Is Death Bad for Us?

In our previous post, we concluded that an afterlife is very unlikely. In this case, is death good or bad for us? Vincent Barry, professor emeritus at Bakersfield College, carefully considered this question in his 2007 textbook, Philosophical Thinking About Death and Dying. I reconstruct his discussion in what follows.

Is Death Bad? – One of Barry’s main concerns is whether death is or is not bad for us. As he notes, the argument that death is not bad derives from Epicurus’ aphorism: “When I am, death is not; and when death is, I am not.” Epicurus taught that fear in general, and fear of the gods and death, in particular, was evil. Consequently, using reason to rid ourselves of these fears was a primary goal of his speculative thinking. A basic assumption of his thought was a materialistic psychology in which mind was composed of atoms, and death the dispersal of those atoms. Thus death is not then bad for us since something can be bad only if we are affected by it, but we have no sensation after death and thus being dead cannot be bad for us. Note that this does not imply that the process or the prospect of dying cannot be bad for us—they can—nor does Epicurus deny that we might prefer life to death. His argument is that being dead is not bad for the one who has died.

Epicurus’ argument relies on two separate assumptions—the experience requirement and the existence requirement.[i]The experience requirement can be summarized thus:

  1. A harm to someone is something that is bad for them.
  2. For something to be bad for someone, it must be experienced by them.
  3. Death is a state of no experience.
  4. Therefore death cannot be bad for someone. 

The existence requirement can be summarized thus:

  1. A person can be harmed only if they exist.
  2. A dead person does not exist.
  3. Therefore a dead person cannot be harmed.

As we will see, counter-arguments attack one of the two requirements. Either they try to show that someone can be harmed without experiencing the harm, or that someone who is dead can still be harmed.

One noted philosopher who attacks the Epicurean view is Thomas Nagel. In his essay “Death,” Nagel argues that death is bad for someone who dies even if that person does not consciously survive death.According to this deprivation theory, death is bad for persons who die because of the good things their deaths deprive them of. However, if death is bad because it limits the possibility of future goods, is death not then good in limiting the possibility of future evils? So the possibility of future goods does not by itself show that death is bad; to show that one would have to show that a future life would be worth living, that is, that it would contain more good than bad. But how can any deprivation theory explain how it is bad for us to be deprived of something if we do not experience that deprivation? How can what we don’t know hurt us?

In reply Nagel argues that we can be harmed without being aware of it. An intelligent man reduced to the state of infancy by a brain injury has suffered a great misfortune, even if unaware of, and contented in his injurious state. Nagel argues that many states that we do not experience can be bad for us—the betrayal of a friend, the loss of reputation, or the unfaithfulness of a spouse. And just as an adult reduced to infancy is the subject of a misfortune, so too is one who is dead. But critics wonder who it is that is the subject of this harm? Even if it is bad to be deprived of certain goods, who is it that is deprived? How can the dead be harmed? There apparently is no answer to this question.

And there is another problem. While the deprivation argument may explain why death is bad for us, it follows from it that being denied prenatal existence would also be bad. Yet we do not ordinarily consider ourselves harmed by not having been born sooner. How can we explain this asymmetry?

Epicurus argued that this asymmetry could not be explained, and we should feel indifferent to death just as we do to prenatal existence. This sentiment was echoed by Mark Twain:

Annihilation has no terrors for me, because I have already tried it before I was born—a hundred million years—and I have suffered more in an hour, in this life, than I remember to have suffered in the whole hundred million years put together. There was a peace, a serenity, an absence of all sense of responsibility, an absence of worry, an absence of care, grief, perplexity; and the presence of a deep content and unbroken satisfaction in that hundred million years of holiday which I look back upon with a tender longing and with a grateful desire to resume when the opportunity comes.[ii]

In reply, deprivationists argue that we do not have to hold symmetrical views about prenatal and postnatal experience—claiming instead that asymmetrical views are consistent with ordinary experience. To see why consider the following. Would you rather have suffered a long surgical operation last year or undergo a short one tomorrow? Would you rather have had pleasure yesterday, or pleasure tomorrow? In both cases we have more concern with the future than the past; we are less interested in past events than in future ones. Death in the future deprives us of future goods, whereas prenatal nonexistence deprived us of past goods about which we are now indifferent. For all these reasons Barry concludes that death is probably bad and a fear of it is rational.

[i] John Martin Fischer, ed., The Metaphysics of Death (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 15.

[ii] Charles Neider, ed., The Autobiography of Mark Twain (New York: Perennial, 1990) ch. 49.