Why is death bad? Notes for December 2

Main points

Death is bad, according to Nagel, because it involves losing something, namely the good things in life. It is not bad because death itself is a bad state. Since death involves not existing, it is no state at all, good or bad.

We talked about three obstacles that Nagel discussed in the course of spelling out this answer. The quality of our discussion was unusually high. Way to go!

Obstacle one

The first obstacle concerned questions about how things could be bad for someone who isn’t around. For instance, one might think that in order for something to be bad for me I have to know about it. Or, more plausibly, one might think that in order for something to be bad for me, it has to happen to me. In either case, the fact that I don’t exist seems to insulate me from anything bad happening to me.

I think that most of us rejected the idea that things are bad for you only if you know about them. We were more evenly divided about whether something could be bad for you if it does happen to you or, as Lauri put it, if it doesn’t effect you.

Nagel has a complicated answer to that question involving time. Roughly, he thinks that we may not be able to place good or bad things at a precise point in time. Or, at least, we can’t do so as precisely as we can place people in time, such that we can say pretty definitely when they were born and when they died. I have to confess that I don’t fully understand his point.

For my money, Jeff had a simpler way of addressing this problem. He said that death is bad because it happens to a living person: the one who dies. I think that’s compatible with Nagel’s basic idea that death is bad because it involves loss. And, as I said, it’s a heck of a lot easier to understand. Well done Jeff!

Obstacle two

The second obstacle concerned Lucretius’s question about the asymmetry between our attitudes towards the time before birth and the time after death. If non-existence before birth isn’t so bad, why fear it after death?

This is surprisingly tricky to deal with. As you can see from the long footnote on pp. 8–9, Nagel didn’t have a lot of confidence in his answer. (Note that what worried him was, yes, people seeds. They’re everywhere!)

I said that the phenomenon Lucretius noted might simply be due to a fact about fear, namely, that it is only felt towards events in the future. It makes no sense to fear something in the past, even if it is very bad. Lucretius might answer that I missed his point. His point was that we don’t even think that non-existence before birth was bad. It’s not a point about fear, he might say, it’s a point about what we think is good or bad. I’ll leave it to you to decide what you think of this.

Chris had an interesting answer. The difference is that our non-existence before birth ends, and ends well, while our non-existence after death won’t. Basically, we like a story that ends well, even if it involves an infinitely long period of something bad, like non-existence. That’s tremendously clever and a new one to me. Well done, Chris!

Obstacle three

The third obstacle concerned the sense in which death involves a loss of something that we might have otherwise had. We’re mortal, so we can’t have eternal life. But we still think that death is always bad. How can that be if death involves a loss of something that we would otherwise have?

Nagel’s answer implies that the goods of life can be enjoyed indefinitely. Life would be good if we were immortal. Williams will deny that.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2009. It was posted December 3, 2009.
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