Can events that happen after our death affect our well-being? In this article, I examine this question by focusing on the example of postmortem legacy. Contrary to hedonistic and Epicurean positions I present arguments for the importance of legacy for our well-being. Afterward, I show that all prominent theories of well-being—hedonism, desire-satisfactionism, objective-list theory, and traditional perfectionism—fail to account for legacy’s virtue. In light of this, I turn to offer a variation to perfectionism that adopts a social perception of human nature. I claim that this social variation of perfectionism is not only able to account for legacy’s virtue but that it is also attractive in its own right.
Can events that happen after someone’s death affect her well-being? This is the kind of question that the answer to may alter the way we judge ourselves and our lives. It can equally influence how we perceive the lives and decisions of others.
In this article, I will answer this broader question by focusing on one useful example. I will ask if, and how, postmortem recognition or appreciation of one’s life can change her well-being. Of course, while presented here as an example of a broader philosophical question, postmortem recognition, or legacy, is no small matter. Leaders and politicians spend years trying to shape their legacy. Scientists and scholars pass hours crouching over their desks attempting to come up with the theory for which their names will be taught in classrooms long after their deaths. Parents dedicate their lives to improving the well-being of their children, hoping to be well remembered in return. Everyone from time to time wonders how they will be remembered by their loved ones when they pass away. Our legacy is something that is very dear to us. But why?
In section 2, I illuminate different aspects of the question of legacy and conclude that we should accept the influence of postmortem recognition on our well-being. In section 3, I show that hedonism, desire-satisfactionism, objective-list, and pefectionism, the most widely held theories of well-being, all fail in granting a full and satisfying explanation for legacy’s worth. In section 4, I present a variation of perfectionism that considers humans as social creatures. I offer intuitive justification for this theory and show how it can serve as a theoretical framework to account for postmortem events’ influence on well-being. I also discuss in what way it contradicts modern economic thinking. In section 5, I discuss some concerns and implications of my theory. Section 6 concludes.
2. The Influence of Postmortem Recognition on Well-Being
The paradigmatic case that instructs our discussion is the life-story of Vincent Van Gogh, who lived in the second half of the 19th century. Van Gogh was a troubled man who suffered from deep depression, severe psychotic episodes, and frequent delusions that led to several hospitalizations in mental health institutions. He also suffered financially, socially, and physically. He lived in solitude, neglected his health, and survived only thanks to financial support from his brother. Van Gogh found some relief in painting. However, his work was utterly ignored, and during his lifetime he was not only considered a madman but also a failure (Britannica 2021). Committing suicide at the age of 37, Van Gogh did not know that he would become such an iconic cultural figure, celebrated for his artistic achievement, industrious work, and impressive stubbornness. Because today creativity and misery, and ingenuity and insanity, are often viewed as going hand in hand, Van Gogh’s character has become a personal inspiration for many.
The fundamental question we are set to answer is whether Van Gogh gained anything from the fact that, after his death, he and his work were celebrated. Does this fact make his life any better, or is Van Gogh’s well-being identical to his well-being if he would have received no postmortem appreciation of his work?
On the one hand, it seems that it is impossible that Van Gogh gained anything. After all, he was never aware of the fact that he would become famous posthumously and his life was never actually affected by this posthumous fame. His life experience would be exactly the same if he did not become famous, and thus it seems odd to claim that his personal well-being could somehow have increased by his posthumous fame. This is called the ‘experience requirement,’ and it appeals to the intuition that in order for something to affect our well-being it must by some way affect our subjective experience (Gregory 2016).
But there is an even greater oddity. When the world started appreciating Van Gogh, he was already dead. In other words, he did not actually exist. If Van Gogh did not exist, and still does not, and never will again, how can it be that something improves his well-being? There is no he anymore! This claim, first proposed by Epicurus, does not only deny the possible goodness or badness of any after-death events but actually renders death itself neutral (Bradley 2009). Thus, it cannot be that how highly we think of Van Gogh has any influence on his well-being.
On the other hand, we have a feeling that Van Gogh does gain something from our admiration of him. The fact that people now study every detail in his life, appreciate his work as a unique human accomplishment, and think about him long enough to write a whole article inspired by him, thrusts some positivity into his life. This is evident in the simple fact that it seems reasonable to envy Van Gogh for his legacy—and we envy achievements we think add to well-being. Indeed, this observation is not unique to Van Gogh. We seem to think that being appreciated and loved after death has a similar effect on any human being. I am sure that, even if the reader does not aspire to gain universal recognition such as Van Gogh’s, at the very least she feels it is important that she will be well remembered by her loved ones. A person’s life would be worse, that is, filled with less well-being, if the person does not have a positive legacy.
Looking at the same idea from a different angle, if we hold that Van Gogh did not benefit from his postmortem recognition, then we are actually committing to the claim that, from Van Gogh’s point of view, the fact that he became an international symbol of art and achievement means nothing at all. His life was exactly as good as the life of any psychotic, depressed, failed person that lived in the 19th century. Imagine someone approached you and told you that you must choose between two options: you can choose to have a life, and afterlife, like Van Gogh’s, or you can choose to have a life and afterlife of another person, Van Fogh. Van Fogh also lived in the 19th century and was just as miserable and a failure as Van Gogh was. However, differently from Van Gogh, Van Fogh was completely forgotten by everyone – he never was nor never will be celebrated like Van Gogh. If postmortem recognition does not matter, then you should be completely indifferent between choosing to become Van Gogh or choosing to become Van Fogh. In fact, if Van Fogh was just marginally happier than Van Gogh, for example if he ate one more piece of pie during his lifetime, then you should opt to choose his life over Van Gogh’s life. The value of the piece of pie outweighs the universal admiration you could have gotten if you chose to be Van Gogh.
You could accept this proposal, thereby foregoing eternal glory for a piece of pie. But this is an unintuitive position. We seem to think that Van Gogh’s life is not just another miserable life. We believe admiration is worth something, certainly more than a piece of pie. The fact that Van Gogh is considered to be a successful painter adds some kind of goodness to his life—a goodness that we should somehow account for, challenging as it may be.
One might claim that the way we have described the situation induces us to view things from the point of view of Van Gogh. However, when we do so, it is difficult to differentiate between our supposed ignorance as Van Gogh and our knowledge of history. We try to imagine the situation as if we do not know what will happen after our death, but in fact, we do know what happens because we are the creators of the thought experiment. So, our intuitions get mixed, and we make choices that we would not have made if we were truly ignorant about what would happen after our death.
We can address this challenge by describing a case where we have an external point of view on the situation. Imagine someone named Elsa approaches you about Albert, who is a scientist. Albert came up with a brilliant theory, the kind of theory that would change the history of science forever. He was thrilled about his achievement, however, before being able to publish it, he fell very ill and died. Elsa finds Albert’s papers by accident, and now she intends to send them to a scientific journal for publication. Elsa tells you she is considering erasing Albert’s name from them and sending them anonymously to the journal. This means that while the whole scientific world would celebrate Albert’s ingenious revelations, he will never be recognized for their discoveries.
If your intuitions are like mine, you probably have a strong feeling that deleting Albert’s name is wrong. Someone might think that the wrongness of the actions stems merely from the fact that Elsa omits or hides the truth. But if that was the whole case, then the wrong would be perceived to be committed either against the scientific community, doomed to ignorance by Elsa, or it could be thought as a violation of some deontological law regarding the status of truth. It would not be bad for Albert because Albert is not the one deprived of the truth.
But this is clearly not the case, or at least not the whole case. Our intuitions guide us to think that Elsa’s action is wrong at least partially because it hurts Albert himself. But, notice that Albert did not specifically ask for the papers to be published under his name, nor does Elsa put her name instead. This means that the mere deprivation of postmortem celebration of Albert’s work as his harms him in some way, even though Albert would never know about it and does not even exist by the time Elsa makes the decision. Following this line of thought, even though Albert is already dead, our judgement of Elsa’s potential action reveals that he would be better off with a positive legacy rather than without one.
But it might be argued that it is wrong to erase Albert’s name, and it is wrong because it is unfair to Albert, but still postmortem recognition does not matter to his well-being. When discussing the implication of disability on well-being, Elizabeth Barnes (2014) advocates for a non-interference principle that could be applied here. According to her, even when an agent should be indifferent between two states of the world, it is forbidden for us to actively engage in changing his fate in any major way without his explicit consent. So, maybe Albert is indeed indifferent about what the scientific community will think of him after his death, but still erasing his name would be doing wrong to him because it would count as an unjust interference.
To address this concern, consider Rachel, a devoted mother of two. Rachel is deeply committed to her children and she sacrifices a great deal to take good care of them. Imagine that after her death a document is revealed that raises serious suspicions that she had stolen from her office during her life. Rachel’s whole town is filled with rumors about Rachel and people condemn her for her alleged actions. Rachel’s children, however, knowing their mother well, know that this cannot be true and that she did not steal anything.
One might think that Rachel’s well-being is unaffected by the rumors because suspicions against her rose only after her death. Since she is indifferent, according to the non-interference principle, her children must not attempt to alter this natural development and clear her name. That would be interfering without her consent even though she would not benefit from it. But this does not seem plausible. Of course, we believe that her children should attempt to clear her name from the hearsay. This is because we feel as if Rachel is hurt in some way by this development, and her children should be committed to protecting her, and her well-being, by fighting off the allegations.
If the intuitions I have presented thus far resonate with the reader, at this point, the reader should feel as if there is a strong reason to hold that what people think of us after our death matters, regardless of our in-life knowledge of it. Denying that events after death in general, and postmortem recognition in particular, can affect our well-being forces us to maintain that our intuitions are wrong in the cases I present. The deniers must also prefer Van Fogh’s piece of pie over Van Gogh’s universal glory. Committed hedonists will opt to bite the bullet here and accept these unintuitive implications. However, for the rest of us, this analysis should motivate us to understand why postmortem recognition could be good for us. I now turn to formalizing this intuition more carefully.
3. The Failure of Central Theories of Well-Being to Explain Legacy’s Importance
A reasonable place to start in order to determine what theoretical framework could potentially explain why a good legacy may be good for us are the prominent existing well-being theories. Clearly, hedonism, the theory that posits that well-being equates to having pleasant experiences, does not suit our purposes. Hedonism does not only entail the experience constraint, but it it the theory’s core assumption (Gregory 2016). A hedonist cannot accept that legacy matters for well-being, as it has no hedonic value (Bradley 2016).
Desire-satisfactionism is a theory which, broadly construed, asserts that someone’s well-being increases with, and only with, the desires she fulfills. This theory also cannot account for the goodness or badness of legacy. First, it is unclear that Van Gogh’s or Albert’s desires play any decisive role in their stories. We can imagine that they have never thought about their legacies (unlikely, but possible), so they never formed a special desire regarding what people will think about them after death. I am not sure that it matters at all to the fact that we would still think that they gained something from having a positive legacy. According to the logic we presented, Van Gogh gains from our keen interest in him, regardless of if he was mentally stable for long enough to formulate for himself this desire. The fact that Rachel’s memory is not tainted by false accusations benefits her even if she never imagined this as a possibility worth contemplating during her lifetime.
Desire-satisfactionists can respond to this objection by claiming that contingent desires do not matter. What really matters for well-being is satisfying the desires that would have been made by an informed and rational version of us (Heathwood 2016). Therefore, it does not matter if our protagonists never actually formed desires about legacy, it only matters that if they had all the relevant information, and they were thinking rationally and clearly, they would have wanted it. This is the source of legacy’s goodness.
But imagine that the informed version of Albert reaches the conclusion that he actually wants to be forgotten. Imagine Albert is having a moment of clarity just before his death, and in accordance with what his ideal self would say he leaves a note stating clearly that he does not want people to know he is the author of his work. However, Elsa, believing with all her heart that Albert is wrong in his decision, decides to send the paper to the journal signed with Albert’s name anyway. Is it bad for Albert? According to desire-satisfactionism it is bad, insofar as Albert’s will did not materialize. But on the other hand, it looks as if Albert still gains in some other manner from the fact that now the scientific community praises him. We do not feel that the fact that his informed self did not want to be published completely cancels the value of his publicity. So, our intuitions go against desire-satisfaction theory.
If your intuitions become hazy at this point, think of the famous writer Franz Kafka. Kafka left all his work in the hands of his good friend Max Brod, clearly ordering him not to publish it. We can assume that Kafka was fully informed and rational when he made his decision because we have no reason to think otherwise. Brod published Kafka’s works anyway. We seem to think that Kafka profited in some way from Brod’s action, even though it went against his (allegedly idealized) will. We can even see Brod as acting as a better friend for Kafka by choosing to dismiss his will and this can only be maintained due to the fact we feel Brod has somehow benefitted Kafka. This would not have been the case if Brod ignored other wishes of Kafka, for example if he buried him in a different location than he specified or re-allocated his inheritance. In these cases, we would think that denying Kafka’s wishes would be wholly bad for him. All of this points to the fact that in the case of legacy Kafka has two independent goods: getting what he wants and receiving glory. Brod granted Kafka the latter, in the price of denying the former.
When describing relations between rational desires and good death, Campbell (2020, 614) argues along similar lines:
Many people will reject the idea that these features of death are good for a person if and only if they or their idealized counterpart desires them, and they occur. Imagine a man who dies from accidentally shooting himself with a gun that he himself just loaded. Most people will think the embarrassing nature of his death makes it worse for him, and this apparent badness does not dissipate if it comes to light that this particular man would in no way have minded dying in this pointless and embarrassing way, or for some reason desired that kind of death… This example draws out the fact that desire-fulfillment theory has implications that are counterintuitive for many people.
Just like the person’s death in Campbell’s example will always be somewhat embarrassing, having a positive legacy seems to be always at least partially good, independently of contingent or rational desires. Thus, desire-satisfactionism cannot have the full explanation we are looking for.
If both subjective theories fail to grasp what we are after, we need to turn to objective theories. According to objective-list theory, there is a list of non-reducible and objective aspects of the good life, and fulfilling them leads to the good life. Perhaps one of the traditional objects on the list can explain legacy’s worth?
When describing objective-list’s failure to grasp what is a good death Campbell offers us a list of items prominent objective-list theories enumerate (Campbell 2020, 617). Out of the items that appear there regularly, it seems we have a somewhat plausible candidate to explain the value of recognition: achievement. According to this line of thought, we value Van Gogh and Albert because of a great artistic or scientific achievement.
However, we must separate achievement from recognition because true achievement can take place even if never recognized. For example, Albert achieved his scientific discovery regardless of our knowledge of this fact. As far as achievement contributes to well-being, Albert would enjoy it even without our acknowledging his achievement. Therefore, in order to claim that achievement is the force driving recognition’s value, the objectivist should claim that recognition in itself is a sort of achievement, independent of prior accomplishment achieved in life.
But claiming that gaining postmortem recognition is a sort of completely independent achievement is also an odd claim. Think of what constitutes an achievement. You will probably agree with Bradford (2015, 12) that “achievements have at least this characteristic in common: that they are difficult.” This is a plausible claim, which Bradford (ibid.) demonstrates well using this example:
Consider Jim, our one-armed friend who successfully ties his shoes. Why does this count as an achievement for Jim, but tying my shoes with both my healthy hands does not count as an achievement for me? One feature that appears to distinguish his achievement—and, I will contend, all achievements—is that it is difficult. If tying my shoes presented a particular difficulty for me to overcome, as it does for Jim, then my success might count as an achievement too.
Now think of Albert or Kafka. They indeed worked hard to discover a scientific theory or write magnificent novels. But they spent no extra effort in order to become famous for it. Their publication was independent of their actions and determined only by Elsa and Brod. So, how can it be a considered an achievement of theirs? Rachel’s case makes this fact even more salient—her legacy is dependent only on the actions of her children, but not upon her actions. If the falsehood about her was to be disproven, then it should actually be considered as her children’s success, not her success. This means that postmortem recognition depends on events that are out of the dead person’s control, sometimes even being a product of pure luck. Calling legacy in these contexts an achievement will not reflect that fact that true achievement must involve rigorous effort. Thus, this is not a good explanation to legacy’s worth.
We could reach the conclusion that if we cannot explain legacy’s worth through achievement, some item should be added to the list in order to account for it. For example, Kagan’s list stands out in relation to the rest as it includes fame and honor, which certainly could include legacy under it. That will be fair play, but it will also reflect the persistent disadvantage of objective-list theory. That is, it would be a move that lacks a fuller theoretical explanation of why indeed we should consider legacy as a good thing (Prinzing 2020). If we will ask why legacy is an independent and irreducible good, we will always be left unanswered. If we seek to gain a deeper understanding of why posthumous praise is valuable, we need to turn to another theory.
The final prominent well-being theory is perfectionism. Perfectionism equates well-being with fulfilling our human natural capacities. Usually, we think of human nature as something that should be understood on the individual level. That is, we believe it can be described through a list of predicates that hold for a single subject. For example, we could claim that someone is a human being if, and only if, she holds rational capabilities, has a physical body of some kind, and has emotional qualities of some type. If we hold this kind of view on human nature, then manifesting being human would be exclusively dependent on individual capacities, as indeed most perfectionists hold. So, continuing the previous example, if someone is a human being, then the perfectionist would claim that she can flourish only through obtaining intellectual skills, practicing physical traits, and enjoying emotional states.
However, perfectionism fails in explaining the presented intuitions about postmortem’s influence on well-being. As Epicureans emphasize, a dead person no longer exists, and thus we cannot describe his well-being in terms of some individual action, trait, or state.
Notice that this is actually in line with the analysis of the virtue of legacy. We have not claimed that the quality of legacy is determined by what we do after death. Rather, our analysis revealed that legacy is important to us, in the sense it reflects how others relate to us after death. Van Gogh is better off not because he demonstrated postmortem capacity of some sort (obviously), but because the rest of the world has formed a favorable attitude towards him. Rachel’s well-being is not dependent on her actions, but on the beliefs of her environment. So, it cannot be that legacy’s worth is explained by relating solely to individual capacities, as traditional perception of human nature implies. If the perfectionist wishes to explain legacy’s virtue, she should hold a notion of human nature that is not manifested solely through individual predicates. Rather, she ought to have a perception of human nature that some aspects of it may be manifested through the beliefs of others.
4. Humans-As-Social-Creatures Perfectionism
Perfectionism thus far has described human beings as completely individualistic. Not only can we think of humans as independent entities, but they can flourish on their own as long as they fulfill a set of requirements. They can manifest their full human potential without the presence of anyone else. It is true that humans can survive outside of a society alone in the wilderness and, in this sense, we can imagine a human as an individual. However, think of yourself living in complete solitude, disconnected from any kind of society. Most of your time and energy will be spent collecting food, maintaining shelter, and protecting yourself against predators. You would lack any sort of language, a necessary condition for abstract reasoning and rich internal discourse. You would never enjoy a profound relationship with anyone, let alone friends, family, and children. As authors such as Hegel and Sartre claimed, you would not even have the notion of the self without the other’s gaze (Sarte 1943). When pondering about this possibility we are left with the question: What distinguishes humans from other animals when they exist alone? More importantly, are those things part of how we truly conceptualize humanness? I believe the answer is no. Those very things that are deprived of us when we cease existing in a group—reasoning, interacting, becoming aware of oneself—are the things that make us human. Thus, part of being truly human is belonging to a group, identifying with some people, and cooperating with them. Humans should be understood as creatures that by nature belong to societies.
This should especially concern perfectionists. After all, perfectionists strive to fully materialize human aspects of life. If this is deprived of humans when viewed as individuals, then perfectionists should shift their view, and comprehend humans as social creatures.
According to the proposed logic, by the very nature of belonging to a society, humans have a social role and a social status. Within societies, people judge each other according to shared norms, pay each other differentiating amounts of respect, and designate to one another varying social roles. These are conditions that allow for a feeling of belonging, management of interactions, and a productive cooperation between humans. Moreover, quite intuitively we can assert that attaining higher status means manifesting well the social aspect of human’s nature. A king ruling his land enjoys his social nature more than his slave, who is quite literally enslaved by his social identity. Thus, according to the perfectionist, having higher communal rank contributes to well-being, since it can be considered as perfecting the social aspect of human nature.
It is important to note that one’s status is not determined by one’s actions, but rather by how society relates to him. For example, a slave may think he is a king, and act like one, but unless treated as king, it will never be true, and the same holds in the other direction. So, when we view humans as social creatures, we commit ourselves to claiming that one’s flourishing, at least in the social aspect, is dependent on others’ relation to him. In that sense, we add to the regular view of human nature as manifested merely though his capabilities, a layer that is manifested through other humans’ relation to him. Accepting this perception of human nature of flourishing can, at last, explain the worth of postmortem legacy. Because one’s status is not dependent on himself, but on others, it can be determined even after his death, conditioned on if and how he is remembered and regarded. The more humans are appreciated, the higher their social status, the better they manifest their social nature, and all of this can happen to a person even after being dead. This explanation does not only pave a way to accommodate for legacy’s importance, but it also grants a broader explanation of why it should matter.
Aristotle is considered to be the first perfectionist. In ancient Greece, a crucial ethical term, which was prominent in the writing of Homer, Heraclitus, and Plato, was the term Kleos—often translated to English as ‘glory.’ Kleos represented the ideal of being remembered for glorious acts. It was especially important for warriors, who, according to their ethical code, aspired to have Kleos over anything else. So much so that some of them took tremendous risks and even sacrificed their lives only to gain Kleos. This sacrifice seemed just in their eyes because they saw Kleos as a way of becoming immortal through existing as an object of memory of others long after death (Hooper 2015). Thus, perfectionism was actually developed in an intellectual atmosphere that hosted the idea that legacy can outlive a human being through shaping the way other people relate to the dead after death.
Merging together the Greek notions of perfectionism (Eudaimonia) and glory (Kleos), we are able to grant a description of human nature and definition of well-being that can explain how and why postmortem recognition is so important to us. Because our identity outlasts us, through other people, the way by which the subject is remembered can influence well-being after the person ceases to exist.
The idea that well-being is connected with social status is deeply rooted in ancient thinking. However, one should note that social perception of human nature stands in conflict with other, more modern ideas of the self. Specifically, it is not readily compatible with the widespread economic treatment of well-being. In economic theory, each agent has her own utility equation. This utility is a mathematical entity that embodies the agent’s well-being. Moreover, this function is considered to be a mere representation of a set of existing preferences. So, each agent’s utility function is construed in such a way that the more the world fits the agent’s preferences, the higher her utility will be.
Such an understanding of well-being is very different from well-being perfectionism and seems to be a derivative of desire-satisfactionism. This is easy to see if we replace the term ‘preferences’ with ‘desires’. Indeed, economics in general often implicitly assumes a desire (or preference) satisfaction theory of well-being. But more important to our inquiry is the fact that the economic framework disallows a truly social concept of well-being. This is not clear at first sight. On the face of it, the economist can claim that her theoretical framework allows for social perception to affect one’s well-being. The economist can simply insert into the agent’s preferences a preference about how well she will be treated by society. So, utility will go up the more a person is well-thought of. Is this not the same conclusion that was depicted above?
It is not. Let us say we can measure how much you are well-thought of and divide this measure into units ranging from 0-10. Each additional unit adds 1 to your utility. So, if you are very well-thought of you will have 10 more utility points than an identical person that everyone dislikes and no one appreciates. Now, let us also say that you really like cookies. That is, you have a strong preference to have many cookies and every additional 100 cookies you receive increases your utility by 1. This means that if I take away your social position, but give you 1,000 cookies instead, your well-being will be completely identical because the utility level will be equal. This example reveals more broadly that, in economic terms, all goods, including social goods, are assumed to be commensurable with each other. As such, even if one’s social perception enters one’s utility function, the value of it could always be replaced with a sufficiently large number of material goods that can be consumed alone, such as cookies.
The implication of this revelation is that fundamentally the economist always imagines agents as individuals, consuming goods according to their preferences. Among these individually consumed goods, it so happens that there are also social goods. But these social goods are not inherently different from other goods. Viewing legacy as commensurable with other goods contradicts the thesis that I am putting forward. I claim that what people think of us matters to our well-being because we are social creatures who cannot fully satisfy our humanness by ourselves. Social goods cannot simply be replaced with other goods because they are part of what makes us human in the first place. The idea that we can simply substitute social life with an individually consumed good does not resonate with social perfectionism. Thus, the idea of social perfectionism contradicts the economic perception of well-being because of its perfectionist and social elements.
5. Concerns and Implications
The position of social perfectionism was motivated by the need to account for legacy’s virtue. However, this explanation is not free of difficulties and some troubling implications. In the following, I will deal with three salient concerns and refine the proposed theory to address them.
On the face of it, the proposed social perfectionist theory has a counterintuitive implication. It claims that our social rank is important to our well-being, and that this rank is determined by others’ relations to us. This implies that we should care deeply about what people think of us not only after death, but also during our life. This is probably true to some extent—we tend to believe that having a negative social image is bad and having a positive social image is good, and one should generally strive to be well thought of. If a friend tells you that he is considered to be an unpleasant person at work, you would probably encourage him to try to put in the effort required to change his colleagues’ perception.
However, what is worrying is that this line of reasoning may justify being overly concerned with self-image. We all know people who seem to be obsessed with how they are perceived, and that they act rigorously to persuade their environment that they are intelligent, confident, generous, or nice, sometimes more than they actually are. The paradigmatic example would be of the modern politician, who spends most of his time fostering a meticulous social image, trying to convince the nation he should be re-elected. Quite intuitively we reject the idea that this contributes to well-being, or that this is at all a desired behavior. If you have in mind such a person, I am willing to guess you would not wish yourself, nor your child, to be like them. Yet, our theory might imply that you should wish that. After all, as far as it works, striving to have a better reputation will increase your well-being according to the proposed theory. So, social perfectionism seems to be in trouble.
In response, one should note that claiming that the social aspect of our lives matters for our well-being does not mean other aspects are not important as well. A person should lead a life that is balanced across different aspects of well-being. Thus, social perfectionism does not imply we should neglect other aspects of the good life just in name of social recognition. So, a politician who spends that vast majority of his time worrying about his public image is not flourishing, but rather is leading an awfully unbalanced life. Thus, we can reject the notion that people who are overly concerned with their public image are truly well off insofar as it causes them to neglect other aspects of the good life.
However, there is a further, more revealing, explanation of why being overly engaged with fostering in-life social image is not supported by social perfectionism. It lays in what Kauppinen (2008) calls diachronic perfectionism, and specifically in the sub-type of animal nature perfectionism (ANP). In the ANP variance of perfectionism “[t]he ideal timing of each activity is determined by the developmental stage of the individual and the natural rhythms of the human animal” (Kauppinen 2008, 4). Consequently ANP “takes seriously the fact that we are members of a biological species with specific patterns of development and decay, and natural rhythms.” And so, according to this theory “[t]here are certain things it is best for us to do as children, as youths, as adults, as retirees, and so on” (Kauppinen 2008, 5).
Kauppinen introduces this theory to explain why we might think that, for example, a young person should make career decisions so she will face challenging and meaningful tasks, while a retired person facing the same dilemmas may choose to opt for tranquility and time with family members. It is a reasonable explanation that indeed echoes our presumptions of how human nature develops gradually over time.
Using ANP theory, we can contrast between in-life recognition and postmortem recognition. After death, we exist only as objects of memory. This explains why postmortem recognition should be very important to us—it defines all of our identity after we die, when we take into account our natural “patterns of development and decay”. However, when we think of in-life recognition, this is not the case. The way people relate to us is still important, but not as important as it is after death because we still exist as independent individual subjects. So, according to this logic and using ANP’s framework, I claim that given our natural course of existence, while we should make decisions to enhance our legacy, we should be worried to a lesser extent about fostering in-life public image. According to this explanation, what is problematic in the politician’s behavior is that he seems to be missing the distinction between in-life and postmortem recognition. He grants huge importance to his in-life recognition, forgetting that while living it has a lesser importance.
Another concern might arise. We have asserted that postmortem recognition is important, but need it be based on truth? For example, say, in reality, Van Gogh is not the person who painted all the famous paintings we admire. Instead, it turns out that Van Fogh was the true painter and most of us just do not know this fact because of a mix-up. Is Van Gogh still benefiting from the fact that we admire him for something he did not do?
Intuitions may be hazy here, but I am prone to suggest that Van Gogh gains from any kind of glory, even if undeserved. One way to look at this is that, prima facie, there should be a symmetry between Van Fogh and Van Gogh. That is, obviously Van Fogh is disadvantaged by the fact that we do not admire him, even though he was the real painter (equivalent to the story of Albert). So, unless a strong counterargument is presented, it seems that there is no reason to think Van Gogh does not gain what Van Fogh loses.
A third and final concern arises with regard to when we can actually claim that someone has lived a good life. If we say that well-being can change after death, then it is unclear how we can determine one’s well-being because there seems to be no strict temporal limit to it. Someone could be well-remembered at one period of time and be completely forgotten at another period of time, and then rediscovered, and so on. More generally, someone’s well-being may change constantly, depriving us of the possibility to claim with assurance at any point of time that someone lived a good life, rendering the whole notion ambiguous and useless.
This concern, however, is ill-founded because judgements of well-being are always conditioned on time. Think of a living person. One can never say what a person’s well-being will be at the end of her life: even if she lived a wonderful life so far, she might go through a terrible accident a second after one makes a judgement of her well-being. Still, knowing this, you probably feel comfortable saying that thus far her life has been good. This is a sensible statement that recognizes the epistemic limit of referring to the future. The same is true of a dead person. Why should it be problematic to simply say that thus far, the person’s life and afterlife have been good?
Here is another example. Say, in 1,000 years from now, humanity develops a technology that is able to revive dead people. This would be the equivalent of re-remembering a forgotten person in term of well-being. Does this future fact discredit all of our well-being judgements at the moment? No. It just emphasizes that all well-being judgements are accumulative but not definitive. As far as the indefiniteness of the proposed perception of well-being goes, it should be a concern to the classical perception as well.
In this article, I presented arguments in favor of viewing legacy as a factor that affects well-being, even though it is determined after death. I showed that hedonism, desire-satisfactionism, objective-list theory, and traditional perfectionism all fail in explaining the value of post-mortem recognition in a satisfactory manner. As a response, I introduced the idea that human nature is social and I developed a social variation of perfectionism that can accommodate the view that legacy impacts well-being. This variation is not only helpful in explaining legacy’s value, but is also appealing in its own right.
There are three implications to this analysis. First, I have shown that legacy matters to our well-being. This fact has some important implications on how we should guide our lives. Specifically, it emphasizes the fact that when we develop our career, interact with our friends, and take care of our family, we should be aware that these activities can benefit our well-being not only while living, but also after it.
Second, and more broadly, the discussion paves the way into claiming that postmortem events beyond legacy may matter to our well-being. For example, it may be that incidents that happen to someone’s kin may affect her well-being even after death. Further research could investigate new ideas and directions relying on the developed theoretical framework.
Finally, the argument in this article implies that we should view humans as social creatures that interact in societies and play different social roles. This consideration leads us to conclude that identities can outlive the subject as objects of others’ memories. Paired with perfectionism, this consideration allowed us to cross the barrier of death and show that our well-being can change even after death.
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