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Philosophy of Life and Death - Is Death a Harm?

Philosophy of Life and Death - Is Death a Harm?

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Published by Victoria Ronco
Is Death a Harm?
Is Death a Harm?

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Published by: Victoria Ronco on Feb 24, 2011
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Is Death a Harm? And if so, how?

Whether or not death is a harm has been an age old question tackled by philosophers through the times. It inquires as to the possibility of the harm to a person that a state of being can cause. Death seems to have three commonly interchanged definitions. Firstly there is dying, which is a process; secondly there is being dead, which is the condition or state; and lastly, there is death, which intervenes between the two. This is relevant when considering whether death is a harm as it is often unclear whether or not we are considering its harmful properties in terms of the process of dying or the state we enter when dead. Various arguments have been put forward to show that death is indeed a harm. It is my intent in explaining these arguments to point out their failings, and proceed to explain why I agree with those philosophers who believe that death is not a harm.

The Deprivation Argument is a clearly outlined argument with a conclusion that seems to visibly follow from the premises. It states that Death deprives the subject of all the pleasant experiences of living. Since pleasant experiences are good, and having less good is worse than having more of it, death must be a harm because it removes the good. That is to say, this argument claims that Death deprives us of life, and life is supposedly something good; in being denied this “good” we are being harmed. Another way of seeing this argument is in terms of value: if life is a value, and death removes that value, death is a harm for depriving us of that good value. But there are several problems with this argument. Firstly, why is life arbitrarily classed as good, and death as bad? It could be argued that if the subject’s life was utterly miserable and unpleasant, it wouldn’t be worth living, and thus death would not be a harm. To this objection Nagel would respond that life is ultimately a positive value, regardless of the bad experiences in it. Nagel argues that “there are elements, that if added to ones life can make it better or worse, but when these elements are set aside the remains are not neutral; rather positive.”1 Nagel purports that life will always be worth living, even when the bad elements outweigh the good since “experience itself


Nagel, Thomas. “Death”


supplies the additional positive weight.”2 Another objection raised against the deprivation argument is the nature of “harm”. How can something be bad without being positively unpleasant? That is to say, there are no evils that consist merely in the absence of “good”, so the deprivation of life isn’t strictly a harm, it is only the absence of something which we would prefer to have than not. But to this objection one could reply that we would consider it a harm to deprive someone of the basic necessities they need to survive- and in the same way that life can be seen as the bare minimum required for a pleasant existence (as without it you have no existence whatsoever) death is thus a harm for depriving the subject of it. In mentioning the subjectivity of life and death we reach another objection: it seems there is no person to whom we can assign the misfortune of death to. So long as Tom exists he has not yet died, but once he dies he no longer exists, so there seems to be no actual time when the misfortune of death can be ascribed to him. That is, once Tom dies, he ceases to exist, so there seems to be a lack of an interim moment in which we can assign to him the act of being harmed. He cannot be harmed whilst being dead (as he isn’t there to harm), and he was most certainly not being harmed when he was alive (as it is death that is the harm not life) - so at what point does he experience the harm that is death? To this objection Nagel would reply that Tom does not cease to exist merely because he is dead, and so he is harmed at any point in his existence before he died. The person that was Tom is harmed, as he has been deprived of the opportunity to continue living his life (as he would have done had he not died). Feinberg and Pitcher take this one step further and state that Tom is actually harmed the instant he invested an interest in something that would lead to his death in the future, regardless of his awareness of it. This however seems to be a paradoxical claim: if the harm is done to the ante mortem person not retroactively when the event occurs (his death) but before his death simply because it was going to happen then Tom is in a state of harm throughout his life, instead of after his death. Nagel doesn’t go quite as far, as he only enforces that Tom’s existence doesn’t cease simply because he has physically ceased to be. But I question this line of arguing: of course Tom ceases to exist, he is neither present mentally or physically, so in what way is he in existence? George Pritcher rightly states that “post mortem persons... are... just so much dust; and dust


Nagel, Thomas. “Death”


cannot be wronged [or harmed]”3. So Nagel’s claim that a person continues to exist even after his death seems intuitively to be wrong, as it makes sense to consider death to be the finite end to a person’s existence (not withstanding there is no way of proving that Tom does indeed continue to exist after he has died). The last objection I will discuss with regards to the Deprivation argument has to do with the biographical nature of life. Why do we consider posthumous to be a harm, but prenatal not? It seems that this argument claims that we are deprived of life as soon as we enter a state of death (or not having life). But we did not have life before we were born, yet that doesn’t seem to be considered a deprivation. I could easily protest that having not been born until 1984 I have been deprived of living all the previous years leading up to my birth. To this objection Nagel replies that the years before birth are not subject specific, as there is no subject yet in existence who is being deprived, as opposed to the time after death, in which a specific person (Tom, for instance) is actually being deprived of more time to live. That is to say, until we are born we do not exist, so we cannot be deprived of something, as there is no one to ascribe the deprivation to. However, after we have lived, we are in existence, so to remove that existence is a deprivation. In short, pre natal cannot be seen as a deprivation because Tom doesn’t yet exist for us to ascribe the deprivation to him, but when Tom dies we can ascribe the deprivation of life to the person that was Tom.

The Discontinuity Argument is similar to the aforementioned deprivation argument, though it states that death is a harm because it doesn’t allow the subject to carry out his intended achievements. Harm in terms of this argument is considered to be a set back in the interests of a person, so death is considered a harm for withholding the living person from completing his achievements. This argument seems a lot weaker than the Deprivation argument. Kamm objects to the argument by pointing out that death can benefit someone (in so much that it can improve their reputation, etc.) so it is therefore not a harm as it does not prohibit the subject from his achievements. What’s more, the subject could be said to achieve things that he would not possibly achieve whilst living (for instance, Shakespeare’s fame came after his death). A reply to Kamm might be that although death permits other achievements, Tom is still being deprived of fulfilling those things he would have

Pitcher, George. “The Misfortunes of the Dead.” p.161


done whilst being alive. That is to say, no amount of post mortem fame could replace Tom’s decision to procreate whilst still living: and if he did die before having the chance to create an offspring, then death indeed has stopped him from carrying out his achievements, and harmed him. (It could also be said that death has thus harmed his unborn son as well by not allowing him to be created, born, and reach the achievements in his life that he would have done had Tom not died!). Having pointed out this objection and its reply, I would like to point out that they depend on an assumption that we can prioritize the achievements of life to be more important than those of death (in order for death to be a harm) and vice versa (in order for death to not be a harm). Moreover, it could be said that the achievements Tom would have carried out if he were living are directly dependent on what he desires to fulfil (for there must be motivation to reach these achievements, else they are not achievements but mere strokes of good luck). Since desires are conditional on being alive (Tom cannot desire anything when he is dead), the entire concept of desire satisfaction isn’t applicable to a scenario in which Tom no longer exists (as he cannot form desires leading to achievements). This makes it impossible for death to prohibit Tom from carrying out his achievements, as the instant that Tom enters the state of death he ceases to have desires and consequently possible achievements from those desires, and so the argument that death is a harm because it intervenes with the obtainment of achievements fails.

The arguments on the opposing view that Death is not a harm are not without their flaws either. Firstly, I will discuss Lucretius’ argument, which states that there is no time in which death is an evil and there is no subject for who it is an evil, therefore it cannot be an evil. That is to say, in order for something to be bad (a harm) there must be a subject who experiences that harm, but since death eliminates the subject (for Tom ceases to exist when he dies), it is impossible for it to harm him. Death cannot be a bad experience, because it is no experience at all. In dying we cease to exist, and so cannot be attributed anything subjectively. Nagel would argue that we do not cease to exist merely because our bodies and thinking faculties expire, meaning that we can still be harmed by dying (that is, Tom is still able to be harmed by death, even if Tom is physically no more). Nagel would also argue that it is not dead Tom that is being harmed, but rather, the Tom that was living and as a consequence of dying is no longer alive. The replies to Nagel are very clear-cut: death is finite, Tom is 4

no longer in existence, so we could not be harming the Tom that was, as he no longer exists to be harmed. This argument seems to hinge on the idea that existence depends on physically being alive, rather than existing in historical memory and in possibilities (as Nagel would argue). I would argue that as long as the subject has at one point occurred in the world, harm can be ascribed to him. Similar to Lucretius is Epicurus’ argument, which states that since intrinsic goods and bads require experiences, and death prevents experiences, death cannot be bad. This mirrors the idea that experience is contingent to existence, and as death is non-existence, experiences (such as being bad or a harm) do not apply to it.

The Attribution Argument is fairly similar in its premises, stating that to be harmed by death there must be a time in which you are harmed by it, and since there is no specific time in which you are harmed by death, death cannot harm you. This runs along the same vain as the problem of subjectivity: there is no point in which Tom can be ascribed the harm of death. He is alive (and not harmed) and then he is dead, there is no interim in which he experiences death, and so death cannot be a harm. But it could be argued that we can be harmed by things we don’t experience (for instance, being deceived)- so the mere fact that Tom doesn’t directly or consciously experience death does not mean he is not harmed by it. A reply to this objection would be that we still experience deception, even if we are unaware of it, we do not, however, experience death. This is because we are still the subject in being deceived: Tom is being deceived, Tom is the subject of the deception, it is done to him; whereas with death, Tom is not alive to be the subject, he no longer exists, and so cannot be harmed. Lastly, William’s argument explains the necessity for death. He argues that one cannot appreciate the goods of life if he were to live forever, thus death is not a harm, but rather a positive experience as it allows us to appreciate life. However, this doesn’t address the issue of death being a harm, as it can still be an evil regardless of its necessity. Secondly, does the inevitability of death stop it from being necessary, as this argument seems to suggest? I would argue that this argument begs the question, as it avoids addressing whether death is truly a harm and only explains that regardless of whether it is or not, it is necessary.


To conclude I would like to reconsider the arguments on both sides in light of my introductory remarks. Having pointed out that there seem to be three different states that are encompassed in the word “death” it is difficult to single out which each argument refers to. Whether or not death is a harm depends on whether we consider death as the process of dying (which at many instances is indeed quite harmful, in so much that it causes pain, although in several it is completely painless); or death as the state of being dead, in which we cease to exist and therefore cannot be harmed; or death as the intervention between the two. Death is a harm when dying, because we still are at the moment in existence to experience the harms. However, once we enter the state of death, it cannot be seen as harmful.


Bibliography of Works Cited Nagel, Thomas, “Death”, Nous 4 (1970), repr. In his Mortal Questions, Cambridge: CUP 1979 Williams, Bernard, “The Makropoulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality” in his Problems of the Self, Cambridge: CUP 1973 Pitcher, George. “The Misfortunes of the Dead.” In John Martin Fischer, ed., The Metaphysics of Death. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993. Fischer, John Martin. Ed. The Metaphysics of Death. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.


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