As our ultimate end, the question of whether we should fear our own death is a question that should be of the utmost importance to us. Everything that lives will die, and everything that has died once lived. Yet, it seems like a question that most people devote relatively low amounts of thought to--whenever I ask someone about their opinion on this, I usually get one of two answers to the effect of: "yes, obviously" or "no, obviously." I often wonder how intelligent people considering the same issue can reach opposite conclusions with such conviction, so I want to set this debate on rigorous grounds. To me, the question of whether we should fear our own death seems like a perfect primer into the nature of philosophical discussions, and in general, one of the most important questions we could ask ourselves.
To frame this discussion, there are a couple definitions to lay down first.
1) By 'death,' we take this to mean the period of time that one is actually dead, not the actual process of dying.
2) 'death' is the permanent lack of sense experience (so we're assuming no afterlife here). Even if you do believe in an afterlife, you should still read ahead. The discussion ahead of us is insightful, interesting, and best of all, it will only take about 5 minutes to read. What's not good about that?
The beginning of our journey takes us around 2300 years into the past, to the time of the Ancient Greeks, and to a man named Epicurus in particular, who famously said that he would be content with only "water, bread, weak wine, and a pot of cheese." Epicurus believed it was irrational to fear death. His reasoning was that we can only experience things while we are living, and because death can only happen when we are not living, we cannot experience it. How could something we can't experience be bad in any way for us? To jog our mind, we should think up examples of things that are clearly bad for us and see if experiencing "badness" (which we'll call harm) is a necessary part of the harm. Imagine something like touching a hot skillet and getting burned. Is it bad for us? Clearly, but why is it bad for us? Clearly as before, it's because touching the skilled will cause us pain. Let's consider another example. Now, imagine an event where someone finds out that their partner is cheating on them. This clearly seems bad for the one getting cheated on because the cheating is emotionally damaging. If we can't think of any situations where someone is harmed but doesn't experience it, perhaps it's true that something can only be bad for us if we can experience it. Then, because being dead is, by definition, something that we can't experience, we shouldn't fear it. Epicurus sums up his point nicely when he says: "So death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist."
There are probably some of you reading this that aren't quite convinced by the idea that you must experience something for it to be bad for you. What if someone never found out that their partner cheated on them? It seems as if that is bad for the one being cheated on, but if they never find out about it, in what way are they experiencing this harm? To complicate matters even more, it seems that under the Epicurean view of "being harmed" as something that must be experienced, you aren't actually harmed by someone cheating on you until you actually find out. So, it seems that you should never tell a friend that they're being cheated on, because only in the moment of you telling them about it are they being harmed. In fact, it may even be the case under this view that you are the one harming them, not their partner, because you caused them to have knowledge of their partner's infidelity, something that would have never brought about emotional pain if you never told them in the first place. As another example, imagine that you buy a winning lottery ticket, but you never find out that the ticket you bought was a winner. You aren't aware of what you've missed out on, yet you clearly seem harmed in some way. To say otherwise would be to imply that you are just as well off receiving the lottery winnings vs. not even knowing that you won. This, along with the cheating example, seems like quite an absurd implication of Epicurus' view, and we're definitely not alone in thinking along these lines. In his essay "Death," (which, by the way, is a fantastic name for an article in an academic journal) Thomas Nagel, a philosophy professor at NYU, argued basically the same point as this. His other argument can be summed up as: if life is generally a good thing, and death causes us to lose that good thing, then isn't death bad for us? I'll leave you to consider that argument. If it sounds obviously right, then think about why it's genuinely the case that I don't find it convincing. A key part of philosophizing is examining our own beliefs, and we stand a much better chance at getting to the truth of any matter if we question not only others' views, but also our own. When you think about this, try honestly to attack your own arguments and see if they hold up. As a hint into why I don't find Nagel's argument convincing, try thinking about how we drew the distinction between death, being dead, and dying, and how each event affects us and our well-being.
Lastly, I want to talk about Stephen Luper's essay "Annihilation," (also excellently named) which I think is an incredibly interesting argument against Epicurus.
Luper believes that for someone to ascribe fully to the Epicurean view of death, then they must become someone that we should not aspire to be. Specifically, for us to be indifferent to death and to believe, as Epicurus said, that "death is nothing to us," we must not have any fulfilling desires, nor any desires that could be thwarted by death. If Epicureans think that only the experience of bad things can be bad for you, they must believe that their own death is bad because when they imagine it, they are also imagining the end of their desires. Desires such as the desire to visit interesting places, the desire to talk with our friends, and even the desire to hear Logic put out a decent album again. Contemplating death should make us feel depressed because we are contemplating the event that will, with certainty, crush our desires. So, our own death must be bad for us because it thwarts our desires. This brings about quite a dilemma: to truly be indifferent to death, your desires must either be incredibly shallow and unfulfilling, or they are only conditional on you being alive. The first option sounds like a terrible way to experience life because you would deprived of anything good, and the second option doesn't sound appealing either because it demands that we live heartless lives. For example, imagine the Epicurean Mother, someone who’s support for her children is conditional on her being alive. When she is alive, she desires to be there for her children and help them, but at the same time, that is the limit of her desire because if she wished to always support her children, then her death will eventually thwart that desire. For her truly to feel indifferent towards death, she must only desire to support her children while she is alive. This surely isn't the type of person we would want to be, so we ought to fear our own death. There's much more to say here, but rather than hand you my thoughts, I want you to try and think about Luper's argument yourself and see if it's a good counterargument to Epicurus.
I hope you come away from this discussion on Epicurus', Nagel's, and Luper's arguments with a more informed understanding of what it means to fear one's own death, and whether it's something reasonable to do. If you want to think about this more and see how Luper's and Nagel's arguments fit into this debate, here is a rigorous formulation of Epicurus' argument put forth by philosopher Stephen Rosenbaum when he defended Epicurus in his "How to Be Dead and Not Care" (also excellently named).
Epicurus' Argument, Formalized:
A) A state of affairs is bad for a person P only if P can experience it at some time
B) Being dead is bad for P only if P can experience it at some time
C) P can experience things only before they die
D) P's being dead is not a state of affairs that begins before P dies
E) P's being dead is not bad for P
Framework of the Debate:
1) Life is, on the whole, good
2) One ceases to exist during death
3) -Dying is a process that leads to Death
-Death is the point in time that a person becomes dead
-Being Dead is the state of affairs after death
Do you agree with Epicurus? With Nagel? With Luper? Let me know by clicking "Guestbook" near the top left of the page and leaving a comment. Do you have some entirely different argument altogether? Go ahead and leave a comment--I'd love to hear it.
By the way, I'm still debating over what to choose for next week's topic. It could be "what is the nature of friendship? Of love?" or "Is abortion morally permissible? In what contexts?" or "Are morals really relative?" or "What does metaethics even mean? It doesn't sound like a real thing." If you have any suggestions at all for a topic, even if it's different from the ones I've just listed, let me know!
If you want to read more, here are my sources. They can get quite technical and long, so I recommend reading summaries of them:
Epicurus, "Letters to Menoeceus"
Thomas Nagel, "Death"
Steven Luper, "Annihilation"
Stephen Rosenbaum, "How to Be Dead and Not Care"
If you want to read more about this topic, try looking up summaries of:
George Pitcher, "The Misfortunes of the Dead" (a good introduction to some metaphysical ideas)
Bernard Williams, "The Makropulous Case: reflections on the tedium of immortality" (another excellent title)