Death Notes for December 1

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.

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. This occupied the bulk of our discussion.

Efe had some interesting questions about how exactly to formulate the problem under discussion. Specifically, there are questions about exactly what is said to be good or bad. Can cigarettes be bad for you if you don’t know that they’re the cause of cancer? I think Lucretius and his ilk would say that it’s the cancer that’s bad for you (or the pain caused by the cancer) and that cigarettes are bad only because they cause this pain. If you could get the benefits of smoking without the costs, why not?

I think it’s fair to say that most of you agreed with Lucretius and disagreed with Nagel. You were inclined to think that something can’t be bad for you if you don’t experience it. For instance, as long as the people you think of as friends act as though they like you without fail that’s pretty much the same thing, for you, as having real friends.

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 Levere, a student in last year’s class, 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 it’s a heck of a lot easier to understand.

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 was 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.

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 2010. It was posted December 6, 2010.
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