Skip to main content

Ethical dilemma: What makes life worth living? - Douglas MacLean


1,118 Questions Answered

TEDEd Animation

Let’s Begin…

Life on your planet depends entirely on Nuronium for normal cognition. Unfortunately, its source has been compromised and you are now at risk of extinction. Scientists have found an alternate energy source, Polixate, but it can’t sustain cognition and would mean the loss of people's creativity. So, what shall it be: extinction or life without culture? Douglas MacLean explores this classic dilemma.

Additional Resources for you to Explore

What is our interest in continuing to live? And, beyond that, how do we explain the nearly universal interest that future generations will live after us? Some philosophers would argue that the reason to continue to live and to ensure that there will be future generations of humans is to maximize happiness. Classical utilitarianism gives the most powerful argument for this view.  But a number of philosophers have challenged the idea that happiness is all that matters. 

This objection has been put in several ways. Susan Wolf has argued that our interest in living meaningful lives is important and not reducible to increasing happiness. What makes lives meaningful is not just the quality of our experiences, but also being connected to the world outside our experiences in ways we find valuable. For example, someone whose life was dedicated to raising money eventually to build a library in her town would not be satisfied if others arranged to make her believe the library would be built while spending the money she raised in other ways. 

Similarly, Samuel Scheffler has argued that we care about the future because we care that the projects to which we are devoted will continue after we die. Do you find these objections persuasive, or do you think that the classical (hedonistic) utilitarian can reply to them? How does your thinking about this issue relate to the debate about Nuronium or Polixate?

Next Section »

About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Douglas MacLean
  • Director Asparuh Petrov, Compote Collective
  • Narrator Adrian Dannatt
  • Music Big Banda Soundscapers
  • Sound Designer Alexander Evtimov
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Producer Sazia Afrin
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Fact-Checker Charles Wallace

More from The Way We Think