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.



  1. I'm with you on not quite grasping Nagel's view. But maybe that's because Nagel thinks people exist, somehow, separate from what they know about themselves? I think all this boils down to problems in personal identity, too. But I'm with you and the Epicureans.

  2. I find it interesting that stoicism is more prevalent when times are rough. That is, stoicism is a form of socio-philosophical repression: one represses one's pains so one does not have to deal with them. In a sense, stoicism is just western Buddhism, because desire exists as a painful lack: it is in the destruction of desire that one becomes free from pain. It is no surprise, then, that stoics focus on the end of life as an example of that which is harmless. If life is bad, then death is good, and the destruction of one's desires is a form of death.

    If we assume an enjoyable life, however, stoicism makes much less sense. Why numb oneself to a pleasurable existence? There is the thought that one day life might be painful, and thus numbing is preparation for a catastrophe, but the rationality of this seems dependent upon an individual's expected balance of pain versus pleasure.

    It seems sensible, to me, to regard loss of a painful life as no real loss. If I had terminal cancer and were being tortured to death, I would prefer to just die. Killing me would be a kindness. On the other hand, if I enjoyed perfect health, great wealth, and an abundance of whatever else makes me happy, death would seem to be a great harm to me. Even if the dying is painless, the deprivation is something I would much rather avoid because the alternative, i.e. a bountiful existence, is far superior.

    I understand that there is some sense to the view that once you are dead the life you could have had does not matter, but we do not talk about our own deaths from beyond the grave. We speak of our own deaths from our position within life, and it is relative to those lives that the value of death must be assessed.

  3. If it is indeed an unfortunate happening that you don't get that money, I can't see how it is something that didn't happen to you. It happened, yes. But why is it unfortunate? As you say, it's unfortunate with respect to your interests. Insofar as it's unfortunate, it's something that happened to you, no?

    The only reason I could see you saying "no, it didn't happen to me" is because you believe you have to be aware of something for it to happen to you. Well, we can then say: fine, it didn't happen to you, it happened in relation to you (again, you have to be involved in order for it to be unfortunate).

    But now you've given Nagel what he wanted: badness that is not experienced but which is nevertheless badness in relation to you. What more do you not get?

  4. Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find an Illuminated Understanding of what death requires of us

  5. The ultimate sin may be wanting to live.