On Why We Are Willing to Die

The other day, New York Jets rookie safety Jamal Adams told a group of Jets fans, “If I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field.” In response, Green Bay Packers tight end Martellus Bennett tweeted, “Look football is great but I ain’t dying for this shit. Lol.”

This begs the question of why so many people glorify the early exit. They’ll die for country, family, religion, politics, humanitarian ideals, high-risk adrenaline rushes, deranged cults, physical and mental relief—the list is endless. In fact, some think there’s no point in even questioning death preferences since they have to do with the ultimate individual choice. Nothing could be more personal, and who are we to intrude on someone else’s chosen act of cessation, right? Moreover, humans have a terribly limited understanding of life and death. Secular logic can’t explain existential purpose and uncertainty with any degree of serious authority, and faith-based thinking proves even more analytically tenuous. Ultimately, motivation just is.

Still, maybe the issue has more to do with agency and less to do with motivation. Agency occurs when people act independently and make their own choices. Here’s where the debate over free will rears its ugly head. A decision made in the heat of the moment, due to youthful naivete, or when thought is marred by years of damaging outside influences isn’t true agency, at least as many define it. What if Romeo and Juliet had encountered slightly different circumstances that allowed them to forge a new life away from Verona? Then, after a year of marriage, they realized they couldn’t stand each other. In this context, any love death might look ridiculous. Similarly, people in the military and cults are often taught to be auto-toxic, or dangerous to themselves. In meme theory, which focuses on ideas replicating from host to host (e.g., from mind to mind), auto-toxic thoughts are what promote the destruction of the host, not autonomous reflection and will. Those who do the brainwashing understand that autonomous thinking is the enemy.

All this aside, most people cling to life greedily because they’re afraid of the alternative or they mostly like being here. We’ll soon master genetic applications that will result in extraordinarily long life spans. What would Odysseus have thought of this? He chose a life of pain and inevitable death over immortality, even after he had seen the sad and terrifying shades of the afterlife. He, too, loved high-risk adrenaline rushes. Still, he was the ultimate survivor. Were he alive today, maybe he would welcome life extension as a way of satiating his ever-burning curiosity. Anything to stave off boredom, regardless of agency.