­la­tion. The idea of set­ting your­self on fire as an act of poli­ti­cal protest. Please note that I am not recom­mend­ing that any­one do this (cough, any lawyers listen­ing, cough).

It’s just that mar­tyr­dom is so much more palat­able a con­cept when you know you’re go­ing to die any­way. In­stead of wait­ing for the can­cer to kill you, why shouldn’t you sell your life for some­thing more valuable? I’m not say­ing don’t make ar­range­ments for your death, be­cause you should, but if you can use your death to gal­va­nize peo­ple to ac­tion, shouldn’t you? In Christo­pher Nolan’s Bat­man Be­gins, the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne were the cat­a­lyst that caused Gotham to re­ju­ve­nate it­self from the brink of eco­nomic col­lapse. If your death could serve a similar pur­pose, and you are com­mit­ted to mak­ing the world a bet­ter place...

And maybe you don’t have to ac­tu­ally com­mit suicide by crim­i­nal (or cop, or fire, etc...) but the risk-re­ward calcu­la­tion for any ex­tremely eth­i­cal but ex­tremely dan­ger­ous ac­tivity has changed. You could vol­un­teer to fight Ebola in Africa, know­ing that if you catch it, you’ll only be dy­ing a few months ahead of sched­ule. You could try to video­tape the atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by some ex­trem­ist group and post it on the in­ter­net. And so on.

In sum­mary, it seems to me that peo­ple don’t tend to think about dy­ing as an act, as some­thing you do, in­stead of as some­thing that hap­pens to you. It’s a lot like breath­ing: gen­er­ally in­vol­un­tary, but you still have a say in ex­actly when it hap­pens. I’m not say­ing that ev­ery­one should mar­tyr them­selves for whichever cause they be­lieve in. But if you hap­pen to be told that you’re already dy­ing...from the stand­point of ex­pected util­ity, be­com­ing a mar­tyr makes a lot more sense. Which isn’t ex­actly in­tu­itive, but it’s what I’ve come up with.

Now pre­tend that the kindly old doc­tor has shuffled into the room, blink­ing as he shuffles a few pa­pers. “I’m very sorry,” he says, “But you’ve only got about 70 years to live...”