Category Archives: Death

Summary of Nick Bostrom’s, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant”

Nick Bostrom (1973 – ) holds a PhD from the London School of Economics (2000). He is a co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association (now called Humanity+) and co–founder of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. He was on the faculty of Yale University until 2005, when he was appointed Director of the newly created Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. He is currently Professor, Faculty of Philosophy & Oxford Martin School; Director, Future of Humanity Institute; and Director, Program on the Impacts of Future Technology; all at Oxford University.

Bostrom’s article, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,” tells the story of a planet ravaged by a dragon (death) that demands a tribute which is satisfied only by consuming thousands of people each day. Neither priests with curses, warriors with weapons, or chemists with concoctions could defeat the dragon. The elders were selected to be sacrificed, although they were often wiser than the young, because they had at least lived longer than the youth. Here is a description of their situation:

Spiritual men sought to comfort those who were afraid of being eaten by the dragon (which included almost everyone, although many denied it in public) by promising another life after death, a life that would be free from the dragon-scourge. Other orators argued that the dragon has its place in the natural order and a moral right to be fed. They said that it was part of the very meaning of being human to end up in the dragon’s stomach. Others still maintained that the dragon was good for the human species because it kept the population size down. To what extent these arguments convinced the worried souls is not known. Most people tried to cope by not thinking about the grim end that awaited them.[i]

Given the ceaselessness of the dragon’s consumption, most people did not fight it and accepted the inevitable. A whole industry grew up to study and delay the process of being eaten by the dragon, and a large portion of the society’s wealth was used for these purposes. As their technology grew, some suggested that they would one day build flying machines, communicate over great distances without wires, or even be able to slay the dragon. Most dismissed these ideas.

Finally, a group of iconoclastic scientists figured out that a projectile could be built to pierce the dragon’s scales. However, to build this technology would cost vast sums of money and they would need the king’s support. (Unfortunately, the king was busy raging war killing tigers, which cost the society vast sums of wealth and accomplished little.) The scientists then began to educate the public about their proposals and the people became excited about the prospect of killing the dragon. In response the king convened a conference to discuss the options.

First to speak was a scientist who explained carefully how research should yield a solution to the problem of killing the dragon in about twenty years. But the king’s moral advisors said that it is presumptuous to think you have a right not to be eaten by the dragon; they said that finitude is a blessing and removing it would remove human dignity and debase life. Nature decries, they said, that dragons eat people and people should be eaten. Next to speak was a spiritual sage who told the people not to be afraid of the dragon, but a little boy crying about his grandma’s death moved most toward the anti-dragon position.

However, when the people realized that millions would die before the research was completed, they frantically sought out financing for anti-dragon research and the king complied. This started a technological race to kill the dragon, although the process was painstakingly slow, and filled with many mishaps. Finally, after twelve years of research the king launch a successful dragon-killing missile. The people were happy but the king saddened that they had not started their research years earlier—millions had died unnecessarily. As to what was next for his civilization, the king proclaimed:

Today we are like children again. The future lies open before us. We shall go into this future and try to do better than we have done in the past. We have time now—time to get things right, time to grow up, time to learn from our mistakes, time for the slow process of building a better world…[ii] 

Summary – We should try to overcome the tyranny of death with technology.

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[i] Nick Bostrom, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,” Journal of Medical Ethics (2005) Vol. 31, No. 5: 273.
[ii] Bostrom, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,” 277.

Summary of James Lenman’s “Immortality: A Letter”

James Lenman a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. He did his undergraduate work at Oxford University and received his PhD from St. Andrews University.

Lenman’s article, “Immortality: A Letter,” (1995) concerns a letter from a fictional philosopher to her fictitious biological friend in which she presents arguments against taking his immortality drug. She worries that if only some people get the drug, those who don’t will regret it; while if everyone gets the drug, overpopulation will ensue unless people stop having children. But this will lead to more unhappiness, as people want to have children.

Most importantly immortality would undermine our humanity by transforming us into different kinds of beings. Just as an angel who gives up immortality to become human would transform into a human, so too would a human who accepts immortality give up their humanity. To be granted immortality is to become a different kind of being. In addition an immortal life might become boring. And finally the value of life derives in large part from its fragility, which would be undermined by immortality. Lenman’s letter concludes:

The problem with your discovery is that … it precisely wouldn’t be a human good that was advanced because so much of what makes us human would then be obsolete. And human good … is the only sort of good we can make much sense of or coherently view as intrinsically worth our wanting. Nothing … is intrinsically worth anybody’s wanting and what is worth our wanting can only be our good. There is no such thing as the good. Our proper concern being rather with … the good for man.[i]

Summary – More value will be lost than gained if we become immortal.

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[i] James Lenman, “Immortality: A Letter,” Cogito 9 (1995): 169.

John Leslie’s, “Why Not Let Life Become Extinct?”

John Leslie (1940 – ) is currently Professor emeritus at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. In his essay “Why Not Let Life Become Extinct?” he argues that we ought not to embrace the view that extinction would be best.

Some argue that it would not be sad or a pity if humans went extinct because: 1) there would be nobody left to be sad; or 2) life is so bad that extinction is preferable. Leslie maintains that this issue has practical implications since someone with power might decide that life is not worth it, and press the nuclear button (or bring about some other extinction scenario.) Fortunately most do not reason this way, but if they do there is a paucity of philosophical arguments to dissuade them. Moreover, philosophers often advance arguments that we should improve the lives of the worst off and, since so many people live wretched lives, it is easy to see that a solution might entail killing a lot of people.

But what of letting all life go extinct? Some philosophers argue that we have no duty to prevent this, that even if life is a good we have no duty to propagate it, or if someone is about to lose their life we have no obligation to save it. The principle behind such thinking is that though we ought not to hurt people, we have no duty to help them. Other lines of thinking may lead to similar conclusions. A utilitarian might argue that life should go extinct if it is sufficiently unhappy now or will be so in the future. Other argue that we have no duties to produce future people no matter how happy they might be, for the simple reason that these possible people cannot be deprived of anything, as they do not yet exist. Leslie counters that deciding whether to produce a situation should be influenced by what the situation will be like, by its consequences. If one is deciding whether to produce a certain future, the most relevant fact is whether that future will be good.

He now makes some concessions. First, it is morally good to want to make the lives of the worst off better, but not if this entails destroying the entire human race. Second, actual people are not obligated to make all sacrifices for possible people, anymore than you are obliged to give food to others when your own family is starving. Third, given overpopulation, we are not obligated to have children.

And since ethics is imprecise, we cannot be sure that we have duties to future generations. Still, the universe has value despite the evil it contains, leading Leslie to speculate that there might be an “ethical requirement that it exist…”[i] In other words a thing’s nature, if it has intrinsic value, makes its existence ethically required. But how can the description of a thing’s nature lead to the prescription that it ought to exist? Leslie argues that we cannot derive that a thing should exist from a description of its nature. Perhaps it would be better if no life existed. But suppose we agree that life is intrinsically good, would we then have an obligation to perpetuate it? Leslie answers no. A thing’s intrinsic goodness only implies some obligation that it exist, since other ethical considerations might overrule that obligation. For instance a moral person might think it better that life ended then have a world with so much suffering. The upshot of all this is that there are no knockdown arguments either way. Competent philosophers who argue that it is better for there to be no life probably are equal footing with those who argue the opposite. Leslie continues: “Still, pause before joining such people.”[ii]

In the end, we cannot show conclusively that we should not let life become extinct because we can never go from saying that something is—even happiness or pleasure—to saying that something should be. And it is also not clear that maximizing happiness is the proper moral goal. Perhaps instead we should try to prevent misery—which may entail allowing life to go extinct. Philosophers do not generally advocate such a position, but their reluctance to do so suggests that they are willing to tolerate the suffering of some for the happiness of others.

Summary – There are strong arguments for letting life go extinct, although Leslie suggests we generally reject them because life has intrinsic goodness.

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[i] John Leslie, “Why Not Let Life Become Extinct?” (1983) in Life, death, and meaning, ed. David Benatar (Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 128.
[ii] Leslie, “Why Not Let Life Become Extinct?” 130.

Summary of Steven Luper’s, “Annihilation”

Steven Luper is Professor of Philosophy at Trinity University in San Antonio Texas.  He received his PhD 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 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 dying 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.

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[i] Steven Luper, “Annihilation,” The Philosophical Quarterly 37 (1985): 233-252.

Summary of George Pitcher’s, “The Misfortunes of the Dead”

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 3, 2016.)

George Pitcher is an 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.

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[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.