The need for posthumous ethics in today’s fading ties with traditional religion

Keisuke Sato
Master’s (Doctoral) Program in Death and Life Studies
Graduate School of Applied Religious Studies

Professor Keisuke Sato from the Graduate School of Applied Religious Studies examines life and death from a philosophical perspective, traditionally a matter for religion. With increased freedom in funeral and memorial services, and the emergence of digital necromancy to resurrect people, he talks about the importance of considering the rights of the deceased.

I specialize in the philosophy of religion, an academic field that adopts a philosophical approach to thinking about death, the meaning of life, experiences of redemption, and other topics that have been traditionally handled by religion. We can also call it “Death and Life Studies.” For the past few years, I have been focusing on a theme called the posthumous ethics, which looks at how we handle the rights of the deceased.

In recent years, people have come to accept funerals and memorial services that are not bounded by traditional practices. When being cremated, dressing the deceased in their ordinary clothes—instead of burial clothes—is no longer that unusual, and we are no longer surprised when we hear of someone creating a memorial diamond from their loved one’s ashes.

Meanwhile, there are times when we ponder if our actions are correct when acting outside traditional practices or feel guilty as the memories of the dead fade away in our daily lives.

Such concerns and worries used to be answered by monks and other religious figures, but with freedom in the formats of funerals and memorial services, there are fewer opportunities to hear them talk about such topics. Therefore, we need to offer an alternative to religion, to consider and clarify the posthumous ethics.

The need for ethical guidelines when using AI to resurrect the dead

One of my research themes is to examine digital necromancy, technology that uses AI to “resurrect” the dead. We often hear views opposing such use, calling it a defilement of the dead, and from the perspective of posthumous ethics, this is also an issue that must be thought through with care.

What are the issues for people who oppose this technology? Perhaps they worry that the speech and behavior of the deceased, newly generated by AI, may change the past image of that person and the impression left in our memories. Or maybe the concern is that the dead are being used like objects and tools. Whatever the reason, as we use this technology, we need to consider what is the most important aspect to protect when dealing with the deceased.

In my research, my basic approach is to investigate events that are currently taking place, and use documental sources to develop theories for examining these events from an ideological angle. Besides papers that are currently being debated around the world, philosophical theory is often founded on thinking from the past few centuries, and such thinking can also serve as useful leads.

For example, I often refer to the theories of Immanuel Kant, a German philosophy from the 18th century. I find my research interesting at moments when complex themes become organized and explainable with a certain theory.

My future research theme is about the evil innate in all humans

Considering whether we should bring people back from the dead with AI technology, and what rules should govern this is a pressing issue. Another issue is how we should handle personal data—such as on computers and smartphones—once a person has died and we can no longer ask their intention. It would make me happy if my research can be useful as means for addressing such issues.

In addition, “the philosophy of the ordinary person” is the policy I adopt in research. I pay attention to research themes involving the secular worries and doubts of people. Philosophy is not like life counselling where someone will give an answer, but we can come to terms with our troubles and concerns by thinking carefully. I want to freely discuss about the posthumous ethics with people pondering over them.

“Evil” is a theme that I hope to work on in the future. We do small evils, even if they do not amount to crimes, such as cursing our parents and peeping at other people’s smartphones. Why do we behave in this way? How should we live with this evil in us? I hope to examine the evil found in everyone’s heart and answer these questions.

The book I recommend

“Aku ni Tsuite”(On Evil)
by Yoshimichi Nakajima, Iwanami Shinsho

The author acutely explains philosopher Immanuel Kant’s theory of evil. Although some parts are difficult to understand, the proper way to approach books on philosophy is to take time to read them while stopping to think. I hope people will read books in this way every once in a while, drawing closer to their own issues.

Keisuke Sato

  • Professor
    Master’s (Doctoral) Program in Death and Life Studies
    Graduate School of Applied Religious Studies

Graduated from the Faculty of Letters, Kyoto University and obtained his Ph.D. in literature after completing the doctoral program of the university’s Graduate School of Letters. Took on several positions—such as associate professor at Seigakuin University’s Faculty of Humanities and Nanzan University’s Faculty of Humanities—before assuming his current position in 2021.

Master’s (Doctoral) Program in Death and Life Studies

Interviewed: October 2023

Sophia University

For Others, With Others