Thursday, May 17, 2012

Why Is Death Bad?

Philosophers like to think about questions that would never occur to normal people to ask. A Yale philosopher named Shelly Kagan does precisely this in an article at Kagan wonders why it is, exactly, that we all think that death is a very bad thing. He stresses that he doesn't mean the process of dying, but rather the state of not being alive. Here's his lede:
We all believe that death is bad. But why is death bad?

In thinking about this question, I am simply going to assume that the death of my body is the end of my existence as a person....But if death is my end, how can it be bad for me to die? After all, once I'm dead, I don't exist. If I don't exist, how can being dead be bad for me?
From this starting point he launches a very interesting examination of a question whose answer we all take for granted until someone like Kagan invites us to think more deeply about it. Here's more:
People sometimes respond that death isn't bad for the person who is dead. Death is bad for the survivors. But I don't think that can be central to what's bad about death. Compare two stories.

Story 1. Your friend is about to go on the spaceship that is leaving for 100 Earth years to explore a distant solar system. By the time the spaceship comes back, you will be long dead. Worse still, 20 minutes after the ship takes off, all radio contact between the Earth and the ship will be lost until its return. You're losing all contact with your closest friend.

Story 2. The spaceship takes off, and then 25 minutes into the flight, it explodes and everybody on board is killed instantly.

Story 2 is worse. But why? It can't be the separation, because we had that in Story 1. What's worse is that your friend has died. Admittedly, that is worse for you, too, since you care about your friend. But that upsets you because it is bad for her to have died. But how can it be true that death is bad for the person who dies?

Maybe nonexistence is bad for me....because when I'm dead I lack life — more particularly, the good things in life. That explanation of death's badness is known as the deprivation account.

Despite the overall plausibility of the deprivation account, though, it's not all smooth sailing. For one thing, if something is true, it seems as though there's got to be a time when it's true. Yet if death is bad for me, when is it bad for me? Not now. I'm not dead now. What about when I'm dead? But then, I won't exist. As the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote: "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."
Kagan's essay is worth reading in its entirety as it really is thought-provoking. I just have one or two comments about it that I'd like to offer. If we accept his belief that death is annihilation, complete non-existence, then there are two things which make it bad, one of which he discusses later in the article and one of which he doesn't. The first is that just as we gain something from passing from non-existence to existence, i.e. life and all of its attendant possibilities, to pass from existence to non-existence is to lose something wonderful and precious. Kagan offers an analysis of this position in his piece which I leave to the interested reader to consider.

The second point, the one that Kagan doesn't discuss, is that if what awaits us is total non-existence then it renders this life that we have now utterly meaningless and pointless. In other words it's not so much that the state of non-existence is bad, but rather the implications of that state for our life now is bad.

Many who agree with Kagan that death is annihilation want to nevertheless cling to the belief, or hope, that life can still be meaningful, but I think this is a case of whistling past the graveyard. As the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once said, "Life has no meaning once you lose the illusion of being eternal." It's hard to see how it could be any other way. Unless what we do matters for eternity it doesn't matter at all.

And, of course, if Kagan's assumption that death is the end is incorrect, which I think and hope it is, then, depending upon what it leads to, death can be very bad indeed.