Friday, November 11, 2011

What's So Bad About Dying?

We lost Joe Frazier and Heavy D this week. Clearly, we’re all sad that they’re no longer with us. Their deaths represent a harm to us. But were they harmed by their deaths?

Contrary to popular opinion, the Epicureans argued that death is not a harm. Their view of death can be summarized in the following slogan: “Where I am, death is not. Where death is, I am not.”

The Epicureans can be understood as endorsing the following argument: Harms are experienced. Death is not experienced, but is the end of all experience. Therefore, death is not a harm.

Thomas Nagel, on the other hand, argues that the first premise of Epicurean argument is false. For Nagel, not all harms are experienced. For example, Nagel would say that you are harmed if a friend talks bad about you behind your back, even if you don’t experience any negative repercussions as a result of your friend’s betrayal.

For Nagel, one who dies experiences a relational harm. That is, the person is harmed relative to what she would have done had she not died. So, if Sarah was on the path to becoming a famous actress, but is killed before she is able to realize her dream, she is harmed, in Nagel’s view, because she would have become an actress had she not been killed. Sarah doesn’t experience this deprivation, but it is represents a harm to her on Nagel’s view.

Honestly, I don’t “get” Nagel’s view. I don’t see how it makes sense to say that the individual is harmed by a deprivation she is not aware of. Suppose, unbeknownst to me, Bill Gates plans to deposit $1billion into my sad bank account. Before he does so, his wife convinces him that there are people needier than Black Socrates. He agrees and donates the money to the American Cancer Society.

In this scenario, Melinda’s action deprives me of $1billion, but I am unaware of the deprivation. In what sense am I harmed? Here, something didn’t happen that I would have wanted to happen, but I wasn’t harmed by Bill’s not giving me $1billion. It seems right to say that something unfortunate happened (at least with respect to my overall interests) in this scenario, but not that this unfortunate thing happened to me.

I don’t have an argument for this claim (yet), but it just seems to me that what the Epicureans say about death is the right thing to say.

The Epicureans also thought that if death is not a harm, we have no reason to fear (or even we worried about) death. This thought seems wrong to me.
Even if the deprivations associated with death do not harm the individual who dies, that they exist is lamentable. Something bad can happen even if that bad thing doesn’t happen to someone.

James decided to attend Morehouse instead of Howard, where he would have met the love of his life. Susan failed to notice and pick up the lost $100 bill lying at her feet. Tia just missed meeting her long-lost twin sister Tamara in the mall. These are all bad things that could happen, but these bad things don’t happen to anyone, they don’t represent harms to individuals.

Despite this, I think that individuals have reason to fear their own deaths to the extent that their dying would be a bad thing, a tragedy. If Zadie is writing the great American novel, she has reason to fear dying before the novel is completed. Her dying at her laptop would be tragic. She can fear this potential tragedy as a tragedy and not as something that will harm her. We don’t want tragic things to happen and we have reason to feel apprehension, even fear, in the face of the possibility that they will occur.

The Epicureans are right, death is not a harm. But some of us have reason to fear dying nonetheless.