Steven Luper is Professor of Philosophy at Trinity University in San Antonio Texas. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1982. In his essay “Annihilation,” he argues that death is a terrible thing and that Epicurus’ indifference to death is badly mistaken.[i]
Luper begins by noting that while there may be fates worse than death, death is still a terrible fate. We may prefer death to eternal torture or boredom, but few would reject the offer to live as long as they want, and Epicurus’ argument is beside the point. Can we really believe that death is nothing to us? Luper thinks not.
Death is a misfortune for us primarily because it thwarts our desires. If we have a desire we want to be fulfilled, then death may prevent its fulfillment; if we enjoy living, then dying prevents us from continuing to do so; if we have hopes and aspirations; then they will be frustrated by our deaths; if we have reasons to live, then we have reasons not to want to die. For all these reasons death is a grave misfortune.
Moreover, we should care about dying, for to be indifferent to this calamity is to be hard-hearted and dispassionate. What kind of person is indifferent to their desires, or their deaths, or their children? Would our lives not be poorer if we were detached from the cares, concerns, and relationships that bind us to life? To the extent we tolerate death, we give up on life. Better to think that dying is bad than that life is no longer worth living.
Still, if we must die, we can soften the blow somewhat. We can live passionately and have realistic goals that can be accomplished in a lifetime. If we live accordingly, accomplishing what we set out to do, then death will be less bad. But it will still be a great misfortune unless we can honestly say that we could have done no more had we been granted more time. But who could honestly say that?
Summary – Death is a misfortune because it thwarts our desires.
[i] Steven Luper, “Annihilation,” The Philosophical Quarterly 37 (1985): 233-252.