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

by Sable 4 min read20th May 201545 comments


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..."