Monday, May 28, 2012

Why is death bad?

This question seems like it would have an obvious answer and yet philosophers have struggled to provide an adequate answer. This is because many of the answers that common sense and from traditional philosophy has supplied gives incoherent or very problematic answers.

Shelly Kagan works in this little studied area of ethics. See here for an interesting article by him published in the the Chronicle which tries to general outline the problems for the different accounts of why death is bad. He supplies and defends a deprivation account of death in his latest book but does not offer significant defense of his own views in the Chronicle article.

The deprivation account is a comparative account. It basically says that what is bad about death is all the goods that one would not get to enjoy when dead (similar to the opportunity cost of the economists).

Kagan says that unlike pain which is intrinsically bad, death is a comparative or relative bad. He then provides some challenges to this view which I think are quite damaging to that view and I am not sure how Kagan is able to surmount them in his book since he does defend it. I also think that if you are to gives such an account, you may have to also supply a calculus which includes the bads and goods of life instead of just adding up all the good one misses in death. I haven't seen anyone do that so far in talking about the badness of death which is odd. The negatives may outweigh the positives for many people in the world but it is hard to say that death is not bad for these people. The death seems to be bad even if the accounting of the positives versus the negatives in their lives would have came out in the net negative unless that net negative is so unusually bad that they themselves wish they had not gone on living. Some philosophers have argued that for almost all human lives, the bad far outweighs any good of living. So not being born is preferable but on a deprivation view, this may imply (with some additional supporting arguments of course) that death is preferable to life.

I have my own rough views on this topic which I'd like now to sketch out. It is a very tentative view and I'm not sure if people have advanced similar views before as I'm not familiar with the literature.

I will call my view the fractured-self view (I wish I was a better poet because the name sounds clumsy to me). It is similar to the deprivation view in that it is also a comparative conception of death but it does not focus on the goods that are deprived from death.

Rather it focuses on what the death does to the self. I believe that much of our conception of ourselves are grounded in our core principles and values and our most valued projects. In fact, I believe that our major life projects fundamentally encapsulate our principles and values and thus are expressions of the self.

Our major life projects are to fulfill certain roles, professional, familial, moral, artistic, spiritual, etc. When we die, these projects which reflect our principles, our values and thus expressions of our most fundamental self go unfulfilled. We have no prospects of completing them; indeed, not even the opportunity to attempt to.

That is what is tragic about death. It fractures us in a most fundamental way. Had we lived we would have sought to complete these life projects. So the reason death is bad is because it is bad compared to a counterfactual (the life had the dead individual survived). I believe this view avoids some of the major problems Kagan says have outlined and that of his own views. For example, if non existence is bad because it deprives us of the goods of living, why do we not view the nonexistence before death as just as bad as the nonexistence after? On my view, because the nature of life projects are always future oriented, non existence in the past does not matter because for the simple fact that we cannot complete a project in the past (backward causation notwithstanding) but we can for future projects if we are alive. It is not the time of our birth that prevents us from completing "projects" before we are born; it is the fundamental causal and nomological structure of the world that does that. There's no tragedy in not being able to do the impossible. That's what accounts for the temporal asymmetry. However, on Kagan's view, this objection is problematic because goods in the past are as good as goods in the future (at least ontologically there doesn't seem to be any reason to view them as different from a value perspective).

My view explains why it is often believed that death for a 90 year old is not as worse as death for a 20 year old. The 20 year old is likely to have many more life projects unfulfilled. The 90 year old, on the other hand, likely would have fulfilled many major life projects and would have very few remaining. She is nearly whole upon her death at 90 whereas the 20 year old's death fractures him in a way that leaves him less than whole. Of course, the 90 year old may still have some projects that go unfulfilled and thus that would explain why it is still somewhat tragic for that nonagenarian to die but just not as tragic as the 20 year old. In short, death prevents us from developing our full selves, being a whole.

But what about newborn babies? Isn't it tragic for them to die even though they are too young to have any projects in mind? Maybe it is the potential life projects that matters most in evaluating the tragedy of a newborn baby's life. A baby has no life projects but they do have the potential or propensity for developing lots of life-projects and the extinguishing of that potential or propensity by death is what is tragic about death for it.

There may be lots of problematic issues for this account of life but prima facie, it seems very plausible to me. I need to think more and harder about what the potential problems are and if they can be overcome. This is a very tentative view for me now. One objection may go on to ask the further question why being less than "whole" or developing into "our full selves" is really that bad? I can only think of responding with what was basically hinted at above; that it is bad because our most fundamental values cannot be realized and that is certainly bad. There's no more explaining that needs to be done to explain why things going contrary to our basic values and principles is bad (for us). We've hit philosophical rock bottom. But this may seem circular or question begging but I can't think of any further justification for my view.

1 comment:

  1. well in death i believe you cannot do the things you once was capable of doing, however noone really knows what happens after death, is it another world or do we go to heaven/hell :O
    its still all a big mystery.
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