Samuel Scheffler delivers renowned Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Berkeley

Samuel SchefflerUniversity Professor Samuel Scheffler delivered the prestigious, three-day Tanner Lectures on Human Values from March 13 to 15 at the University of California, Berkeley.

The general topic of Scheffler’s lectures was "The Afterlife," referring not to the familiar idea of an individual’s survival after his own biological death, but rather to the survival of other people after the individual’s death. Scheffler argued that most of us normally take it for granted that others will live on after we ourselves die, and that this assumption plays a neglected and surprisingly important role in our lives. In his first lecture, "How People Who Don't Yet Exist Matter More to Us Than People Who Do," Scheffler asserted that, if one knew that a catastrophe would destroy all life on Earth shortly after one's own death, many of one's activities would come to seem pointless or lacking in value. Our confidence in the value of our activities depends implicitly on our confidence that life will continue after our own deaths, he said. It depends, in this sense, on our confidence in the existence of a “collective afterlife.”

In the second lecture, "How the Present Depends on the Future," Scheffler expanded his theme further. He argued that many of our values tacitly depend on "the assumption that human life itself matters, and that it is an ongoing phenomenon with a history that transcends the history of any individual.... Humanity itself as an ongoing historical project provides the implicit frame of reference for most of our judgments about what matters. Remove that frame of reference, and our sense of importance—however individualistic it may be in its overt content—is destabilized and begins to erode." Scheffler also highlighted similarities and differences between his unconventional notion of “the collective afterlife” and more familiar religious and philosophical conceptions of a personal afterlife. On the third day, Scheffler participated in a seminar discussion of his lectures with commentators.

The Tanner Lectures, a multi-university series across nine institutions recognizing the lecturers' remarkable achievements in the field of human values, have been delivered previously by University Professor Thomas Nagel (at Stanford University) and University Professor Jeremy Waldron (at Berkeley).

Posted on March 28, 2012