Is Death Bad?

Notes for December 3

Main points

Lucretius famously maintained that “Death, then, is nothing to us” (line 830, p. 89). We talked about two of his arguments for this conclusion along with Nagel’s replies.

Lucretius’s first argument

Death is nothing to us because we won’t be there to experience it.

“If it happens that people are to suffer unhappiness and pain in the future, they themselves must exist at that future time for harm to be able to befall them; and since death takes away this possibility by preventing the existence of those who might have been visited by troubles, you may be sure that there is nothing to fear in death, that those who no longer exist cannot become miserable, and that it makes not one speck of difference whether or not they have ever been born once their mortal life has been snatched away by deathless death.” (line 863, p. 90)

We started by spelling this out as a numbered argument. We needed the following:

  1. A premise about the necessary condition of something’s being bad for you. (Roughly: you have to exist in order for anything to be bad for you.)
  2. A premise about the nature of death. (Death means you’re not there to experience anything.)
  3. And a conclusion about whether death is bad. (The second premise means that the necessary condition in the first premise can’t be met when you are dead.)

Then we had a spirited discussion of the first premise. The central question we took up was whether anything could be bad for you that you don’t know about. Would it be bad for you if all of the people who you think are your friends are really paid actors who don’t much care for you, provided you never know this?

We started off with a rather lopsided vote on this: I was the only one who maintained this would be bad for the person involved. By the end of our discussion, I had three and a half converts. Franklin stalwartly held down the other side. There’s no proving this one way or the other, but I do think that most people would agree there is a hierarchy, going from better to worse.

  1. The people you think are your friends genuinely are your friends.
  2. The people you think are your friends are not actually your friends but you live in blissful ignorance of this fact.
  3. The people you thought were your friends are not actually your friends and you realize this.

Speaking for myself, I think 1 is better than 2.

We also discussed Nagel’s claim that whether things are good or bad can depend on their history and not just the quality of the experience. This was the point of the example of the adult who becomes “baby-ized.” It’s bad for an adult to live like a contented infant but great for an infant to live that way. The difference is in what they could have been: the adult could have been more, the baby could not. So it’s bad for the baby-ized adult, even though that person feels just as good about life as the real infant does. The adult has lost something without knowing it.

By the same token, Nagel reasoned, we lose something when we die even though we aren’t aware of that fact.

What’s bad about non-existence?

Here’s one of Lucretius’s best known arguments.

“Look back now and consider how the bygone ages of eternity that elapsed before our birth were nothing to us. Here, then, is a mirror in which nature shows us the time to come after our death. Do you see anything fearful in it? Do you perceive anything grim? Does it not appear more peaceful than the deepest sleep?” (972f, 94)

Isn’t it interesting to see philosophy written like this? It’s even more arresting in translations that aim to make it read more like a poem. Lucretius is pretty great. But I digress.

We could put this into an argument. We would need:

  1. A premise about a necessary condition of death being bad (Death is bad only if non-existence is bad.)
  2. A premise about non-existence not being bad. (Non-existence before birth isn’t bad.)
  3. A conclusion about whether death is bad. (It isn’t worse than the time before birth.)

Nagel took a crack at this. The difference, he thinks, is that while we could die at a later time than we do, it is not possible for us to have been born earlier than we were. I have to confess that I did not follow him here: why couldn’t we have been born earlier? Why couldn’t the gametes that combined to make me have met five seconds earlier than they did? Or five minutes? Or five years? And so on.

Following Patrick and Angela, I wonder if Lucretius made a different mistake. He observed that we fear non-existence after death but not non-existence before birth. He took this to show that we do not actually fear non-existence; our fear of death, he thought, has to have a different, irrational cause. But I wonder if this just means that it doesn’t make sense to fear the past. We can still think non-existence in the past was a bad thing: we can regret not having started our lives earlier, for instance. If so, we might well regard non-existence as bad, both before and after death; the fact that our attitudes towards these different periods of non-existence are different does not show that we think one is bad and the other is OK.

Is death always bad?

Nagel’s own opinion is that death is bad because it involves the loss of something good: life! Nagel also believed that there is nothing essentially limited about the good parts of life. Life could be good indefinitely.

Next time, we will see Williams dispute that.

Key concepts

  1. The two sides of the dispute about whether something could be bad for you if you didn’t know about it.
  2. Lucretius’s argument about the parallel between non-existence before birth and after death.
This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2013. It was posted December 3, 2013.
Problems of Philosophy