The Badness of Death

Author: Duncan Purves
Category: Ethics, Phenomenology and Existentialism
Word Count: 1000

So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more — Epicurus, ‘Letter to Menoeceus’ 4

That death is generally very bad is one conclusion on which nearly all people seem to agree. However, as Epicurus famously argues in the above quotation, while death appears to be the greatest harm of all, it is a problematically special sort of harm. Unlike typical harms, the event of death does not cause things to go badly for us after it happens, because we do not exist after we die. Therefore, things do not appear to go badly for individuals at times after their death. We can call this the No Subject Problem.

The No Subject Problem seems to entail that death is not bad for someone at times after her death. But why should we be concerned to identify some time at which death is bad for the person who dies? The reason is that all other harms appear to be bad at particular times. If I hit my head on my kitchen cabinet, this is bad for me at times after the event occurs—when I have a headache. If I stub my toe, this is bad for me at times after the event occurs—when I have throbbing pain in my foot. Since other bad events appear to be bad at times, if death is bad for us at no particular time, then we are pushed towards the Epicurean conclusion that death is not bad for us. We might sum up the Epicurean argument as follows:

  1. Anything that is bad for someone must be bad for her at some time.
  2. There is no time at which death is bad for the person who dies.
  3. Therefore, death is not bad for the person who dies.1

If all bad events must be bad for individuals at times, when is death bad for the one who dies if it is not bad afterward? We can distinguish between four answers to this question, each of which I will briefly consider:

    • Atemporalism: Death is bad for its victim at no time.
    • Eternalism: Death is bad for the one who dies at all times.
    • Priorism: Death is bad for its victim before her death.
    • Concurrentism: Death is bad for the one who dies at the time of her death.

Atemporalism

Thomas Nagel rejects premise (1) of the Epicurean argument, arguing that death is “timelessly bad” for the one who dies.2 The trouble with Nagel’s response to the Epicurean argument is that it seems to make a special case out of death, when death seems to be similar to other kinds of evils. But death does seem bad for me at a particular time—at the time when I’m dead and am deprived of the benefits of living. What is it about death in particular that allows it to be a timeless harm while other, apparently similar harms are not timeless?

Eternalism

According to eternalists like Fred Feldman, death is bad at all times.3 Feldman believes that death is bad for someone just in case her life would have contained more value had she not died her actual death. Since it is always true, thinks Feldman, that a person’s life would have contained more value had she not died her actual death, death is eternally bad. The eternalist answer to the Epicurean argument is not entirely satisfying. For while it is true at all times that my life would have contained more value had I not stubbed my toe, it also seems like we can locate particular times during my life when stubbing my toe is bad for me. Plausibly, these are the times after the stubbing during which I feel pain. Once the pain subsides, contrary to Feldman’s view, the toe-stubbing is no longer bad for me.

Priorism

According to priorism, death is bad for the one who dies before death occurs. On this view, the event of death detracts from the value of a person’s life at times before death’s occurrence, because it retroactively makes it the case that her earlier desires are frustrated.4 One trouble with priorism is that it seems to imply that death is a special kind of evil, similar to atemporalism. Other bad events do not appear to be bad for us at times before they occur. According to Ben Bradley: “If yesterday I desired that it not snow today, but it is snowing today, things were not going badly for me yesterday. If anything, they are going badly today.”5

Concurrentism

Concurrentists hold that the entirety of death’s badness for someone is contained in the interval of time during which dying occurs, as our vital capacities dwindle away. Steven Luper says: “The subject of death is a live creature; death harms (at least in part) by destroying that creature’s vital capacities; and that harm occurs at the very time the creature dies.”6 Perhaps concurrentism captures part of what is bad about death, but surely there is more to the story. If I fall into a temporary coma, certainly the badness of the coma is explained partly by the fact that I am deprived of many goods I would have otherwise enjoyed after the coma sets in. Similarly, the badness of death must, in part, be explained by that of which it deprives its victim. At best, concurrentism offers only part of the story.

Conclusion

None of the answers to the Epicurean argument seem entirely satisfactory. In light of the difficulties with identifying a time at which death’s badness obtains, perhaps we should reconsider the possibility that death is a timeless evil. This would make death a unique case, but death is already unique in other ways insofar as its occurrence coincides with its subject going out of existence.

Notes

1This is roughly Ben Bradley’s understanding of Epicurus’s argument.

2Nagel (1970).

3Feldman (1991).

4George Pitcher (1993) is one among several authors who defend priorism.

5Bradley (2009: 87).

6Luper (2006).

References

Bradley, Ben. (2009). Well-Being and Death. Oxford University Press.

Feldman, Fred. (1991) “Some Puzzles about the Harm of Death.” The Philosophical Review 100(2): 205–227.

Luper, Steven (2006) “Death.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2006 Edition), Edward N Zalta (ed.), URL=http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2006/entries/death/>.

Nagel, Thomas. (1970) “Death.” Noûs 4: 73–80.

Pitcher, George. (1993) “The Misfortunes of the Dead.” In The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Fischer, 159-68.

Duncan has a BA in French and Philosophy from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Colorado, Boulder where he currently holds a position as a lecturer in the Philosophy Department. He has research interests in ethical theory and applied ethics, especially the nature of harm, death, and problems surrounding our obligations to future generations. When Duncan is not thinking about harm, death, or the future, he is usually rock climbing or playing nerdy card games. Website: http://duncanpurves.wordpress.com/

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