(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 3, 2016.)
George Pitcher is emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton where he was a member of the philosophy department from 1956-1981. His 1984 article, “The Misfortunes of the Dead,” addresses the question of whether the dead can be harmed.
Pitcher begins by assuming that death is the end of our consciousness. It has benefits—no pain, suffering, or anxiety—but does death harm the dead person? On the one hand, it doesn’t seem so. If after my death my college closes down that doesn’t hurt me. On the other hand, if I’ve given a lot of my life to my college and it was important to me, it might seem bad for me. In this article Pitcher defends the claim (claim 1) that the dead can be harmed. But first he defends the claim (claim 2) that the dead can be wronged. If your son promises to bury you but sells your body for spare parts, or you won a gold medal at the Olympics and it is now unjustly taken away, you have been wronged even though you are now dead. In both cases an injustice has been done to you, or so Pitcher argues. So it seems the dead can be wronged.
Pitcher distinguished two ways to describe a dead person: 1) as they were when alive—ante-mortem; or 2) as they are dead, as a rotting corpse or pile of ashes—post-mortem. He argues that we can be wronged ante-mortem, but not post-mortem. For instance, if one is slandered after death, one is slandering the ante-mortem person but not the post-mortem person. Or when you break a promise, you break it to the ante-mortem person, since you cannot break (or make I suppose) a promise to a post-mortem person.
Pitcher now turns back to claim 1, his strongest claim, that the dead can be harmed. (In Pitcher’s hierarchy being harmed is worse than being wronged, and being wronged worse than being the victim of hostility.) Now Pitcher asks: “is it possible for something to happen after a person’s death that harms the living person he was before he died?”[i] He answers in the affirmative.
By definition harms are events or states of affairs contrary to your desires or interests. Of course we cannot be killed or experience pain after death—the post mortem person can’t be harmed—but we can have desires thwarted after death—the ante mortem person can be harmed. If I desire to be remembered after I die with a statue on campus and you destroy the statue, then you have defeated my desire and harmed the ante-mortem person I was. To better understand this nuance, compare two worlds. In World 1 I had discovered the absolute truth about reality, disseminated my work, and after my death proclaimed the world greatest philosopher; in World 2 my neighbor destroyed all my works the day after I died and nobody knows of my philosophy and I’m forgotten. If World 2 came about we would feel I was harmed—all my work obliterated and my name forgotten even though I was the greatest philosopher of all time. This suggests the (ante-mortem) dead can be harmed.
Pitcher notes that the idea that the dead can be at least slightly harmed goes back to at least Aristotle. But how is a living person affected by something that happens after they die? We have seen that ante-mortems can be wronged—by being slandered for example—but how can they be harmed? How can something that happens now, at a later time after the person is dead, affect the person at an earlier time, when they were alive? If this is true, we have a case of backward causation—of the present causing the past.
Pitcher doesn’t think he needs to invoke backward causation to make his argument work. All he needs to show is that being harmed does not entail knowing about the harm. Of course most of the time you are harmed you know about it, but you don’t have to know about it to be harmed. You are harmed if you contract a terminal illness, or if everyone ridicules you behind your back, even if you don’t know about either. So a person can be harmed after their death even though they won’t know about it then. For example, if I know my child will die young this is a misfortune for me, but it is not the only harm that befalls me. The other harm is that my child will actually die young. And even if I didn’t know my child would die, there was still some harm being done to me before my child died. And that harm was that my child was going to die. This is a harm for me whether I know of it or not.
So the shadow of harm that an event casts can reach back across the chasm even of a person’s death and darken his ante-mortem life.”[ii] While I do not suffer my son’s death when I’m (post-mortem) dead, I do suffer it understood as (ante-mortem) death. Thus it is not that after I’m dead I now suffer for the first time and my ante-mortem person is harmed retroactively. Rather the ante-mortem person is harmed by events that occur after one’s death because: “the occurrence of the event makes it true that during the time before the person’s death, he was harmed—harmed in that the unfortunate event was going to happen.[iii]
Summary – We are harmed by death because while alive the knowledge of death harmed us.
[i] George Pitcher, “The Misfortunes of the Dead,” in Life, death, and meaning, ed. David Benatar (Lanham MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 192.
[ii] Pitcher, “The Misfortunes of the Dead,” 196.
[iii] Pitcher, “The Misfortunes of the Dead,” 197.