Is Death Bad?

Death is a taboo subject in American culture that tends to take place behind the closed doors of ICU. Indeed, approximately 80 percent of American deaths occur in hospital beds. Most of us prefer to live our lives thinking about more pleasant subjects. Yet it could be argued that the only way to live is to know how to die. Despite death being sequestered from society, we will all have a dialogue with the grim reaper eventually. Like any debate, it is important to prepare. One of the benefits of philosophy is to coldly look into a subject rationally and without apprehension. With the appropriate philosophical preparation, we can learn to look into the abyss and not blink.

Many philosophers have argued that death, by its very nature, cannot be regarded as an evil. A pinnacle example is Socrates, who exhibited a calm and collective demeanor upon the day of his execution. Socrates argued that if death is the annihilation of human experience, then death is simply an eternal sleep. In the other scenario, death is simply the migration of the soul from one state to the next. In either scenario, Socrates argued death is not something that should be rationally feared. Of course, one might fear the process of dying but that is different from fearing death itself.

Another move for why we shouldn’t fear death is known as the two state argument. The two state argument treats death not as a state but a lack of every state devoid of properties. Contrary to Kant, existence is a predicate in order to meaningfully describe something.  In addition, the term “better” is used to cast judgment between two different states of being.  For example, lacking a headache is a better mental state to occupy than a mental state with a headache.

If death is a vacuum devoid of properties, the statement “death is bad” is incoherent. Death is neither good nor evil, it just is. However, even this phrasing is unsatisfying, since “is” is an existential term used to refer to something rather than nothing. As Mark Twain noted, “I was dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and never suffered the slightest inconvenience!”

The highlighted reasoning cannot be taken seriously. To acquire an indifference towards death is morally worrisome and diminishes the value of life. For example, according to the two state argument, saving a drowning child cannot be regarded as a good, because the child would not have been “worse off” if he or she was dead.

So how can death be good under some circumstances and bad under others? The philosopher Thomas Nagel hints at an answer in his essay “Death.” According to Nagel, there is an asymmetry between the state we occupy before we are born and after we die, since the latter deprives an individual of any future life worth having. This is known as the deprivation account of death.

According to the deprivation account of death, the value of life is not an intrinsic constant but a variable that fluctuates over time. In other words, the mere fact that something is alive does not make it valuable. What really matters is the quality of life. Death can be regarded as an evil in some circumstances because it deprives an individual of a life worth having. In other circumstances, death can be regarded as a good because it deprives an individual of a life not worth having.

So is death bad? In some instances, most certainly. The deprivation account of death seems to be on the right track, however, mysteries still remain. It could be further argued that death is a necessary evil. Specifically, the finitude of life is what gives life value. The fact that we will die creates a sense of urgency to make best use of the time available. In short: an infinite life is of finite value but a finite life is of infinite value.

By Nathan Cranford


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